Note: This was a piece, as will be apparent to the close reader, that I began more than a year ago and on which I have only recently continued work, as such it contains a number of peculiarities both in my editing process and in the finished result that may be of interest to the casual reader. When I conceived of this project I had done a fair amount of glacial mountaineering but very little technical climbing. Writing originally in February of 2013, I had been leading on rock and ice for less than six months, and had only done any appreciable amount of it in the previous two. I had also not really discovered the internet as a source of information about climbing (which is why I spent hours browsing the SPL AAJ collection).
I am not a sponsored climber. I am not a guide. I am not employed by a manufacturer of climbing equipment. I am a lowly local climber: I read climbing blogs and take classes and buy equipment. My participation in climbing is roughly that of the majority of climbers. This is the perspective from which I am going to examine the issue of commercialism in modern climbing: from the bottom; not from the perspective of someone who actually has to choose whether or not to pursue sponsorship, but what the phenomenon looks like to someone to whom climbing is everything, but whom to climbing is no one.
In January of 2013, while browsing through copies of the American Alpine Journal, I came across an article entitled “Commercialism and Modern Climbing: Three Views,” featuring submissions from Pavel Chabaline, Will Gadd, and Steve House. In their writing were three basic opinions on the subject (respectively): it’s bad because it dumbs us down, it’s good because it gives us money, and it’s all well and good but it doesn’t have anything to do with real, cutting-edge, climbing. It had been twelve years since this article was published, and though we have hardly witnessed a revolution in alpinism, some important changes have taken place. That will be the first goal of this article, to review the three submissions and comment upon how well they have held up since the beginning of the 21st century. The second goal of this article will be to essentially write a third submission to the AAJ article, explaining what commercialism in modern climbing means to a lay climber.
The editor’s note laid out the problem thus, due to the growth of corporate sponsorship, mountaineering has exploded globally and enjoys greater mainstream recognition than ever, but this has not come without a cost, “It seems this is an appropriate time to examine all the influences that commercialism exerts on climbing as it weaves itself ever more intimately into the various branches of our pursuit” (AAJ 2000, 151).
Commercial Climbing in Post-Soviet Russia
Pavel Chabaline is a leading Russian alpine climber, known for his first ascents in the Pamirs and the Himalayas. He describes how mountaineering in the USSR developed without the aid of capitalist funding through state-sponsored climbing competitions. In the western world today, climbing competitions are popular but consist almost entirely of gym and sport climbing, with a few ice climbing festivals offering mixed/drytooling competitions. But in the Soviet Union the climbing championships went all the way to the level of technical alpine mountaineering and what emerged was a class of professional mountaineers, similar in some respects to Olympic athletes. According to Chabaline, the younger generation of climbers, who grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, do not measure up well to their elders because in order to secure funding they have to resort to either playing up ordinary achievements, such as standard routes on 8000 meter peaks, or bizarre antics, of the Guinness Book of World Records variety. Chabaline called this “Barbie” mountaineering; while the older generation is still able to secure funding for their expeditions, the younger climbers get far more attention because they have learned not how to climb well but how to advertise well. He admits that this has caused the popularity of climbing to increase, but laments that “mountaineering then becomes like the rest of sports and is no longer an exceptional, extraordinary activity” (AAJ 2000, 153).
Chabaline’s solution is, oddly enough, the re-institution of mountaineering competitions, which are so anathema in Western European and American climbing that even the Piolet d’Or is controversial. Chabaline also draws an odd distinction between those who climb only for the sake of climbing and those who climb for recognition, similar in some ways to Krakauer’s distinction between wanting to climb the Eiger versus wanting to have climbed the Eiger that he describes in his book, Eiger Dreams. What is unusual about this is how Chabaline insists that the older generation, who competed in the national competitions, was more characterized by the former than by the latter.
What comes into focus reading Chabaline’s essay is the gulf that exists between Eastern and Western European climbing traditions; it is not really that the two practices are so different, but rather that their attitudes, their valuations, and their judgments consistently mystify me. The most easily described expression of this is the oft-observed fact (By such various climbers as Mark Twight and Ed Viesturs) that the climbers who came out of the eastern bloc nations seemed to have a far different idea of acceptable risk than their western peers. As for the actual content of Chabaline’s opinion, while it may very well be true for Russian alpinism, it does not seem true for Western European and American alpinism, in which there is no such comparable decay. There is certainly a fair amount of Seven-Summits-type nonsense, but there is a strong enough backlash among the more technically inclined that few see this as true alpinism.
Sponsorship Gives You Wings?
These days Will Gadd needs little introduction. He is probably the foremost North American ice and mixed climber of the last decade and, although it is not widely known in the USA, he has won several national sport climbing competitions in Canada. The photo the AAJ editors attached to his part of the article is the only image of him I have ever seen without his Red Bull helmet, and his contribution is more-or-less what one would expect. In Gadd’s view, arguments against commercialism in climbing are about as logical as far-right sex-ed curriculums (his metaphor, not mine). Accepting sponsorships will not make you grow hair on your palms. Filming tv programs is unlikely to get you pregnant (I can see the ads now: alpine ice climbing: 90% effective at preventing HIV transmission, you can’t get AIDS if you’re dead!).
Mr. Red Bull on his new route at Helmcken Falls, Overhead Hazard
Regardless of his condescension, Gadd does make some valid points. As he describes it, commercialism in climbing consists of companies realizing two things, firstly that climbers could be used to sell products and secondly that climbers were themselves a market. In his view neither of these are a problem, as he, understandably enough, cannot object either to the public watching climbers or to climbers having more money to pursue their aims. He then posits that public scrutiny of climbing can produce positive changes and that the notion of a historical climbing that was somehow free of commercial influence is mythical. Both of these claims seem rather dubious to me.
While, as he points out, public attention to the annual Everest South Col circus has resulted in large-scale cleanup efforts, there are no other notable examples of public attention having such an unmitigated positive effect (his argument that public interest in the outdoors encourages wilderness preservation is valid, but it seems just as likely that it necessitates it). As a general rule, the more high profile climbing becomes, the more damage climbing does and the more climbing itself is damaged. Free camping areas get overused and state authorities are forced to regulate them. Landowners complain about climbers on/near their property. National Park rangers chop bolt anchors on classic routes. Glaciers get littered with feces. This is not to say that I think publicizing climbing is a bad thing, but rather that it has some very problematic implications that we need to think seriously about.
His second claim, that climbing has always been commercialized, is poorly supported and quite simply incorrect. To make his point Gadd cites how explorers like Richard Byrd used sponsorships and endorsements to fund their expeditions. The problem is that Richard Byrd was not a mountaineer, and mountaineers of his era behaved very differently. Climbers having ongoing relationships with equipment manufacturers is a fairly recent phenomenon that relies on the now quite large market for outdoor clothing and climbing gear. 50 years ago there was no such market. Climbers did find ways to make climbing pay, but aside from those involved with high profile national expeditions, this largely amounted to them selling their stories – giving slide shows and writing books.
Much of Gadd’s argument stems from his basic feeling that being a sponsored climber has not fundamentally affected his climbing experience, except in that it allows him to climb more than he would be able to otherwise. He admits that some consider him a sell-out but he questions who has really sold out, him or the person who works a 40 hour week to support their more opulent lifestyle. His critique of this attitude is probably one of the stronger points he raises – the anti-sponsored-climber mentality is, as he insinuates, often based on jealousy and pride (and the 19th century cult of the amateur).
Business Climbing vs. Business Alpinism
Steve House is the real deal. He climbed with Mark Twight (which, in my opinion, is all the credentials anyone could ask for). He has done major FAs in Alaska, Canada, and the Himalaya. Early on in his part of the article he makes a distinction between cutting-edge climbing and business climbing and explains that while neither is inherently better than the other, cutting-edge climbing pushes the sport forward (thus its name) and business climbing does not. Such practices as fixing lines, re-climbing pitches for a camera, and bringing along partners for no other reason than documentation are signs he says that a climb is more about business than climbing. Obviously, he is not unaware of the massive financial burden of expedition climbing, and admits that this is the primary factor that attracts leading climbers to business climbing. The answer, as he describes it, is the myriad grants offered by a wide variety of organizations for talented teams looking to do important ascents.
Steve House, left, with Mark Twight on their 60-hour push on the Slovak Direct on Denali.
The argument is solid enough, but it makes sense only for alpinism and outside of that realm, in the much wider world of climbing, it falls apart. A clear-cut example of this is the recent accomplishments of Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold. Both of them did major big-wall climbs earlier in the year and then they teamed up for the historic traverse of the Fitz Roy Massif in Patagonia. Their earlier climbs, Honnold’s free solo of El Sendero Luminoso and Caldwell’s efforts on the Dawn Wall, were heavily documented, their Patagonian climb was not. The reasons for this are largely logistical, it is much more difficult and dangerous to hang out making a movie in Patagonia than in Yosemite or El Potrero, but it does not follow that their Patagonian climb was a greater achievement. Honnold accomplished the biggest, hardest pure-rock free solo to date. When it is completed the Dawn Wall will be, quite possibly, the greatest big-wall free climb ever done. Their Patagonian climb was impressive but, to be honest, I sort of think their other climbs are/will be bigger deals.
What this means is that House’s argument is incomplete; if cutting edge climbs can be full documented, an interesting set of questions is raised about his ideas. How does documentation affect a cutting edge climb? When you watch Cedar Wright’s Sendero Luminoso film you are not necessarily seeing Honnold on his ground up attempt in every shot. When you see the Dawn Wall videos you have no way of knowing if you are watching a real attempt or a couple moves staged for the camera. Does the media presence of climbers like Honnold and Caldwell suggest that we should look elsewhere for the “real” climbers, the mythic road-tripping dirtbags who climb just as hard as the pros but have no interest in selling themselves? Big-wall film stunts aside, what about Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk’s ascent of the Shark’s Fin? What about the hundreds of similar climbs done every year that we never hear about because they weren’t the centerpieces of a North Face ad campaigns? It’s easy to draw a clear line between “real” climbing and “business” climbing when one is The Gift The Keeps On Giving and the other is RMI, but the reality that has emerged in the past decade is much fuzzier.
The Consumer Climber and Why I’m Not Sure About All of This
I am sure something of my personal views on the subject have been hinted at throughout my critiques of Chabaline, Gadd, and House’s writings. I think climbing’s relationship to commercialism is culturally determined and will look different in different climbing cultures around the country and around the world. I think sponsorship as it exists today is something new and not entirely innocuous. I think the increasing documentation of high level climbs challenges many of the old assumptions about the intersection of commercialism and alpinism. Yet these are not really problems that concern me; I don’t try to make my living by climbing in this culture or in any other. So what if I hear about the great climbs of the era through internet videos instead of slide show tours and autobiographies? So what if the camera work occasionally brings a logo into focus? When I read Alpinist or Rock & Ice and don’t tear out the ads – they interest me almost as much as the articles themselves (and often feature better photography). Yet while I agree with Will Gadd about the actual material effects of the commercialization of climbing, that they are negligible and most critiques of them come down to whinny reactionary conservatism, I am uncomfortable with the position climbing has taken in the modern world through its commercialization.
Talking with a classmate of mine at Seattle University several years ago, I was surprised when she explained that the area of her life in which she had the greatest detrimental influence on the environment and disadvantaged people around the world was probably the outdoor clothing that she purchased. I am not really prepared to attack or to defend her assertion, but it does point to a contradiction in my own life. I hate commercialism. I literally believe that industrialization and the development of consumer markets that made it possible is the worst thing that has ever happened. I hate marketing campaigns, I hate disposability, I hate corporate profit mongering, but damn do I like the latest newest lightest bestest climbing gear. Before I started climbing, my life’s ambition was to live on a small subsistence farm in BC; now when I think about that I wonder where I’ll get the money to buy climbing shoes and travel when the weather’s bad.
Climbing didn’t use to be this way. In the 1950s, climbers in Yosemite and Squamish were forging their own pitons. Yvon Chouinard imported British Rugby shirts so that he and his friends would have athletic clothing that wasn’t drab grey. You read the post-war continental alpinists, men like Walter Bonatti and Gaston Rebuffat, and you understand that what they were doing was an answer to the existential crisis. They were Sisyphus delighting in his labor. In America the whole thing was counter-culture, it was a way out of white-picket-fence suburbia, and now its all just adventure sports. Mainstream culture found a way to absorb the movement, co-opt its principles, and profit from the entire thing. Since I was in high school all I’ve really wanted is to run off and fight in the revolution, and I thought when I started climbing four years ago that this was my own little revolt – the closest I’d been able to find to the ideals of men like Che Guevara, yet the longer I climb the more normalized I feel, like I could be a part of this society, like all of this might be ok.
The commentators at this years American Bouldering Series talked a lot about how mainstream climbing was becoming and about how competitions like ABS were accomplishing the shift. While it was a great show, I have to agree – the whole spectacle was fun to watch in a way that had nothing to do with my being a climber. I firmly believe that it is only a matter of time before such competitions are on cable tv; through competitive gym climbing, the sport is truly becoming mainstream, and the driving force behind that shift is commercialism (This live internet stream brought to you by…). I have always despised organized spectator sports and I really don’t know what to think about how organized climbing has become, or about how much I like spectating it.
There were a bunch of comments in this last section about the intersection of philosophy and climbing. If you want you can find a copy of the Philosophy for Everyone series’ volume on climbing, and probably be as disappointed as I was. If you are really interested in the subject I would more highly recommend Tobias and Drasdo’s The Mountain Spirit, Mark Twight’s Kiss or Kill, or Arno Ilgner’s The Rock Warrior’s Way, but none of them really address the issues I find most fascinating, so coming soon (I call all times soon) – “The Existential Climber: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and Tillich and the Intellectual History of Climbing.”