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Commercialization and Modern Climbing

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  • Publication Year: 2000

Commercialization and Modern Climbing

Three views

by Pavel Chabaline, Will Gadd and Steve House

Editor’s Note: Climbing has been accepted as an activity worthy of popular media attention for some time now. Good news: we as a body are traveling in larger numbers to farther-flung crags and mountains than we have ever done before. Sponsorship seems within the reach of every expedition able to provide a resume and a business plan and a few extra dollars await the climber able to capture the crux moves of the latest V10 in the crisp resolution of Velvia 50. The heroes of climbing report back from Antarctica, Baffin Island and the wilds of Africa live on the internet. Ever more remote places and difficult routes form the backdrop, and the craziest dreams are realized and celebrated in the pages of National Geographic, Outside and Men’s Journal magazines. None of this would be possible without the extensive financial support brought by mainstream recognition.

But to go mainstream in such a culture as ours does not come without strings attached. What are the hidden costs of the “free” expedition? What effect does sponsorship have on the objectives we choose and the resulting style we bring to those climbs? What happens when the popular media hold up perfectly documented climbs and climbers for emulation—with certain details that might make for a slightly harder sell edited out in the final cut? It seems this is an appropriate time to examine all the influences that commercialization exerts on climbing as it weaves itself ever more intimately into the various branches of our pursuit.

Problematically, the very nature of commercialization in climbing curtails its discussion in mainstream forums. Most public presentations of climbing, be they traditional print periodicals, modem web sites or film and video productions, are commercial in nature, and as a result a discussion of their effect, whether positive or negative, is not readily forthcoming. The reasons behind this vary, but the sentiments are perhaps best summed up by one American climber contacted for the purposes of this article: “I don’t think my sponsors would like it if I talked about their influences on my climbing.”

Climbing is evolving today in ways influenced by commercial interests. More and more climbers work the angles, putting together climbs and trips the primary interest of which may be less the objective than it is how that objective will be presented upon return home. The selective representation of details from sponsored climbs is becoming more common. While some truly great ascents that would not be possible without sponsorship are being made, many others that mean little in a historical context come to us dressed in robes of grandeur on web pages, in centerfold spreads, and on the 8 o’clock cable shows. Invoking a host of superlatives (“extreme” is a perennial favorite, but “highest,” “longest,” “hardest,” “farthest” are in constant contention for the adjective of choice), these productions often blur the line between reality and a slick sale to an uneducated public. In the end, we can be presented with lavish expeditions etched so deeply into the public consciousness that they are eventually accepted as the Great Climbs of the day.

In order to grow in balanced and healthy ways, we must examine the influences shaping our evolution. With this in mind, we sent out a series of questions to climbers around the world in an attempt to bring a candid discussion of the effects of commercialization on modem climbing into the conversations of the community. The questions were as follows:

How have commercial interests helped you as a climber, and climbing in general? How have they hurt? How do commercial interests today influence climbing objectives, style and/or climbing decisions? How do they influence the reporting of climbs? How is commercialization influencing the evolution of climbing in your country in areas such as modern-day expeditions, access and outside regulation? What role, if any, does the popular press play in commercialization? What do you think would constitute a healthy relationship between commercialization and climbing in the future?

Certainly, the three responses that follow here are not a definitive statement on the matter. We hope that they will help generate some thought—and talk—about the issue within the community. How you understand them and what role they play in your own climbing, of course, is up to you.

The editor would like to thank Kitty Calhoun, Lynn Hill, Yasushi Yamanoi, Alex Huber, Mick Fowler, Eric Simonson, Phil Powers and Michael Kennedy for their comments and feedback. In addition, special thanks go out to Marko Prezelj, whose hard work on the Slovenian perspective was invaluable.

Barbie in the Mountains

Pavel Chabaline, Russia

There is a great difference between Russian (Soviet) mountaineering and that of other countries. I’ll try to explain in a few words the history of Soviet mountaineering in order to help readers understand the Russian point of view.

We have had mountaineering competitions for about 50 years. In these competitions, there was no commercial interest, no prizes, no money. There were only the expenses, which had to be covered by the competitors. But still, for competitors it was very important to win, because the basis of communist ideology was collectivism, and Soviet society’s appreciation of a climber’s success was equal to sponsorship in other countries.

In the final years of the Soviet Union, our government gave winners the opportunity for future climbs by covering expenses incurred during competitions. It was impossible to get money from professional mountaineering (guiding, advertising, sponsorship, etc.) because there were no (and there still aren’t any) rich consumers. Outdoor equipment and gear manufacturers were not as popular in the Soviet Union as they are in the United States or France, for example. But if you were a winner, it was possible to climb without paying for your own expenses.

There were many kinds of competitions (rock, ice, mixed, high-altitude, traverses, new routes, winter classes) and many levels of championships (of the Soviet Union, the republics, the regions, trade unions, military, mountaineering camps, etc.). Obviously, the lower the level of the competition, the less the expenses. At the highest level (the Soviet Championships), climbers had the possibility to mount serious, helicopter-supported expeditions. This was the reason the best climbers participated and tried to win. And it was a serious reason for different sport clubs to form their own teams, because the earnings of the clubs’ clerks depended on the quantity and quality of the successes of the clubs’ climbers. And the best climbers became real professionals: they had to climb the whole year, not for money, but for the possibility for future climbs.

The elite Russian mountaineers today are, in general, climbers from the Soviet period: Babanov, Ruchkin, Odintsov, Koshelenko, Pogorelov, Klenov, Davy, Tarasov, Tukhvatullin. The only young climber who has developed after the days of Soviet mountaineering that I can point to is Mikhail Pershin. These are the elite, the “knights” of mountaineering, and for them, the process is more important than the result. They can’t stop climbing because it is their life, and now they work hard and pay their own money, mainly for expeditions. But in Russia, we don’t have rich mountain equipment companies like the ones in the West, and those Western companies don’t like international heroes. If they have to choose from two climbers of similar levels who need sponsorship for expeditions, they will help the climber from their own country first. The climber from another country has a chance only if he is legendary, more than famous, or if he is a great showman. I think that in Russia, without such sponsors, the elite climbers will never be troubled by the problems of commercialization.

But we have two groups of climbers today in Russia: the old, strong climbers and the young but not very strong climbers. Commercialization today influences this latter group. Climbers from the first group are very famous, and they want to prolong their mountain life. The second group of climbers likes mountaineering, but they are afraid to choose the same level objectives as the elite.

Both groups are able to find sponsors for their expeditions, because the first are very famous and the second are very active. But the latter climbers have to prove that their expeditions are not just ordinary, but really great expeditions. And they must have success. For this reason, they organize high-altitude expeditions to 8000-meter peaks by normal, standard routes. But they say to sponsors that such ascents are great events! Or they make crazy but unusual projects, such as driving a Land Rover to the summit of Mt. Elbrus, etc.—and they get money for it. They write a lot of articles in magazines, make films and cry a lot about their “great” successes to validate all the expenses paid for by their sponsors. In this ocean of “Barbie” mountaineering, the voices of the really strong climbers are drowned out. And the new generation of climbers learns not how to solve the world’s mountaineering problems, but how to advertise their mundane events. Perhaps this is very nice for the popularization of alpinism, and a lot of younger people will begin to climb as a result, but the problem is that mountaineering then becomes like the rest of sports and is no longer an exceptional, extraordinary activity.

Fifty years ago, our climbing academician, Delone, said, “Alpinism is an injection of heroism into the whole nation.” Now it is not the same. Alpinism was exceptional and sacred because it was closed to the masses. And now it finds itself in the same historical situation as is love. When love was poetry, it was exceptional and sacred. When mass media put love in TV and magazines, it became pornography. You see that year to year in the mountain world there are fewer and fewer really great events, but more and more Barbie expeditions.

To my mind, to save the spirit of the extraordinary in mountaineering, we need to think about competitions in alpinism, as we had in Russia until recently. There are two types of high-level mountaineering. One is when you climb only for yourself, and only the process is interesting for you, nothing more. Another is when you try to prove to everybody and anybody your importance and your strength. It is not good, not bad; both mindsets have the possibility to exist. But for the young climbers, the second mindset is (usually) more important than for the elite climbers. In the latter case, it is necessary to have the estimation (but a fair and honest estimation) of your peers. Famous, well-known climbers have more chances for support, and young alpinists need objective estimation of their ascents. Nowadays, your importance usually depends on your ability to self-promote, not on your climbing. If we were to have competitions with defined rules, everybody would be able to see who is really strong.

We must outline definitively the real problems in world mountaineering, judge the truly great ascents once a year and put this information into the serious mountain publications (something akin to the Piolet d’Or in France, but international).

Maybe, maybe…

Pavel Chabaline was bom in 1961. He has climbed more routes on Ak-Su North (5217m) than any other climber. His nine routes on that peak include five new routes and the first winter ascent. In 1998, he led all the aid pitches on the Lightning Route on the north face of Changabang, and in 1999 he attempted the north face of Jannu. He has taken first place in the Russian Championships (Technical Class) in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1998; first place in the Soviet Championships in 1992; and first place in the CIS Championships in 1995. He lives in Kirov, Russia.

Selling Out by Selling Climbing and Other Myths

Will Gadd, Canada

Climbing is undoubtedly more mainstream than ever; you only have to look at the advertising in Rock & Ice or Climbing to see that climbers are both advertising targets for major companies such as Ford, Subaru and Rolex and the models used to sell product for those companies in the media. The X Games put climbing in front of more people than perhaps any other TV broadcast, and the Outdoor Life and Discovery channels regularly broadcast climbing stories. Each climbing “story” in any medium is ultimately paid for by advertisers. Because more people are interested in climbing, advertisers will pay to reach those people. For the climbers involved in the production of each story, this in turn pays for climbing trips that would be financially difficult or impossible to manage on their own. I’m not independently wealthy (more independently poor!), so for me and many other climbers, selling our stories to the media makes the climbs possible.

I personally have absolutely zero problem with this form of commercial climbing. In fact, I whole-heartedly support it. Try as I might, I can’t find a problem with the public watching climbing, or climbers using the money that generates to further their own climbing aims. The Puritans claim that having cameras involved in the sport takes the soul of climbing away. I think the soul of climbing is actually quite robust and can most likely stand a little scrutiny without withering. In fact, a little public scrutiny of climbing is probably a good thing for both the climbers and the mountains.

Those who deride media-supported climbing trips are usually either jealous (“How did those guys get the cash? Man!”) or trying to stay true to some sort of historical myth that climbing didn’t used to be commercial. Climbing is exploration. Exploration costs money. When Admiral Byrd set out to “explore” the South Pole, he raised huge capital on everything he did (some of it in the midst of the Depression). He was an amazing promoter, transmitting evening radio programs live for the duration of the events, endorsing Grape Nuts and pretty much everything else he could hawk. In fact, Byrd’s use of that era’s internet-equivalent to publicize his cause and satiate sponsors puts most modem commercial exploration/climbing efforts to shame. Mallory and Irvine didn’t go to Everest on wages earned waiting tables; they sold stories to the newspapers back home. So when the Puritans start decrying the increasing role of commerce in exploration in general and climbing in particular, I have to laugh. In a historical context, today’s climbers are plainly poorly paid amateurs.

Does the media attention ruin climbing? Media attention to anyone else’s climbing certainly hasn’t ruined my own personal climbing experience (has the media circus surrounding commercial climbing on Everest affected you at all?), nor has being involved in sponsored climbs. In fact, some of my best mountain trips have involved cameras or the moments after the trips when I sit and think and write for a magazine or web site. So I’m left scratching my head: If commercial climbing doesn’t detract from anyone else’s experience of climbing on a personal level, and nobody is making anyone climb with a camera or pen in hand, then what’s the problem? I’m not a psychologist, but there’s plainly something wrong with the motivation of the critics.

Participating in competitions and selling my story to the public also allows me to do what I want to do more of: climb. Every minute I spend working at a non-climbing-related job is one less minute that I can climb or be in the mountains. I’ve had a (very) few climbers tell me I’ve sold out by accepting money from sponsors or competing in televised events. They usually feel I should work at a non-climbing job and only climb on the weekends like them. I ask you: Who has “sold out,” the climber following his or her dream 250 days a year all over the world, or the person so sunk into debt and other perceived obligations that they can only manage the odd day out? This same climber will often bitterly lament to anyone who will listen that his job has ruined his climbing, or disparage the efforts of full-time climbers with, “well, I could do that, but they’re sponsored and I have to work for a living.”

If you truly care about climbing, you find a way to do a lot of it. If you’re not climbing enough because of your job, then obviously your job or what it affords you is more important. If you’re an artist, you should damn well do your best to practice your craft. Please don’t construe this as an attack on weekend climbers, for it’s not: the man or woman who holds a 50-hour-a-week job and busts a move on the weekends is often doing climbing every bit as meaningful to them, something I support from the bottom of my heart. But don’t tell me I’ve sold out because I live to be in the mountains and have found a way to do so.

Some proponents of “self-supported” climbing also make the argument that being paid to climb “taints” a trip because the money came from a sponsor. Climbing is not immaculate conception; the money always comes from somewhere. It is paid for by work, and there is no difference between commercial climbing work and any other kind of work. If you work selling stocks and then use that money to go climbing, aren’t you “sponsoring” yourself? Some might point out that you’re beholden to a sponsor, but playing with other people’s money actually takes some of the pressure off, at least for me.

Commercial sponsorship from Black Diamond, The North Face and many other companies also pays for a large percentage of the Access Fund budget. Should we kick them out and make the members pay because money from “sponsors” is tainted? I think responsible companies should support climbing and wilderness advocacy; if they also support climbing and climbers through either direct sponsorship or advertising on climbing programs (as Salomon and The North Face have both done), then I think it’s good business and good climbing.

As a climber, I look at the public’s willingness to support climbing through watching or reading about it as a supreme compliment. If someone sees a TV program that I’ve worked on and gets excited to climb or empathizes with the climbing experience, then that’s a good thing. It’s good for the people who get inspired and then learn to climb, because climbing, to quote another climber, “soothes the soul.” It’s good for the environment, because climbers are usually staunch defenders of wilderness, and climbing is a very low-impact form of mountain use compared to ski areas, roads, hotels and the other commercial ventures one finds in our national parks and wilderness areas. More climbers means more defenders of space free from commercial development.

There are a few good arguments to be made that increasing the number of people in the mountains through climbing or any mountain sport is bad for the mountain environment, and that therefore exposing the public to climbing will harm the environment by increasing the numbers of climbers. But the argument that televised climbing dramatically increases the number of climbers is both wrong and elitist. It’s wrong in the same way that Formula One racing doesn’t inspire everyone to have a go, and it’s elitist in saying that John Q. Public doesn’t have the right to climb or use the environment in a non-damaging way.

My mother once commented that the only environonmentally responsible thing to do is to immediately kill yourself. Although she was speaking in jest (I’m here), there is also a grain of truth to her statement. But since we are here, I think it’s worth showing the general public that mountains and wilderness are worth preserving, and the best way to do that is to show people their beauty and the experiences that they offer. The more public and compelling the message, the mo’ better. Ansel Adams’ photos hang in plenty of people’s houses who don’t own hiking boots, but who see the content and find it moves them. Images of mountains and wild places in the media alert the public to the fact that these places are special. With any luck, it might actually encourage them to want to preserve the wilds, instead of paving them for another RV park.

I do think there are a few issues in commercial climbing (or any climbing) that need to be examined, and this is where the public scrutiny that media exposure can bring comes in. Would the Everest Base Camp ever have begun to be cleaned up without the gross images in magazines and on TV? The media exposure helped create a public awareness of the problem, which in turn helped create a P.R. opportunity for companies such as Nike to kick in for the clean-up. And when things went bad on Everst in ’96, an IMAX film crew was instrumental in providing assistance. If you’re on TV or a public figure in the climbing world, then you’re also more likely to know that what you do is being examined, and act accordingly. Some say that commercial climbing encourages “summit at any cost,” and this may be true with some climbers. But to me, this is an issue for those climbers and their consciences. I’m not their dad or a cop, and I don’t feel compelled to tell anyone how to climb as long as what they do isn’t environmentally criminal. I’ve also noticed that sponsors prefer that their climbers return alive, so a summit-at-any-cost argument doesn’t hold water for me. A lot of the anti-money climbing arguments sound suspiciously like sex-ed editorials in far-right newspapers, a “don’t do it or you’ll go blind” sort of mentality.

I look at each “commercial” climbing experience and try to answer the question, “Can I sleep at night if I do this?” My form of commercial climbing doesn’t kill anybody, does very minimal environmental harm and may in fact be good in the long run if it inspires more people to care about wild places. Plus, I get to climb a lot. I sleep fine at night. May all your climbing days end safely.

Will Gadd spends as much time in the mountains as possible. He is sponsored by Black Diamond, Scarpa, Red Bull, Hard Corps, Gin Paragliders, Superfly and Ball Instruments. He has worked on numerous TV programs about mountain sports and written extensively about the mountains for many magazines, but feels that his soul is still in good shape.

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