Show Me the Money – The Values of Climbing News
Friendly though the climbing world may be, there is a surprising amount of mistrust in climbing news. It’s not that hard to see why – it stems from all of our usual human frailties after all – and at the centre of it is a curious mix of money, power and climbing culture.
We laud some strange creatures in the climbing world. The dirtbag is sometimes the strangest of all – those people who have so dedicated themselves to their art that they’ve seemingly rejected all wordly possessions. That is, except their resoled climbing shoes, a beat up car and a rope that should have become a doormat years ago. Except, you don’t have a door, because you are the Authentic Dirtbag.
The thing is, the true dirtbag could remain anonymous; a whistle on the wind at the base of the crag. We’ve all belayed them: We might know their first name. We might know their nickname. We might not be sure which is which. We probably have a phone number for them, but we’re never really sure where they are.
In some cases they are our heroes.
Professional climbers have often dabbled with Dirtbagging. It’s rarely going to be a lifelong commitment, and those people who can combine the mix in the longer term are a real rarity. Yet one of the conundrums for the climber is tied up in the Time and Money problem. You want the time to climb, you need the money to travel, and the obvious solution is to live as cheaply as possible, working contract jobs and saving the money.
For many this is possible with a bit of family money to fall back on (or at least a home to return to) and possibly a university education giving the hope of well paid work in the future. It means that they could ride through their relative youth with abandon, safe in the knowledge that the world won’t fall from under them. Again, those who really cut the cord are rare, and curiously motivated individuals.
In the UK this has often manifested as the Climber-On-The-Dole. In the early years of the Professional Climber signing on wasn’t too hard, work was scarce anyway and, arguably, many of Britain’s best crags and routes were developed as a result of this support.
When you look beyond the magazine headlines at the time you start to see the same pattern emerging. While these climbers were living on the dole, and using it to good effect, they had means. They were often privately educated and had family money. They were roughing it, famously sleeping in the woodshed at Stoney Middleton, or dossing in the Tremadog bunkhouse, but they weren’t cut adrift.
Grades were starting to shoot up, with full-time climbers, training techniques and Sport Climbing all coming into play. A new game was in town. The big numbers have always got the attention in the magazines, but this ignores a couple of key elements. The magazines haven’t bugged the crags to spy on these climbers, news doesn’t exist in isolation, and it doesn’t travel fast without a travel buddy and a ticket.
One of the standout features of Jerry Moffatt’s book Revelations is how casually much of his climbing is presented. He’s the driven youth, slumming it for his goals and he was fantastically determined and prepared to go to great lengths both to access the rock and train. But hidden behind this is the knowledge that he was also becoming a professional, and climbing hard isn’t the only thing you need. He needed evidence.
Performing at the crag was one thing. Telling people about it was another. Even better, get the photos. For every important ascent he was making he was also ensuring that there was good material for the magazines. Even in his youth Jerry had an eye on that kind of professionalism. He was available, he was cultivating a public persona, and he was on camera. While he continued to maximise his time of rock by living frugally, the need to do so was waning.
We have a strange attitude towards professionalism in climbing. The idea that you should be making money from it is seen as dirty to some, but it seems fairly obvious that if you want to make the Time and Money equation work in your favour then self-promotion is part of the game. Play the game right and you come across as authentic, and I think we allow more leeway that we realise with this.
The squeaky wheel gets the oil, and the loudest climber will often get the attention. This is a two-way street though, gaining that attention possibly means they can commit more time to getting better, and being better also means more attention. Back in the day this meant writing for the magazines and making sure to supply them with good photos. It’s easy to forget that magazines were born out of journals and were publications of record. They might not write a feature on your ascent, but it would make it into the news sections, or the new routes. Egos and mistrust abounded. Was your route as hard as you said? Should you have put a bolt in it? Were your tactics valid? All of these questions hang over climbers today, but in a slightly different way: the gatekeepers have changed.
Is This News?
One of the things we often forget when we interact with media is how strong our expectation of different formats is. It seems to have died down in recent years, but in the earlier days of internet reporting the immediate comment of “Is this news?” was pretty common.
We had an inbuilt sense that there must be some criteria that an ascent should meet to be considered significant enough to warrant its own news piece. We don’t have that sense with Instagram posts, perhaps because we have a fairly instinctive understanding that promoting your own ascents meets very different criteria to promoting them in general.
In many cases now, promoting yourself on social media is the new Sending-Photos-to-the-Mags. It’s where those publications are also likely to hear of your ascents. UKClimbing’s reporting has taken this into account with their Ticklist news articles. It addresses the issue of “Is This News?” while also providing a way to get photos for free, by embedding the Instagram posts.
The use of Instagram goes far beyond that, social media has removed a key barrier to accessing an audience. There’s no need to impress a magazine editor in order to get coverage. In the UK this was often a complaint of those who were developing crags outside the Sheffield area where the magazines were traditionally based. Having direct access to your audience places the need for magazines to promote your ascents down the scale.
The interesting part of this development is that it comes back around to our sense of the authentic, and perhaps gives an interesting insight into how many of us interact with content. Remove the gatekeepers, and we are left with a different set of problems. We still have the situation that those with means can gain a larger audience, and hence more money for their pursuits. We still get into issues around truth and accuracy. We still have a game to play with the public persona that is cultivated by professional climbers.
High profile professional climbers now have really significant followings on social media. Shauna Coxsey has more than 400k followers on Instagram, Adam Ondra has 600k, Alex Honnold has 2.1 million. These number vastly outweigh the followings of even the biggest climbing publications.
And it’s not just Instagram. On YouTube some climbers have such a following that their videos will sometimes pay for themselves through programmatic advertising, even before we factor in sponsorship deals. Spraying about your ascents isn’t just paying by proxy any more.
Professional climbing is no longer the domain of the dirtbag, let alone an authentic one.
Some of these climbers still make themselves available for interview by regular climbing media, but many more have realised that there are better ways to spend their time to further their careers. Instagram doesn’t reward an authentic, honest interview. It loves quick content, and it buys into even the most inauthentic content if you’re involved in something on trend. The lack of a gatekeeper is great, but the lack of a discerning audience is a little troubling. E.g. that a certain highly caffeinated fizzy drink seems to be unrivalled as the major sponsor of Olympic climbers. That level of sponsorship probably couldn’t exist without the direct marketing afforded by social media – and it’s not hard to understand why many professionals would take the money (and the health insurance) on offer.
The double-edged sword for some of this promotion is the unfortunate nature of so many online interactions. While news would previously trickle through the magazines and some might be met with a robust response in the form of letter writing, at least a certain amount of effort involved reduced the nature of some of the abuse. Not to mention whether that letter got published.
Now news flies around the world at lightning speed. Trust has long been an issue in climbing reporting. Evidencing ascents and details can be hard in some cases, particularly with bigger objectives. Controversies about the use of knees, what count as valid tactics and whether something was even climbed still abound.
One step away from authenticity, at least shouted from some quarters, is the idea of climbers having agents and agents having agendas. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that a professional climber with the means would employ someone to spread news of their ascents, arrange photos and videos, arrange media appearances and update their social media. It’s a full time job for those at the top of the game.
And yet not only is this sometimes deemed inauthentic, it also sows mistrust.
Getting It Wrong
Emily Harrington’s ascent of the Golden Gate on El Capitan was sadly misreported by virtually every mainstream publication. It’s not that surprising, the story comes with a few caveats: first female, in a day, free via a specific route. Specialist terminology isn’t readily understood by a non-specialist journalist, as you’ll see in virtually any climbing story written in the mainstream media.
But the mistrust ran deeper than the reporting. There were a lot of people who should have known better questioning her integrity over this ascent, because the information had come from a press release from her agent. Or so it seemed. Actually, it’s a misunderstanding of the news-gathering process, as well as news values.
The media actually picked up the story from the Associated Press wire service – this gathers stories to disseminate to the industry, and they’re often printed verbatim. It only took one journalist to misunderstand the significance, and the caveats, and no-one else down the chain was going to check it. Why? Because they don’t really care, it’s a throwaway good news story with some nice photos for them. Arguably, if the original journalist had understood the caveats they’d probably have passed on the story. It ticks lots of news value boxes for the climbing media, but it’s not quite news for the mainstream, if properly understood.
Ironically, this mistake is what meant the story was picked up internationally. It’s also the mistake that made the story go viral on social media. It got the best of both worlds in terms of publicity. Not so much in terms of the attitude towards Harrington in some quarters, accusing her of sending out a misleading press release and then doubling down on those claims, despite her obvious efforts to get the story corrected.
Doubt is a really powerful part of climbing storytelling. Whether it’s the doubt of the moment on the route, the doubt of achieving the long term goal or the doubt of what really happened at all. Trust, integrity, authenticity: all are things we might aspire to, but they don’t easily match with making a living from your sport.
Sadly these attitudes rose again with the ascent of K2 in winter. Why didn’t they post immediately on social media? Did they cut the ropes on the way down? Why weren’t they giving interviews?
I think the answers are actually fairly simple. The climbing media isn’t the goal for the big time ascents these days. They can get the material on Netflix or in the New York Times, talking to the specialist press might be good, but it’s not necessary to furthering your aims. In this instance the seeds of mistrust were also embedded in the questioning from some of the specialists, and that’s not a very appealing prospect, is it? Especially when you’ve got appointments with the leaders of Pakistan and Nepal to attend.
There has always been a pushback to development and promotion in the climbing world. Many of the climbers whose profiles have risen high enough experience a different kind of pushback in the online world now.
What gets reported, what you report yourself and how you report it will remain important. There are great examples out there of people doing this with lots of integrity, there are plenty of examples of people doing it with less.
I think we always need to realise that all reporting is a partially imagined version of the truth. What’s important is always a value judgement. What’s authentic is a particularly tricky one. But rising to the top, both in the sport and the news cycle, are not independent things. Managing both well is a real skill.