Monday, January 30, 2012

A Response from Ben Moon to the Last Post

I got a lot of reaction to last week's post, reaction which was by no means expected. I felt I was making the simple point that sponsorships in climbing have to be earned and that depending on the effort put in, you may find yourself breaking even at best. A lot of people agreed but unfortunately Ben Moon at Moon Climbing took exception to my account of my experience as a sponsored climber. He wrote in a comment to my blog:

"Moon Climbing is not some big faceless corporation. It's a tiny company with only one full-time employee which is me. Every email that comes to the company comes directly to me and 95% of the product that comes in and out of my small warehouse passes through my hands. I have virtually no marketing budget and do almost zero advertising. Any budget I have goes towards supporting a team of climbers from around the world. In 2011 the team became too big and cost too much to finance so I had to make cuts for 2012. Since I do very little business in the US it was hard to justify sponsoring so many US climbers and I had to make a cut somewhere and unfortunately Peter lost out."

I want to thank Ben for reminding all of us that many of the manufacturers in climbing are very small operations, running on miniscule budgets. My purpose in writing the post was not to denigrate Moon Climbing, whose products and philosophy I respect greatly, even if I am no longer formally affiliated with them. It was instead to correct misconceptions about what "free" gear really means to both sponsor and athlete. Moon fulfilled their obligations toward me generously and I believe the same could have been said of me. I certainly have nothing negative to say about the company or Ben in any sense and would still encourage climbers in the US to seek out their gear.

Losing and gaining sponsorships is an uncertain part of the game at the higher levels of the sport of climbing. There is almost a trainspotting aspect to seeing which climber is wearing which brand shoes this year. Some find this fascinating. For me, not so much. I want to support companies which focus on simplicity, integrity, environmental awareness, independence and quality, whether through my purchases or promoting their products in this blog or in other media. These values reflect my own and are not for sale.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Can You Afford to be Sponsored?

January. It's that time when contracts are sent out by various climbing-related manufacturers. In what may be a first, Beal (the French climbing company and no relation to me) posted a photo of British climber James Pearson actually signing a contract, a move that will almost inevitably be replicated throughout the industry. This echoes the practice of professional sports teams and companies throughout the world displaying athletes with contracts, while surrounded by logos, wearing gear etc. and marks one more step in the mainstreaming of climbing.
James Pearson signing with Beal
The significant difference is that in climbing you will rarely actually receive real money, at least when compared to sports such as football or basketball. Even very highly regarded climbing athletes such as Chris Webb-Parsons are not getting that much support, at least if this interview  at reflects his actual situation.

"But there is no glamour, not even a shoe sponsor, just very hard work and absolutely no financial support from his Australian federation.

'I'm in debt on my credit card right now due to the last WC season costing me so much money. I'm slowly paying off my debt now although as soon as the 2012 WC season starts the credit card will come out again. I have to pay for everything including my uniform to compete in, my IFSC license, my climbing association membership, competition entry, hotel, travel etc.... So it all adds up.'

This aspect of being a "professional" climber is one that is rarely if ever discussed. Climbing is a pursuit a lot like yacht racing or showing purebred dogs in that a substantial amount of personal and social capital is assumed to be on hand to cover the expected day-to-day expenses of participation. In other words, to even initially obtain, let alone maintain sponsorship, it is expected that an athlete will maintain a high profile in the sport, usually through travel and extended sojourns at fashionable climbing areas, participate in competitions (very expensive for travel, accommodation, and fees) and be available for other promotional responsibilities such as video shoots, shoe demos or climbing festivals. Such requirements are generally incompatible with genuinely remunerative employment of any kind, meaning that someone or something else is ultimately footing the bill for most if not all the professionals below the very thinnest sliver at the top. This is the simple reality of climbing today.

In other words, for every hundred dollars worth of "free" product, a climber may have to invest 10 to 20 times as much hard cash, maybe more, maybe less, to maintain the lifestyle required to obtain and keep that sponsorship. This of course is not counting the staggering opportunity cost of missed educational opportunities or actual gainful employment, costs that will eventually be counted against many aspiring "pros" when they realize they can no longer maintain elite participation in the sport or in the outdoor industry. As mentioned above, this hard reality is passed over in the media and rarely discussed in public by the athletes themselves. Kudos to Webb-Parsons for mentioning it.

This theme was on my mind in particular when I recently received an email from Moon Climbing informing me that I was being dropped from their team. Now for me, sponsorship is not a matter of financial necessity, it is a matter of my desire to help promote companies that I respect and whose products I personally use and recommend. But on reflection, I realized that looking back, the efforts that I made to fulfill my responsibilities towards the company in the end cost me more out of pocket than the value of the products themselves. Not to say that it wasn't nice to get some "free" gear, but that in the end, at best, I estimate the net financial value to me cashed out in negative terms. Would I do it again? It really depends on the company and its vision for the future. There were certainly some concerns with Moon that I should have heeded.

I understand that for a teenage climber with adequate familial financial resources and no particular obligation in the immediate future towards a career or other responsibilities, climbing sponsorships are great. And there are actual professional climbers out there, not many, but some. But it seems to me that a more public discussion of the actual costs involved in elite-level participation, especially with the increased media presence of sponsorship, as with Beal mentioned above, in concurrence with the rise in numbers of competitive youth teams, might be enlightening to aspiring athletes, their families, and the climbing community in general.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Back to the Future: Evaluating the Breakthroughs of Climbing

A fascinating interview showed up at Planet Mountain recently which created some buzz in the climbing Interwebs. It consisted of Adam Ondra's thoughts about routes he hadn't done yet. It is a comment on the voracious manner with which Ondra has dispatched many of the marquee testpieces of European sportclimbing (not to mention bouldering) that a story on the climbs he has NOT done would garner so much interest. But a sub-theme was his inability to complete the 1990 Ben Moon route Hubble, located at Raven Tor in the heart of England's Peak District. Ondra put it like this: "The world's first 8c+, which could be easily even 9a in my opinion. It is not the most inspiring line, it seems more like a boulder problem with a rope and easier topout, but one must admit that it is of revolutionary difficulty for its time and I believe that it isn't by any means easier than Action Directe, the world's first 9a established a year later." This generated some reaction at sites like UKClimbing.
Ben Moon on Hubble

To me what was interesting was not the merit of the specific case of Hubble, which is probably valid, but the tendency for these kinds of ascents to emerge over time as breakthrough grades. There has been a fair amount of this recently. I begin by citing the case of Dan Goodwin, whose 1984 route Maniac was just recently repeated after over two decades and confirmed at 5.13c/d. This would have made it the hardest route in the country by far at the time and one of the hardest in the world.
Story from Climbing last year

Then there was the likely first 9a+ (5.15a) of Alexander Huber in 1996 with Open Air, a real beast of a pitch with a likely V11 finishing crux. The ClimbingNarc discussed this one pretty thoroughly but read also the interview with Alexander Huber where he sets his own routes in perspective against the "9as" of the present. It is worth mentioning that Huber's 1992 route Om was repeated only in 2009, also by Ondra. For even deeper perspective, check out this image from Climbing 47, from the spring of 1978 showing Ray Jardine on the iconic Valley route, The Phoenix. The caption describes it as one of the current 5.12's in Yosemite."

Does this look like "5.12" to you?
Now what do these routes have in common? I suggest there a few factors that lead to this, the primary one being the people involved. With the exception of Ben Moon, the climbers of these routes were relatively unknown or outside the circle of elite climbers for their time. Ray Jardine for example was regarded as a renegade in Yosemite for his method of working routes and even the use of Friends was seen by some as "cheating." Both Dan Goodwin's reputation and the location of his route ensured it would not be taken seriously at the time. It is hard to believe it now but in an article in On The Edge a now defunct British magazine, the author had to introduce his readers to Huber by pointing out that the British stars had done very few routes 8c and up compared to Huber. He was certainly unknown in the States prior to his free ascent of the Salathe Wall.

The issue with Hubble, in my view, was that the route was completely out of step with the vision of sport climbing that dominated the continent of Europe at the time. Long, stamina-oriented pitches were typical, occasionally with chipped holds to even out the difficulty. The likelihood of someone from abroad investing the time and energy in building up the power to do V13/14 on a rope and then finding the right conditions for a tiny route on a notoriously finicky crag was slim. Nevertheless Hubble was given an 8c+ grade, still regarded as a breakthrough but only by a letter grade. Only now is the record being rethought as hard bouldering has been maturing and a climber like Ondra has proven to be the equal of someone like Moon and Moffatt in bouldering hard and climbing on a rope hard.

Are we dealing here with the blinding effects of whatever is/was the current paradigm, a mode of seeing the world that hinders the understanding and inhibits knowledge? I think the question takes on importance with the rise of "professional" climbing. In other words, does professionalism imply subscribing to the dominant present paradigm and by implication, stifling innovation and creativity? A deeper exploration of that specific question belongs to another post but as I notice the recent crop of reevaluations of the historical record of sport climbing and bouldering, I am struck by the inconsistency of that record and the ways in which it has denied or delayed recognition of the real pioneers

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Interview with Carlo Traversi

If you are interested in learning more about what makes an elite-level boulderer tick, please check out my interview with Carlo Traversi. As part of my bouldering book blog, I plan on talking periodically with leaders in the sport about what they think is important for developing as a climber.

Carlo Traversi: Alpine Sessions from Five Ten on Vimeo.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

January 2012

Welcome to the long dark days of winter. The snow finally melted off here in Boulder and bouldering outside is once more an option. Not that I have been doing much of that. A couple of weeks off due to weather and various illnesses and suddenly my Christmas break was over. Before Christmas, I felt as though my training was going quite well and now I am trying to recover that standard, little by little.

I have very nice simple but effective training set-up in my basement which has been very helpful in focusing on my fingers and core strength. I am trying to get sufficiently in shape to start heading up to RMNP in March to start working Element of Surprise as I think early spring is the most feasible time to try this problem.

There are many lower projects closer to town I have in mind as well and not all of them at Flagstaff either. I see this year as a time to consolidate my strength and knowledge in an attempt to reach the V13 level, a goal that feels a bit unlikely given my age and free time. Nevertheless, I feel as though I am as strong as I have ever been.

Unlike many other bloggers, I will not be delivering my views on the climbing year that was other than to say that everyone is playing for second place when compared to Adam Ondra. He simply had a phenomenal year and clearly is poised to achieve things that will reset our expectations of what sport climbing and bouldering will look like in coming decades. It will be very interesting to see who, if anyone, can rise to this standard, especially in the USA.

The bouldering  book has been doing well receiving a couple of great reviews recently from Climberism  and Deadpoint Magazine.It has stayed consistently high in the "Rock Climbing" category at Amazon as well.

In the bouldering vein, here is a boulder problem from Poudre Canyon, a destination that practically counts as a road trip for me these days...