Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Adam Ondra and the Dawn Wall: Veni Vidi Vici

Just about the only bright spot in the unfolding catastrophe that the Trump-era United States is becoming was the autumn visit to Yosemite by Czech master climber Adam Ondra. His plan was to attempt the Dawn Wall, something he promptly got started on, going ground up to investigate the climb and doing substantial amounts of free-climbing on the route including an onsight of most of the last third of the climb. He worked in a trip up the Nose with his dad, in only 17 hours, during this phase as well. After further work on the crux section of the route, roughly pitches 10-16 he embarked on his single push ascent and in eight days was at the top, having cleanly led every pitch free.

Interestingly, in comparison with the media frenzy that accompanied the first ascent, the major source of specific info about the climb was Adam's Instagram posts via his own account, that of Black Diamond and his belayer and more informal photographer Pavel Blazek. Indeed the tone of what media there was seemed to anticipate a comeuppance of sorts, as though Adam would be humbled by the peculiar nature of Yosemite granite and the sheer difficulty of the route. The New York Times, which appears to be uncertainly grappling with its future in the "post-truth" era, had a story on Ondra which came in for justified criticism for both its title and its tone. The title "Adam Ondra Expected a Short, Hard Climb. Now He’ll Be Happy Just to Finish." implied that somehow Ondra had come to the Valley expecting the proverbial walk in the park but had been humbled, a sentiment that came through elsewhere, where the reconnaissance ascent was described as an "aid climb" instead of what it actually was. And of course there was the usual "he's just a sport climber/boulderer/comp climber" internet commentary. One writer stated "It’s safe to say that it’ll be a long time before anyone repeats this rock climb." That was about a year and a half ago.

In the end, despite  the qualifiers and naysayers, the fact is he took the route down in eight days with no real problems to speak of and with plenty of time left still for an onsight attempt on the Salathe Wall. It was done with minimal support or fanfare. It was done using mostly ground-up tactics. Adam was gracious, crediting Tommy and Kevin for their vision and acknowledging the effort and difficulty of the climb, not to mention its boldness. Yet, it's worth saying, he wasn't the only one doing amazing things on El Cap this fall. The Zodiac (5.13d) had a third free ascent, the Dihedral Wall (5.14a) saw a long-overdue 2nd ascent, the Pre-Muir had a 4th ascent and Freerider was rope-soloed free in a day. Oddly none of these were accomplished by "pro" Americans. Where were they? Good question. Climbing boulders in Colorado, some, though still no American repeat of Hypnotized Minds, despite a rapid ascent by Rustam Gelmanov in grim summer conditions. Ticking routes in Rifle? Sure, though Mark Anderson doing Shadowboxing underlined that Rifle 8c+/9a is hardly the preserve of fulltime climbers anymore. And of course there's the Red River Gorge in fall. So what's up? Is everyone too depressed by the election? Too busy staying current on their Snapchat posts?

The Instagram/Facebook game may be strong for Americans but all the social media marketing in the world cannot make up for this truth. Once again the bar has been raised substantially and the question has to be asked whether there is anyone ready to match it? I'll be interested to see who rises to the occasion.

For more insight into Ondra's mindset read the interview I did with him a while back

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Five (okay make it Six) Stages of a Route in the Social Media Age

Now that the millennials are firmly in charge of the climbing bandwagon and Brooklyn Boulders is headquartered in Denver, it's time to talk influence, how to get it and how to wield it. Maybe some of you are toting your climbing resumes to Summer Outdoor Retailer right now in the hope of getting free stuff. Maybe some of you are getting free stuff and still want to keep getting it. No matter, you need to get your rep past the bean counters and the marketing specialists and to do that you must understand the process that lets you post that sponsor junkshow shot on the instagrams.

Back in the day (i.e.1895), a hemp-rope-carrying alpine dude named Mummery stated, "It has frequently been noticed that all mountains appear doomed to pass through the three stages: An inaccessible peak - The most difficult ascent in the Alps - An easy day for a lady." Much more compelling stuff than "Because it's there" from that other M-duh-duh-ly guy who also perished up high on a cold (albeit more famous) mountain.

In other words, nothing has changed, including possibly the sexism. If you want a reputation, you have to understand the relative value of your achievement. It's not a bad idea to see it in the context of the Mummery Grade system, a system that BTW uncannily reflects the Gill bouldering grade of B1, B2 and B3. Climbers have to realize that like grades at Harvard (and most everywhere else) climbing grades keep going higher and are worth less and less over time. It's kind of like Moore's Law, except for the fact that really climbing grades don't matter. Okay they do, but we don't like to discuss them too blatantly anymore than we don't want to be that gauche dude who asks  how much that sweet Sprinter van costs.

Climbing grades are like money in a lot of ways. At the top end, those who have the highest numbers need them the least. At the bottom end, we scrape and grind away to get a pittance of reward. But who cares about either of those categories, let's get to the middle class, the climber who is actually well, kind of good, as in C leaning toward B-Team good and thinking that free stuff sounds like not only a good idea but what he or she deserves for that effort, "Murica" being a nation dedicated to free enterprise and whatnot.

How can this aspirant navigate this maze without putting a foot wrong and punting in sight of the chains to use a metaphor that appeals to climbers? How can you ambassadorize yourself with maximum impactfulness through Faceblock, Snapshut, and the Instagraph Machine? These are vital questions lest you have to Kickstart yourself to sponsorship.

It's actually quite simple. First you must familiarize yourself with the (roughly) five (or six) stages of any route. Learn these basic principles and your brandworthyness will rise to the surface like a rich algae froth on a hot summer afternoon. And free stuff will surely come your way.

Stage 1: Nobody can climb the route. The route is impossible. This is getting harder to find everyday, mostly because nobody ever wants to work hard enough to say they can't do it because they aren't strong enough. Conditions, trade show commitments, video shoot on the Canary Islands, imaginary hold breakage, whatever; the excuses are legion but occasionally someone puts  some serious time in and is coming back empty-handed. The rig is really really hard!

Stage 2: The route gets done. It's a thing! Could be someone obscure, could be someone famous (see Stage 3) but it goes and it's obviously hard. Cool. Plus it's a route that people actually want to climb. If you FA it, free stuff might be available. Or not. Hope for Stage 3 to happen soon.

Stage 3: The route gets done by someone famous. This could be the FA or it could be the 2nd ascent or even the 3rd, maybe, but that's pushing it. Okay, now the media spotlight is on the climb. If this is you, you are probably already getting free stuff. But if you aren't, now is your time to shine. But you have to act quickly before it slides to Stage 4.

Stage 4: You get some (limited) attention for simply climbing the route. This is a fragile and easily disintegrating state. You need to get in and do the route while the grade holds and people are interested because of Stage 3. You won't get much attention though because the route then fairly rapidly slides to Stage 5. You probably won't get free stuff at least not from A-list companies. 6th ascent? I don't think so.

Stage 5: You get attention for the category you are in when you climb the route. First Female Ascent, Youngest Ascent, Climb for a Cause, etc., etc. Ironically this might be a very feasible way to get free stuff but choose your objective and social media strategy carefully because the final stage is approaching...

Stage 6: The deadpool stage. This can happen frighteningly quickly. Day late, dollar short. Nobody cares if you did the route. Your friend just did it and even worse your frenemy did it in fewer tries than you. The local climbing team is running laps on it. The crew found six new kneebars. If you post a video, the only people who watch it are mining beta and the Insertgram likes are from your mom. But hey, the best climber in the world is the one who is having the most fun! HAHAHA. LOL. As if. It's time to rethink your strategy if you want free stuff.

I hope this helps you formulate your self-brandification strategy as you monetarize your social media outreach via your FB athlete page and Twooter feed. Happy influencing! And remember Craigslist is always ready to take your free stuff and convert it to hard ca$h.

Friday, May 27, 2016

We Are So Good

The news on social media is that we are all so good. We are winning at life. We are falling down sometimes, but in an interesting way, and we are always getting back up. We are alive. We are smiling. We are laughing with our similarly garbed, similarly featured, similarly vaguely employed peers just enjoying the vibe. There's a lake and a mountain nearby. Maybe a cabin too.

It's cool, an honor, humbling even, to be this good. We are starting up, getting down, and making it happen. Our selfie game is top-notch. We are Instagram-ready, always. Our brand is building momentum. Our Kickstarter is kicking butt, albeit in a friendly, kicky way. Our plane ticket to paradise has been bought, punched and posted up.

We still do Facebook. Of course we do. Curating a life across multiple platforms in a disarming, pleasantly aggressive way takes time. But we're grateful. Really grateful. We've learned a lot in the process and we are always hungry for more. We are so good.

In fact we are always getting better. We are winning at fun, at joy, at savoring the best life can offer. We look great while we do it and we feel even better. We are getting some and this is sweet. We love it. You love it too.

We said "Buy experiences, not things," and we bought both. We are winning. We are getting psyched. We are rich in the things that matter. We will share and we will never ever stop sharing. We always deliver.

We are liking, sharing and commenting. We are inspiring. We are telling our story. Anything is possible. We are faster, harder, keener, more aware and we feel great. We know what it is like to work hard and play harder. We believe. In ourselves. In you.

We are sending. We are humbled and grateful to be sending. We are kinda rad but we know this is just part of the process. We are working on some things. We are releasing trailers and previews. We are having a great time just being part of it all. We are refreshed.

We are having an adventure. This journey is our destination. We are going off the grid. We are getting published. We are at an event. We are part of the event. We are at the premier of a thing. We don't know what to call it. That's cool too. It's all a story. Come check it out.

We really think we are beginning to get it after all. But we're not proud. Just quietly joyful. And that's kind of cool. We are ambassadors. We are stoked. We are epic.

We're reflecting on this. What it all means. How it makes us better so we can be better lovers, friends, and residents of this great big beautiful world. We took some video. We're editing it now. We're thanking our sponsors.

We're celebrating life but we're thinking about why. We're posting something about it. It might get some likes. That's cool.

We are so good.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Why Sponsorship is such a Thing

A couple of web pieces came out recently on a topic that the print journals tend to eschew, namely the peculiar game of discussing who should be a sponsored climber. Andrew Bisharat asked what was up with media and “professional climbers” when the hyped grade turns out to not be all that?

Another post by Georgie Abel, entitled “Confessions of A Spray Queen” appeared to claim that self-generated spray was just part of the cost of doing business and certainly a number of comments on Facebook seemed to agree. Indeed the dominant influence on climbing by marketing seems inevitable by all accounts, even desirable in the eyes of many.

And yet…  I would suggest that the reason the topics of grades spray and sponsorship are so touchy is that deep down we are well aware of the arbitrary and superficial discourse that surrounds the topic. That is to say, a motion is made to defer the decisions on remuneration to companies who hope to sell products because, hey, capitalism, and the people have spoken and apparently the people want young vibrant millenials in somewhat skimpy clothing clustering at the base of a boulder at Red Rock or Bishop. Or that we are all special and everyone has a story, whether it’s on a 5.8 or a 5.15, doesn’t matter, because community, and we’re all in this together, really, bound by inspiring words on Instagram. But in the end I would argue none of this really satisfies those who are serious about the sport of climbing.

So why not? I don't hear nearly as much speculation and controversy in other sports regarding who deserves support and why. Are other sports infested with the same sense of grievance and complaint regarding compensation? It's remarkable to see this especially in relation to such a small overall pie, a pie the slices of which remain an unknown quantity owing to nondisclosure clauses in sponsor contracts, again something unheard of in real professional sports.

I'd like to suggest a few issues that climbing presents when we decide about "athlete" support, questions that are endemic to the sport if not actually unique to it. I apologize for the quote marks around "athletes" but I feel it's appropriate given the Greek etymology of the word which specifically refers to contests.

1. There is no fixed objective standard to any achievement in climbing.  Grades? At best a variable quality, grades rise up and wither away, changing from week to week, place to place, person to person. There is simply no compelling way to prove who the best climbers actually are and who is logically deserving of support. In the context of other professional sports this is insane. To succeed in major league baseball, football, etc, you must perform in public at an agreed-upon level against similarly able competitors. In climbing there is no such requirement nor are there organizations who determine who is eligible to compete in sanctioned events that would truly decide who is worthy of support. In climbing you can do what you want and if it appeals to the right set of people you can actually get paid. Crazy but true. Which leads to #2

2. There are no actual teams or governing bodies that have a set standard regarding compensation or support in relation to performance. Did you hear about The North Face "team" tryouts? Me neither. The word team is thrown around a lot but are they actual teams? No, in large part because of #1. Nobody in the climbing media would dare call out a company for sponsoring an unworthy athlete or speculate who would get cut from a "team" the way regular sports journos do. And since there is no way to determine who or what a valuable player actually is, everyone is defaulting to commercial justification for sponsorship.

3. The standard for sponsorship is increasingly social-media-oriented, which is to say presence on the big three SM platforms; Facebook, Instagram, and... well I forget, but it sure isn't Twitter. Anyway this creates big problems for people who are good at climbing but not so good at marketing. Some reply, "Well that is the new reality, that "athletes" have to be good marketers, not just, in fact not even, good climbers, because what matters to sponsors is how many shoes or raincoats or whatever can be sold thanks to that 'athlete's' influence in social media." And hey anyone can count Instagram likes or #s of video plays and tell themselves that supporting a mediocre but high-profile athlete translates into ROI. But this rapidly degenerates into #4
Sly keeping it on the reals. We've all been there though. #legday

4. Image is becoming everything. Ironically, there was a time when real climbers derided commercial attempts to represent the sport either in entertainment or advertising. Cliffhanger, the notorious 1993 movie, its title a spoof on the serial thrillers of yesteryear became notorious for its failure to mesh together Hollywood action and the world of high-level climbing. None of the climbers involved, to my knowledge, looked upon their participation in the project as reflective of the actual sport. It was a highly remunerative job and that was pretty much it. Today real climbers actively court interest in their activities by any means necessary (American Ninja Warrior anyone?) including of course relentless social media updates, designed to induce FOMO in their followers. Whether anything is actually accomplished is increasingly beside the point. Which leads to 5...

5. Image has nothing to do with athletics. Or at least it shouldn't. But sponsorship clearly has a lot more to do with image than it should. And the problem with image (and therefore sponsorship) is that we know the qualities that go into a desirable image have a lot more to do with accidental qualities like innate charisma and appearance than they do with deliberate and therefore morally laudable effort and dedication and that unfortunately in too many instance image plays into easily marketable stereotypes, especially for young women. Obviously the marketing unicorn is the climber who has both attributes but there is little doubt that the benefit of the doubt will go not to the less-attractive achiever but to the lower-achieving attractive climber. And given the lack of structure or criteria for judging achievement outside of commercial viability, that is no surprise. Money talks and everything else walks.

So in a relatively anarchic world of unjudged and unjudgeable climbing "athletes" each doing his or her own thing, with no clear path to joining the ranks of the "pros" and of course nobody saying what the actual financial reward is for any of this, it is hardly surprising to find that there is controversy regarding who deserves what, especially as any compensation involved is relatively small and hardly adequate to support a truly "professional" status. The controversy is enhanced by images of said "athletes" hard at work leading a fairly laid-back life that consists primarily, if we read Instagram correctly, of climbing what they want, where they want, when they want and how they want.

Takin' Care of Business and workin' overtime

This is not the life led by athletes in major actual professional sports. Those actual athletes lead high-pressure lives with relentless practice and travel schedules often with serious risk of degenerative disease as in the NFL, always in the public eye and always with significant risks for non-renewal owing to poor performance. To get to this place, such real athletes have endured years if not decades of specializing in their sports, beating significant odds and a host of competitors to get there. Their compensation is not just a matter of public record; it is a critical aspect of their identity. We may decry their often extraordinary salaries but we rarely dispute that they have worked remarkably hard to get there. But there is no way to get an NFL contract merely by looking good or keep said contract by having many thousands of Instagram followers. Yes lucrative endorsements may follow a winning athlete who has sufficient charisma but in real sports, charisma is never enough. You must win and win convincingly or face the risk of getting cut. And because such a thing does not exist in climbing, we wonder about the score and who is keeping it.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

To Blog or Not to Blog: Is that the question?

""There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Oscar Wilde

 I have been diving deep in the waters of writer's block for the past year, in part because I have been really busy, bogged down in family, work and actually training and climbing. The other issue is deciding what's worth writing about. I tend to seek out issues of contention instead of the feel-good mode typical of most climbing media these days. It's not that climbing is not worth writing about but that the current ecosystem of magazines, videos, and social media posts is a self-reflecting pond of complacency and plenty of marketing. How to move past this to the real thing is the only interesting path to follow in my view. To cut through the noise and image seems the only goal worth pursuing.

 Truth is I don't mind marketing per se. We all need things in order to climb well. Good products deserve our support. It's the mindset that in the end the market is all that matters that is the problem. Climbing becomes a mere conduit to the market and the value of a climb is its marketability. This is giving rise to a startlingly large number of social media presences who are far more about the marketable personality and photogenics than substance. If I point this out, I will be described as a "hater" and a critic. But what's wrong with being a critic?

 Basically there is a double standard at work here. For whatever reason, someone decides to tell the world about something and how awesome it is and then there is a video or a Kickstarter, etc. The key point is that this person wants something from us. Attention, time, money, whatever. They want to be recognized for their work. I consider this kind of presentation more of an argument than a statement of fact but many are surprised that a statement regarding the excellence of something could be debatable. In the current mode of thinking a critical reaction is seen as a problem, as though somehow everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard and to benefit from it. This equality of opportunity and reward is to say the least highly debatable. Why can't we say this and debate it?

 In fact climbing used to be full of arguments and critique. Questions of style, ethics, the environment and so on filled the pages of climbing magazines and journals in the past. Granted that some of this argument was competitive bluster, nevertheless a lot of it was actually serious and very relevant to the present day, which, for the most part, sees next to no discussion in public fora on important topics in the areas mentioned above. If we factor in the deadening hand of social media which tends to flatten all too quickly the contours of a question and combine in with that a general tendency to present a cheerful and likeable social profile, suddenly there is a vacuum regarding serious discussion of serious subjects.

 This vacuum certainly exists today. If any readers can point me to people writing regularly in even a mildly polemical mode, let me know. I'm still making up my mind as to whether it's worth it. I kind of think it is but then again I'm a busy person with too much to do and not enough time or money to do it. We'll see.