When a Dangerous Sport Became Too Dangerous for Clif Bar
Clif Bar recently sponsored a highly acclaimed film about the history of Yosemite rock climbing. So why then abandon sponsorships with some of the film’s best climbers?
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still from forgotten lines
A recent article in The New York Times about the January ascent of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall on El Capitan, described as “the most difficult free climb ever attempted,” noted the new level of exposure that climbers like Colorado’s Tommy Caldwell and Santa Rosa’s Kevin Jorgeson generated using social media during their climb. These once solitary experiences hundreds of feet up on an empty rock face can now be shared by millions of people in real time.
Jonathan Thesenga is the Global Sports Marketing Manager at Black Diamond, a Salt Lake City-based mountaineering gear company. He said that social media has amplified the images of athletes doing the craziest activities, despite the fact that they actually make up a very small percentage of the climbing community.
“Sponsorship used to be sending products out to athletes. Now there’s a much bigger need for broadcasting brand messages and self-generated media,” he said. Globally, Black Diamond has more than 120 sponsored climbers on its roster of athletes. The company makes products for all types of climbing; however, Thesenga said Black Diamond does not encourage its athletes to climb without safety equipment.
“I think other companies are putting themselves in challenging positions by showing athletes free-soloing,” he said. “That’s where you have to be really careful as a brand in what you choose to promote.”
Black Diamond does, however, sponsor Alex Honnold, another climber dropped by Clif Bar, who is regarded as one of the best in the sport today. Honnold, 30, was born in Sacramento and studied engineering at UC Berkeley until dropping out to climb full time. Honnold currently lives out of his van and he is often based in Yosemite National Park.
According to Thesenga, while Black Diamond encourages its climbers to use the equipment they make, “How our athletes use—or don’t use—our equipment is up to them.”
Evaluating risk is a personal choice, for companies and athletes alike, one that few are more qualified to talk about than Honnold. Shortly after having his sponsorship dropped by Clif Bar, he described his own analysis of risk as well as Clif Bar’s decision in an op-ed in The New York Times. “I couldn’t help but understand their point of view,” he wrote. “I draw the lines for myself; sponsors don’t have any bearing on my choices or my analysis of risk. … Everyone needs to find his or her own limits for risk, and if Clif Bar wants to back away from the cutting edge, that’s certainly a fair decision.”
John Evans is the marketing director with Utah-based Petzl, a climbing company that makes products including headlamps, harnesses, and ropes for sport climbers as well as gear for commercial users like arborists and emergency responders. Evans helps manage Team Petzl, a group of 36 athletes from the United States and abroad. Like Clif Bar, Petzl was a sponsor of Valley Uprising, and several Petzl-backed climbers including Timmy O’Neill and Lynn Hill were featured in the film. Evans said in general, Petzl avoids sponsoring climbers like Potter and Honnold, who are known for their huge ropeless ascents, which he described as the riskiest activities.
“For a company that also sells to the industrial and safety side, like wind turbine inspectors, having someone who’s built their reputation by incredible feats of daring isn’t that appropriate for a company that makes the vertical world safer for everybody,” Evans said.
In recent years, three Petzl-sponsored athletes have died while climbing: Alex Lowe (’99), Harry Berger (’06), and Guy Lacelle (’09), all of whom were alpinist climbers killed in avalanches. “All three died with ice axes in their hands,” Evans said. Petzl has no influence over the climbs their athletes take on, Evans said, so while these deaths were a blow to their personal community, they didn’t cause the company to reconsider their sponsorships, nor did seeing their athletes in Valley Uprising cause a change of heart.
“I think that in the outside world, a lot of people work under the assumption that these athletes aren’t treated like people but like business assets,” Evans said. “But we’re all climbers. We know their families.”
Clif Bar chose to pull its sponsorships before such accidents happened to its athletes in the first place. “We appreciate that assessing risk is a very personal decision,” the company’s statement read. “We’re drawing a line for ourselves. We understand that this is a gray area, but we felt a need to start somewhere and start now.”
Still, watching Valley Uprising, it’s hard to ignore the irony of Clif Bar’s support of a film that celebrates climbing’s outlaw pioneers and the recordbreaking evolution of the sport while simultaneously dropping a group of athletes that most embody this drive and competitive spirit today. In the film, 1950s footage shows scraggly climbers living out of the park’s now legendary Camp 4 being arrested by park rangers. Later in the film, Potter is shown evading rangers while preparing to base jump, which is illegal in Yosemite. In 1958 when Warren Harding set out to climb El Capitan, onlookers didn’t think it was possible. The climb took him and his partners 18 months to complete, going up and down the wall establishing the route. Later in the film Honnold is shown doing a ropeless, free-solo ascent of the 3,000-foot El Capitan, 2,000-foot Half-Dome, and 2,200-foot Mount Watkins in a continuous 18-hour push.
With such lighting-fast evolution of the sport, it’s no surprise that climbers are now wearing parachutes and climbing without ropes. Potter said he fears that decisions like Clif Bar’s to pull its sponsorship of the sport’s most progressive athletes will lead to a more homogenized sport with less creativity.
“With so many rules, it turns into a race like track and field where the increases are one-hundredth of a second, versus sports that shatter boundaries,” Potter said. It’s a sentiment that was echoed in Valley Uprising in an interview with John Long, another climber who was among the first group to complete an ascent of the 3,000-foot Nose route of El Capitan in one day.
“Every time we went climbing, it wasn’t just to raise the bar,” Long said. “The idea was to blow the whole paradigm away and replace it with an entirely new game, a new way to climb.”
However, in that era of shattered boundaries, neither Long nor climbing’s other pioneers had sponsorships. They were breaking records as they were creating the sport itself. Whether brands will keep rewarding the risks of climbing’s avant-garde remains a personal choice.