The Clif Bar Conundrum

In early September, I received an email with the subject line, “SF Premiere of Climbing Film—Valley Uprising.”

It was from Duncan Lowe of Double Forte on behalf of the Emeryville-based energy bar maker Clif Bar. That company was hosting the San Francisco debut of Valley Uprising, a documentary film about the ragtag history of Yosemite rock climbing. Lowe’s email said Team Clif Bar athletes Alex Honnold and Dean Potter, two legendary Yosemite climbers, would be there and invited me.

He followed up two weeks later, on the day of the screening. I told him that, as a former climber, I could relate to the topic and wished that I could make the show but couldn’t. The next day, Dana Richardson (thank you) shared the screener with me. Wow, what a movie. From the film’s get-go, I felt like I was the one on the sharp end of the rope. My palms sweated, the adrenaline kicked up a notch, and I sat on the edge of my seat, enveloped by memories of climbing trips and the Yosemite Valley—where I was a not-so-proud Yosemite Park & Curry Co. housekeeper for two summers during college.

I have since seen the film multiple times, marveling at the scenery, the personalities, the achievements, the sheer athleticism, and the story it shared about 60 long years of climbing in 90 brief minutes. Valley Uprising told a great story, an irreverent and poignant one that followed the arch of limit-busting athletes, culminating with what risks today’s best climbing athletes are willing to take. It is fabulous filmmaking.

Yet not long after the San Francisco premiere, in November, Clif Bar decided that the activities of five Team Clif Bar sponsored climbers in Valley Uprising, including Potter and Honnold, were simply too dangerous. So it terminated their sponsorships, an act it apparently had been contemplating for awhile. And so we have a story, “Risky Business,” in this issue about Valley Uprising, Clif Bar’s choice to distance itself from the potentially suicidal actions of some of its most gifted former sponsorship recipients, those climbers’ take on the decision, and how other companies involved in the boundary-shattering realm of extreme sports grapple with their branding as their sports continue to evolve.

In the end, it’s probably not exactly the story Lowe expected about the film he pitched, but it’s a good one.