Clif Bar is a brand you’ve heard of, I bet. The image on the packaging is of a climber on a steep rock face, and even the name evokes our weekend destinations (though it’s actually named after the founder’s grandfather, Clifford). Clif Bar has exploded in the last few years, filing the performance-food niche completely. Everyone has at least heard of them, even if they don’t love their products.
Rock and Ice broke the news that Clif has released five climbers from its roster of sponsored athletes – Alex Honnold, Dean Potter, Steph Davis, Timmy O’Neill, and Cedar Wright. The last three names may not have much meaning for the average consumer, but Alex Honnold has become the face of climbing for a layperson, and Dean Potter has been pushing the boundaries of the sport since before most people knew where the boundaries were.
People have pointed out that Clif was a title sponsor in the Psicobloc [deep water] soloing competition a few months ago, and the recent Sender Films movie “Valley Uprising” was also a Clif production. Notably, all five athletes who have been nixed were featured in that video, although the ones not named Dean or Alex are far less well-known for soloing or BASE jumping. I don’t want to get into the weeds about their marketing strategy or motives, but it might be worth mentioning that Clif was a $500 million company in 2013. That has to be part of any decisionmaking, but I’m not on Clif’s marketing team. (I sure do wish I was, though.)
A Clif spokesman has said that “[Clif Bar has] made the decision to get back to Clif’s roots and focus on the more traditional aspects of the sport, like trad, bouldering, alpinism and sport climbing to name a few. Our climbing athlete sponsorships will reflect this traditional focus.”
Of course, the outcry was immediate and obvious – “traditional” climbers were the dirtbags in Yosemite in the 1970s (and earlier), doing drugs and falling on pitons with hemp ropes – if they used ropes at all. The elite climbers in 2014 are sending projects at a level that was unfathomable when climbing was in its infancy; yet Clif’s statement makes you think that the history of the sport lies in sticky rubber and shiny cams.
Climbing is undeniably a sport on the rise. It’s hard to say which came first – the uptick in youth competitive climbing is matched by interest from the public, while Honnold has been featured in ads for Citibank and Squarespace – but rock climbing is no longer an inaccessible extreme sport. And since climbing is inherently a dangerous activity, the high-risk, pushing-the-limits, once-fringes are now finding themselves in the spotlight, for better or worse. Some climbing-related activities are not for the faint of heart (or fingertip), but it can be argued that people are more likely to try dangerous things if they see people doing them on their TV.
Sponsorships reward people for excellence in their field (the same way a bonus might reward an excellent salesman), and encourages them to do more impressive things, while wearing the sponsor’s logo or using their product. That makes people like me, a mediocre climber who would love to send V10, believe that the sponsored athlete’s success is due, in part, to the product. It’s a time-honored marketing tradition and it may lead to people asking questions like “does that mean I can free solo El Cap if I eat Clif Bars?” (No, I can’t.) On a more immediate scale, it glorifies incredibly dangerous activities, and people – especially children – can be quite impressionable. I’ve asked before if sponsors have a responsibility to temper their message about extreme sports, and this seems to be the beginnings of an answer.
But, as the kids all say, haters gonna hate and Honnold gonna highball. He was doing these incredible things long before Clif slapped their logo on his clothing. Dean Potter has been jumping off of an assortment of things for longer than most of our readers have been alive. (That may be an exaggeration but I bet it’s not by much.) People have been pushing the limits for as long as there have been limits to push. They don’t need sponsors to do it, but they certainly help. They bring the sport to the mainstream attention, which in turn means more scrutiny and more criticism.
And that’s where some people start to get spiky. How many of us have heard of fabled “secret” crags that only a few are allowed access to, lest their pristine nature be spoiled by the unworthy masses? How many of us have avoided our gyms on a Saturday because of the slew of birthday parties and youth groups taking up space and ropes? How many of us have seen access lost because of an influx of irresponsible climbers? The consequences are very real, so does the climbing world really want all of this exposure?
The answer to that is a resounding “you don’t really have a choice.” Sorry about that. The attention being paid to climbing and its fringe, high-risk elite brings a responsibility. When people ask me about climbing, and if I “climb without ropes,” I do my best to explain the difference between bouldering, sport climbing, and free soloing. I explain – if they’ll listen – that free climbing and free soloing are two very different things. And I’ll further explain the training I’ve had to go through to do what I do, the risks I know I take and the ways I mitigate those risks for myself and those around me. It’s part of working at a gym, sure, but it’s also part of protecting the culture and the sport for myself and everyone else who wants to climb tomorrow.
I like it when stories like this break because it means I get to look at videos of Yosemite all day for “research.” One of the things I found was the trailer for “Valley Uprising,” the movie that links all of Clif’s dropped athletes into one fantastic-looking movie. In this trailer, one of the grizzled old mountain men said something that struck a chord with me. “We were gonna climb forever,” he said, “and that was the extent of it.”
I’m sure I am as influenced by marketing as the next person, but I’ve never felt inclined to free solo just because I see Alex Honnold being badass three thousand feet above the ground. I am inspired to push my own limits, but I also know what those limits are. All of these athletes do – it’s what makes them excel at their chosen sport.
Clif’s decision may have ripples in the climbing and extreme sport community, but people are still going to climb. Honnold and Potter and Davis and O’Neill and Wright are going to continue doing what they’ve been doing, because it is what they do. It is who they are, the same as our heady topouts or runout projects are part of who we are. No amount of sponsorship will ever change that, and no amount of sponsorship will ever push us harder than we are going to push ourselves.