I climbed a lot more when I was younger (a decade-plus-ago younger), generally keeping to gyms and easily accessible bouldering locales, but it wasn’t until about four or five years ago that I really began to respect it. Before, climbing was a crude expression. Now, it is still an expression, but there is an intentionality in the moves I make. With this evolved perspective, respect became a big part of climbing and other “extreme” sports I found and continue to find pleasure in. In fact, I realized that respect was a big part of climbing in general, at least for those who pursued it beyond an casual hobby. It is with respect that Clif Bar explained their reasoning for firing five of their top athletes. And it is in that same vein that Alex Honnold, whose spirit and outsized enthusiasm for the sport in many ways serve as the lifeblood for the constantly progressing free soloing community, spoke in his recent op-ed for the New York Times.
Back then, when I was younger, climbing was a way to satisfy this incessant urge I had to dangle from the edge, both metaphorically and literally. I didn’t even pay attention to the levels, or pay heed to spotters. I did it for reasons similar to why I snowboarded and whitewater rafted in Colorado or body surfed during tsunami swells in Japan: the sheer thrill of living completely and unequivocally in the moment. There was nothing more to it— it was a pure rush of untouched adrenaline.
As I grew up, however — perhaps coinciding with a newfound maturity that results from traveling and immersing myself in the great natural expanse of the planet — the thrill became less and less important. I believe that it was a coming to terms with the reality of a situation, resulting from a greater understanding of why I was exploring the world in the capacity I was. I was no longer fulfilled by simply doing it. Technique and the spirituality involved in searching for what exists beyond the familiar became more important to me. I thought longer and harder ahead of climbs. That is not to say I was not interested in the raw thrill. Obviously adrenaline was and is still a big part of climbing as it will always be. I simply go into situations knowing why I’m there; and whatever comes, comes. Effectively, I respected climbing by respecting myself and the walls I was scaling and the nature that surrounded me.
I don’t feel that this respect — respect for the journey as well as a more basic respect for yourself — and the subsequent understanding is commonplace among amateurs. One of my first posts for The Inertia was about the proliferation of GoPro videos in our feeds (news, social, or otherwise) and how the public and companies/sponsors were banking on what was once deemed crazy, bat-shit crazy:
With each additional view to the counter, the business models of the GoPros and Red Bulls of the world are affirmed — their pervasive reach and influence extended further into our collective conscience. It’s not that they necessarily profit from the falls, but rather from this outrageous extreme. An extreme that has long since turned its back on sanity. The way that we respond to crash landings and broken bones is arguably sadistic.
In that, I get Clif Bar, and where they are coming from. The brand is nearly synonymous with the outdoors and thereby influential in the space. If a widely appealing brand supports this sort of risk-taking, it sends a message. And given the influx of amateurism through accessibility by way of these GoPro videos, brands need to be aware that supporting this sort of risk-taking among professionals instills a desire to do it among amateurs. By pulling their support, Clif Bar is sending another message: don’t try this at home.
Yet this is largely who we are — risk-takers. I went on to write:
It’s also a part of the natural evolution of sports birthed from the fringes of the mainstream.
So with regard to Honnold and his four contemporaries who found themselves (rather abruptly) without support, where was Clif Bar coming from? Didn’t they know what they were getting into? Wasn’t that what they signed up for? And it is especially suspect that they fired these athletes immediately following the release of Valley Uprising. Honnold asks as much in his op-ed:
Was Clif Bar terminating its sponsorship because I was doing exactly what I thought it had signed me up for in the first place?
He then goes on to explain:
Within the climbing world, we are all known for taking risks in one form or another. Our careers as climbers have been shaped by free soloing. Dean Potter and Steph Davis have taken the game much further with BASE jumping and wingsuit flying — parachuting off cliffs — but at heart they are still rock climbers who are inspired by the mountains.
But, according to an official statement, Clif Bar knew what they were getting into when they originally signed the five athletes. They simply weren’t comfortable with how the sport had progressed:
We no longer feel good about benefitting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net.
And, as discussed above, this sport — more so than free soloing, BASE jumping, and wingsuit flying — is about respect. Not only respect for the walls you’re scaling, or the nature you’re surrounded by, but for yourself as well. And over the past five or so years, Clif Bar arrived at their limit.
Honnold, true to spirit, understood that:
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. But we will all continue climbing in the ways that we find most inspiring, with a rope, a parachute or nothing at all. Whether or not we’re sponsored, the mountains are calling, and we must go.
Ultimately, these circumstances and how he has handled himself in them is why Alex Honnold is an inspiration to anyone in the “extreme” or action sports community — and whether we like it or not, why we should be inspired by Clif Bar. They, like Honnold (and most of us), were looking to find their own boundaries. They, unlike Honnold (but like most of us), found them at free soloing, BASE jumping, and wingsuit flying. But that doesn’t make them any less of a member of the community, any less important. Without their support, we wouldn’t have had the extreme pleasure of watching Alex Honnold be Alex Honnold; or Timmy O’Neill, Steph Davis, Dean Potter, and Cedar Wright be Timmy O’Neill, Steph Davis, Dean Potter, and Cedar Wright. And, quite frankly, even without their support, Alex Honnold will continue being Alex Honnold; and Timmy O’Neill, Steph Davis, Dean Potter, and Cedar Wright will continue being Timmy O’Neill, Steph Davis, Dean Potter, and Cedar Wright.
Read Alex Honnold’s entire op-ed by heading on over to NYTimes.com.