Monday, 23 November 2015

What's happening to climbing in the new age of Social Media

What happened to climbing? We have in a few short years gone from selective leading edge media coverage to this Social Media age of instant posts, likes, instagrams …where the individual is the “selector”.

Note: this is not a bitter old grumpy post, more a what the frick happened and is happening, to get a good dialogue. Disagree, agree, but please try to keep either decent and no FU replies.

Bit of background, (mostly from a Bow Valley perspective):
I grew into climbing during the mid 1980's. Born and raised in Calgary, AB, Canada, we really had limited routes to climb, and being young and keen I ventured to the infamous Smith Rocks with one of my original climbing partners. It was Smith or the "Valley" and seeing as I was more into sport climbing, the Valley was a no go, plus Smith was closer and one could live there quite cheaply.

Smith created the current stream and backbone of today's  North American (NA) sport climbers and the sports ethics, styles and traditions. Smith hosted the hardest routes in North America and brought in all the world's best climbers in a very small area. The top climbers of the time did get media coverage, the magazines poured over Tribout, Edlinger, Le Menestrel Brothers, Moffat, Moon, Gullich, Huber, Skinner, Franklin, Speed and Karn. However a host of other climbers were sending as hard or close, and often building the routes ... Alan Watts (who is largely forgotten or likely no one has an idea who he was/is) built a large percentage of the Smith routes, and climbed 5.14 back then ... yes Jibe did FA most of Alan's routes, a bit of a standoffish in how it was done, yet that was pretty much how the community was, if you built it and not send it, one of the other's will be on their way to send, and most often not in a friendly way. 

Back then when routes were sent and in the media, it was because a new hard leading edge route was sent an FA or repeat ... To Bolt, Leave it to Beaver, La Rose and Chouca, Liquid Amber, Hubble, Action Direct, Om, Houlihan, White Wedding, Super Tweak, and world cup winner and top 5.14 repeater. 

Does it (did it) really matter if you hit the media? Well many who sent a lot of the hard routes and those who built and sent, remained somewhat anonymous to the outside world of other climbers, the core certainly knew who you were, Goddard, Griffith, Piana, Sandahl, Azin, Beck, the AF crew, the Rifle crew, Holt, Sandford, Reid, Guyn, LeBlanc, Milton, the Wilson's and Pinter, Bergman’s Oats … I am certain to miss some ...  Most of these climbers built and sent leading edge climbs of their era. Some pushed the grade boundary to the upper elite 5.14+, others in the 5.14-. So how does this matter? Well back then any sponsorship meant you had more time training, building and climbing translation less time working for money, to allow the time to climb.

Back then as today, there are paid pro climbers like Sharma, Ondra ... the world cup crew, and others who are able to get the gear and often help on trips. All of these climbers have made it because of what existed to them to gain experience and push their limits, and for the few push beyond. To me, this is the key as I see the sport, pushing the grade and adding new areas/routes. An example is in the freeride MTB, where "rampage" has pushed the limits and now backflips/front, corks ... 50ft plus drops, 50ft plus gaps are becoming the norm for the top riders. This then provides more to the recreational or up and coming club level rider to realize what is possible and maybe push those limits later on.

Back in the 80's and 90's 14c was pretty much the limit (yes it seems that Hubble and Action Direct are upped to the 14d), Hubble, Action Direct, Om, Just Do it. Today we have 5.15a (15b Ondra in Mollans), with a host of climbers at the top end of the 90's range, probably as many as there were 5.12 and up climbers in the 1980s. Today however we have online media, just what I am writing on, where we can share our opinions, views and sends instantly, regardless if it is old-era media worthy. Climbing gyms provide the ground to get better quicker, to learn movement and gain power and ability. Some of our pro athletes have made their living off promotion via the media, laying the groundwork for the next generation to follow suit.

Note: Many female climbers back in this era added to the elite level, Destiville, Hill, Ebersfield, up to and sending 14a. The women did not have first female ascents, just ascents, and often they had second ascents of the upper elite level routes. I was fortunate to climb with Lynn Hill back in the late 80's and used her beta for a few hard Smith routes ... yes she sent most of the hard routes before most elite men.
Other euros who were building, like Lafaille at Ceuse;  Onsighting 13c and redpointing 14b, Raboutou; Nicole brothers, Bain de Sang, 9a, and all Fred’s boulder problems v14, hey it’s Fred; Manolo, Atkinson, Dawes, Dunn, Pritchard ... Nadin for world cup wins and 13c OS.

Today, we have many climbers who post sends of 13+, 14 - in an era where 14+ is the bottom end of the elite. If you climb 14c today you are in that bottom elite world class level. Yet time and time again we read media reports of particular climbers who have sent cool and respected climbs, that are really only media worthy of promoting that particular climber (as some have put it, self-promotion). Our current climbing media community is now seemingly built on how much you can post and tweet. There are many good climbers today, many that are at the top level of "our" era, that it may seem worthy to us, yet back in our era it would be like a 5.13a climber getting the media and the coveted dollars (minimal) that went with photos and sponsorship. Today we have 5.13 climbers who are sponsored, in an industry where dollars are very limited and tight ... that's just silly for a sport. Yes it helps the companies spread their brand, and add more climbers to the funnel, but does it help the sport?
My thoughts are no, as it does not push the limits, unless it adds new routes and areas for those new climbers to enter and climb on.
An example on this, let’s say you just sent a personal best 13c, well fricking awesome for you, for real, however is it worthy to send to "Gripped" to report on a send of a route that was likely sent years before or decades? Just like when I do a few link ups, are they worth reporting on ... NO! But they are certainly fun and challenging for me.

Do I think it's awesome when a person sends a personal best, heck ya! regardless of the grade, to me this is a big Woo Hoo ... But talking about the big picture of the sport, Ondra sending a new 15b, around St. Leger, Southern France, and a 22m rig to boot. So it’ll remain hard no matter your endurance … How often does Hubble get sent? Action Direct? Compared to some of the enduro 9a’s?

We are not like Tennis, where, as a game, it would show instantly that the 5.13 vs 5.15 would just not stand. We are more like Surfing, a lifestyle with competitions and leading edge athletes. Maybe this is a core issue? Our WC’s just don’t carry the same weight as an ATP open Grand Slam event. We are way more into the 9a send trains of Sharma or Ondra, and that kid Megos … he’s not just sending, but crushing the sends – the next generation.

As a longtime climber who pushed the limits of my era, I respect all climbers, I really enjoy other climbers sending projects, however one starts to lose a lot with this new realm of media-gratification as if they are the "shit" when they are just good recreational climbers, but plaster Social media with their sends.

For example if you are a Canadian competitive climber in the open category and you are not placing in the top of these national events, then you are likely not the "shit", just another good (a tennis goes) Club player. Our top competition climber, Sean McColl, is not just winning WC’s, he’s sent 14d, trains in Europe, where there are a lot of 14c/d climbers, so if you want to be better and/or win in WC’s, then you train with them and add your edge to try to be better.

The sponsorship game should be from the top end climber, then downwards to those that climb well for their area, build areas, get more people into climbing …
For most companies and sports, this is the way they have sponsorship set up. However, Social Media is seemingly eroding this and the more likes or friends you have then the higher your sponsorship level will be, as selling products is the companies goal. (note on this; most of these climbers are still good mid-level climbers, 5.13, it takes a lot of effort and dedication, but still far off that top end mark that keeps the sport moving forward).
Club level is darn good, many folks don’t have the time or ability to go “pro” but can ascend to a high level and push themselves while working on a life in the normal world. As the pro world is very different than the one most people live.

In our small area of the Bow Valley we have a few top level climbers, Pinter still has the 5.14d top end, Hau, Muller and McGurk who just sent 5.14c. The old (young) guy Milton still has the Canadian top elite climber emeritus status. Trotter is still in that elite level, but he's aging like we all do, and he's sort of a Bow Valley resident now. Most of these are pushing the boundaries and providing the benchmark for the next generation to hike Bunda Ju Fara … it’s the 75ft drop effect. Personally when I hit a 4ft drop I am the shit, in my own mind … likely just scared the shit out of myself. These climbers are the benchmark or those about the reset the bench for our area, and maybe at the top end level.

As a person and climber I respect those who build routes and or send new elite level routes vs. those who repeat routes that have been around for 2 decades or more and media the crap out of them just to get more exposure. This behaviour is not adding to the sport, but it is certainly adding to the likes or whatever that twitter has? It’s mostly about the “look at me this is what I have done; look at me, myself and I”.

As Greg Florek pointed out on a FB comment very well, there are different levels of sponsorship ... totally, the upper end does get some money, some are paid very well, others add by using speaking engagements, slides shows, talk’s, and these are more often the most well- known. My response is backed in our history; If you are a sponsored climber you best be better than the club level climbers or your area …

History Example of media and climber levels:

Skinner was likely the finest at this, a top end climber who also recognized he had a following and a way to use that and his experiences to allow him to work differently and climb as much as possible. Skinner was a friend of mine, one I respected and many climbers did. But there were many climbers who disliked his media prowess. He made a very good living off this. He was also a top level elite climber and a builder or new routes. He was a very good guy, and energy that was fully infectious. Skinner had the media savvy and the rock climbing ability to back it up!

Piana was Skinner’s long time climbing partner, and a climber who was in that elite level realm, but less known to the “public”. He was one of the original elite level climbers and builders who was sponsored which allowed him a little less work time and more time to build routes … another climber who without, you would have less Wild Iris and Sinks Canyon, oh yeah and that Salathe Wall thing.
Both of these forms were the norm of our generation, however the Skinner media push took off to a crazy level with Facebook … one of our locals Gadd has this game so dialed that at one point he had to ask people to stop friending him. Sort of a reap what you sew … Gadd however is a very good all round adventure athlete, but the top mixed climber, where he mostly gains his other climber respect. Yes he is a good ice climber, but there are many good top end ice climbers.  He also wrote a piece on Social Media, see below.

For a climbing company it's all money to them, either in gear or gear and actual dollars and most of those in that position are old school dirt bag climbers who are very frugal/cheap ...

Today our climbing community seems to have put a weighting on the media/promotion versus pushing the sport. To me pushing the sport is the only way to go, or it will fall off. What the heck happened to pushing the limits of the sport in your era? Being the best, or one of the best at rock climbing? From an elite level, be it on the low end, I find it sad that today, climbers are getting sponsorship based on how much they put out in the media vs, climbers who instead are out there pushing the limits of their era. Many of the existing elite level climbers have to push themselves on this media insatiable aspect of more and more ...

The generation that followed mine we have Levente Pinter, who set the bar at the 5.14d level with Bunda je Fora, Acephale. He really put it on the line for the sport and kept the envelope expanding. He was not a poster, nor a tweeter, (we really did not have that back in the late 90’s and the early 2000’s, so maybe that’s the real issue) but he was a top level climber (14d) who also added a lot of new routes for the generations to climb on. He had to “fight” to get gear, climbed on crappy draws or ropes just to send … While during this time some 5.12 climbers who could mixed climb were able to gain more sponsorship. Really a sad focus on the climbing industry, as they focused on this craze leaving many rock climbers behind. Hey, as a mixed area builder and leading-end level mixed sport routes, I feel I can state this, it’s fun, but it just does not have the same breadth as rock climbing, less climbers, it’s cold, and only a few places in the world have sport mixed climbing/drytooling.

I do think that the current media is crumbling away the foundations that our previous climbing generations had built.  I hope that the core climbers of today keep pushing the limits, as the sport has become large enough that the recreational side and posts/tweets, are overtaking the professional side.

What happened to respect the elders, push the era and pass it on, all keeping it as merits versus mouth/keyboard?

I just read a Gripped article on Yamnuska, where the poster laid out their new bolted routes from 5.10 to a 5.12a grade, one does it matter to the scene? Or is this just a way to get a bit of attenion? The attention the person likely gets is just less respect, more spew, and more grid bolting on the Yam, so a win for some and a WTF for others. Again it’s awesome that new routes are getting done, but does the person really need to spew this forward?

A good read on mentorship, scroll down to that section:

Another evening sends article on Kinder, who states: training paid off, and I have new goals, but keeping them out of the social media, as too much pressure to complete. He is 35 years old, so at the elite level, it’s tough to stay there … well unless you are Dani Andrada ... Kinder was a leader in the Social media push as well … seems to be a change back to just climbing.

Sort of ironic on Gadd, as he has utilized the media about as good, as anyone out there, but he is the shit on the mixed climbing, and at being a top level athlete.

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