Living the Dream – Five Climbers Who’ve Made a Career in the Industry
Interviews with five climbers living and working their dream jobs.
Pete Ward is one of the managing partners at NE2C, a company with an innovative approach to bringing together climbing, community, companies, art and music.
He’ll tell you that most of his job is spreadsheets and Power Point, but in reality, his work involves pimping cool companies like Mammut and Eastern
Mountain Sports to support kick-ass parties and events for the climbing community.
NE2C, comprised of Ward, Jason Danforth and Lu Yan, is responsible for the successful Mammut Bouldering Champshionships — a three-part yearlong series
with big purses attracting the country’s strongest bouldering talent — and the EMS Nor’Easter, a three-day music/climbing/conservation festival that
kicked off last September at Rumney, New Hampshire. NE2C recently launched its own clothing line of art-inspired, gen-next apparel, Dawn & Relentless,
a name that reflects long nights and tireless work drive.
Like any small business, you never really stop, says Ward. Ten-hour days are average. During the week of an event, I work about 130 hours in seven days.
Yes, that means three hours of sleep per night. Try it sometime. Better than drugs.
Ward says the best part of his job is the freedom, and that it changes day to day, involving everything from scoping new event locations for the 2009 Nor’Easter
to scouting new music talent (i.e., seeing concerts for free), to finalizing logistics for a Dawn & Relentless fashion shoot, to reevaluating how
to set problems for competitions.
With all that going on, however, Ward has little time to actually go climbing. He only got out 10 or 11 times in 2008. And as far as making money, Ward
says his work is not lucrative because NE2C is reinvesting whatever income we can possibly bear to part with back into the company. Rather than getting
paid, we’re starting Dawn & Relentless, hiring talented people who add to the company smart things like that.
Job: Gear Tester
Who: Kolin Powick
Climbing gear hates Powick. Nothing pleases him more than busting a perfectly good cam, cracking an ice-tool shaft or watching a rope explode into cotton.
It’s a perverse satisfaction and Powick, the quality assurance manager for Black Diamond, is one of the few people tasked with testing and evaluating
climbing gear full time. In the past 12 months Powick was responsible for over 45,000 tests, including 12,000 to 14,000 just on carabiners. It’s daunting,
but Powick, 40, has a child’s curiosity for breaking things to determine how they do or don’t work. Seeing stuff get destroyed is pretty fun, he says.
Everyone likes watching a building be imploded, and everyone that comes through the lab enjoys seeing a carabiner or cam tested to failure.
Powick’s position may sound just about perfect, but it’s no show-up-late-and-leave-early gig. You could say that Powick, a mechanical engineer and self-described
gear geek, lives his job. He says he hunkers down in his office 60 hours a week, crunching data, meeting with other engineers to discuss and develop
testing regimens, overseeing the day-to-day testing and brainstorming about gear. Off hours and weekends he tests prototypes (some sketchy) out in
the field and maintains his website QC With KP where he posts up his off-the-record results from his tests. Topics range from whether Sharpie markers
weaken climbing ropes, to when to retire ropes, to whether old tat is reliable. I don’t sleep much, says Powick, but I can always do that later.
His most difficult task, he says, was working on the new C3 Camalot. Over 300 prototype units were built, tested and destroyed during 24 months. In the
field, 50 testers ran the cams through their paces and provided feedback. The amount of testing, says Powick, would blow your mind. But, he adds, It’s
awesome to be a part of products that my friends and I use every time we go climbing. Seeing people psyched on gear, and seeing gear that I had a hand
in developing do incredible things, is pretty cool.
Powick’s greatest revelation was when on a whim he tested his used rope just to see if it was still bomber. It was a bit beat, he says, and he’d been taking
huge whippers on it all weekend. The rope broke at just 6kN, a load easily achieved in a fall, at a worn spot about six feet from the end. That was
an eye opener, says Powick.
His advice to climbers seeking employment within the climbing industry: Be prepared for the real world, be prepared to work hard because there is another
guy or girl vying for that same spot, but you can’t forget you also have to find your own balance between work and play. Getting out after it, not
necessarily being good at it, but being passionate about it can be just as important.
Job: Company Founder
Who: Beaver Theodosakis
Theodosakis was a pro race-car driver the day that he rented a pair of La Sportiva Megas, and went climbing with two friends. Within 15 minutes of touching
rock, the Beav was transformed.
In racing cars, Theodosakis says, there were so many factors: 30 people on our team, fuel balance, tires wearing out, changing track conditions. On the
boulders, it was just me. In climbing, the variables disappeared: It’s all up to you and where your head’s at.
Three years later, in 1990, Beaver and his wife, Pam, a former pro skier, started the clothing manufacturing company prAna out of their garage in Carlsbad,
California. In the first year they sold $300,000 in merchandise, to five shops in climbing destinations.
The company was at first more of an art project than a business, Theodosakis says, and born with an underlying environmental ethos. The founders built
clothing racks from scrap steel, collected old newspapers to make their own paper for tags, and mailed products in leftover produce boxes from the
Today prAna sells to 1,500 stores worldwide, employs 90 people and sponsors nearly 50 climbers. Demian Kloer, the founders’ first employee and partner,
is the company’s general manager. Beaver, 50, and Pam live in Encinitas with their 11- and 15-year-old daughters.
How much do you work?
Nine to 10 hours a day including a break, and a half-day on weekends. I try to get out and climb, mountain bike, run or play basketball. It helps me sleep.
I have a lot of energy. It’s kind of a curse.
What’s rewarding about the job?
I get to do something I love, with people I love. I wake up in the morning and try to think about how to make prAna better and enhance the lives of our
employees, athletes and associates. My job now does not require so much financial reporting as it used to.
So, what do you do?
I come in to a battery of e-mails in a lot of different departments. I couldn’t manage them all but am privy to what’s going on, and there are certain
parts where I dive in deeper. Any complaints come across my desk. You know, I’ve got a culinary degree. I grew up in a restaurant kitchen. The customer
is always first. Customer service is king. You don’t design a menu to please the cook.
I also manage the athletes.
What are you looking for in people that you hire?
High-energy, self-motivated people that connect with our company culture and ethos. Very few people work at prAna just for a paycheck.
How about the athletes you sponsor?
Yes, they must climb hard but it’s most important that they are a positive influence in their climbing communities by setting a good example, and being
friendly to others and the environment.
Job: Sponsored Climber
Who: Emily Harrington
When pressed to name five things that make her job as a sponsored climber difficult, Harrington can barely name one.
On her list of things she loves about her job?
I don’t have to face the real world — yet. I no longer set my alarm. Mondays don’t suck. Every day is a weekend.
It’s pretty safe to say that this top female sport and comp climber from Boulder is living every climber’s dream. She climbs as much (or as little) as
she wants, and takes rad trips around the world. In the last year, Harrington has climbed over 215 days, and in the last two years, has taken climbing
trips to Spain, Italy, Switzerland, China, Mexico and all over the United States.
While most climbers who dub themselves sponsored receive little more than free shoes or ropes, a few well-deserving athletes actually get paid to travel,
climb and represent the company. Harrington not only has a sweet demeanor, and is well-read and articulate (she graduated from the University of Colorado
with a degree in International Politics), she has a most impressive tick list. The 22-year-old, who has been climbing since she was 12, has redpointed
two 5.14b’s, four 5.14a’s (including one on her second try), and about a dozen 5.13d’s. She also won a major international competition in 2006 at Serre
I attend events, give slideshows, clinics, and, of course, climb, says Harrington. I feel like my sponsors really don’t ask all that much of me. It’s a
pretty good deal.Harrington’s career as a sponsored athlete has blossomed from when she was 12, and got four pairs of free shoes a year from La Sportiva®a
hook-up based on connection and location. She recently signed on with The North Face, and La Sportiva and Petzl have increased her photo incentives,
travel allowances and salary.
I am really lucky, and I don’t think there are a whole lot of negative aspects to being sponsored, says Harrington. I have expressed discontent in the
past because I am a person who cannot have only one focus in life. I feel like I don’t use my brain enough. I like school and homework. Climbing is
my passion, but I need balance and variation in order to feel healthy and motivated.
Job: Film Producer
Who: Josh Lowell
In 1997, Brett and Josh Lowell founded Big Up Productions. Since then they’ve produced 10 feature-length climbing films, including the iconic Dosage series
and the appealing King Lines, a character-driven film about Chris Sharma that rises above the usual climbing-centric format. Big Up has won a Sports
Emmy for Outstanding Camera Work and more than a dozen awards at international film festivals.
Describe your job.
I produce and direct climbing films. Here are some of the steps:
Pre-production: Planning, budgeting, organizing, negotiating. All about phone calls and e-mails.
Shooting: Scoping, rigging, hiking, hanging, filming, reviewing, interviewing. Whatever it takes to capture the essence of the climb/climber/area, and
do it justice.
Editing: Music selection, storytelling, pacing, effects, titles, color correction, etc. Long days in front of computers.
Follow-through: Graphic design, web design, advertising, accounting, bill-paying, shipping, invoicing. The details.
What’s the best thing about your job?
Creativity. Variety. Flexible schedule. No boss. No commute. Staying connected with my love of climbing. Of course, witnessing climbing history and
feeling like you are a part of it is always exciting.
Your films have featured some of the hardest sends. Do you feel partly responsible for Sharma’s, or other climbers’, successes?
I don’t feel responsible, but I do feel involved. The climbers make the routes happen, but we work closely together to create a way to share the experience
with as many people as possible.
Too much computer time is not healthy for the body. Traveling to the best climbing areas in the world and watching other people climb all day. As a business
owner, I never really clock out since I’m ultimately responsible for everything.
Where has your job taken you recently?
I’ve been traveling less in the last two years since my daughter was born, but between myself, Brett and Cooper, who also shoot with me, we’ve worked
in China, South Africa, Spain, England, Slovenia, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and all over the United States in the last year or so.
I get to travel to a lot of great climbing areas, but I usually only get a day or two of actual climbing in. Shooting comes first, and the pros don’t take
many rest days. Usually if they’re climbing it means I’m not. So I do most of my climbing near my home. A lot of half-day bouldering sessions between
editing and watching my daughter.
What are you working on right now?
We are filming and roughcutting for next year’s movie, Progression, about the climbers who are working to advance the sport in all its disciplines. I’m
also doing a lot of freelance shooting and editing in between climbing films. Just got back from a week-long fashion shoot with a Russian model in
the desert near L.A. Pays much better than climbing work!