What is the sound of living the dream? It’s hushed morning stillness. The peaceful silence of not waking up to an alarm clock. Rolling out from under the soft sheets when the mood strikes, tossing back scalding Joe, then hitting the crag and sending until your fingers knot up into your palms. Best, when you get home, there’s a nice fat paycheck in the mailbox and a note from your employer saying, “Thank you for climbing.
Please go again tomorrow.” The ideal climbing job.
Ah yes. So nice, so perfect. Just as every fantasy should be.
Truth is, if you are eager enough, love the sport enough and are willing to work, you can carve out a place for yourself in the climbing industry.
What will you be doing? Opportunities include working in a climbing shop or gym, guiding or instructing, repping gear, snapping climbing photos or shooting video, writing about adventures, working in marketing, working as a climbing ranger, or shoe resoler. Or, if you are lucky, charming and can send like a G-dog, working as a sponsored athlete.
Whatever the opportunity, they are all good. Thousands of folks work in the climbing industry and most don’t wear a suit or punch a clock.
We surveyed climbers working in the industry and got their feedback on such scintillating bits as wages, hours, duties, likes and dislikes. Nearly
300 climbers responded to this first-ever survey.
You’ll be pleased to know that on average, these climbers work 33 hours a week. You’ll be less psyched on the wages: nearly 75 percent earn under $30,000. Still, 99 percent said they like their jobs. Hey, you’re living the dream, what’s not to like?
Here, we present the results, plus highlight five professions and some of the leaders within them.
Job description: Taking great photos is only part of it. You’ll constantly pitch ideas to clients and spend endless hours on a computer
doing post-production and editing your photos. You also have to scout locations and organize the shoot, which can mean getting the climbers transported, clothed and fed.
Pay: Over $100,000 is rare but can be achieved. Seventy-one percent earn $30,000 or less and 43 percent earn under $10,000. Many photographers
hold down other jobs to pay the bills.
Hours: Expect to work more than full time — the one shooter earning over $100K logs 60-hour weeks, year round. Still, 69 percent said
they have time to climb.
Experience: The introduction of high-quality, inexpensive photography equipment has opened this door to just about anyone, but very few
actually have a good eye. Training isn’t necessary, but 88 percent have it and it will give you an advantage. You must be proficient behind a computer and keep updated on the latest gear, software and post-production techniques.
Upsides: Photography is a cool, creative outlet. You get to travel and generally set your own schedule. You are often in a great environment,
and your own boss. You feel good when people say they love your work. Seventy-three percent of respondents said they are living the dream.
Downsides: Photographers who allow their work to be posted on the internet for free are devaluing the skill. You have to get up before
sunrise and work past dark to get the great light. Weather can shut you down. Schlepping camera gear and managing the business side can be bummers. Surprisingly, 61 percent said that they would not recommend their job.
Job description: Doing all aspects of film production from pre-production to sales and distribution. Said one, I film little shits doing
anything they want.
Pay: $75,000 with 10 years of experience on the high end; entry level earns under $30,000.
Hours: If you are successful, this is one of the few occupations where you can work only part of the year and still earn a living wage.
But when you are on the job, expect up to 60-hour work weeks, and long hours of editing when you get back to the office. Still, two-thirds said they
have time to climb.
Experience: Two-thirds of the respondents said that special training was required and 83 percent have college degrees. Fifty percent said
that getting into the business was difficult. Two-thirds said they would recommend the profession.
Upsides: You work outdoors, travel and hang with the world’s top climbers. 100 percent like their jobs; 66 percent recommend becoming
a filmmaker and say they are living the dream.
Downsides: It can be cold outside, and drumming up industry support for your film project can be monumental to disheartening. Your film can be slagged on the internet.
Climbing Gear Rep
Job description: Travel to outdoor shops and sell products. This includes educating shop staff, prospecting new accounts, researching
the competition, projecting sales, analyzing sales data, coordinating local equipment demos and working trade shows.
Pay: Up to $100,000 with six to 10 years experience. Fifty-five percent earn $50,000 or more.
Hours: Be prepared to work, a lot. Every respondent works all year and 44 percent log 50 hours or more per week. Seventy-eight percent
said that their lifestyle allows plenty of time to climb.
Experience: Two-thirds of the respondents said that special training was required and 55 percent have college degrees. Forty-four percent
said that getting into the business was difficult.
Upsides: You get to visit cool shops and areas, meet great people and get gear for cheap or even free. One hundred percent said they would
recommend being a gear rep.
Downsides: Being on the road can be crushing, the hours are long, the economy can make sales difficult and lots of people want free schwag.
Job description: Instruct and guide on all terrain, in all environments, and to all walks of life from children to soldiers.
Pay: Varies wildly. Some full timers only earn $10,000 to $20,000, while others earn that in just a few months. The highest paid owns
his own business and rakes in over $100,000.
Hours: Full-time guides work year round and log 40-hour weeks, but many work seasonally. During peak season, expect to work up to 60 hours.
Nearly all guides and instructors said they had time to climb.
Experience: Training is usually required;most guides have AMGA certification.
Upsides: Said one, I get paid to do what I’d do for free! Turning people on to our great sport is rewarding.
Downsides: You or your clients can be killed or injured. Doing the same climb over and over can cook you on the sport. Bad weather and
whiney clients and children can suck. Unpredictable schedule.
Job description: Generate catalog, ad and marketing copy, and drum up ad ideas and marketing plans that will sell the consumer on your
companies’ products or services. Also can involve being a spokesperson at trade shows and gear demos, pitching ideas to magazine editors (egads), and
writing a lot of witty, convincing copy.
Pay: This is one of the most lucrative of all climbing professions. Forty-three percent earn $50,000 or more and 21 percent earn $75,000
Hours: PR/Marketing pros work more than anyone (or say so just in case the boss reads this). Every respondent works year round and 57
percent work 50 hours or more per week. Only 19 percent work fewer than 40 hours. Twenty-nine percent say they do not have time to climb.
Experience: Ninety-five percent have college degrees and 81 percent received special training.
Upsides: You get to deal with cool people, travel and check out the latest gear before it even hits the market. You are inside, out of
the bad weather.
Downsides: This is a desk job for the most part and travel can be a grind. Keeping your clients, climbers and the public happy is challenging.
Balancing professional and personal time is tough.
Job description: Organize and implement search and rescues, maintain climbing equipment, patrol, build trails and keep climbers in line.
Pay: Typically $10,000 to $30,000, and this for full-time. The work, however, is seasonal. Only one of seven climbing rangers surveyed
is employed all year.
Hours: 40 hours or more a week during the season, then nada.
Experience: Everyone surveyed has been on the job three years or more. Training is required.
Upsides: You get out and hike and climb, a lot, and mingle with climbers. Other rangers are cool. Government benefits can be great.
Downsides: You can be killed or injured. Rescues can be grim. Housing can consist of a small, unheated cabin. Pay is low. Tons of paperwork
and rules. Work is seasonal, so you need another occupation half the year.
Climbing Shoe Cobbler
Job description: Resole shoes, duh!
Pay: Depends on workload. Work half time and you can earn $20,000 to $30,000. Toil 60 hours a week all year and you can rake in over $100,000.
Hours: Full time, 20 to 60 hours a week depending on whether you are an owner or employee.
Experience: Tough profession to enter. All respondents have at least 10 years experience and expect to be doing it 10 years from now.
Being a cobbler is a high-skill occupation.
Upsides: People compliment you on your work.
Downsides: Working with people with frostbitten toes. They are so ugly! Smelly shoes. You breathe glue.
Job description: Writing shit that people want to read, and in a timely manner, replied one writer. Develop and pitch ideas that will
sell. Research and fact check subjects.
Pay: Hail the suffering artist! Eighty percent earn under $10,000 and have been at it for over 10 years. Almost all writers hold down
other jobs to pay the bills. Still, you can make it big—look at Jon Krakauer.
Hours: Half time, if you can even get work.
Experience: Writers are the best educated: 100 percent have college degrees, the only group in the survey with that claim. Strong background
in journalism and literature is helpful.
Upsides: You get published, which is an ego stroke. You can work when you want, and share your passion. Everything you do is about climbing
and you sometimes get paid to go on climbing trips.
Downsides: Pay is grim and assignments can be sporadic. Deadlines and being creative and articulate are stressful. Your work never feels
done, and you get slagged on the internet. People compare the free, low-quality, incomprehensible, grammatically incorrect and misspelled dreck posted
on the internet to your finely tuned masterpiece. Despite all this, 90 percent say they are living the dream, the highest of all groups.
Job description: Set routes, sweep, teach indoor technique, give safety checks, run the cash register, belay, supervise. If you are a
manager you’ll schedule other employees, run payroll, make bank deposits.
Pay: This is the real, entry-level position in the climbing industry. Expect to start part time, and earn $5,000 to $10,000 a year. Experienced,
full-time gym workers, however, can make $30,000 or more. Eleven percent earn $40,000 or more.
Hours: Part to full-time all year, but can have summers off.
Experience: None generally required; you’ll get this on the job.
Upsides: Being around other people who love climbing, and getting to climb yourself. If you want to climb, this is the job for you: Ninety
percent say they get time to climb, and 72 percent say their climbing is improving.
Downsides: Dealing with upset people, including angry parents, making people who think they know everything take belay tests and sign
waivers. Remembering everyone’s names and screwing and unscrewing holds on the wall.
Job description: Sell stuff, stock shelves, manage inventory, remain current on the latest equipment, set-up displays, clean, run the
Pay: $20,000 to $40,000 for a 40-hour week. Only seven percent earn $40,000 to $50,000 and almost none earn more than that.
Hours: This is a real job. Full-time, 40 hours a week.
Experience: Some training is usually required
Upsides: Dealing with cool gear and psyched people, and having a boss who looks like Santa.
Downsides: Listening to climbers spray about themselves, convincing customers to buy for function and quality over cosmetics, paperwork,
dealing with rich people, and being inside all of the time. Pay is low and you have to stand all day.
Job description: Go climbing dude! Also get your picture taken, sign posters, provide product feedback and be a good ambassador for your sponsor.
Amazingly, only 70 percent said they’d recommend their jobs and 25 percent said they are not living the dream.
Pay: An actual professional climber, as opposed to someone who gets free shoes, can earn up to $100,000, but 58 percent earn under $5,000. Only
20 percent make more than $20,000.
Hours: Depends on what you call work. The average sponsored climber says he works 33 hours a week.
Experience: World-class skills are usually required.
Upsides: I get paid to climb whatever I want, whenever I want and where ever I want.
Downsides: Haters in Boulder and other people who hate you. No job security.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 175 (March 2009).