It’s no secret that outdoor publications, print and digital, have taken a hit lately. A short while ago, Surfer, Bike, Snowboarder, and Powder announced they were shutting their doors. Our very own Rock and Ice is merging with Climbing. A lot of the recent cutbacks have been due to COVID-19, but there was a problem before that and it was heralded, in part, by social media.
Want to hear what Alex Honnold has to say? You don’t need to buy a magazine anymore, you can just follow him on Instagram and watch his live streams. Want to know about Daniel Woods’ latest send? He’ll post about it on his social channels and upload the uncut footage to YouTube.
In some ways, social media has been a blessing. It’s given climbing’s superstars transparency they never had before. Pros don’t hide behind the filter of third party media entities anymore, they publish their own content. Paul Robinson and Miho Nonaka and Sasha DiGiulian can all post and say whatever they want, and their followers can lap it up instantaneously. It makes sense. Why wouldn’t you want to get your media raw and unfiltered, from the source?
Perhaps because there’s something to be said for not handing the microphone to anyone.
American “explorer” Colin O’Brady calls K2 “The Impossible Summit” on his website, a digital cringefest spouting accomplishments including O’Brady’s status as “the first person to send a Snapchat from the summit of Everest.” I bet Messner wishes he could’ve nabbed that “first.”
The self-described “record breaker” and self-promotion fiend is currently part of a 50+ member circus of climbers of all stripes, ethics, and experience levels attempting to become the first to climb K2 (8,611m) in winter, widely considered one of the last great mountaineering challenges. There are, of course, many skilled climbers on the mountain, Italian Tamara Lunger and Romanian Alex Gavan among them, both attempting the climb without supplementary oxygen, not to mention all-star Nirmal Purja, who holds the speed record for all 8,000ers (a breathtaking 189-day blitz).
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Still, only one individual on K2 currently, Pakistani Muhammad Ali Sadpara, has summited an 8,000-meter peak in winter (Lunger came extremely close: she and Sadpara were part of the 2016 first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat [8,126m], along with Alex Txikon and Simone Moro. Lunger turned back a scant 100 meters from the top after extreme fatigue and vomiting).
Then, of course, there are people like O’Brady…
“This expedition is for anyone who has ever been told their dreams are impossible,” his website proudly states (read: anyone who has a spare $35,000 or a few sponsors). “Colin is teaming up with friend and long time climbing partner, Dr. Jon Kedrowski,” it continues. “Both Americans have spent countless nights in the outdoors together and on high altitude expeditions.”
If you were to read through O’Brady’s Instagram posts and website, you’d get the impression that he and Kedrowski were the only people on the entire mountain. In actuality, the pair are clients of a 50+ strong commercial expedition with guiding outfit Seven Summits Treks led by Chhang Dawa Sherpa, complete with a massive rope-fixing, trail-breaking Sherpa team and over 20 clients (including some skilled climbers like Lunger and Gavan). A recent tweet from his wife, Jenna Besaw, stating that O’Brady “is not being guided,” thus appears to fly in the face of logic. It is unclear how a paying client, supported by a rope-fixing, trail-breaking Sherpa team, is not “guided.”
To put it bluntly, O’Brady’s marketing is like calling the frozen pad thai I just ate “homemade.”
In the modern era, the path to fame is as much blind luck and marketing savvy as anything else. People can get famous for yodeling in Walmart, calling their mother a “bish” on live television, or drinking cranberry juice on a skateboard. If you’re smart enough, you could probably have someone film you taking a shit on the sidewalk outside Popeyes and turn the stunt into a career as an influencer.
Social media and the Internet have benefited billions around the world for the same reason. You can post videos of police brutality in Hong Kong, and people in Europe will hear and take notice. You can type #womensupportingwomen and connect with thousands of women around the world. Social media has given the social and environmental justice movements, in particular, a powerful weapon to wield against authority (unquestionably a good thing). As mentioned above, you can also get your news directly from the source, whether that source is relatively pure, like Honnold, or blatantly self-promotional and aggrandizing, like O’Brady.
There are some drawbacks, though. Thirty years ago, any yahoo like O’Brady couldn’t drum up enough hype to get sponsors without a reputable news publication in the outdoor industry repping his work to the masses. In 2021, if you can get 250,000 people to follow you on Instagram (even if it’s for taking a shit on the sidewalk outside Popeyes) it’s hard for a sponsor to ignore you, regardless of the ethics of your ventures.
Publications in our industry provide a much-needed check to the lawless land of social media promotion. Example: O’Brady’s Instagram lists him as the first person to cross Antarctica solo and unsupported. Meanwhile, if you Google “Colin O’Brady” the second result you’ll find is a well-researched National Geographic piece explaining why his “unsupported, unassisted, solo crossing of Antarctica” wasn’t a true crossing of the continent, and wasn’t really unassisted, either. After O’Brady subsequently cried foul, nearly 50 noteworthy polar explorers, including Borge Ousland, Mike Horn, Eric Larsen, and others, all signed a letter supporting Nat Geo’s exposé.
Even though it comes directly from the source, the click-and-post, rapid-fire spew of social media content is missing a few ingredients. Namely, the forethought and careful editorial that goes into a news publication’s content. It’s almost always worth hearing what someone else (a third-party professional who has dedicated at least some portion of their life to reporting in our industry) has to say about someone, as opposed to hearing what they have to say about themselves. Social media really only promotes the latter.
In short, digital and print publications offer a beneficial outside opinion, a much-needed counterbalance to the Instagram caption your favorite explorer/climber/outdoor lifestylist typed out with their thumbs in 27 seconds.
Anyway, go follow me on Instagram. Then I can make a living whichever way the wind blows.
The Choss Pile is published every other Thursday.
Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Alabama. He is a columnist for Rock and Ice, Gym Climber, and The Outdoor Journal. He also writes for Atlas Devices and BAÏST. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.