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The Choss Pile: The Big Bad Brands

In an industry where the lifeblood is branded content and sponsorships, how do pro climbers maintain their authenticity and still make a living?

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There was a time when everyone I met wanted to get sponsored. Become a professional climber? Get paid to go to Rocklands and Yosemite and Font?

It’s the dream. Right?

We wrote a couple weeks ago about The North Face x Gucci Collaboration, and the photoshoot Jimmy Chin did with Jared Leto. Whether or not you take issue with Chin’s decision to promote Gucci, the situation demonstrates how easy it is to take a whipper down the slippery slab of branded content and sponsorships, oftentimes inadvertently tarnishing your credibility in the process.

It raises the question of how individuals  can stay authentic while pursuing a career as professionals in our sport. Unlike the NBA or NFL, no one is paying climbers salaries to climb. That may change, but for now, in this pre-Olympic era, branding and sponsorships are still really the only path to a professional career. Though the World Cup Circuit exists, there isn’t a pro-climbing league that has enough prize money to actually constitute a salary, like the PGA tour for example, and there certainly isn’t anything of the sort for outdoor climbing.

Go to the social media profile of anyone in our community with more than 20,000 followers, whether they’re a pro climber or an industry figure, and I guarantee if you scroll down far enough you’ll find a sponsored post. Everyone and their mother is hawking some CBD brand or another now, half the people I went to college with won’t stop posting about Guayakí Yerba Mate (Grab 10% Off with my Code: SELLOUT), and even the undeniably altruistic Alex Honnold, lately catapulted so far into the fame stratosphere that he can be incredibly choosy about his affiliations, has his name tied to a number of brands and promotes products fairly regularly. It’s unavoidable.

As a freelance writer, I’m far from exempt. Editorial writing, like this column, has barely made me enough in the last year to pay for a month’s worth of rent. About 95% of my income comes from writing for brands, penning sponsored articles and ad copy and blogs.

It’s not a question just for individuals, but for our magazines, too. You and I both know that most of y’all aren’t paying print mag subscriptions. You can’t cry foul when you’re reading these words for free. (On that note, the new Pocket Outdoor Media Active Pass—of which Rock and Ice and Climbing will be a part—is a step in the right direction,as we transition to subscription-based digital content in the future, where the reader foots the bill, not the brands—think the New York Times’ paywall, but for adventure sports, with more titles and more perks.)

So how do the athletes, the magazines, the industry figures, make a living and stay authentic and unbiased?

Giving the middle finger to brands and climbing/writing/living only for yourself is the path that naysayers in the comments section will espouse, and if you hold a steady job 9-to-5 in another industry, or want to live on ramen in a van, sure, you can rock and roll down that road. But for those of us trying to make a career in this industry, sticking to that dirtbag ethos and putting food on the table for ourselves and our families is a pipe dream.

Besides, not all brands are bad news. I use gear from brands I write for every day, and plenty of it is bombproof. Apparel I’ve had in my backpack for years. Protection I trust with my life. Many of the big-name brands in our industry are big-name because they make kickass stuff. Many of the smaller name brands busting onto the scene are able to do so either because they offer sustainably and ethically-produced alternatives and/or make kickass products themselves.

If you use Petzl or Black Diamond or Trango or Metolius quickdraws every day and you’re cool with the brands and what they stand for, what’s wrong with repping ‘em?

The answer is painfully obvious, but it’s the only one I can come up with. The authentic sponsored/ad-supported athlete/writer/mag is the one that reps the brands they believe in and reps them honestly, with or without the paycheck. All we can do is evaluate our partnerships and sponsorships and make tough calls. Say yes to the shit we believe in and no to the shit we don’t.

Though I’m hopeful that publications will go towards a digital subscription-based model like the POM Active Pass and wean off brand money in the future, right now it’s impossible for Rock and Ice, or me, or your favorite climber, to make a living and continue to do what we do without brands footing the bill. We’re treading on tricky territory, climbing some real choss piles, so to speak. There’s no right or wrong answer across the board. Those $1,000,000 Gucci collabs are tempting…

Still, no matter what happens, as consumers, as a community, as a collective, we hold the trump card.

Brands are like old-school vampires. You have to invite them in. If we act in unison, we have the power to shut the door on sponsored nonsense that doesn’t hold up to the standard. If you and me and everyone at the crag refuses to buy and support the crappy brands, they’re out of luck. As a community, we can always give the middle finger to the brands that aren’t sustainable, that aren’t ethical, that make shitty, overpriced, or downright moronic gear and apparel that has no place in our community, like Gucci.

The problem is that an awful lot of the heft comes from the top, and gone are the days when publications like Rock and Ice hold the prime slot in the pantheon. This article will never get as many views as an Insta post from Ondra or Honnold or Megos. Pubs aren’t king anymore. Individuals are.

Just look at the following. Rock and Ice’s Instagram sits at 250,000. Sasha DiGuilian’s: 469,000. Adam Ondra’s: 657,000. Alex Honnold’s: 2.1 million. Jimmy Chin: 2.8 million.

When all is said and done, we’re looking to the people like Ondra and Chin and Honnold, the people with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers, who have enough name recognition and following inside and outside our sport, to be choosy about the brands they work with and to stick up for what they believe in. They’re the ones with real power. They need to recognize it, and act like it. We’re looking to them to lead, and not open the door for blood-sucking goons like Gucci and their ilk in the first place.

(If anyone from Gucci is reading this, please note that for a reasonable price, I will gladly remove this op-ed and upload a “Sponsored by Gucci” piece in lieu of it. Contact me via the Sponsored section of my website with your best offer).

Rock and Ice is committed to a diversity of ideas. The opinions published here do not necessarily reflect those of Rock and Ice.

Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Tennessee. He is a Contributing Digital Editor at Rock and Ice and Gym Climber. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.