One of the cool things about mountain sports is not just the climbing or whatever, but the people who are also into them. This was driven home to me recently by two emails I received. The first was from Raphael Slawinski, who spent the summer climbing in Pakistan with a few other friends of mine. Raph, AKA Dr. Slawinski (he actually is a PhD.) wrote a really nice trip report up on the whole experience andposted it here.
Then there's my bud JD. He's been at the climbing game for a long time, from the anorexic rice cakes era to the present, and always cared about it. We've had some epic conversations about climbing, climbers and life. He recently sent me the following. It's full of the heat that climbing generates, posted with his permission:
JD LeBlanc's Rant:
Climbing – Market, Athletes & Media
by JD LeBlanc
Sport climbing came of age in North America thanks mostly to Alan Watts and his creation of Smith Rocks in the mid-1980’s. This led to an influx of climbers realizing that sport climbing could be “it” for them. Companies were keen to sponsor climbers who excelled at the sport – with the intent that it would help them with revenue and market share. The biggest problem besides the egos and dubious feats, was the fact that the industry was still very small.
The size of the industry may have been in the six figures in the 80’s – now maybe in the sevens – and the focus was on mountains, not sport crags. We had huge competition for athletes to become sponsored, but no real market to sell to. The athletic drive became so high and the return, so low, that many simply bailed out of the sport. Instead of building on the sport, we were actually losing climbers. Losing climbers really means losing participants – decreasing the industry. Early to mid-90s - indoor gyms take off in North America. This really allows access to the general public and provides a way for them to try climbing and ultimately bring in participants. Now the athlete can forge a way to become a professional climber (PC) – simply because the market became broader and general revenue larger, an increase in the number of the general climber (GC) – maybe like the NHL in the 50’s – you get paid, but just enough to be able to climb and train. Buying a home, new vehicles, lavish living expenses … off of a sponsored climber salary – unlikely, but living the life – traveling and climbing could be attained.
The Athlete truly comes of age after 10+ years of climbers’ efforts. However, unlike other sports, to see the athlete in action on their turf, is pretty hard for the general climber (GC) – videos, dvds and the gym provide glimpses of the athlete/Pro Climber (PC). But does this really matter and help in the growth of the sport? To see an athlete in their turf is to see what can be done and why they apply so much effort to do such. Motion pictures, of some form, provide visual, but no feel. Gyms provide live action, but it is hard to see the real aspects of the athlete and climbing. Moving over stone, ice … is not the same as plastic/wood. The real nature of the medium and conditions provide the ultimate performance and showcase what can be done. The passion is seen and this provides the general climber (GC) with a picture of what they may be able to do. The fact if a pro-climber (PC) sends 5.14, is not lost, but truly irrelevant to the GC. The fact they send a project provides the base for the GC to start to realize, they can achieve. Once this happens, then they are hooked and will try to bring their own into the sport. The PC has then done the part and what their sponsors want – to increase the participation – hence revenue.
What makes a good PC and why bother? What makes a good PC is one who does the above – captivates the GC into realizing there own potential. The PC does not have to be the one sending 5.15, M14, WI7, V15, 5.14 RX or hard Alpine – they do need to be able to climb within the top of their discipline, but mostly need to captivate. This does not mean they need to spray about what they sent, how quickly, or leave out the facts of numerous years, but only the recent tries. They do need to be known – local word of mouth, media reports, blogs, websites, slide-shows, events, coaching …
I have been fortunate to be in the industry since the mid-80s and have also been on both sides, athlete and industry. Here’s the dilemma, some athletes who may not be the best climbers, but maybe the BEST PCs have issues with other top climbers (TC). The industry needs the best PC they can get – they just don’t need the best TC. Here’s why; I know a PC who is not the best TC, but damn it, he is the best for his sponsors and brings the captivation to the GC – he gets a lot of grief from the TCs. Yep, some of the TCs are still stuck in the early days and can’t get over the concept of the business. He drives many GCs to slideshows and events and is very active in climbing. Whether or not I like him all the time, is irrelevant – he provides to the sport what we need, captivation of the GC. The sport itself needs routes and goals to drive the TCs and PCs – but the industry needs the GC captivation foremost. Let’s face it Ford sells more Focuses than their $200,000 Ford GT.
So here’s the sport PC debate in North America – Chris Sharma or Dave Graham? Sharma has set standards, and created a captivation on the GC and TC like no other North American sport climber. Graham has sent almost every hard route in Europe and North America – he is truly the TC in North America, but I believe lacks the media savvy to captivate – this does not mean he can’t, just that he needs help on it. Sharma seems to have a way and it comes across as such. Hence Sharma is the PC to follow – Graham is a PC, but more on the TC end. The North American media is the best method for captivation, but in the recent years, has focused more on the TC side.
The North American climbing media has gone through the same changes that the TCs and PCs have done. Currently I believe they are not where they should be. They focus more on the TC side of things and forget about the PC side – how to captivate? V15, 8b+ onsights, 5.15 redpoints, M14 sends, Everest sieged again, or deep water soloing.
Does deep water soloing captivate? Sure it does if you are a TC and can get to Mallorca. I believe that it exemplifies all that the PC has worked to get OVER, as it is more captivating for the TC than the GC. This does not mean it’s not a feat of climbing. GCs like ropes, gear and the conception that they may be able to emulate the PC on their own route at their crag or gym. To me it answers the: “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” The media has answered this – if a climber climbs a really hard route on a rock in the middle of an ocean, alone with no rope – does it matter? To the GC NO – Yes for the TCs. It really provides no captivation other than a personal climbing feat of wickedly high-end proportions. Here we are again at a dilemma of TC or PC.
Climbing is not at the same level as other sports, where competitions can hold Pro-Athlete (PA) status over and above all other Top-non-comp-Athletes (TA) - meaning that the PA captivates based on competitive results. Climbing is just not there yet – we are still building a GC base and need to captivate all we can, whenever possible. Most of the PAs have TV coverage of some form, even mountain biking has its’ own show. The climbing feats need to be realized, but we firstly need to CAPTIVATE. We need to provide accessibility of the PC to the GC. Build areas where GCs can climb alongside PCs and TCs. We need to build our base first, then we can build our top-end later.
WG Note: I recently watched Peter Mortimer's new film, First Ascent. I think it does a good job of what JD is generally talking about.