Clif Bar Drops Honnold and Others for Free Soloing

While Clif Bar has not made an official statement yet, it has become clear that they have dropped 5 of their 20 sponsored climbers recently for free soloing.  The list is kind of a boggling one: Alex Honnold, Dean Potter, Timmy Oneill, and Steph Davis.  Apparently, according to Clif Bar, they are “terminating support to anybody who freesolo climbs, BASE jumps or slacklines.”

The move is a rather unprecedented one in the climbing industry, and is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows.  Alex Honnold, for one, is the biggest name in the sport – possibly the biggest there has ever been. For a company started by a climber, the move is definitely something of a head scratcher.  In a news release Rock and Ice posted yesterday (Friday, Nov 7), Clif Bar stated that “after evaluating a variety of sponsorships at all levels of climbing, we’ve made the decision to get back to Clif’s roots and focus on the more traditional aspects of the sport, like trad, bouldering, alpinism and sport climbing to name a few. Our climbing athlete sponsorships will reflect this traditional focus.”  Rock and Ice was quick to point out (accurately) that Climbing’s roots are not in bouldering, or trad climbing, but in soloing itself – a well-known fact that I pointed out some years ago in my Alpinist article, In Defense of Soloing.

The short Rock and Ice piece went on to question Clif Bar’s devotion to the sport of climbing, and to essentially paint the picture that they are selling out, after riding the wave of climbing to such great financial success (like, $508-million dollars of sales in 2013 kind of success – if you can swallow that).  Dean Potter questioned whether the top bar company in the world was somewhat deviously using their corporate power to homogenize our proud sport.

After a bit of circumspection, I have a few points that I’d like to chew over not just with Clif Bar, but with Rock and Ice as well.  First of all, while it’s true that bouldering, sport, trad climbing etc are not climbing’s roots – it’s also true that neither are climbing shoes, ropes, cams, pitons, bolts, cameras, video cameras, helicopter filming, trips on airplanes to other countries, repeating sections of solos for a film crew … the list goes on.  Climbing today is a far cry from the sports “roots”.  So I’m not sure we can say that someone like Goal Zero, who keeps on a climber like Alex Honnold has more street cred than a company like Clif Bar who fires him.  The commercialization of climbing itself is anathema to the core of the sport, and all of us who participate in that – from climbing magazines (and contributors like myself), to the dark wizard himself, Dean Potter, are complicit.

Second of all, there’s something to be said for having misgivings about promoting free solo climbing.  Free soloing is kind of like driving without a seatbelt on.  You probably in a million years aren’t going to crash – but your risk of dying if you do is a lot higher.  Free soloing is certifiably badass, and it’s a damn easy sell from a media perspective (just think about big television companies who don’t actually care about climbing at all… it’s much easier to sell #Honnolding than #Bouldering).  In a bizarre reversal, climbing’s purest form has arguably become its most sold out one as well.

Still, I doubt that  Clif Bar is dropping its top soloists to try and stay truer to some sort of anti-commercialist roots.  My guess is that what’s closer to the truth is that Clif Bar is having some misgivings about feeling complicit in encouraging good people to pursue risky activities. I’m not sure that using soloists such as Alex Honnold to sell your product is something that would sit easily with me, if I owned Clif Bar – either.  While it’s a question we don’t like to ask (because we don’t like to ask hard questions), if you’re Gary Erickson, the owner of Clif Bar, you have to ask yourself how you would feel if your top athlete were to die in the course of doing something you had promoted and financially encouraged him to do.  If you ask that question of yourself, I think it’s easy to imagine feeling some consternation over it.

Which is actually where the whole industry should probably be about soloing.  Without trying to sound silly, I am reminded of a quote from Jurassic Park: “they were so focused on trying to find out if they could, that they didn’t stop to think about whether or not they should”.  While we’re not talking about breeding Velociraptors here, I think it may not be a bad time to start asking the same question about promoting free soloing.  If Clif Bar needs to cut 5 of its top athletes to bring the question up, then I have to say, “Kudos to Clif Bar” is where Fringe’s Folly stands.

-FF

4 comments

  • Yes. You make so many excellent points here.

    What sits ill with me is the timing — dropping them as Valley Uprising, a film sponsored by Clif, made really public what exactly these athletes do. (And maybe I’m associating that because I was walking out of the screening when I first saw this news on Twitter.) It’s not like Clif didn’t know beforehand. Honnold was on the cover of National Geographic, Steph Davis’s Instagram is all base jumping all the time (in suits made by one of her other sponsors, Prana), Dean Potter has been party to a huge debate about jumping with his dog. Clif didn’t just find out in the past year that these athletes were participating in dangerous activities.

    I’d feel a lot better about it if Clif released an honest statement about reassessing sponsoring athletes who participate in high risk activities and leave it at that. That’s a totally respectable position (as is saying you want the sport to be less commercial, but then you have to actually want the sport to be less commercial) and I’d stand by Clif for it. Now it just seems like they want to say one thing, do another, and continue to participate in the mainstreaming of the sport without actively participating in the mainstreaming of the sport.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment, Renee. I think you bring up some really important points – and I share your concerns about Clif’s lack of an official explanation. What are we to draw from that, really? Until Clif does make a public announcement – we won’t know for sure – (and probably not then, either).
      That said, if Clif Bar has had a recent change of heart, that wouldn’t necessarily be dissonant with their previous support. Apparently, Clif Bar makes all their athletes apply for sponsorship yearly, and usually puts their team together in the fall. Hence, Clif Bar could still have their name all over things this year that they won’t be supporting next year. In all likelihood, the original report that I saw (from Rock and Ice) got the beta slightly wrong. I doubt that these athletes got “fired”, much more likely they simply were not asked to return to the team the following year.
      But who knows…

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  • Clearly about money…they must be planning an IPO, and their lawyers are calling the shots…get your side of the street squeaky clean. Most climbers can’t afford Clif Bars at a buck-fifty or so for, what, a lousy 200 or 300 calories? But yuppies sure can. If you are mountain climbing, you burn maybe 4000-5000 calories a day, which would be around 20 Clif bars’ worth…30 bucks a day??? Get out of here. Not many climbers, even rich ones, are gonna be bothered with these things.

    So, it’s perfectly clear who they are selling to, what their plans are, and the reason for this SLAP IN THE FACE to climbers everywhere. Go to hell, Clif Bar…once your little trend passes, those same lawyers will be billing you yet again for the bankruptcy procedings.

    Play with fire, you’re gonna get burned.

    Soloing is the purest form, and the original form, or climbing. Monkeys don’t use bolts, nylon, aluminum, rubber…or Clif Bars either.

    Like

  • Too late now, but they should have watched what happened to GoLite recently when they decided to go corporate.

    At this point, I’m sure Coke and others with more experience and marketing and facilities will are paying attention to this little trend, and at the right time will move in and blow these guys out of the deep water they are venturing into.

    Street cred is important, and once that’s gone…and this will kill that.

    Mark my words…Clif Bar won’t be around in 5 years.

    Like

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