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.