Falling Short: What’s Wrong With the Climbing Media (Is You)

I just finished reading the 2016 edition of Ascent, published by Rock & Ice. To say that I am disappointed would be to imply that my expectations were higher than they had any cause to be.

Much of the photography was stunning, artistic, masterful, but commercial and deeply and subtly misogynistic. Much of the writing was catchy and readable, hook-filled and compelling, but simple, not unlike a top 40 pop song – something you can dance to, sing along with, but not the sort of music that changes your life. The stories were all archetypes: a Mediterranean paradise of closely spaced bolts and beautiful women; a couple unlikely friends dodging fate on an old classic; a grizzled veteran reflecting on a climbing partner long since diseased; a woman lamenting the death of her father and brother; two men texting their wives from high on a remote wall; a couple white guys penetrating the exotic east; a biopic of a long dead mountaineering ubermench; a couple badass women catching up with the boys; a white woman saving brown kids part time.

None of this is fair criticism. Jeff Long and David Roberts are powerful writers. Barbara Zangerl, Nina Caprez, Cheyne Lempe, and David Allfrey are all world-class climbers. I’m sure Libby Sauter is a great human being. The problem is not the 2016 issue of Ascent per se (except that infomercial about Kalymnos, because wtf?), but rather the general unwillingness of climbing media to challenge what we know is wrong, to present anything that isn’t curated for commercial consumption, to be genuinely innovative and thoughtful at all.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard female climbers speak out against the prevailing sexism that presents women as selling points for male climbers, and yet there it is, the cute girl in the sports bra, on page after page, and I think this is actually the second time that Rock & Ice has published a photo of a woman at a beach in a swimsuit in an article about climbing in the Mediterranean.
There’s an entire piece about the development of a major climbing area in China without a single mention of a Chinese climber.

Outside of ads, there are no photos of discernably non-white people.
There’s quip after quip about how so-and-so died and how it was really sad, how great of a climber he was, how much it sucked for his family, yet very little real analysis of what this all means, or why we phrase it this way, or how any of it is affected by the increasing marketability of climbing.

Whether I enjoyed it or not, I’ve read it all before; show me something new.

-Jacob Smith

I woke up to this post on facebook this morning, and it made me very happy. Now, it’s worth noting – I don’t have to wholeheartedly agree with something I read in order to love it. More often than not, I’m just really happy someone stepped out on a limb and spoke their mind honestly, instead of hiding in the shadows as most of us tend to do.

The first article I ever wrote for a climbing magazine (back in 2007, I think), was a critique of the climbing media. I had gone to Thailand, only to find it overcrowded, facing sewage problems, spewing climbers, etc. It didn’t match up with the idyll I had seen in the mags.

My critique was that the way climbing, and climbing photography, is presented is incongruent with the reality of the sport. The presentation is always some super serene moment in some pristine exotic location. The reality: climbers vacation in climbing areas, do nothing to help the local people sustain or maintain their crags, use the crags until they are abused and ugly, and then roll out to the next zone.

The editor I worked with for that piece, Matt Samet, suggested I turn the lens the other way. How was I complicit? How did I play into it? After all–I was the one who left Tonsai disgusted and sought refuge in China. What did I do to stick around and help? His advice was solid–don’t complain, contribute.

The problem with both Matt and Jacob’s critique, is that they are both true, but only half-true. The whole truth encompasses both points of view.

Is the climbing media today something of a tired old dog? Sure.

Climbing Magazine is almost unrecognizable as a climbing publication now; but their editor in chief for the past however many years wasn’t even a climber. At least they are trying, now that their new ed (who is a climber) has stepped up, to change their image. I mean, they just hired James Lucas–that’s pretty core, and he’s definitely not a listicle.

Rock and Ice is unabashedly pursuing sponsored content, and is probably more trigger happy on the beach-babe-booty shot than any other mag out there; but that’s their niche. They’re blocked in on either side by Climbing (for noobs and gymrats), and Alpinist (for highend climbinglitsnobs and lifers). At least those mags have defined themselves. R+I has no choice but to be defined by the dollar, and as everyone knows, sex sells.

As for Alpinist, taking the proverbial high road has its proverbial drawbacks. Namely, no money, and overworked employees. When I was interning there, I applied for a job as an associate editor. I wasn’t considered– but at the time that I left, I was glad I had not been. Vermont is a tough place to live as a rock climber, as an ice climber, as a sport climber, as a boulderer – just as any type of climber. On top of that, they are super super overworked. What you read in Alpinist Magazine, every article, is curated by one woman. What you read online, every social media blast and article, is curated by one man. What you see for photos in print, each and every one, is chosen edited and arranged by one other man. That was pretty eye opening for me, and I hope it is for you, too. 80 hour weeks are not unheard of there, 60 hours are the norm.

My biggest critique of Jacob’s argument is that we don’t get to see, or have any idea, what the mags get to choose from. And this is where I take Matt’s side on the subject. If you want to see better climbing content (and I’m not just talking to Jacob here, but to everyone, including myself), then make it! Give them the option. And when you get shut down at your first choice of pub, try the second, then the third, then go to Gripped, then try Climb in the UK, maybe consider Australia, and if no magazines will give you the time of day, give it to me for Fringe’s Folly, and if you hate Fringe’s Folly because of how lame the content is, then put it on your own blog. But just. freaking. do it.

Create. Share. Repeat.

The climbing media is grotesque and vulgar, as we all know, because it is tied up in money. Nothing matters unless it sells, nothing sells unless people click, and nobody clicks unless there’s boobies or a catchy #hashtag or Honnold, Caldwell, Sharma, a handful of other pros, and any professional female climber (as long as she’s a pretty sport climber or boulderer, or a prepubescent kid from NY).

But look at where the buck stops on the preceding line of logic. It stops at you, the consumer.

Should the mags step up their game, go out on a limb, write something edgy that might piss of their sponsors *cough, I mean advertisers, cough*?
Unabashedly, yes.

Should we keep telling them we’re bored of banal and sexist content, as Jacob has?
Definitely.

But should we also stand by them, support them, and keep pitching what we perceive to be meaningful content to them, on the off-chance they do want to step outside the box?
Indubitably.

And when they shut us down, should we share the content anyway, and do it for free because doing it for money is what got the whole industry into this problem in the first place?
Absofuckinglutely.

We’re all complicit. The onus is on all of us. I hate to quote a cheesy cliche, but be the change you want to see in the world. In this case, I certainly think that’s good advice.


Thanks, Jacob, for the thought-provoking FB post.

Jacob has written excellent articles for Fringe’s Folly in the past, including 
Mindfulness: Talking About Risk in Climbing and Valley Downfall: How Valley Uprising Distorts Climbing HistoryI was grateful for his contributions then, and still am now, and I’m hoping he contributes something again soon.

If you happen to be associated with a Climbing publication, and you’re reading this, I’ll tell you the same thing I told you about Georgie Abel. Give these young upstarts a venue to share their voices. Call it something catchy, like #dirtbagscorner, or whatever. Go easy on the editing pen, make it clear you don’t necessarily stand behind it, but put it out there. It’s loud, it’s clear, it’s honest, it’s core, and it has soul. In short, it’s what the climbing media lacks today, and it is what your readers are dying to read.

 

 

2 comments

  • Being the “white guy penetrating the East”….Actually I really am the guy. It is worthy to note in the theme of the article that we tried to sell them the actual story of how the Chinese climbing community has changed and about the Chinese’s rising interest in Trad climbing as a result of there being a place to do it in their own country. Rock and Ice was not interested in such story. They are interested in one thing. Money and the best/easiest way to get it. Eye popping pictures and hard grades, plus big name climbers that bring them money. Its a business and its all about money.

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    • Mike, thank you for your honesty. I don’t know if you are as invested in trying to make it in the climbing industry as I was for a long time, but in my opinion, it takes a hell of a lot of courage to call that out the way you just did.

      You ever have a story you want to write that the rest of them don’t –especially something like the one you describe– feel free to send it here. I can’t pay you for it, but I also won’t cut its balls off. I guess those two things go hand in hand.

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