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How much money can you make as a professional climber? What does it take to make a living just by climbing alone? Obviously that’s the dream and maybe a little bit ambitious—but I’m trying to figure out how hard it is to make that happen.
What does it take to make a living climbing? That depends on your definition of a living.
There’s a lot of misconception about how lucrative climbing can be. We all know it’s not going to nab you a full-ride college scholarship. And I think most people are pretty clear-eyed about not making it a career strategy. But many climbers still imagine that the upper echelons of the sport involve bathtubs filled with money. After all, the pros are constantly globe-trotting, speaking on panels at big events, and attending photoshoots dripping with the latest gear. And many more imagine that there’s a comfortable middle-class level of pro just below the Ondra-and-Honnold level.
Amid the barrage of social media glamor, we tend to tune out the more telling evidence. Maybe we notice that a sponsored climber lives in a van, or we see them roll up to the crag with a $3 breakfast burrito. We smile and assume they’re just living the climbing lifestyle, which is, after all, homogenous enough to hide a lot of wealth gaps. We’re sure they live in that ProMaster because they want to, not because they have to. But the truth is probably a little closer to the latter.
The majority of sponsored climbers don’t get a paycheck from their sponsors. Instead, they’re paid in gear—or discounts on gear—with occasional stipends to travel or compete. That’s because climbing, explosive growth and all, is still a small industry. Most companies interested in sponsoring climbers are climbing companies, which have limited resources. Some bigger brands like The North Face and Patagonia have bigger budgets and are rumored to pay closer to a living wage, but that’s only for their top-tier athletes. At the next level up are huge global brands with broad urban as well as outdoor appeal—think Red Bull or adidas. Those folks have bigger budgets still, and do sponsor climbers. However, word on the street (brands don’t officially disclose their athletes’ salaries) is that the going rate for a climber is still far less than for someone like a football player or racecar driver. Climbing comps and outdoor ascents just don’t generate the ticket sales or TV views.
“Okay, but what about Alex Honnold?” you ask. Yes, Alex Honnold commands around $50,000 per speaking gig, and in 2018 he estimated his net worth to be around $2 million. But think about it. Alex Honnold is the most well-known rock climber in the world—and he had to literally put his life on the line to gain his fame and following. Alex Honnold is the exception, not the rule. And despite that, his income is still, by all accounts, far less than the million-dollar contracts nameless rookies are signing to play baseball or basketball.
As for that comfortable middle class? There really isn’t one. Most of the other pros achieve a living through some kind of side job. Anna Pfaff is a nurse. Chris Sharma is a gym owner. Madeline Sorkin is an AMGA guide. Alex Puccio coaches.
“There’s not a lot of money in our sport,” Puccio once told Climbing. That’s one of the reasons she was excited about the prospect of climbing in the Olympics: More viewers means more sponsorship dollars, and more sponsorship means more pros can focus on climbing full-time—and pushing the boundaries of the sport.
There are other ways to make money as a climber. One is via photography and videography a la Jimmy Chin or Cedar Wright. Writing about your notable accomplishments (or those of your friends) can also provide a solid source of climbing-related income if you know what you’re doing. Then there’s the social media route.
Influencers with big followings can make several hundred dollars per post, especially when the client is a mainstream brand with deep pockets (think beverage, banking, or tech). But you’ll have to grow and tend to your social media following, craft posts, and manage the multiple sponsor relationships you’ll need to make that a viable source of income. All that is a full-time job in of itself.
The reality is that, even if you are one of the top-tier athletes pushing the frontiers of the sport, you’re still paid more for being an influencer than for being a climber. People like Adam Ondra and Alex Honnold make good money, but a lot of it is, as we mentioned, from dawn-to-dusk speaking gig and event bookings. From Instagram posts. From slideshows and gear conventions and photoshoots. Being a professional climber isn’t just about climbing hard. It’s about having the skills to market brands, sell products, develop a social media strategy, interface with the media, and provide constructive feedback about new gear. It’s work—a little different from the carefree sponsored climbing life many of us dream of.
So, my advice to you would be to keep climbing. But do it because you love it, not because you expect it to pay your bills. Work for money, and climb for play. You might find you’re happier that way.