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For decades climbers have worked, and often struggled, to earn a living following their passion in the mountains and on the rocks. Some write, some take photos, some make films, others are sponsored. Most scrape by at the mercy of influences beyond their control, but outdoor photographer Levi Harrell believes that NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, offer a new and viable alternative to generate income, and he paid for a recent trip in Alaska entirely by selling photos from it as NFTs.
“Say you’re a cutting-edge alpinist and you have a mountain you want to climb, but you can’t acquire funding, or you just don’t want to work with brands,” says Harrell. “NFTs allow you to community source the expedition. You can tell your backers, ‘If you mint with us, you’ll get a trip report, signed photograph from the to’ People will get this tangible good for supporting your expedition.
“[NFTs are] going to give influencers a chance to step out from contracts with apparel and gear companies, too. They can reach out to their followers to pay their way, instead of having to scrounge money from brands and compete with athletes and other influencers.”
NFTs are digital representations of assets such as photos, articles, videos, and music that are purchased with cryptocurrency from online marketplaces like OpenSea. While NFTs rest on the same underlying technology—a type of coding known as the blockchain—they’re very differently than crypto coins like Bitcoin and Ethereum. NFTs gain value based on demand, but they’re not used as a currency, and many NFTs come with additional utilities or perks—such as bonus content or free entry to special events
“Not only do I get income from the original sale, but anytime that NFT is resold, no matter when it’s sold or how much it’s sold for, I make a percentage,” says Harrell.
Despite what you’ve probably seen on social media, NFTs aren’t just cartoon pictures of monkeys smoking blunts, and have the potential to restructure the outdoor industry and community on a large scale.
Unlike a bitcoin, which is fungible (i.e. replaceable or interchangeable, just as one quarter is the same as another) an NFT is one-of-a-kind. Each NFT has a unique ID code that distinguishes it from every other NFT in existence. A non-fungible token has a unique value, and its digital code proves ownership. For example, you could buy a $20 print of the Mona Lisa, just like you could make a screenshot of an NFT, but there will only be one real Mona Lisa and only one particular NFT.
In short, tokenizing a piece of digital media—a photo from your climbing trip, for example—as an NFT makes buying, selling, and trading it more efficient, and also protects against copyright infringement, gives the original artist ongoing revenue because NFTs can be set up to pay the creator a share of the price each time it is sold or traded.
While the most well-known NFTs are digital cartoons, anything digital can be minted as an NFT, from a photograph to a movie to an audio file to an article like this one. A photo of a recent column in The New York Times, for example, sold as an NFT for $560,000.
What do NFTs have to do with climbing?
While it remains to be seen exactly how NFTs will impact climbing, it’s easy to hypothesize myriad ways they could change the landscape of digital content creation, both in the outdoor world and beyond.
A group of national park fans is already selling membership NFTs that give you access to an exclusive “club,” where members can participate in a variety of outdoor events, discounts, and rewards systems. Each National Park NFT incorporates unique traits that provide unique discounts.
“[For example] we may partner with a company that offers discounted hiking boots, but to be eligible, you must hold an NFT that has a hiking trail in the artwork,” National Parks NFT founder Mick Gow told GearJunkie.
But the most interesting aspect of NFTs is their intersection with the outdoor content creation world. NFTs give freelance photographers, videographers, writers, and other self-employed creators the ability to mark ownership and securely sell their content, effectively protecting against copyright infringement. It goes further than that, though.
Investing in Adventure
At first glance, using NFTs to crowdsource an expedition like Harrell’s might seem no different from using Kickstarter or GoFundMe, then giving backers signed photographs in return, but Harrell notes that it’s not really the same. When you purchase an NFT from a given individual, you’re investing in their career, in their future exploits. Buying an NFT is not unlike buying a signed climbing shoe or another collectible, except an NFT only exists digitally.
“Say you’re an early supporter of someone, and they do something really cool, that NFT now has gained value and you can resell it,” he says.
Remember, each backer isn’t just getting an identical signed photo or audio file, either. Every NFT is unique and authenticatable. Each investor gets a one-of-a-kind, non-fungible piece of the pie.
If you had purchased an NFT supporting Honnold’s early career solo of Moonlight Buttress, for example, that NFT might be worth many times more than what you paid after Free Solo came out and Honnold made it big. You could sell it at a profit.
Which is precisely what Harrell is doing. “Not only do I get income from the original sale, but anytime that NFT is resold, no matter when it’s sold or how much it’s sold for, I make a percentage,” says Harrell. “I don’t have to track this royalty down, either. It’s automatic, because of the NFT’s metadata.”
Some detractors point to the environmental downsides of NFTs. It’s true that NFTs are tied to a cryptocurrency, and some of these coins, such as Ethereum, require a hefty chunk of electricity with resulting carbon emissions to produce. But not all cryptos are so energy-hungry.
According to a new energy-use report, a single transaction on the Solana network (Solana is another NFT-compatible crypto) uses the same amount of energy as two Google searches. That’s 24x less energy than it takes to charge your smartphone—and a lot less energy than I had to spend Googling NFTs to write this article.
Regardless, non-fungible tokens remain an exciting new opportunity for the climbing and outdoor industry, specifically when it comes to digital content creators like outdoor photographers, videographers, and writers. If the predictions of early adopters like Harrell come true, NFTs could irrevocably change the industry as we know it.