Climbing’s foothold in the mainstream is a funny thing. Anytime the sport receives recognition outside of its usual media margins—whether it’s Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson appearing on Ellen, Alex Honnold being profiled by 60 Minutes, or Ashima Shiraishi partnering with Coca-Cola—there’s a swarm of bifurcated responses from the communal masses. Some praise the athletes’ success. Others see any big-name climber's acquiescence to outside interests as a betrayal of our sport’s hardscrabble roots. After all, the Stonemasters of the 1970s were largely jobless, homeless, and raided trash bins for sustenance in between sends. That’s our heritage, so isn’t any attachment to corporate money—especially money with no ties to the climbing industry—a shot in the gut to such roughhewn tradition and our dirtbag forefathers who sacrificed everything just to…climb?
The answer is: Yes and no. Or, more accurately: It gets confusing.
The latest example is an ad campaign that Chris Sharma unveiled on his Instagram account. The campaign is for a Polo cologne called Red Extreme. Sharma is among several athletes who do their “extreme” thing in various ads—climbing gorgeous rock near his home in Spain, in Sharma’s case. In the video, Sharma doesn’t make any direct reference to cologne (or to climbers' body scent—probably for the best). Instead, he offers voiceover that might as well be lifted straight from the 2008 biopic-esque, King Lines: “All of these climbs are not only things that were at the limit of what’s humanly possible, it’s a never-ending process of continually discovering what we’re capable of,” he says in classic Sharma mellowspeak.
Despite the innocuous nature of the video, or the fact that Sharma is no stranger to mainstream publicity (ahem, 2015’s Point Break), keyboard attacks on the ad rolled in. Responses included everything from, “This is sad” and “[Is] Gucci next?” to “I can’t tell if this is a joke,” and “This s*** must smell like a pile of money.” One critical user was more elaborative, saying, “If more and more money gets into the game, ethics and integrity may become less important. I know earning some money is not that easy in this sport, but maybe we have to think about if this is the right way to go.”
Most of this condemnation comes from a good place. Inherent in each gripe about Sharma “selling out”—although no one posting comments knows exactly how Sharma is being compensated for the campaign or what his motives for doing it might be—is a hidden compliment to our industry. The climbing tribe has long been insular in product as much as personnel, and with that has always come a degree of familiarity and comfort for all. Nobody wants outside brands sterilizing climbing and gutting its roots. The implications are common sense, that the climbing scene is lovingly one of dirt and chalkdust, not high-end colognes and luxury watches. More gorp than bling.
However, for detractors to suggest that Sharma’s stint as the subject of Polo’s videographers—or as a silvery wristwatch endorser in years past—is a wretched handshake with branding that has no link to the climbing sphere is to ignore other branding confusion already woven into the sport. The North Face’s parent company, VF Corporation, also owns very non-climbing properties like Nautica, and Climbing’s parent company, Active Interest Media, also prints magazines about everything from yachting to architecture. That’s not to mention big gyms around the world that are owned by non-climber venture capitalists with backgrounds in fields as disparate and distanced from our sport as restaurant development and high finance.
Corporate ownership and backchannels aren't revelations to anyone, but they illustrate the difficulty in drawing a line in the sand beyond which a famous climber like Sharma might somehow forsake the sport, regardless of money being exchanged.
The potential for eroded ethics and dented integrity are fairer concerns, but also misguided. In the case of rampant expansion and external monetary influx, the responsibility is on the entire climbing community—including those chiding Sharma and others—to preserve the sport’s ethics; newbies or corporate outsiders can't be expected to adhere to time-honored principals and integrity standards that they know nothing about. And Sharma or Shiraishi or whomever are just conduits to that theoretical mainstream when they sign on for product partnership. To put it another way: Any blame will ultimately fall on those climbers who are most concerned. They are the ones who will allow or not allow integrity to erode alongside growth.
Before any incensed reader points out that it’s not really about the money or the outsider corporations, but about the cologne aspect, for God’s sake (“This is ridiculous—climbers don’t wear cologne”), I'll point out that Sharma’s not the first climber to push an aromatic product. In September, roughly a month before Sharma started advertising Polo, Jain Kim partnered with SK-II, a “prestige beauty brand” known for facial creams and various sweet-smelling lotions, and received no criticism on her Instagram posts. So, why was it acceptable for Kim to promote her beauty product, yet objectionable for Sharma? Readers will have their own opinions, but I can’t pose the question without seeing the complications there too.
Where does that leave us? Are we to accept all partnerships between our biggest athletes and corporations? And even if the climbing tribe were to be all-accepting (however unlikely) of all advertisements, shouldn’t the athletes have some responsibility to say “no” to certain partnerships? Doesn't the sport’s ragged-around-the-edges mythos mean something greater than money?
Wait—which products are directly tied to climbing and which are not, anyway?
There are no clear answers anymore. These are the types of questions being asked by fans in other major sports, too. And having to repeatedly…and repeatedly…and repeatedly ask such questions about the athletes and their choices in our sport might just be the most mainstream thing of all.
John Burgman is the author of Why We Climb: A Dirtbags Quest for Vertical Reason.