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Are They Pros or Poseurs? How Social Media is Defining Our Sport’s Elite

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I recently read a quote from an old blog written by the deceased Hayden Kennedy, a world-renowned alpinist: “The ultimate alpine climb would be a spectacular line up a virgin face, no one nearby, with a good partner—and there wouldn’t ever be a word uttered about it. Stripping away all desires except the pure experience of the climb. Escaping all expectations and our own egos. These are the real achievements. We should all dream of this. Maybe one day it will become a reality.”

Today, as I sit hunched over my notebook at the kitchen table agonizing over how to structure this essay, I can see my fiancé, Meagan Martin, trying to do a handstand on top of a box of beverages that she endorses, and I couldn’t help but consider how far climbing culture has seemingly strayed from this righteous path.

“Hey, can you come take a look at this? Does this look cool?” she asks.

“Um. Yah. It looks…great,” I say reluctantly, barely opening my mouth.

“Ok. I think this will look better outside under the tree,” she says excited to represent a brand that she genuinely enjoys. “Will you come outside and take some photos please?”

I grab my cell phone and open the sliding door to our backyard. After 20 minutes of trying to find the right angle with the proper light, highlighting both the product and Meagan’s pose, my patience, which is subpar to begin with, runs out.

“This is so lame. Why are we doing this? Why do you do this?” I ask.

“It’s not lame and because I have to.”

“You don’t have to do it,” I respond sharper than intended, my blood pressure rising. “No one is forcing you to do it. You have chosen to earn some of your income by posting on social media.”

After biting my tongue for about three seconds, the words tumbled out. “Why don’t you focus on other things that you are actually passionate about. Why don’t you just get a real job?” I blurted out.

When the same situation happens out at the crag or boulder, I feel like we are just adding to the global click-bait media machine that exacerbates the symptoms of a culture already infected with the obsession of incessant self-promotion. Except since I’m the kind of introvert who feels more comfortable out in the woods stalking eternity with my dog—someone with no social media presence at all—my biased reaction to Meagan’s work seems hardly justifiable. Maybe somebody needs to poke a hole in my ballooning cynicism, but it’s just that the idea of posting for posterity in a place where people sometimes bully, brag, boast, lie, brainwash, and preach—whether it be out of narcissism or necessity—simply irks me.

“That is so rude for you to say. How dare you say that me? What if I asked you to get a job?” she returns as I sat there lazily slumped in my camping chair—a part-time setter and wannabe writer watching the garden grow in sweatpants and flip flops on a late Wednesday morning.

“You don’t get it, do you?” she asks.

Unfortunately, in that moment high up on my horse, I didn’t get it.

***

Has social media changed the way professional climbers think about themselves? What has social media done to climbing culture, if anything at all? Has it really eroded away at the sport? Do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Or is it all just a wash?

These questions serve as the basis for an article that was conceived from professional climber, New York Times best selling author, and big wall pioneer, Mark Synnott’s, The Impossible Climb, in which professor Jerry Isaak says that “even more insidious is the way social media has made it possible for people to feel pressure to perform, even when they’re alone.

“Engaging in risky behavior so that others will notice us is not a new concept that has only emerged with this generation, what is new, however, is the nearly constant ‘virtual presence’ of the others we are trying to impress. With the development of social media and related technology, ‘other people nearby’ has been simultaneously expanded to a potentially world-wide audience and shrunk to the size and portability of a smartphone.”

It may also be true that this nearly constant virtual presence has taken us away from the original spirit of climbing—the feeling of freedom you get from being immersed in the natural world, disconnected from the trappings and distractions of everyday life. John Long embodies the quintessential nature of this idea in The Stone Masters when he explains that “There was no complaining and no explaining. You just go out there and did it because nothing else mattered and no one cared about anything else. Most were out to have as much fun as humanly possible.”

Although it is certainly unfair to measure all climbing experience against the lore of Yosemite Valley history, it may be true that our initial purpose in climbing has evolved over the years. In a month of reporting through the lens of professional climbers, photographers, filmmakers, and writers, what I found out about the subject revealed a much more convoluted, multi-layered ecosystem that both serves and disserves each individual user.

But why should we care about this and its effect on the sport? Because if social media can be used to start fringe wars with maligned political insurgents while brainwashing entire nations—like sparking a small riot on the capital—it can surely make its way deep into the subconscious of the human psyche.

After combing through the ever-shifting sands of our ubiquitous online world, four main themes emerged: the pros and cons of new age marketing and advertising, the realities of global interconnectedness, uneven representation of achievement, and indifference based on generation and demographics.

A Generation Gap

After dropping her son Theo off at school, Beth Rodden drove up through Wawona Tunnel to get service so we could talk over the phone.

When we finally connected, I was starstruck, but luckily, I don’t think she heard it over the phone. I tried to play it cool—like I was chatting with an old friend over coffee—but I couldn’t believe I was talking to one of my all-time climbing heroes. She was upbeat, friendly, and happy to chat.

She told me that when she grew up climbing in Yosemite—living and breathing the sport through the 1990s—there was no social media.

“You didn’t have to craft a message or have an angle. If you could climb hard, you got sponsored.” Today, some of the biggest climbing stories might not have even been big climbing stories back then she says. “It was purely the magazine era and your accomplishments spoke for you and self-promotion got you a pretty bad rap. It was the complete opposite of what it is now. Companies and magazines kind of shied away from you if you self-promoted….”

Today, from indoor run-and-jump, double-dyno highlight video reels dubbed over with gangster rap to the latest one-pinky, one-arm hang board record, every breath of climbing achievement is continuously sprayed about over the internet. Although there are still plenty of ground-breaking talents that remain under-the-radar, like Connor Herson who freed the Nose at age 15, they are a little less noticeable due to their disaffection with the social media megaphone.

“I’m really uncomfortable talking about my climbing achievements. I think it came from over two decades of that being ingrained in me, because if you did then you’re going to get shit-talked at the cafeteria in Yosemite Lodge,” Beth explains, laughing as she reminisces about the good-ole-days. “You’re going to have a bad rap, and no one is going to want to go climbing with you and you’re not going to get the respect of the previous generation and that was so important back then.”

Each generation inherently produces its own bias. In those days, people even used to say that sticky rubber was ruining climbing, much like how some people might say that social media is eroding away at the spirit of climbing. But in another ten years, something else will come along that will be an affront to the previous generation, like the way guidebooks were in Yosemite Valley when they first started popping up.

“When I was growing up, people hated guidebooks here in the Valley,” says Beth. With the advent of detailed route descriptions, instead of suffering through a pitch, you could read before leaving the ground exactly where to go and when to place certain cams. “Some people thought that totally took away from the adventure—the figuring out in the moment aspect or when to save gear part. But for me, I thought the guidebook was great!”

Opinions on the use of social media in climbing, much like the time-based perceptions of guidebooks and sticky rubber, seem to come down to the individual and how they feel based on perceived ethics in the sport at the time.

Marketing and Advertising

Over a Zoom call, Jon Glassberg stood tall and attentive in his condominium in Boulder, CO, eager and excited to mull the story over.

For Jon, who first started climbing using a kitchen area rug for padding at a boulder called Mormons in Charlottesville, Virginia, social media had only just started to come online. Facebook was being tested in its initial phases at colleges like Appalachian State, where he attended.

“We still weren’t imagining what we could do with the internet as climbers when we were teenagers,” he says of the days that he would pile in with his broke college friends to drive to the New River Gorge every weekend. “We were just out to do our best on whatever we were climbing.”

But Jon soon realized that if he could get published in magazines, he could get sponsored and go on more trips. That’s when his interest in climbing media and his uncanny business savvy within the game of social media took off.

“I was like, ok, this is how it works. I saw that photos of me and accomplishments of mine in magazines were a big deal for sponsors. I could leverage that to do more trips. Because all I cared about was doing more trips,” he rattles off, not skipping a beat. “I didn’t care about making a living or going to school. It was: how can I scrap enough cash together from sponsorships to go to Switzerland or Yosemite or wherever.”

Much like anything in life, things change. The sport has grown exponentially over the last decade and with that growth, the landscape of professional climbing has also evolved.

“Back then, there weren’t that many people climbing and of the people that were climbing, if you could take a decent photo of yourself, or better, if you could take a decent video of yourself, it was insane. Being on the cutting edge then was a big deal. Now to be on the cutting edge is pretty hard. You have to be the best climber amongst a huge ocean of climbers, or your content has to be off the charts.”

Since there are millions of people climbing now, as opposed to just thousands 30 years ago, standing out in the crowd is not easy.

“I’m not cutting edge in any way whatsoever. But I can be highly visible and known about. If I’m a known entity, I become valuable. It’s not that you have to be the best, it’s just that you have to have consistency. Doing your own thing on your own terms doesn’t really work for sponsors.”

The crux is that people have learned how to manipulate the system.

Opposite and Opposed

On the other end of the spectrum is Isabelle Faus—a dark horse in the social media realm despite being one of the top boulderers in the world. She says that “social media has opened doors for people to show their talents without the barriers of agents, managers, or marketing directors, but that it also opens the door for people who know how to fake it. In climbing, there’s definitely people who don’t do anything, but it looks like they are, so they get the sponsorships.”

More importantly though, she doesn’t waste her time worrying about it. When she begins to get lost, she just tries “to stay true to why I climb and not get sucked into the toxic parts of social media,” even though she thinks its “changed the way people present themselves online,” like fabricating a certain image to appeal to a commercial audience instead of just going climbing and letting accomplishments speak for themselves.

Opposingly, Paige Claassen, one of the strongest sport climbers in the world, who engages with her audience on a weekly basis, reinforced the idea that “to make a living from climbing, you have to be active on social media because it’s how you sell your brand.” Being a professional climber is not just about sending hard anymore, but about being approachable, relatable, and sharing stories.

Except the unfortunate truth is that “social media has exaggerated some accomplishments, while overlooking others. It exalts achievements that are widely publicized,” she says. “Trips funded by sponsors bring pressure to perform and so success ends up sometimes being molded to meet the funders expectations.”

Ultimately though, climbing interconnectedness over the internet isn’t just about marketing and advertising for her. It’s about sharing motivation and inspiration with others—a piece of this puzzle that is undeniably positive.

“Our minds hold us back more than our bodies, so when we see peers accomplishing something that seemed impossible, it opens the doors of possibility in our own minds and generates excitement. I get psyched when I see friends send something they’ve worked hard for and social media allows us to build psych in our climbing community over other’s ascents that we might not have heard of without social media.”

This theme frequently reverberates from one athlete to the next.

The Greatest Tragedy

For Jonathan Siegrist, shared psyche and peer accountability are the main draws.

Despite establishing multiple 5.15s last year and climbing at the sport’s cutting edge for over a decade, he remains incredibly humble and was willing to talk about the topic at length.

“It’s about this communal exchange of respect and seeing one another make themselves vulnerable by having a goal and then following through with that goal,” says Siegrist, a climber who lived out of his truck for a decade so that he could get after it every day. “That whole story we can relate to and that’s the reason why I post and that’s the reason why I follow my friends—to get that sense—that feeling of the cyclical climbing experience we all crave.”

But in the shadows of the social media machine exists a more delusory quality. It seems like people that are loudest on their platforms are the ones that earn the most attention, praise, and consequently greater support from companies, regardless of achievement or performance.

“Take someone like Will Stanhope. He knows what it means to climb walls, to live in the dirt, to be scorched by the sun. He knows all of these things that you can only know from decades of doing it,” says Siegrist, re-emphasizing that point that lots of covert crushers still exist even though it’s never reported. “There is a certain amount of character and grit and respect that you have to earn and experience for it to be profound. But Will almost never posts about it.”

To Siegrist, the ultimate tragedy, at least from an athletic and cultural standpoint, is that “people like Will, and many others, won’t necessarily reap all the benefits that I feel are deserved for what they have invested into climbing and growth of the sport because in the eyes of the public, whoever is louder is greater.”

Ultimately though, people like Will Stanhope, including Siegrist, don’t care about internet fame because if they can pay their bills and go climbing, the social media trap—like “posting discount codes and posing on routes for cash”—is not something they want to fulfill.

Finding Peace amidst the Chaos

When I finally got Mark Synnott on the phone to finish my reporting, he brought a moment of clarity in my quest to understand my own judgements.

He had just returned from the Upper Paikwa River Basin near Guyana’s northwestern frontier with Brazil and Venezuela and had 20 minutes before he had to help teach a MasterClass on the very thing we were talking about: the many ways professional climbers fund their lifestyle.

“Everybody can do whatever they want. There is money to be made with being an influencer. If you are good at playing that game, it’s just like any other business,” Mark tells me frankly and calmly over the phone with no sense of emotion attached to his words. “One thing I’ve learned about business over the years is that business is business. If you can figure out a way to write your own ticket, then great, even though it might rub some of us the wrong way or not be something I have a deep respect for.”

I realized more fully that there is room for both the entrepreneur and the purist, which means that “you can be a soulful climber who is doing it just for the experience, but also want to get recognition and reinforcement from peers and want to get free stuff and want to get whatever comes along with being pro,” Mark says getting a bit more charged. “I remember thinking, oh, I don’t have to go and do carpentry because someone is paying me just to be a good climber. You know what? Tell me whatever the fuck that I have to do, and I’m doing it.”

So why shouldn’t somebody use social media to make some money to pay the bills and go climbing if they have the savvy and ability to do so? The reasons, at least in my mind, are based on personal biases that don’t hold water when applied across a group of people throughout multiple generations.

“I have been a climber for a long time and everyone that I know that is deep into this, they are all doing it first and foremost for their soul,” he says. “Those that are faking it or in it for the wrong reasons burn out anyways.”

In the April edition of National Geographic, what Mark wrote about his Everest ascent illuminated the core message that I had been chasing for a month: “The thrill of doing something most people wouldn’t consider, the satisfaction of figuring out a puzzle of handholds and footholds, the soul-gripping fear of making a mistake, the discovery of the view at the top, and the bond my buddy and I shared after the experience—it came to define the essence of what I have been seeking in the mountains ever since. It was never about a photo.”

***

Back in the house after our short photoshoot in the backyard, Meagan sat down at the kitchen table.

“We are all doing what we have to do,” says Meagan, a rock climber at her core even though her social media presence represents a variety of pursuits. “I’m grateful for each and every opportunity I get. I have to work with what I have.”

Sensing the weight of that constant connection, a feeling that I should check my social media, compare myself to everyone else—only propagating the disintegration of the real, physical world by trying to keep tabs on the past, present, and future through pictures on my screen—was looking more and more like my own personal hang-up.

“I didn’t grow up traveling all over the world to go rock climbing. I had to go to school. I had to work. I wasn’t handed season-long vacations every year to focus on climbing,” says Meagan, explaining to me that time and opportunity to pursue climbing is a privilege and if we are not afforded that privilege, we must do whatever it takes to create and open doors. “So, this is where I’m at and I feel lucky to have this platform that allows me to spend more time on climbing and less time on other physical and time-demanding jobs that take my energy and focus away from my actual passion.”

After this reporting, I realized that whether social media is changing climbing or not is simply not that big of a deal. While my initial gut reaction was that it’s all meaningless and purposeless—just internet zombies playing in a circus peopled with ghosts—I see better now how it undeniably feeds a shared sense of stoke and inspiration for the sport.

In that moment, I thought of how awful it was of me to judge her and others on social media for what they post and how they post it. If you’re not hurting someone, who am I to judge anyone for what they do? There is nothing wrong with professional athletes breaking away from the formalities of a dusty degeneration to engage in social media for posterity. Climbing will go on being climbing. And those who seek solitude from the noise—well, they can still do that too.