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Thundercling: How Pro Climbers Can Become Real Leaders

Make climbing great again

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Jordan Peterson

 As always, word had spread of a new boulder in Clear Creek Canyon, just outside Golden, Colorado. First it was pics on the pros’ IG feeds, all raving and vague and very sick, bro. You could almost feel the salivating mouth-breathing of thousands of Front Range boulderers, furiously attempting to triangulate the location. Slowly, location and names and grades began leaking out through pro-adjacent climbers, and finally the beta scraps fell to us knuckle-dragging normies who can’t do 1-5-9 on the campus board.

Brace yourself for the most Colorado introduction to a new boulder ever. As we crested the hill, there was Paul Dusatko, filmmaker of many a VHS classic from Inertia to Soul Cal, cruising through the crux, spotted by fellow mutants of varying abilities and local fame. Jamie Emerson, the Sheriff himself—so named for his willingness to drop the hammer on climbers responsible for various strains of funny business, such as pad-stashing—rolled up with his girlfriend, Amy Bliven. The vibe beneath the boulder crackled with friendly psyche. Eventually, I fell into deep conversation with Jamie and Amy, mostly joking about the blitzkrieg this boulder was suffering, thanks in part to pro-climber spray. Then, chatting about pro climbers and first ascents, we arrived at the consensus that the pros do indeed owe us something.

First, let’s investigate what it means to be sponsored. Be you a grassroots crusher or a flagship athlete, you must sign a contract. This contract serves as a quid pro quo, viewed through the most capitalistic of lenses: Company X provides gear and/or money; Climber Y uses these tools to reflect attention back on the brand, generally through curated social media explosions and sending the gnar. It’s classic American symbiosis, in which the exchange of goods affords financial and leisurely ascendance, a bit for the climber and a bit more for the company.

Some climbers use sponsorship primarily for their own ends—to keep climbing and to work as little as possible. And hey, who can blame them? Others, however, leverage their platforms for advocacy engagement, whether that’s Tommy Caldwell sending Capitol Hill with his tireless environmental advocacy, the Honnold Foundation, Alex Johnson promoting LGBTQ+ issues, Kevin Jorgeson’s exciting 1Climb endeavor to introduce 100,000 kids to climbing, or Denver-based coach Juliet Hammer rejiggering her business to embrace a more diverse clientele by offering unique scholarship programs aimed at tearing down financial barriers. In a year as grim as 2020, these pro climbers’ efforts suddenly became more visible—and crucial—than ever.

As racial unrest and societal inequity roared into even the most oblivious climber brains, leadership broke through, springboarding from powerful platforms. Sabrina Chapman, already a fan favorite for her public battle to send Titan (which would be her first 5.14a), turned down an offer to write for a major American publication, explaining her decision in a brilliant IG post, her honesty rasping raw. Climbers like Nina Williams reconfigured their vast social media presence to reflect the inequities of outdoor gatekeeping, while the climber and web developer Melissa Utomo took public her battle with Mountain Project to institute a button for flagging problematic route names. Kai Lightner launched Climbing for Change, a nonprofit aimed at “connecting underserved communities with individuals and organizations that seek to increase minority participation in rock climbing …. ” Industrywide, climbing companies scrambled to reconfigure representation and inclusion in both advertising and climbing-team configuration.

But these efforts were the exception, not the rule. This balance needs to change.

* * *

If American exceptionalism ever had any validity, it certainly succumbed to a ghastly death in 2020, a year that undressed us all the way down to the tender parts. From the local knitting club to the movie industry to our chalk-dusted vagabond tribe, we’re going to have to gather up our disparate identities and begin the daunting task of rebuilding ourselves, one community at a time. A bit more germane to the pages of this magazine, the idolatry of iconoclasm as a fulcrum of American climbing history is likewise on life support—if you’re swaddling yourself in the blankie of American climbing’s countercultural heroism, often presented in grainy black-and-white photos and essays written mostly by white men who are generally tone-deaf to cultural or societal issues, then you’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Reassessing false narratives sucks. It’s hard work and I don’t really like hard work, which is why I’m a boulderer. So while I’d prefer to unfurl my crashpad beneath a pocketed roof and take a nice, pot-inoculated nap, I fear I’ve had a thought. I’m sorry. If our sport is to have any sort of future, we need to do better. From reports that some climbing areas are receiving an unsustainable 300-percent increase in usage during the rotten age of COVID to the revolting social-media backlash against diversity in the climbing community, we must come to the realization that we need to build a vibrant garden to seed new leadership.

This is where the pros come in. A quick skim of social media will reveal that aside from an occasional blacked-out Instagram post or incongruously placed hashtag, most pros shy away from civic engagement—as is their privilege (pun breathlessly intended). These climbers, underwritten by companies scrambling to signal their environmental and societal engagement, rarely drop in to mentor underprivileged youth or headline a crag cleanup or do anything at all save endlessly clip anchors for photographers and fame. Again, and I can’t say this earnestly enough, this is their prerogative. But it’s not bettering our community: “Stoke” does not move the needle on our world’s real problems.

My conversation with Amy and Jamie that day prompted some cold calls with team managers and various pros, all on background so they could speak their minds. One team manager, responsible for arguably the most elite lineup on the planet, said that although they believe companies should foster leadership programs for athletes, their global corporate overlords have demurred at pushing their athletes to advocacy. Another team manager noted that most companies were in the process of instituting some sort of contractually obligated community service, although it takes time to rewire the sponsorship paradigm. An elite, longtime pro said that he believes a handful of obviously disengaged world-class climbers basically exist as Lost Boys in an eternal Neverland of mountainscapes and boulderfields. After years of stewardship-focused events, often as the only pro climber in attendance, he was pessimistic that his peers would ever assume a mantle of leadership of their own accord. In other words, this stuff is tricky.

Dusatko, a 30-year lifer who has both profited from sponsorship as well as managed the Friction Labs athlete team for four years, lamented how the social media landscape has rewritten both climbing’s history and our advocacy inclinations, mainly via presenting a curated reality that’s aimed at increasing reputation over responsibility, and acclaim over advocacy. However, Friction Labs does demand its athletes appear for some type of public advocacy twice a year. You sign the contract, you’re obligated. Period.

The big-time team manager noted that one route forward is building a union of pro climbers to guide athletes. But we saw that fail early last decade, with Kevin Jorgeson’s Professional Climbers International (PCI), a nonprofit, founded in 2008, meant to represent climbers and develop their roles as community leaders. As Jorgeson messaged me, the PCI fell apart because the industry infrastructure was not yet robust enough to support it. “PCI tried to do too much,” he wrote. “I think it was too early. Today would be a much better environment for something like that. It requires some tailwind and buy-in from all constituents.” Admirable idea, but it never took flight—and at any rate, why should the climbers have to direct such an initiative, and not the brands that benefit from their ambassadorship?

* * *

Here’s how we change things. Setting aside the capitalistic quid pro quo previously mentioned, let’s imagine that every climbing company added an addendum to their sponsorship contracts, not unlike Dusatko’s Friction Labs prototype, demanding that on top of their two social media posts a week or four days of company work a year or whatever, each athlete must also commit to three community events. Three. One day, once every four months. It’s not that heavy of a lift, is it? (Climbers sponsored by multiple brands could do one event per brand per year, so as not to be overwhelmed.)

If you’re a pro who is passionate about environmental stewardship, this could be three Craggin’ Classics or Adopt a Crags. Have racial injustice and general inequity activated a sense of community involvement? Hold events for underserved youth, or pitch a clinic to a Color the Crag event, or become involved in an organization like Afro Outdoors or the Brown Ascenders. Whatever it is, pick your passion—but you have to sign on the dotted line if you want those free shoes, comp dues, or plane ticket to Rodellar.

This is the foundation of our leadership laboratory, an opportunity to create real community engagement. We can’t rely on a few selfless outliers like Caldwell and Honnold to help make the outdoors a more equitable, sustainable place. No. We need more leaders. After a year of such stark and unrelenting trauma, it’s time for us to build our own leaders and give them the tools with which to mentor our youth, the greenhorn topropers entering our sport in record numbers, and the rest of us harness-buckling weirdos.

The benefits we’d see could deconstruct and rebuild those tired old myths—American exceptionalism, climbing’s seemingly unimpeachable counterculturalism. Companies and their athlete teams, unquestionably, would benefit from the public works of their climbers, and they should. The athletes themselves would add value to their own brands, expand their knowledge of both issues and community, and learn valuable leadership skills. Most importantly, a new generation of climbers would receive the singular gift of having mentors to look up to and a roadmap for increased interpersonal activation.

It’s a win-win situation on every conceivable front. It’s an achievable and necessary path forward through this grim epoch of calamity and tribal hatreds. It’s a garden in which we can plant seeds for a more sustainable future. And it would serve as a powerful symbol that when you join the ranks of the climbing community, you’re entering a space where our inspirations, our leaders, and our spokespeople raise high the most fundamental tenets of a healthy, sustainable, and vigorous society.

How proud it would be, calling yourself a climber. What a meaningful transformation and invigoration for our community. Let’s put it at the top of our ticklist and send this damn thing. Let’s finally become exceptional.

Dave McAllister has hitched up in Denver for two decades. When not climbing or thinking about climbing, he spends his time as a freelance writer and co-host of the Thundercling Podcast (thundercling.com).