As rock climbing increases in popularity, it’s easy to forget that the sport still very much exists inside of its own niche. Amazing accomplishments within the climbing community like Adam Ondra sending two V16’s in a day*, Ondra and Chris Sharma sending La Dura Dura (the world’s first 5.15c), or Ashima Shiraishi sending V14’s at age twelve explode within our community — as they should. And yet, major news publications likely see these stories and respond with a “meh”.
However, other incredible climbing accomplishments, like Alex Honnold free soloing Half Dome and Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson freeing the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, are swarmed with coverage and attention from CNN and the New York Times. What’s the secret sauce in these stories, and why do they pique the interest of the non-climbing world while others do not?
One thing lost in translation to the public is recognizing climbing difficulty: non-climbers have a tough time distinguishing nuances between moderate and highly difficult climbs. Watching Usain Bolt break sprinting records is obvious; the dude is fast and outpaces those around him. Anyone can see that. Noticing the difference between a V5 and V10 is not obvious unless you are an experienced climber, and even less so between V10 and V16. Which is why, to transcend the climbing bubble, difficulty needs to be made obvious, and better yet, picturesque. Case in point: climbing 2000 feet above the ground in Yosemite National Park.
Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson are on the verge of completing one of the most significant feats in rock climbing to date. The Dawn Wall stands 3000 feet, comprised of 32 pitches and intense runs of 5.14 and 5.13 climbing. Caldwell and Jorgeson are relentless. They are driven. And their story is both inspiring and beautiful to watch unfold. Anyone can look at the photo like the one above in awe — non-climbers because “Woah, those guys are really high” and climbers because “Does that even qualify as a crimp?”. Climbing stories made national have Hollywood qualities that appeal to the mass, non-climbing community as well.
The tension that develops when climbing stories reach mainstream media seems to arise because non-climbers rarely understand what motivates climbers. Non-climbers often see climbers as risk-takers, thrill-seekers and masochists. Sure, maybe we are some of those things, but we are also calculative and consider risk management. However, as demonstrated in the comments section of the recent NYTimes article covering the Dawn Wall project, non-climbers just don’t get rock climbing.
“Everytime I think I’ve heard of the most stupid stunt in the world, some other genius come’s up with a stunt like this. Oh wait, I remember, ‘I did it because it was there!’ I hope their families have paid the life insurance premiums.”
– NYT Commenter
or the slightly less relevant: “Although I am unsure if it is permanent it seems as if these and other climbers are free to damage the surfaces of the stone walls in America’s national parks in order to get their thrills and publicity” as stated by another commenter.
Not only do non-climbers misinterpret why we climb– to push physical and mental limits, to stay active, to seek adventure, to join a community, and to have a shit ton of fun –thanks to films like Vertical Limit they also do not seem to understand what risks are being taken, nor how far along climbing technology has advanced.
Yes, climbing is inherently dangerous. We know this. Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell do too. Not only have they been projecting the Dawn Wall for five years running, they are also highly experienced and accomplished climbers who take the appropriate precautions to mitigate risk, all while pushing the limits of our sport.
Alex Honnold, also a highly accomplished climber, is the absolute exception to the risk management argument. Even before the fanfare, Honnold was sending major climbs in Yosemite without safety net (a rope, to be precise). Anyone watching him free solo Half Dome has the same visceral reaction, muttering to oneself “Holy hell, this guy is insane. He’s gonna die,” followed by wiping extra sweaty palms on their pant legs. Free soloing transcends the climbing niche because it appears insane to everyone– including hardcore climbers.
Puritanical climbers get worked up when certain climbing stories make national headlines and others do not. They criticize Honnold because they believe he misrepresents the sport. Free soloing is atypical, a much more dangerous form of climbing, and they fear that the public will now imagine all forms of climbing to be equally as reckless. They criticize Caldwell and Jorgeson because, in their eyes, ticking holds, live marketing their project and accepting food from others does not qualify as a true ascent. They might cry, “where’s the adventure in that?“.
It took mass media several years to latch onto Honnold, who was free soloing years before the attention, or Caldwell and Jorgeson, who have been projecting the Dawn Wall since 2010. Which suggests that the last key ingredient for transcendence is time– like the perseverance needed to send a project, climbers almost have to prove that they aren’t going anywhere before mass media acknowledges them.
Climbers want to keep climbing as their own while simultaneously having the public recognize the inherent difficulty and badassery. The reality is that non-climbers will watch Honnold in awe but never watch videos of Adam Ondra working a 5.15 on Youtube, for the same reason that I’ll watch Usain Bolt sprint for Gold but won’t sit around watching Olympic trials: it’s boring.
I accept that us climbers have nerdish tendencies, and there is no shame in that. However, it’s unrealistic for us to expect the same level of attention from non-climbers. Sometimes, we just need to recognize that people like really good stories about people doing amazing things, whether that thing is climbing or not.
*Correction (1/14): Adam Ondra has not sent two V16’s in a single day. However, he has sent two V16’s within the span of two months, which is still insanely impressive. Thanks to Redditors for the correction.