Its 8am and I’m sitting on my bed, leaning against the wall, eating breakfast and listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4. The cream coloured duvet is rucked and crumpled; a few crumbs of toast lay scattered. In a flash my mind highlights, ‘these crumbs will cause me grief later’ and then it locks on to something else, John Humphrys has just mentioned rock climbing – he did, he really did. I quickly put down my mug of coffee before I choke. Throwing coffee over my bed will be a load more annoying than crumbs.
The news item that is being talked about on Radio 4 is Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of #TheDawnWall in Yosemite. After only a few seconds the age old cliché and massively over worked word, ‘conquered’ is used, and its followed with the usual platitudes and ignorance and damaging condescending jokey banter which interviewers generally revert to when talking about something they do not understand or see value in.
This is surely a dream. More coffee. I risk taking another sip but as I do, John Long, yes, THE, John Long, a climber whom I respect as much for his writing as his climbing enters into #TheDawnWall spray, “This is incredible, amazing, its history in the making.” I choked. Coffee sprayed across the room. Guess my duvet cover was doomed from the word go.
In society and media today, I know there is fascination with the lives of others, reality TV and general pap, its abundant and devoured and it could be said that two very driven and accomplished rock climbers successfully climbing a cutting edge new route is refreshing and I would agree. Also in the news this week was The Charlie Hebdo murders, Boko Haram had murdered two thousand people in Nigeria, innocent people with families and friends held hostage by Islamic State, were beheaded, two young girls had been used by men to act as suicide bombers and murdered at least nineteen people and of course had blown themselves to bits and here I was listening to a report on Radio 4, supposedly a serious news outlet, telling me how amazing and important and history making it was that two climbers had reached the top of a rock climb in Yosemite and as usual when climbing hits mainstream it wasn’t even reported correctly, “The first time El Cap has been free climbed.” No it isn’t.
I am a climber… in fact; I am quite a dedicated climber, someone who can see the personal value in climbing for the individual at all levels and within all genres. As a personal achievement, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of #TheDawnWall is exceptional and I whole heartedly commend them. They are both very skilled, grass roots climbers and have worked exceptionally hard, the vision to climb #The DawWall is inspirational and I do not intend in any way to be insulting or derogatory to their ascent. In light of much that is reported under the heading ‘Climbing’ #TheDawnWall is at least grass roots and worthy, it’s actually a new line and climbed in good style and for once it isn’t the oldest, the youngest or the quickest and they have not attempted to disguise or hide the actual facts about the style of ascent, they did not use oxygen, so good on them.
In the very small pond, which is climbing, although growing bigger by the day since #TheDawnWall mainstream mega spray, #TheDawnWall ascent is history, but, and I say this as a person who values climbing and what it gives to those taking part, it is not “world history in the making”, and even within climbing, to sell this ascent as the most difficult climb in the world is hype and incorrect and devalues many other ground breaking climbs. Not for one moment do I think Tommy Caldwell or Kevin Jorgeson had anything to do with the majority of what was put out, but this is the problem when you give news of your dream climb to a media company, or leave it in the hands of an over-zealous sponsor.
The mainstream reporting of #TheDawnWall is just another example of how headlines within the mainstream media industry need to be quantifiable, understandable and this is part of the problem, because the majority do not, and never will understand climbing. So they – the masses – will be spoon-fed platitudes, clichés, comparisons, trite jokes and dumbed-down. “They are climbing with only their hands and feet,”(Really!) And this ignorant reporting damages and belittles and actually makes climbers sound like ignorant obsessed fools who have no regard for what is actually real history in the making and truly important world events that affect humanity as a whole.
I do not have any issue with climbing being reported in the correct place and to an audience that understand – climbing sites, climbing magazines – these places and the people who report for them will at least understand the intricacies of what they report, but any climber that has direct involvement with the likes of The Daily Mail and Fox News - I mean this generically as I don’t know whether Caldwell and Jorgeson did - should really question their motives and integrity. In my mind these horrible racist and acerbic right-wing media outlets should be avoided like a sexually transmitted disease.
As the morning continued I became more and more ‘amazed’ yes, to me the truly amazing thing about this was not the actual physical aspect of successfully climbing #TheDawnWall, which is a brilliant effort, but let’s face it, it was always going to happen as it involved two of the best rock climbers in the world who are fortunate and good enough to be able to dedicate several years to working the moves, so of course, at some point it was going to happen. No, the most amazing thing was how much airtime and press and how many well-known climbers were jumping aboard #TheDawnWallGravyTrain to be interviewed and appear in, and on, mainstream media and nearly without exception, every one of these experts said the same thing … “It’s amazing, history in the making, it’s a really important, hands and feet, they shit in a tube, it’s the same as winning a gold medal, bigger than The Shard, the most difficult… “
I’m sorry, the successful ascent of #TheDawnWall on the grand scheme really is not important or amazing and it’s not like winning a gold medal – climbing #TheDawnWall is not a competition, it wasn’t and isn’t athletics, there are no losers or winners – climbing in my mind is not sport, it’s a lifestyle, it goes so much deeper than being sport, so please don’t try to compare it with a competitive sport that a crowd pay money to watch. Once again this is an attempt to make the general public appreciate how major this ascent is for climbers, but why do we need to tell people how important this is for us? I do not really understand competition climbing and I know this is my problem. I certainly do not want to see climbing in the Olympics as I think it will dilute and affect the grass roots level of the activity, but I can see that on some level, competitions and events do pave the way to acceptance for the individual and I suppose this has to be a good thing.
Climbing #TheDawnWall was two very skilful and driven and fortunate climbers, whom I respect tremendously doing something that is important to them, but it’s not the cure for Ebola, climbing is a privileged activity that the masses think involves a bunch of skinny and ignorant and obsessed folk who are funded by Mummy and Daddy and too lazy to do a ‘proper job.’
Personally I think the ‘expert’, climbers appearing on TV and radio lost a great opportunity to actually say something meaningful and show the world that climbers can be rounded and world-wise and conscious of world events that actually are important? Maybe somehow, they could have attempted to explain what it is about climbing that makes it such a great activity and why climbers do what they do and why at times, may appear to forsake and try to ignore some of the inhumanity and inequality and madness. Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe I missed the reports where they did say something different and meaningful or maybe they were not given the opportunity. If this is the case, I apologise but you also had the choice to say thanks, but no thanks; you could have argued that the general public do not need the same old platitudes and clichés.
As climbers do we really need to appease the masses or act like performing monkeys? If money is that tight, and I don’t begrudge at all grassroots climbers like Caldwell and Jorgeson wanting to earn a wage, but for some of the other supposedly ‘top climbers’ out there who have been involved in forms of climbing that are more stunts than actual climbing, please make sure you sell us out for a whole pot of money that will make you comfortable for the rest of your life, don’t dumb down and ruin and make a mockery of our beloved lifestyle for peanuts, because you will only prove that we really are all monkeys.
“Good on them, they are making a living and not damaging anything.” I hear this said regularly about the ‘top climbers’ that have broken into mainstream, well I actually do think they are damaging climbing and I think much of what is being done is dishonest. Honesty and integrity appear to have been forsaken in the pursuit of lying to the public, making another headline, raising a profile and increasing the bank balance or attempting to become the next Bear Grylls or Ben Fogle.
We can all make mistakes, everyone who has dedicated their life to a passion and activity that has costs running into tens of thousands – airfare, expedition costs, peak fees, Liaison Officer bills, environmental costs, garbage deposits and freight costs can easily be tempted, it is very easy not to see the big picture and the damage that may come from letting a PR company deal with your affairs or accepting money from a company who has no connection to climbing.
Several years ago I was part of a team funded by Samsung to attempt a new route on Annapurna III and at the time I battled with the implications of being funded by an electronics company, but in the end I accepted. The person we liaised was passionate and honest and had an understanding of what we were attempting, but it soon became apparent the company in general did not and some of their marketing strategy went against what I stood for. Fortunately nothing came of the attempt and nothing came from the marketing. Soon after our failure, Samsung moved their marketing with a lot more success to a mountain the mainstream media and the general public do associate as it has a quantifiable aspect in being the highest, even bigger than The Shard I believe, and all went well in the sale of phones because of course everyone needs to tweet from 8000m.
I now know I made a mistake becoming involved with a non-climbing company, I was greedy and I grabbed the chance to attempt a mountain I really wanted to experience – desire got the better of me. I am now older and I have experienced and learnt, I have not been involved within a climbing capacity with a non-climbing company since and I certainly will not allow any company to act on my behalf when dealing with the press, without total control of what is being said.
If you are a climber you will know that tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have sacrificed in their endeavours and to us, ‘climbers’ this is valuable and commendable and inspirational, but once it begins to be reported in the mainstream, all of the intricacies and subtleties go out of the window.
My fear for climbing is that once we drink from the mainstream chalice, which obviously began a long time ago and has been a part of climbing ever since, we lose control. Media climbing is escalating massively given modern technology and my fear is this, how long is it in today’s society, a society of government cuts and austerity, before the consequences of putting ourselves out into the public domain hit – how long before government takes notice and regulations begin? How long before a rope tax or a crag tax, or you have to have private health care because you are being reckless alongside those other risk takers who smoke or eat McDonalds burgers, who, dare I say, have possibly been drawn in by advertising and it is not their fault. How long before insurance companies and major conglomerates that have nothing to do with climbing, see an angle and get involved – well, of course they already have and the damage is there to be seen. How long before something that is very close to our hearts becomes commoditised and ruled by companies that have no connection or history or empathy with climbing and climbing history or climbers as individuals, companies who do not care about their effect and the damage as long as the money just keeps flowing?
Climbers appear very fond of hashtags nowadays so here are a few of my own,