The 'Pro-climber?'

A talk by Jack Geldard titled ‘Do you think you can be a professional climber?’ and a blog by Andy Kirkpatrick got me thinking about the ‘Pros’. My thoughts immediately went to Wiz Fineron.

The Superdirect on the Mot used to be my favourite E1 in the Pass, I’d done it on my own many times over the years in most conditions and never been nervous, until 7 years ago. My partner was leading. Halfway up the top pitch, due to his small size he had to body bridge the groove ‘quarryman’ style to the roof. Flicking in a cam 0 at full stretch he went on to fearlessly dyno through the roof before romping to the top. Wiz was 11 and very small. He moved to New Zealand and I knew that if he carried on climbing he would be pretty unstoppable. It must have been about this time that an ever positive Tim Emmett told the then young Hazel Findlay to go for it with regards to becoming a pro-climber. I’m glad that he did, I would have told her that she was bonkers.

Wiz enjoying Ramadan 8b, Siurana
© James McHaffie

Wiz reappeared in Blighty last year and didn’t disappoint. He’s a good contender for the best rock climber operating in Britain at the moment. His no falls, one-day ascent of Silbergeier might be the best ascent yet from a very good international contingent who have repeated the climb. Wiz lives on carrots, doesn’t make any money from climbing and I doubt there are any climbs in the world that will be out of his remit in the next few years with boredom threshold being the key factor for the harder sporty ones.

I’ve been a sponsored climber since the late 1990s on and off, having had some great sponsors. Red Chili, Wild Country, Mountain Equipment, Moon, V12, Mountain Works, Arcteryx, 5.10 and my current sponsors, DMM, Rab, Boreal and Stirling Ropes. They’ve all been great because I’ve ranged from a good sponsor/role model, for example getting up before work to train, having and helping to publicise achievements but I've also been an awful sponsee/role model. Getting up, having a couple of tabs and a coffee, going to work and getting pumped solid trying to lead something I could easily have soloed when leading a semi-healthy lifestyle etc. I’d like to reassure my current sponsors I’m in the former role. For me, the free kit over the years has been a ‘support network’ for kit I would often have struggled to afford.

James McHaffie leading the stunning headwall crack of Salathe, Yosemite.
© Hazel Findlay

Sponsorship has changed over the years. In the 90s you could get free boots and kit for climbing well and if you were a little known maybe even some free clothes. Nowadays to be sponsored for free boots you are expected to have a blog, Twitter feed, a Facebook 'athlete' page and a climbing CV which states you can redpoint almost as well as Ondra can onsight. Even then you might get booted off the boot team. Last year 5.10 got rid of anyone who wasn’t a ‘good’ self promoter in Britain. Pete Robins had been with them since the 90s, is one of the best rock climbers around, had been on front covers of magazines, dvds, guides as well as lots of online footage of him doing the hardest boulder problems and routes in Wales and they ditched him for not having a blog and social media accounts. I was one of the ‘chosen’ getting an email saying:

“When we get round to 2015, we will review how the year has fared for you and hopefully you will have achieved greater media interest. Please send me links to your online news, Youtube and Vimeo vids, personal blogs etc. If something appears in a magazine/newspaper or on the telly, let me know. I don’t want to get to 2015, and see that there is nothing against your name, when in fact you have been setting the world alight. It is up to you to promote yourself.”

An athlete expresses disappointment at being dropped from the team
© James McHaffie

"I realised at this point more than ever that sponsorship is not about performance but more concerning social media salesmanship...of oneself." 

Being a sponsored climber and being a ‘pro’ are two different things, having never been a ‘pro-climber’ I do know a bit of what it consists of and am impressed people have chosen this over a job as for anyone who isn't a trustifarian it seems a bold move. In 2011 I was in Yosemite and climbed with Hazel Findlay and Sean Villanueva for a day or two. Even through my fickle seasonal contracts in the UK outdoor instruction industry I was earning about four times what they earned combined. They were living out of a bag following their dream. I was waiting to buy each series of Game of Thrones, pumping money into a pension scheme to subsidise the usual PYB pension of EBAYing off the free kit. It’s no surprise that there is little money in climbing, I love climbing and have done a lot of instruction and coaching over the years but if it’s a choice between a climbing film or Masterchef the latter wins. 

Anybody working a five day week who can have the weekend and two evenings off has enough free time to climb as well as many of the ‘pro-climbers’ in the world today but with the added benefit of a reasonable salary and perhaps a pension.

A look at some ‘pros’:

Leo Houlding left home when he was 14/15 to pursue his dream, and lived out of a bag. His achievements on El Cap stand the test of time, especially his ground up effort on the Prophet. Very few climbers in the world would stand halfway up El Cap look up and set off on a serious 7c pitch without knowing what was there. In fact knowing the grade and where to go very few climbers in the world would get up it without abseil inspection. What I like about Leo's achievement is that he abhorred training, wasn’t a keen sport climber but with all the modern strength gains the best of today would still struggle to replicate his effort. Although some UKBeliebers would argue the point.

Hazel's achievements are spectacular with the granite being a tough medium to climb on often giving blank, insecure and reachy pitches which have to be executed in exposure and heat whilst being really bolloxed from hauling. This done groundup on routes which many good climbers abseil down to rehearse pitches to up their chance of success. When she stops moaning about her whingery I expect more great things.

Steve Mcclure is another enigma to me. I’m really glad he decided to become a pro climber and make it worthwhile for Ondra to visit Britain, but what most impressed me about his choice is he stopped a career in engineering to do something which pays him less than half as well, is highly insecure, and has limited long term prospects. He ditched a good salary and gave Britain some iconic cutting edge climbs.

Steve McClure on his flash ascent of Tom et Je Ris, 8b+, Verdon Gorge  © Tim Glasby
Steve McClure on his flash ascent of Tom et Je Ris, 8b+, Verdon Gorge
© Tim Glasby

There have been many climbers over the years who could have become sponsored climbers or even ‘pros’. In the 1980s Douggie Hall was onsighting E7s which is a bit like the four minute mile in Blighty, some years next to nobody does it, apart from maybe Ian Small. 

Probably the most impressive soloist to have partook of the activity in Britain is someone few people will know of. He used to do laps on Void, onsight soloed Great Arete (a mountain crag E5 in the Carneddau) as well as many other much easier soloes, like Positron. He was...the great Doug Shaw, or Doug the Thug to people who knew him. I laboured for him for a while and he is a top guy. What he did back then was comparable to what Peter Croft did in Yosemite, if I had to choose between going up Astroman or Great Arete without a rope Astroman would win.

The achievements of these trad climbers often isn’t recognised like that of the well known sport climbers like Ben Moon who has been shown to be ahead of his time in terms of physical climbing ability. The likes of Pete Croft, Douggie Hall and Doug Shaw could easily have done more ‘terrifying’ things if they used tactics employed nowadays. For instance, if Doug had been arsed to dick about on a rope on Strawberries for an hour I’m confident he could have soloed it if he wished, as Croft could solo big E6/7s if he’d rehearsed them more, who knows he probably did.

Going back on track to a next generation climber like Wiz, my advice to him is it would be a damn shame for him not to climb as a ‘pro’ for a while to see what he can do, although he’d certainly be better off getting a job as a fireman, just ask Ed Booth. Wiz is what I deem an excellent role model and the main hurdle setting him back is his modesty.

Is Sponsorship a Sin?

I’ve told him not to worry about ‘selling out’ via the social media outlets, there is no such thing nowadays as everyone is on there. Peter Capaldi gets it bang on in The Thick of It when he says “everybody is spewing their guts up on the internet." If it sometimes feels a bit wrong and broken then just treat it like the environment - something to be ignored. I hope he can manage it without helping to promote poisonous drinks to kids. I can't help with hash tagging on Twitter but should mention that Lauren Lavine said if you use more than three hash tags it’s likely that you're #shitinbed. 

I’d advise him to ask for more than just expenses if he is having to travel away for boot demos or talks. If you have a job as an outdoor instructor you can earn £150-£200 in a day, which means that you may be better off staying at home, going to work and going shopping. I recommend V12. 

I’ll give the Prophet the final words of wisdom:

The priestess said to the Prophet: “Speak to us of sponsorship”

& the Prophet said: “People of Orphalese”

“I know not of work, the chalkbag is my lathe and the wingsuit my scythe”

“The modest man goeth hungry lest he not in Top Gear”

“Through Posing thou cometh into emancipation”


UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by James McHaffie

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2 Feb, 2015
Well said James.I often wonder if ground up on sight rock climbing is fast becoming something well in the past .. Always thought the true climbing adventure was a FA ground up on sight... regardless of grade.The now common practice of approaching climbs from the top downwards was pretty rare in the early days ,when done it was frowned upon.However it certainly makes life much easier having top rope practice ,pre- chalked holds and pre-placed protection .. The traverse of the Patagonia hills by Caldwell for example I feel was a far greater achievement than his exploits on the Dawn Wall sport climb.
2 Feb, 2015
Not so glamorous being a pro but you do get to do what you like, as opposed to sitting in an office all day (though sitting in an office is just fine when the weather is crap!). Always thought Nick Bullock was the ultimate British climbing bum, cranking out ballsy routes while living out of a small van and the CC huts. Something to aspire to?! Good call on Boothy, he's got it sorted: four days on, four days off seems like an acceptable work/life balance.
3 Feb, 2015 This article also raises some interesting points about pro climbers, and sponsorship deals. I'm not really sure how I feel about it to be honest. I personally would rather the climbers that are pushing the limits are the ones getting the money, not the ones pushing the "like" buttons.
3 Feb, 2015
What about Tommy and Kevin? Definitely media aware. Apparently they've been pushing it a bit too...
3 Feb, 2015
This is sad but unfortunately that's the way it is. Dave MacLeod wrote an article a while back, noting that people shouldn't view sponsorship as simply a reward for being good at climbing. A potential sponsors' main concern has always been and will always be how well you can help sell their product.
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