A few years ago I did a talk at Leeds University. The talk was full of the usual university crowd; rows of super keen, wide eyed student climbers, a couple of suited ex students, plus the odd gnarly old timer. As I was packing up, a young climber came up and asked if I could give him some advice. He told me he was planning on soloing the Eiger, and wanted to know if I had any ideas about getting some sponsorship for the climb. All I could say was “Well if you're going to solo the Eiger what gear would you need?” What I meant was if someone was at that level they would have all the clothes and gear they needed for such a climb. If they didn't, then there was no way they should be attempting it, as it was obviously some ploy to prise some gear out of a climbing company, and no doubt he'd die. Basically there are easier ways of getting a pair of boots. I get a lot of young climbers asking me about how to go about getting free stuff or cash from manufactures for their trips, so this little article gives you some ideas.
A FEW THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND WHEN APPROACHING COMPANIES
Rule number two; don't expect to impress anyone with your holidays. Nine times out of ten marketing departments will be staffed by non climbers. These people will be impossible to impress, E10, Scottish Grade XII, 8000 metres, means nothing to them. Basically walking to the North Pole or climbing Everest just isn't that impressive. If it is impressive, then it probably won't make any sense to them anyway, and nothing will convince them you're anything other than just another scrounging climber trying to nibble at their bottom line.
HOW TO GET SEXY GEAR ALMOST FREE
There are very few free lunches, and in my experience most free gear is gear you don't really want. In fact the higher the desirability the lower the chance of a freebie, meaning MSR XGK stoves, PHD sleeping bags and Hilliberg tents are thin on the ground. If you want it, then you'll have to pay for it. The best way to get gear is to develop a long term relationship with a manufacturer. This unfortunately will involve buying gear to begin with, but if you supply them with stuff that's equally as valuable then you will be able to negotiate gear in return. For example all companies require good quality images and critical user feedback and stories, so if you have a nice photo of a DMM helmet that stands out (and is high enough resolution to print) and you post it off to DMM, you may find you can swap it for some gear. If the same helmet has saved your life, and you post it's shattered remains, along with a well written account and pictures you should get a helmet for your troubles. If you can continue to provide good quality feedback, and photos, and so help the brand, then you are providing a service to the company, and most will be willing to repay you in gear. If you're really good you may even find yourself becoming a tester, getting to use prototypes, and some may even get paid for the privilege! When I first started working in outdoor shops I was a total gear nerd, and made it my business to ask a lot of questions to people in companies like Buffalo, Rab, Berghaus and Patagonia, sending them pictures and feedback on their gear after big trips. Very soon they trusted me enough to send me samples to try out, and as my pictures improved, actually pay for their use. The result was in the mid 90's I ended up being paid as one of Patagonia's five international gear testers, being sent lots of odd clothing, often two separate jackets sewn together. The trick is to be able to put into words your experience using a product, which generally requires a critical eye for design and detail, with a good level of experience of gear so you know what to expect. Designers aren't interested in what's right with gear, they want to know what's wrong, and what they forgot to include.
GET A JOB IN A CLIMBING SHOP
Many good climbers have done a stint working in climbing shops, and there are generally always jobs coming up, especially if you're flexible and can work part time. The pay is generally bottom line, but this is made up by the fact that you can get good discounts on gear, often trade plus VAT. It's also a good way of getting a foot in the door in the outdoor industry, especially if you want to become a designer, and is a great way of meeting others climbing gear nerds.
BECOME A GEAR REVIEWER
The gear reviewer is a strange beast, a job that can be more of a curse than most people imagine, believing the reviewer simply wades around in free kit, goes climbing, then writes it up. In reality it's a lot of work, and you'll do far more sitting behind a computer than climbing, your house gradually filling up with gear you either don't really want, or can't really find anything interesting to write about. Also you find that the keener the PR companies are to foster their gear on you, the worse the gear is, the more you want the gear, the harder it is to convince the manufacturer to part with it (and they'll ask for it back!). Climbing magazines have very little wallop, and it's magazines like Trail who hold sway over manufacturers, making the cult of the gear reviewer an art form. More thoughts; don't expect big companies to be a push over. They aren't. Small companies that are run by climbers are more likely to understand your project and help you out. Free gear is rare, but if you can show your trip has enough merit, they may offer you a discount rate. If you get a discount rate from someone then don't abuse it, as this will reduce the chances of future climbers to get the same deal. When asking for gear, you could ask if they have any old stock, remainders or seconds they don't want, rather then gear they can sell. If you want the sexiest gear, on time, that fits, and is the right colour, then you're probably best just saving up and buying it yourself.