Picture this. A talented University of Oklahoma distance runner nails a stump while snowboarding in Colorado, resulting in a career-derailing injury. Lost, he seeks guidance from his assistant track coach, who asks, “Ever hear of mountain climbing?” Quickly obsessed, the young man devotes every skinny fiber of his being to vertical pursuits. Two years later, having sent a couple 5.12 sport climbs and a few 5.11 gear routes in Oklahoma’s granite Wichita Mountains, as well as having placed second at a very (very) small University of North Texas climbing competition, our hero is approached by a college-aged Texan who offers to be his athletic manager. Sweet whispers of sponsorship, free gear, paid trips, and unlimited stickers float into his ears.
Listen: That dumb runner was me, and for two years I entered the world of sponsored climbing. As improbable as it all sounds, I learned that it didn’t matter how hard you climbed. In fact, all that mattered was that people knew your name and who gave you gear. My manager’s silky tongue secured shoes, watches, beverages, and stickers. So my feet stuck to the rock, I knew what time it was, I was never thirsty, and I could have #stickerstoked an entire Honda Civic. I bandied about Oklahoma and North Texas to poorly attended college comps with no prize money and fell off easy sport climbs at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, Arkansas. And I did it all while wearing the latest high-fashion manpris and sponsor-logoed beanies.
While cultivating an outsized view of my own worth, I also met a then-16-year-old Alex Puccio at Canyons Climbing Gym in Frisco, Texas, during a sick training sesh. Back then, Puccio was already well on her way to a more lasting relationship with the givers-of-free-gear. Watching her go on to smash at comps and send the world’s hardest problems, I realized that talent and drive will also get you sponsored. But let’s face it: Few of us will ever be Alex Puccio. For us, getting sponsored means less training and more talking.
So with great thanks to my former sponsors Evolv, Fortress Watches, Vitamin Water, and, in a way, Hooters (where my teammate’s mom—yes, his mother—took us for post-comp snacks), I’d like to share with you the top five things I’ve learned about threading the fickle needle of going pro.
Strength of reputation is greater than strength of arms
While it helps to climb 5.15, you don’t actually have to. Quickly, think of one of your favorite climbers; now think of the ascent that endeared them to you. Chances are, names like Alex Honnold, Adam Ondra, and Babsi Zangerl are seared into your brain like the brand on a Drummond steer, but can you cite even one of the six 5.14c’s that Ondra onsighted when he was 18 that sent his career into the stratosphere? With the sheer noise that makes up the climbing world these days, having name loyalty is paramount. The bleeding edge of the sport gets pushed almost constantly, but guess what—because I saw Dave Graham do the first ascent of Ba Ba Blacksheep (5.14d) at Céüse in the 2002 film Autoroute, I knew that what he climbed mattered more than all those climbers who weren’t in Autoroute. So get a few clips in the magazines, make YouTube “bangers” of uncut footage, and spam the ‘Gram. It’s time to earn fan loyalty.
If all else fails, attach yourself to a stronger climber. You’ll be guilty of strength by association. In 2008, I swapped belays for an afternoon with Sonnie Trotter on Horseshoe Canyon Ranch’s The Prophet (5.14a). While I could reasonably do all the moves, stringing them together was near impossible, though Sonnie was one-hanging the route and debating whether it might be worth trying in the Horseshoe Hell comp. For the next few days, when ranch-goers asked me what I was working on, I yammered on about our progress on the rig, letting them wrongly assume I was as close to sending as Sonnie, who seemed indifferent to my unmerited attention-bogarting. So let the fingers and lats of more talented climbers carry you to fame and fortune.
This may sound dubious, but do something fucked up (not, like, access-jeopardizing or perverted-creeper fucked up; more like misdemeanor-level fucked up, like brushing a hold a little too hard, chopping a bolt, or calling someone a fraud on social media). Ridiculous controversy fills the climbing world and, more than any other climbing news, generates buzz. So bolt this, tick that, chop this, and clap back. You can keep circling the climbing world quietly in deep orbit or you can shine brightly like a meteorite burning up in the atmosphere. Just remember, only one of those gets seen. Some years ago, Cedar Wright rap-bolted a route in an area in Crimea with a strong ground-up ethic. Gaffe? Absolutely. Lasting, detrimental effects to the environment or people? Nope. Forums, magazines, and gym chats centering on the topic for weeks, equaling free coverage of @cedarwright? Bingo.
But don’t forget the other aspect of this. When things go south—apologize(ish). Obfuscate your behavior behind what might be a heartfelt “I’m sorry” but what might also be a Michelin-starred-chophouse word salad. Let people keep talking, dissecting, debating, and discussing. If you present yourself to the public with enough panache, conviction, and charisma, whatever inconsequential thing you’ve done wrong may somehow seem right by the end of the news cycle. And you’ll have gained new disciples in the process. Legendary wine drinker and occasional climber Warren Harding slammed in a bunch of bolts on the Wall of Early Morning Light on El Cap much to the chagrin of one Royal Robbins. But when Robbins went to chop the offending steel, he realized how stellar the route was and turned supporter. Could you imagine having had the ‘Gram in the Golden Age? “Took a gander at @Wall_Wino_Harding’s El Cap hack job today and I gotta say, my frenemy here might be onto something. #bolttheworld #JKtrad4lyfe”—@Purist_Royal
Train to be seen training; “send” to be seen sending
Look, spend all the time you want in the gym training, but it will all be for naught (other than, you know, getting stronger) if you’re not slinging content to your followers. I can’t tell you how many ridiculous videos I’ve seen of Magnus Midtbø ripping one-arm, one-finger pullups like gravity did not apply or Shauna Coxsey cartwheeling around on giant plastic blobs. But I also can’t tell you a goddamn thing either one of these two have climbed. Though I can tell you this: I’d use my first two picks on them in the fantasy climbing draft.
This applies inside as well as outside. I was well past my sponsorship era when I was four-hanging The Prophet, but because I was so impressed with myself, it didn’t deter me from spamming action shots from the crux onto every profile and climbing site I could find. If you think I’m the only one guilty here, guess again. Even at your local chosspile, every bozo with a smartphone has snapped some action shot on the testpiece du jour and shared the resulting farce as proof they’re “working” a problem we all know they’ll never top. But never mind that: It’s your job to help the world see you how you see @you—talent, dedication, and ability be damned.
Fake it till you make it
Why wait for the sponsors to find you? Find them yourself and prove what a good ambassador you plan on being by slinging products you like with a liberal dash of the @ symbol. And don’t just think this is about social media either. Outfit yourself: Guess who just uses one pad brand now? You. Guess who can’t even go to a wedding without wearing TC Pros? You. Guess who’s affixing their own Petzl patches to dogbones for some homemade team draws? Yeah, that’s you too, homie. Sponsorship is a lifestyle. Have some class and own it. Eventually, the sponsors will find (or maybe sue) you.
The natural continuation and culmination of your pre-sponsorship sponsorship is pre-spray. While it’s as old as the Internet 1.0 with mountaineers hyping their potential ascents of Mount Everest with no oxygen and a stuffed giraffe lashed to their back, this phenomenon was popularized in the rock-climbing world by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson with their multi-year ascent of the Dawn Wall. Hype caught, we watched, and eventually they sent the rig to the fanfare they deserved.
You’re not Caldwell or Jorgeson, though. And you can’t even look at El Cap without your baby-soft digits sweating like a Southern summer rain. So, what to do? Fortunately, these days, you no longer have to pass through the media gatekeepers to spread the gospel of @you. (It used to be, if you asked an editor to hype up your trip to Spain to send one of the ubiquitous 5.hards, they’d laugh in your face and then share your email around the office, leaving you—or so you imagined—to suffer the cackling derision of so many dead-eyed writers who’d finally found somebody more pitiful than themselves.) So hype yourself on the Interwebs. Hype your trip. Hype your YouTube channel. Consider switching climbing styles. Learn trad climbing if you’re a sport crusher. Inflate your offwidth sends if you trad climb. Let failing and falling on anything that isn’t a bolt look less like incompetence and weakness and more like “self-exploration” and “perseverance.” Know this, friend: So far as the public perception goes, failing on a 5.15 is better than sending 5.14 every single time.
Now get out there. The world is ready to know about @you. You have so much to offer. Set some unrealistic goals, GoFundMe your plane ticket to Oliana, and get out that 11 mm rope. You’ll need something sturdy to hang on while you ‘Gram the proj.
Andrew Tower lives in the mountain town of Crested Butte on the Western Slope of Colorado where he’s far from people but close to rocks.