Becoming a professional outdoor athlete is like a dream come true for many, but it’s not all fun and games in the great outdoors. Alistair Hall meets rock climbing legends Alex Honnold and Peter Croft and discovers there’s a little payback, too
“This is the most paparazzi experience I’ve ever had,” a bemused-looking Alex Honnold said as the dozen or so photographers crowded in, flashes popping and shutters clicking at machine gun speed.
Honnold, 26, is a rock climbing superstar who is no stranger to the limelight. Last year he appeared on 60 Minutes and has had countless web articles, newspaper and magazine pages devoted to him and his audacious free soloing – climbing without protection – achievements, most notable of which is his Yosemite Triple Crown where he climbed the combined 2100m vertical rock faces of Yosemite National Park’s Mt Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome in 18 hours, 50 minutes. To put that achievement in perspective, consider that it takes most competent climbers three days just to climb El Capitan.
Wilderness met Honnold, along with climber Peter Croft and big mountain skier Kasha Rigby, in Yosemite while on a media junket with other journalists from the Asia Pacific region courtesy of The North Face (TNF), which sponsors all three athletes.
Big time sponsorship is something few New Zealander’s have managed to achieve, despite the nation’s love of sport and the outdoors and with plenty of highly skilled and committed participants. Yet, having an outdoor company provide the wherewithal to enable you to – let’s not beat around the bush – play outside, could sound to a New Zealander too good to be true. And, judging from the antics on display at Yosemite, maybe it is.
We had arrived at the Yosemite accommodation at around 10.30pm – some three hours later than expected thanks to a delayed departure from San Francisco.
Honnold, Croft and Rigby were waiting in the hotel restaurant so after all 21 journalists had checked in we made our way to an outdoor dining area beneath Californian pines. A few minutes’ later the food started to arrive. Gorging on wild mushrooms and grilled salmon, washing it all down with some of California’s finest reds, my colleagues from around the world paid absolutely no attention as Honnold presented a slide show about his most famous climbing achievements. At one time he looked around, caught my eye, waved his hand dismissively at the group, and said: “I don’t know why I bother, you guys aren’t even listening.”
If anyone else heard, they didn’t show it as conversations in half a dozen languages continued unabated. It was a bizarre moment and will forever stick in my head as one of the reasons journalists get a bad rap – some of us really do not give a damn.
Here was Alex Honnold, the most exciting rock climber of his generation talking about his incredible achievements in one of the greatest rock climbing spots in the world and the people who had flown half way around the world to interview him, were more interested in what was on their dinner plate.
So, talking to disinterested journalists who have no idea what you do, or any interest in it whatsoever, is just part of the job description for professional athletes. Your name gets out there, but the ‘name of the game’ is the sponsor’s, not yours.
The next day, before Honnold was mobbed by photographers from Men’s Health Singapore (and Indonesia), National Geographic China and fashion magazines from Hong Kong, China and everywhere in between, I walked with him on the track to Half Dome – scene of some of his most celebrated climbs. We talked about what’s expected of him now he’s sponsored by a giant international outdoor brand. Does it impact on his climbing, for instance?
“I probably could climb more days a year if I didn’t have sponsors and I just finagled it somehow,” he admits. “But I would be living like a homeless person and someday I would get old and broken down. This is for sure the best way to do it.”
Honnold is tied up for 30 days a year with promotional work for TNF. He spent two of those days with the Asia Pacific group in Yosemite, essentially his back yard, so it’s hardly onerous. When pressed further, he says his TNF salary – the cheque arrives in the post four times a year – hasn’t changed his routine much at all. He still lives a mostly “dirt bag” lifestyle and gets by on less than $1000 a month by living in his van. “That’s what’s cool about it,” he says. “I eat out a little more but I’m basically living the exact same as I was but now I just save a fair amount of money. Ideally someday I’ll actually be [financially] OK.”
When he started climbing Honnold didn’t realise he could get ‘paid’ for doing what he loved: “I didn’t know it was possible [to be sponsored],” he said. “But when I started to get free stuff I was like ‘this is awesome, I don’t have to pay for my karabiners, I’m so psyched!’.”
It was after completing a free solo link-up of Rostrum and Astroman in Yosemite Valley in 2007 – the first time it had been done since Peter Croft in 1987 – and Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park in 2008, that the media spotlight turned on Honnold and the big name sponsors came knocking. He was approached by Patagonia as well as TNF, but it was the athlete programme at TNF that swung it for him. “They have had the same athlete programme for 30 years,” he says. “Even though the company has changed a lot they have always had an athlete programme, they have always done expeditions. Some of the other companies have put a lot of money into [their programmes] and then fired everybody, and then put more money into it and then changed focus.
“As an athlete, having stability is important; having one company forever and to just focus on your climbing and not having to worry about hustling, is important.”
Peter Croft knows all about stability. He’s been sponsored by TNF since the early 1990s and is one of the company’s longest-serving global athletes. While Honnold gets his photograph taken, I sat down with Croft and asked if sponsorship – and more specifically the desire to remain sponsored – has forced him to change his climbing ambitions to suit the corporate number crunchers?
“It’s more of an enabling thing,” he says. “I’ve seen sponsorship change some people. They let it direct what they want to do and I think that is a shame. But you don’t have to change. You have to provide something; I don’t think any climbing sponsorship works where they just throw money at the person: they ask them to go to store openings and give presentations.
“But apart from that, I think the people who let it change them are too worried.”
Croft, 55, probably ‘works’ harder than any other TNF athlete. He is one of the company’s key gear testers and does 40 days a year, mostly acting as a guide for other TNF employees on trips that would make any seasoned outdoor adventurer green with envy. Often, the employees are designers who are shown how well – or poorly – their creations perform in the field. “Sometimes they come up with stuff that is just ridiculous,” Croft says. It’s not until designers are shown how a feature that looks good on paper doesn’t necessarily work in practice that they understand the complaints those testing the product have made.
“It’s a really successful programme that’s been going on for years and it just gets bigger and bigger. We go to really cool places – canyoneering, mountain climbing, ice climbing, skiing, winter camping trips.”
The programme, where athletes test the gear and give feedback to the designers before it makes it into production, is what’s behind the company’s ‘Athlete tested, expedition proven’ mantra. The results of Croft and other athlete’s testing quite literally puts the reputation of The North Face on the line – they can’t afford to get it wrong.
One thing’s for sure, sponsorship doesn’t come easy. Honnold has pulled off what most people would consider death-defying climbs to get to where he is today.
Big mountain skier Kasha Rigby has been sponsored by TNF for 15 years. When she first started out, getting sponsorship was actually easy – “I came in at a really unique time – there were no other girls doing what I was doing so I was the only choice at that time” – but she says now it’s getting more difficult.
“I don’t know how someone gets started now because there’re so many choices [for sponsors]. You just have to do something cool.”
She says if you’re doing something you love and are passionate about, sponsorship will come. “Eventually there is a good chance. I think many pieces have to come together, but it doesn’t work to be a bad sport, it doesn’t work to undercut other people. In my mind it’s being the best you can be and uplifting those around you and eventually you’ll get sponsored.”
Honnold agrees that the big challenge for those wanting to become a professional climber is to get noticed: “You have to be doing some interesting and relevant climbing,” he says. “I think it’s the basis that you have to be a pretty good rock climber and at least be doing some pretty creative things; something cool.
“Much of it is knowing the right people and being in the right market. The problem with New Zealand is it’s not a huge market. I have a couple of Israeli friends who are good climbers. They are not going to get sponsored by anyone. None of the companies distribute in Israel. It’s just bad luck.”
Honnold suggests aspiring climbers follow Kiwi rock climber Mayan Smith-Gobat’s career path: “She’s done all her high end climbing in the rest of world and is now sponsored,” he says. Smith-Gobat recently joined Adidas’ international athlete team after coming to their attention for free climbing El Capitan’s Salathe Wall. It’s a big step up for someone who spent years doing the hard yards, working odd jobs to fund her overseas climbing trips.
Even when the sponsorship dollars start rolling in, you won’t become rich. Only a handful – around 70 – of TNF’s athletes actually get paid. The rest – and there’s a lot of them – are given free gear and some assistance getting to races or events. Even for those who are sent a quarterly cheque, it’s not always enough to get by on. “It’s still not like we get paid so much, we don’t have other jobs,” admits Rigby. “I have a couple of little jobs I do throughout the year.”
However, Mayan Gobat-Smith says her lifestyle has changed since Adidas began sponsoring her: “Through a combination of all of my sponsors, I am able to make a living and am not doing another type of work to survive anymore. But this is only because I have minimal living costs – I am living on the road and still live very cheaply.”
Her advice to other Kiwis wanting to seek a living pursuing their outdoor ambitions? Think long and hard about it. “It is a hard route to take and requires much more work than just getting a job and funding your own climbing adventures. There is also much more to it than simply climbing hard. Definitely do not do it for the money; if you pursue climbing as a career it has to be for the pure love of the sport.
“Having said that, I have found it extremely rewarding and would not want to live my life any other way.”
It’s safe to say that’s a sentiment shared by all sponsored athletes.