Opinion: Rethinking Risk

In an era in which athletes are willing to take increasingly greater risks in front of the camera, is it ethical for brands to promote and benefit from this willingness? Clif Bar says no for its company. Is this an insult to the athletes, or are they onto something?

Professional climber, free-soloist, BASE jumper, and wingsuit pilot Steph Davis says she wasn’t surprised when one of her sponsors, Clif Bar, the energy-bar manufacturer, informed her that they would not be renewing her contract due to the fact that they are no longer willing to support the very activities for which she is most well known.

“They’ve always seemed conflicted over free-soloing and BASE jumping,” says Davis, “So it wasn’t a huge shock to me.”

What was surprising to Davis, however, was the ensuing amount of attention the story received. “Suddenly I’m getting contacted by the New York Times about this,” says a confounded Davis, “and I’m wondering why an ordinary contract cycle is a major media story?”

Rock and Ice magazine first broke the news of Clif Bar’s decision to withdraw the contracts of five of its best rock climbers on November 7. Alex Honnold, Dean Potter, Cedar Wright, and Timmy O’Neill were also given the pink slip from a company with whom all had enjoyed a long relationship. Potter, for example, had been with Clif Bar for more than a decade.

The reason, according to a Rock and Ice source, was that Clif Bar was, “terminating support to anybody who free-solo climbs, BASE jumps, or high-lines.”

A company severing ties with a sponsored athlete is nothing new, though it is usually associated with an infraction on the athlete’s part. To the climbing world, this news came off as strange, sudden, and even hypocritical on Clif Bar’s part because the company seemed to be penalizing its athletes for the very activities that had landed them sponsorships in the first place.

The initial report resulted in an outcry in the climbing world; many people began posting angry messages to Clif Bar’s Facebook page, voicing their support for their climbing heroes.

“After 20 years I ate my last Clif Bar yesterday,” wrote one poster. “If you do not accept the most incredible athletes and sports on the planet I will no longer support your company. I am disgusted and repulsed by your terrible marketing decision. With the market saturated by other bars, I hope this devastates you.”

After nearly a week of silence, Clif Bar came forward with a statement.

“Over a year ago, we started having conversations internally about our concerns with BASE jumping, high-lining, and free-soloing,” wrote Clif Bar in an open letter to the climbing community. “We concluded that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go. We understand that some climbers feel these forms of climbing are pushing the sport to new frontiers. But we no longer feel good about benefitting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net.”

The letter resulted in people coming forward to support Clif Bar. One Facebook comment stated:

“Thank you for pulling sponsorship from athletes who are making unsafe choices. Younger generations look up to and follow the path of sponsored athletes and you just helped make their future safer by providing them with athletes who make safer decisions for them to look up to! So proud of you guys for taking a stand and drawing the line on what you will support.”

Ultimately, Steph Davis’ initial impression may be correct: Clif Bar terminating five contracts out of the ninety-some athletes the company sponsors isn’t the controversial and major news story that all the attention is making it out to be. If anything, all the athletes, and even Clif Bar, seems to have benefited from the publicity. However, this news, in spite of itself, has sparked an unlikely public discourse about the role and responsibility of media and advertising in adventure sports today. Namely, is it responsible for a company to promote sports that have potential death consequences? Has the marketing of these activities gone too far? And will Clif Bar inspire other companies to take a step back, too?

On the other hand, these athletes are doing amazing and inspirational things—stuff that few if any other people in the world are capable of or willing to do. In an era where so many top mainstream athletes are revealed—with what seems to be increasingly regularity—to be dopers, cheaters, or wife-beaters, these adventure athletes embody the human spirit by pushing the limits what our bodies and minds are capable of achieving. They are guilty only of risking their own lives, not the lives of others. Wouldn’t companies be remiss not to fully support these types of individuals?

Adventure sports are enjoying an unprecedented position in the limelight. The public’s fascination with extreme risk-taking activities such wingsuit BASE jumping and free-solo rock climbing seems to be growing, with now regular coverage in the New York Times and other general interest media outlets. Even normal roped rock climbing, and its equally safe cousin, slacklining, have made prominent appearances on television. Alex Honnold and Katie Brown climbed the Ancient Art formation in the Fisher Towers for a CitiBank commercial. And “Sketchy Andy” Lewis put on a memorable slackline performance alongside Madonna during a Superbowl halftime show.

Red Bull has led the way in terms of leveraging extreme action-sports content for marketing purposes. The Austrian beverage company has branched into media creation and distribution via Red Bull Media House. Red Bull TV recently launched on Apple TV, presenting branded content as regular television programming and positioning themselves to become the de facto ESPN of action sports.

Alex Honnold is probably the biggest name in climbing right now. He is known for his rope-less climbs in Yosemite and Zion National Parks, and his (rather casual) willingness to be filmed either during the initial feats, or returning with a camera crew in the aftermath to recreate the event.

In 2011 60 Minutes aired the footage of this mild-mannered climber hanging by his fingertips thousands of feet up a vertical rock face and with no rope. The segment gripped an audience of millions of viewers and certainly helped to propel Honnold to the stardom he enjoys today.

Most recently, Honnold appeared in a commercial for SquareSpace that ran during the World Series. In it, he free-soloed a route called Heaven, a short but extremely exposed 5.12d in Yosemite. He had free-soloed this route before, in 2011, while also “flashing” it—meaning, he had never even rehearsed the climb with a rope.

Wright, O’Neill, Davis, and Potter are all also major stars in the adventure world. Like Honnold, their recognition has derived in part from their cutting-edge achievements, but also from their ability to work with photographers and filmmakers to create the media assets that capture the risks and rewards involved in their various feats.

After all, if there’s no camera, it didn’t happen.

Yet it was precisely this storytelling, ironically, that the Rock and Ice report suggested was what pushed Clif Bar to its decision. The new film Valley Uprising depicts the evolution of Yosemite rock climbing, highlighting climbing’s counterculture roots. The last third of Valley Uprising focuses on recent times. According to the film, some Yosemite climbers are carrying that rebellious torch by seeking new extreme challenges such as high-lining, free-soloing, and BASE jumping, the latter of which is illegal in national parks.

Dean Potter was featured for his various experimentations with “free BASE”—free-soloing with a parachute on his back—a new sport in which he is both the father and sole participant.

The presence of a camera crew in these situations understandably makes onlookers uncomfortable. The whole decision-making process suddenly seems more complex, if fraught with conflicting motivations. Yet strangely absent from the discussion are the concerns about a camera instilling athletes with false “Kodak confidence.” Even the phrase itself seems outdated. Perhaps this speaks to how we’ve grown inured to the ubiquity of cameras in all of our lives, whether that’s our own smart phones, or the GoPros mounted to every third helmet on today’s ski slopes.

One critique that has been leveraged at Clif Bar by climbers is that the company doesn’t seem to be giving enough credit to the athletes themselves to make informed decisions about the risks they choose. For a corporation to draw a line about what is, or isn’t, too risky is unsettling to some in the adventure community.

This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument. It’s hard to say whether climbers, BASE jumpers, and high-liners would, or wouldn’t, be doing all of the things that they currently do were there not sponsorship dollars to be earned and advertising campaigns to be made.

But another issue is that risk-taking is inherently relative and extremely individualistic. Where one person might be uncomfortable, another is perfectly at home. Where one person is facing imminent danger, another person, due to their higher skill set, may be perfectly safe. Making objective, blanket value judgements about what is, or isn’t, too risky—such as Clif Bar stating that, across the board, free-soloing, BASE jumping, and high-lining are too risky—certainly walks a slippery slope.

Risks and consequences are two different things—often conflated and widely misunderstood. Risk-taking in adventure sports may be broken down as containing four key elements: 1) your personal skill set; 2) the skill set required to complete the feat; 3) the objective hazards surrounding the feat, which range from the known to the unknown to the freak occurrence; and 4) the steps you take toward controlling, or mitigating, those objective hazards to the best of your ability.

If an individual’s skills are well above the level needed to safely complete a feat, then the action may not actually be that risky for that individual.

Also, there’s a difference between the risk-taker who researches, analyzes, and makes informed decisions about how to approach a certain objective versus the caffeine- and guarana-fueled yahoo who just charges blindly forward.

In other words, Alex Honnold soloing a 5.12d route like Heaven might seem like an incredibly dangerous thing. But the route is (apparently) well within his climbing abilities. The rock on this route is also really solid (meaning it’s unlikely a hold will break). Though incomprehensible even to most climbers, Honnold chucking a free-solo lap on Heaven may be no riskier than a professional skier taking a lap down Aspen’s Highlands Bowl, understanding that avalanches can occur anywhere there’s snow, even in bounds.

The consequences, however, of these two examples are very different. It’s possible to survive being buried by an avalanche. But a fall from Heaven would mean certain death.

Now compare free-soloing to mountaineering. The skill level needed to be a mountain climber may not be as high as the skill demanded by free-soloing. However, the number of objective hazards are exponentially greater on a big peak that takes five days to climb versus a short granite route that only takes five minutes. You could make the argument that mountain climbing, in general, is far riskier than free-soloing.

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A look into the fatality statistics of the three sports rebuked by Clif Bar reveal how the perception of risk and consequence doesn’t always match reality. To the best of my research, I found that no one has ever died high-lining. Highliners have lost control while walking without tethers, but thus far have always been able to sit down and grab hold of the line before sustaining the consequence of a death plunge. The calls have been close, to be sure, and the action on film makes for great, gripping drama. But can you really place high-lining in the same category of risk as BASE jumping?

BASE jumping—particularly wingsuit proximity flying—is certainly the riskiest of the three. There were 24 BASE deaths in 2013. This year is on track to meet that grim number, with 22 deaths already. Many of these deaths were of high-profile jumpers known for their skill, respectful approach, and (relative) prudence—greatly adding to the perception of extreme risk involved.

These numbers are relatively low compared to, say, skiing in which an average of 41.5 people die each year according to the National Ski Areas Association. However, skiing is exponentially more popular than wingsuit BASE jumping.

Free-soloing—which seems to have bore the brunt of Clif Bar’s censure—is an even more difficult sport to grasp its true risk. There may have been only one free-solo death in the U.S. in 2014. Deaths from free-soloing, in fact, are few and far between, and they almost never occur in situations where an individual is pushing at his or her limit. In the handful of instances in which a famous climber has died soloing, it has more often than not occurred on routes well within that climber’s limit, on “casual” outings.

For example, John Bachar—who was the last prominent soloist to have died from free soloing, in 2009—is believed to have fallen off a route well within his limit, though this is unconfirmed.

Prior to Bachar, the last really famous free soloist to have died in the act was Derek Hersey, who fell in Yosemite in 1993—also on a route well within his limit. Other famous free soloists have died but not from free soloing. Dan Osman perished in a rope jumping accident. Michael Reardon was reportedly swept away by a rogue wave while standing in an alcove on the coast of Ireland; he was climbing sea cliffs, but apparently he did not die from a free-solo climbing fall.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a very small percentage of the climbing population (already a relatively small group) engages in free-soloing, and if they do, it’s only on occasion. But certainly there’s a perception that if you free-solo long enough, you will almost certainly to die. Tough to say whether this is true, or whether it speaks more to the fact that free-solo deaths have the sort of grim spectacle of an airplane crash, which inevitably skews our perceptions about risk.

Honnold has done more to bring the sport free soloing into the limelight than anyone else. Yet so far there’s little evidence that today’s crop of up-and-coming climbers are eager to follow in his footsteps. And as he pointed out in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, no amount of money or sponsorships would ever be strong-enough reasons to free-solo.

Risk perception is not just a matter of facts; media can play a significant role in this perception, and this goes both ways. Media has the power to make extreme sports seem riskier than they are through dramatic storytelling, just as it has the power to inure our sensitivity to and respect for the risk inherent in all these extreme activities.

The decision to take a risk will always be a personal choice weighed by the individual. But considering the growth of adventure sports in general and their increasing appearance in commercial campaigns, then perhaps the temptation to take risks—and make a buck in the process—is more ripe with opportunity than ever before.

Just not with Clif Bar.

Andrew Bisharat is a writer, editor and climber based in Basalt, CO. You can follow him on Twitter at @eveningsends.

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