Sponsorship and Risk


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Sep 4, 2003
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Hey gang,

I read an article a while ago discussing how corporate sponsorship of athletes like climbers might be causing those athletes to take unreasonable risks. (The recent death of Hilliaree Nelson while ski descending from the summit of Manaslu brought that article back to mind.). She went in less than ideal conditions, but her partner successfully completed the descent... which has been done several times by several people, including a snowboarder.

Now obviously this level of athlete is highly motivated at baseline. But for example, North Face has lost four sponsored athletes in the last three years.

In addition, the international Piolet dÂ’Or annual awards for epic achievements in the mountains is also drawing attention regarding risk required to earn that prestigious award.

In North Face case, three climber were lost in 2019 (alpinist Jess Roskelley and Austrian climbers David Lama, 28, and Hansjörg Auer, 35) in the Canadian Rockies attempting a second ascent of a very difficult and dangerous route.

Then Hilaree Nelson earlier this week.

I suppose as a professional athlete you are only as good (and valuable) as your last climb.

What do you folks think of the sponsorship vs. risk situation today in professional mountaineering?

(Then again, I have a friend who says "if you hang around a barber shop long enough you will get a haircut sooner or later!)
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ChrisB, you raise a very good question. I've long-thought that sponsorship puts pressure on athletes to stay with or ahead of expectations. At the same time, it's been previously pointed out that YouTube and GPro cameras have tempted many to try difficult routes or other athletic feats near or above their level of proficiency.
It's a worthy question surely. PB this ties into a conversation I had recently about Instagram. Lots of (seemingly) inexperienced people taking risks for clicks and to satisfy the followers they have amassed.

The idea of going for a walk in the woods just for the sake of just that, a walk in the woods, is seemingly lost. Could we point to the origination and proliferation of "lists" as the beginning? Not intending on slamming lists, that's not my point. But when goals (and as an extension, sponsorships) amassed start to outweigh the risks, incidents happen.
This type of moral/ethical discussion has been going on for decades. Most of the big name sponsors - North Face. Patagonia... - are aware of the public's perception that they may be encouraging risk taking via sponsorship. They shy away from sponsoring people as "pro" based solely om their climbing ability. They push sponsoring "ambassadors" who are just inspirational y good people who give back a lot. But the reality is that most elite climbers just want to climb and not have to bother with all that stuff. If they can keep their name out there by climbing something attention getting - it serves the purpose. Still I think most of motivation for the elites comes from challenging themselves - they do "it" (whatever the it is) because they want to try. If it brings in some $$ so much the better.

A few related thoughts. A few years ago Power Bar dropped a couple of big names because they were getting attention via soloing.

Sort of the ultimate behavior here is when someone does something that is being recorded "live". All sorts of performance pressure there. Marc Andre Leclerc was noteworthy for going to great lengths NOT to be recorded - to be truly solo (of course it still ended up the same). One of the more noteworthy events in the old days (my days) was ~50 years ago when Henry Barber (I hope you know who that is) was contracted to solo something live on British TV. He was willing but wanted to wait until the climb went into the shade (if you are a climber you'd get it) but the show was live. NOW. He went ahead and I guess it was pretty sketchy.

Nut other then the fact that you end up dead as opposed to maimed for life - is this much different then how we incentive our Sunday afternoon NFL gladiators?
It's an interesting question, but I never thought that it really made that much of a difference. Alex Honnold and others at that level are doing what they do regardless. I do think the question relates to paying climbers as well. There is where you really see money putting people in danger. Clients paying 40 to 60 k to be guided up Himalayan peaks are expecting to make the summit. The movie "Everest" portrays that fact quite well. Imagine handing over 60k and getting told 20 minutes from the summit of Everest to turn back. The problem there is that most of those clients don't have the skillset to assess the risk and it's unrealistic to them to "give it up", when in fact it's most likely the smart move. Paying 60k doesn't guarantee anything, at least it shouldn't.
BTW, early in VFTT days, the General Backcountry Forum was part of large batch of forums and VFTT was in theory a profit making endeavor. I dont think it every was actually profit making as Darren and partner were too early in the profit making internet (advertisers paying for views, what advertiser would be so stupid?). There was at least one more extreme activities forum possibly several (possibly rock and ice climbing?) and I believe that a couple of folks got in serious trouble possibly died who met and planned activities on the site. At some point Darren shut the other forums down because he felt that even though he had no legal responsibility, he did not feel right in continuing them and possibly profiting from rare events like had occurred on the other forums and therefore they were closed and VFTT turned into the site it was until Darren handed it over.

Note that the reason this and many other internet activities exist is that congress passed legislation effectively shielding internet content suppliers from liability. There are occasional attempts to break this protection but up until now the supreme court has left it in place.
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