The Professionals

A climber ascending an artificial wall shaped like an eyeball
The life of a professional is lived in the public eye.

After many years working in the outdoor industry and lurking on Internet climbing forums, I‘ve noticed a certain ambivalence about the idea of the “professional” climber. Some people think being a pro must be the greatest thing on earth—all upside and no down. Others think the idea of a pro is an affront to the spirit of climbing, that pros are nothing more than marketing tools.

Many people feel both ways at once, perhaps resenting pros because, they feel, they’re somehow gaming the system, getting more than their fair share of the good stuff. After all, most of us work forty-plus hours a week doing things we find only vaguely fulfilling to pay the bills. We  squeeze in climbing between the office, chores, family, and the like. If we’re especially lucky, we get a good vacation to some destination like Céüse or Hueco or the Alaska Range every couple of years. The obvious question then: What could these pros possibly be doing that justifies a life of climbing, when the rest of us have to actually work for our money? 

From what I’ve seen, however, the professional climber’s life is less glamorous than many imagine and more like the jobs that most of us work: full of trade-offs and sacrifices.

In his Meditations, the stoic Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius writes “A man wishes to conquer at the Olympic games. I also wish indeed, for it is a fine thing. But observe both the things which come first, and the things which follow; and then begin the act. You must do everything according to rule, eat according to strict orders, abstain from delicacies, exercise yourself as you are bid at appointed times, in heat, in cold … you must deliver yourself up to the exercise master as you do to the physician, and then proceed to the contest.”

A professional climber’s life might seem glamorous to some, charmed even, but consider, as Marcus Aurelius suggests, “the things which come first, and the things which follow.” For example, to be a professional climber, you should be both gifted and dedicated, climbing consistently and consistently better than most. This alone is a great challenge, of which the world’s millions of average climbers stand as proof.

On top of that, you must accept an itinerant life, flying across the globe and back at the behest of sponsors, living on couches and out the backs of vans. You must pose down for photos and videos, write blogs, submit to interviews, and otherwise hold yourself up for the scrutiny of the unblinking public eye. At the same time, you must be willing to go without the stability and niceties of the typical professional life: a familiar bed, a retirement plan, health insurance, etc.

If you don’t have such skills and are not willing to live like this, companies will not pay your way—or at least not for very long. After all, as a professional, your value is as inspiration, and inspiration must be constantly renewed in the form of new accomplishments, new trips, new media.

A professional climber, like any athlete, must also remember there are no guarantees. Aurelius continues: “Sometimes you will strain the hand, put the ankle out of joint, swallow much dust, sometimes be flogged, and after all this be defeated.” 

Maybe you’ll injure yourself, maybe fail to perform as expected. Maybe you will make some misstep and be criticized and embarrassed. In the end, unless you are the top one-tenth of one percent of climbers, you won’t make enough money to save a nest egg for the future. You’ll just get by, and eventually have to figure out how to make your way in the world when old age or injury set in. Meanwhile, those who resent you or idolize you for your lucky career might well be getting raises, buying houses, having children… .

That’s not to say that being a pro climber isn’t sweet—it certainly can be. If it is the life for you, you should not hesitate to pursue it. But if you are climber who carries some envy or disdain for the professional, remember that for you, climbing is a personal pleasure more than a public performance. The fact that your employer doesn’t care how well you do on the rock is probably part of what makes climbing so satisfying . For most of us climbing’s joy comes not just in the act itself, but also in its contrast to the workaday world.

So I’d leave you with a question: having really considered that which comes first and which follows, how does the life of the professional climber seem to you?

Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

12 thoughts on “The Professionals”

  1. I’m reminded of the Mike Call classic, ‘The Professionals.” I think you might have been a little generous with your one-tenth of one percent statistic though.

  2. i am not a pro climber, but i am a former pro bike rider who recently took up climbing. i “retired” due to injury, but i can vouch for much of what was written. i am and was married during this time and can say that having a family and fulfilling sponsorship obligations was challenging to say the least. and, truthfully, unless you are on top of the small percent of pro’s, you probably have some sort of job somewhere whenever you can because money is scarce for sure. the allure and the free stuff is awesome. i would have never been able to dedicate so much time if it wasnt for sponsors. i think most climbers would agree that there are times when you’ve had to climb through a rand rather than getting a resole because you simply couldnt afford it. after all of the “glamour” i came out with injuries, debt, and a bunch of stories that 3 other people might care about.

    the allure of being a pro anything is created by the companies that sponsor athletes. you are a marketing tool through and through. i wasn’t better than a lot of people i grew up with, but my attitude pulled me through. they want something they can sell. i spent a lot of uncomfortable nights on couches and in cars or floors or wherever, because most sponsors aren’t paying for hotels or even sleezy motels. your travel expense allowance doesn’t go far either.

    i can say, quite confidently, that aurelius was wrong about one thing. its the work that you put in that makes most pro’s happy. there are few truly gifted athletes who don’t have to train the way the average person does. even a natural athlete, someone who is extremely athletic all around, has to work hard to get to the professional level which means they, at some level, enjoy the work.

    i’m glad that someone is talking about this. i’ve been climbing now for about 10 months and have completely fallen in love. at 32 I’ll never be pro but im going to work just as hard and i think that that is the thing that sets climbing apart from other sports. i dont know too many 30 year old bmx bike riders that go out 6 days a week and train anymore. but almost every climber i know does. its a world full of passion and dedication with no names sending 5.15’s and i think that its people like chris sharma and sasha digiulian that are part of the reason for that.

    sorry to be so long winded!

  3. Do sponsors put limits on how you interact with and what you say to fans on social media, etc.? Is that a consideration as you go about your day? You want people to be inspired by you and connect with you, but can you be your true self as a pro climber as your present yourself to the world? Or is that something you have to think about?

  4. The fact that a professional climbers’ lives are not a bed of roses doesn’t really answer the question as to their value to the climbing community. I’m not going to spite anyone given the opportunity spend their time pursuing something they love, but the reason they get paid is because they are supposed to generate more revenue for their sponsors then they cost. Seems like the better question is where they fall on the spectrum between “benefiting the sport” and benefiting the finances of gear companies and gym owners (whose incentives are not probably not as aligned with those of the typical climber as one would hope).

    1. I would say the way professional climbers benefit the climbing community is by climbing exceptionally well, accomplishing uncommonly difficult or dangerous tasks, and stretching the boundaries of the possible. These actions are inspirational to many in the community, who seek to similarly push their own limits.

      Yes, like all of us, pro climbers pay the bills by doing a job that has value to their employers. And like most of us, their jobs fall short of the “saving the world” ideal. But I’m not sure that makes what they’re doing any less legitimate…

      My questions to you would be, what would “benefitting the sport” look like and who is currently doing it? Conversely, would you say pro climbers are somehow doing the sport of climbing harm? If so, how?

      1. I know humans like heroes and dramatic story arcs, and not to say that there’s no value in that, but I personally have trouble drawing inspiration from someone I don’t know and who lives in world that revolves around climbing. I’m much more motivated by friends who climb hard while still having to deal with full time jobs, meager vacation allowances, kids, and overcrowded crags. As far as who benefits the sport, I’d put a lot more emphasis on the folks that are cleaning/bolting new lines and opening up new crags for climbing.

        I don’t have anything against professional climbers. Well, maybe just a little, but that’s mostly envy speaking. The point I was tangentially hinting at was that they serve a purpose (selling more stuff) that has some downsides. Inspiring more people to climb means more pressure on a natural resource that is not super abundant.That’s the point I was trying to make about the climbing industry’s incentives not necessarily being aligned with the interests of climbers. Just think it would be a shame if climbing’s marketing-boosted popularity leads to a degraded experience for everyone but the pros.

        1. It’s an interesting point, to be sure. When I hear people say they want to check the growth of climbing because climbing puts pressure on a natural resource, it makes me wonder who deserves to climb and who doesn’t? Is it only the people who’ve been climbing for x number of years who should be allowed to continue in their pursuit, while the newcomers must stay confined to gyms? Or perhaps there should be a lottery for all climbing areas (much the way there is a lottery for hunting in many areas, or for access to Grand Canyon rafting trips)? In truth, it may come to this some day, but I’m not sure what the alternative would be—would you prefer that all climbing related marketing activity be somehow limited or banned, in an effort to stem the rising tide of n00bs entering the sport? Or what…? There are some educational programs in the making these days from orgs like the Access Fund and the American Alpine club that are attempting to deal with these very issues. Do you think they might be of use? I think it’s a fair critique to say that the commercialization of climbing could lead to issues in the future, but it really leaves the big question unanswered: What might about it?

Your comments go here