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?