In early November, energy food company Clif Bar withdrew its sponsorship of five top professional climbers: Alex Honnold, Cedar Wright, Dean Potter, Steph Davis, and Timmy O'Neill, some with more than a year left on their contracts. The abrupt withdrawal set off waves of speculation about Clif Bar's motivations, particularly since the announcement followed the debut of Sender Film's "Valley Uprising," an award-winning documentary featuring the five climbers, and some of climbing's riskier activities including free-soloing (climbing without a rope) and B.A.S.E. jumping.
In the days following, in an open letter to the climbing community, Clif Bar clarified its position and attempted to address the heated dialogue that had ensued:
Going forward we will not be sponsoring climbers who are primarily recognized for free-soloing, B.A.S.E. jumping and highlining. This change in sponsorship approach did not come without great debate.
Alex Honnold responded today in a mild-mannered op-ed in the Times, where he said he couldn't help but understand their point of view. Ultimately, so does Cedar Wright, another professional climber who lost Clif sponsorship. But where Honnold sees a calculated move, Wright sees a company making a big mistake. We talked to him in Moab, where he was premiering his latest climbing movie (featuring Alex Honnold and sponsored by Clif Bar), Sufferfest 2.
What changed for Clif Bar?
My guess is [Clif Bar founder] Gary [Erickson] saw Valley Uprising and was like, 'Fuck that. That is much too dangerous.' I think part of the problem with free-soloing, which is also a good thing, is that it looks so extreme. For the layman who doesn't understand the sport, it can look much more dangerous than it really is. In reality, you're climbing far below your ability level. But it apparently blew some minds at Clif Bar.
So free-soloing isn't dangerous?
What seems really risky to one person might not seem so risky to someone else. It's perceived versus actual risk. A professional climber hanging off a vertical wall, who is very in control, well, the chances of him falling are very slim. Like the chances of a competent driver on the highway veering off into oncoming traffic are very slim. Free-soloing looks very extreme and dangerous. Yet there have been very few soloing deaths.
What about B.A.S.E. jumping?
There's a much higher fatality with that. But still, it's an incredibly inspiring and visually stunning art form. You know countries sponsored multiple expeditions to Everest before it was climbed, and many people died in the process. There's a certain fascination and inspiration that we get from risk takers in this world. I, for one, couldn't imagine a world that had become so safe and homogenized that risk taking was no longer a part of society. In that way, I look at all of this as Clif's loss. And Clif's mistake.
Is it true Clif Bar backtracked?
Yeah, I got the official call re-inviting me back. I said no. Clif dropping sponsorship, was, in my mind, an impulsive, poorly thought-out decision. Here I am at Banff premiering Sufferfest 2, which Clif Bar also sponsored, but they're no longer supporting me personally as an athlete. It was a weird scene. I felt like their re-invite was more strategic rather than feeling actual remorse. I'll be looking for another food company to sponsor me, and Alex Honnold and I are already talking about Sufferfest 3.
So are Clif Bars banned in your household?
I still have love for Clif Bar; they do a lot of good stuff. If apparel sponsors started making impulsive decisions like this it would be a huge deal. It would be our livelihood. But it's not; it's just the food sponsor. It's not like Clif Bar was kicking down major cash to most of us. It's not like it's a terrible company or anything. I respect their decision. It's the same decision we all have to make about risk.