Moments before the San Francisco premiere of “Valley Uprising,” a documentary about the evolution of rock climbing in Yosemite National Park, Gary Erickson, the Clif Bar founder, was asked to stand and be acknowledged. He waved to the crowd inside a packed theater and received a warm ovation.
Clif Bar, a maker of nutrition bars with long ties to the climbing community, and with a climber on its logo, was a major sponsor of the film. Other executives attended a showing of the movie the next night in Berkeley, Calif., not far from Clif Bar headquarters.
Two months later, Clif Bar has withdrawn its sponsorship of five top professional climbers featured in the film, some with a year or more left on their contracts, saying the climbers take risks that make the company too uncomfortable to continue financial support. It has stirred debate in the outdoors community, creating rare introspection about how much risk should be rewarded.
“They’re on a really slippery slope,” said Cedar Wright, one of the five whose sponsorship deal was cut. “Where do you draw the line?”
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Among those whose contracts were withdrawn were Alex Honnold and Dean Potter, each widely credited with pushing the boundaries of the sport in recent years. They had large roles in the film, mainly showing them climbing precarious routes barehanded and without ropes, a technique called free soloing. Potter also was shown highlining, walking across a rope suspended between towering rock formations.
Other climbers who lost their Clif Bar contracts were Timmy O’Neill and Steph Davis, who spends much of her time BASE jumping (parachuting from a fixed object, like a building, an antenna, a span or earth) and wing-suit flying. Last year, her husband, Mario Richard, was killed when he crashed in a wing suit.
“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,” Clif Bar wrote in an open letter to the climbing community. “We understand that some climbers feel these forms of climbing are pushing the sport to new frontiers. But we no longer feel good about benefiting 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.”
“This is a gray area”
In the sports world, companies often end contracts with athletes over issues of behavior, usually when athletes run afoul of the law. But these athletes are sponsored precisely because of their willingness to take risks that most could not imagine. Companies like Clif Bar reward them for their adventures.
But, as Clif Bar’s sudden stance publicly declares, there is responsibility in balancing the conflicting notions of comfort and risk.
“We have and always will support athletes in many adventure-based sports, including climbing,” the company said. “And inherent in the idea of adventure is risk. We appreciate that assessing risk is a very personal decision. This isn’t about drawing a line for the sport or limiting athletes from pursuing their passions. We’re drawing a line for ourselves. We understand that this is a gray area, but we felt a need to start somewhere and start now.”
Clif Bar declined to comment further.
The athletes, who get most of their income from a web of sponsorship deals, greeted the news with surprise and a range of emotion.
“It’s a general reflection on risk,” Honnold said. “The risk decision that Clif is making is the same kind of decision that we all make as athletes. I think it’s completely fair for them to draw a line. It’s a very personal decision. If Clif thought about it and said that that’s the line that they want to take, I can’t begrudge that. That’s the same kind of line I draw with risk.”
Clif Bar still lists 99 sponsored athletes on its website, representing a long list of outdoor pursuits. Honnold was among those wondering why it chose to suddenly shed five specific climbers when he considers sports like big-wave surfing, big-mountain skiing and snowboarding more dangerous than free-solo climbing.
“Maybe they just didn’t like us,” Honnold said. “That’s fair. It’s their prerogative.”
Davis laughed it off, saying that sponsors come and go. Her affinity for BASE jumping may have cost her Clif Bar, but she said she had recently gained two other sponsors.
Potter, sponsored by Clif Bar for more than a decade, called it “a huge emotional blow.” What frustrated him most was that the decision seemed connected to “Valley Uprising,” which recently won the grand prize at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Clif Bar remains a major sponsor, and said that it continues to support the film and its current tour.
The movie’s primary sponsor is North Face, the outdoor-equipment and apparel company. Its roster of sponsored athletes includes Honnold and Wright, and company officials said that no changes were expected.
“It seemed sleazy”
Speaking of Clif Bar, Potter said: “It’s understandable if they say, ‘We shouldn’t have supported the film and we’re not aligned with you guys.’ I would have understood, and said, ‘Yeah, I know we’re pretty out there.’ But what they did was a filthy business move. They still support the film, but not the athletes? It seemed sleazy that Clif Bar would use some of my best climbs, and Alex’s best climbs, as a marketing tool on one hand, but then fire us on the other.”
Clif Bar said that it had held internal discussions about its sponsored support of BASE jumping, free soloing and highlining for more than a year. The release of “Valley Uprising,” by Sender Films, might have just been the tipping point for action.
“It just looks so crazy when you see a guy dangling by his fingertips without a safety net,” said Peter Mortimer, the founder of Sender Films and a climber. “I think a lot of people from Clif saw ‘Valley Uprising,’ and that brought the conversation to a head.”
Mortimer said he still had a strong relationship with Clif Bar. Sender Films, too, has had internal discussions about being involved in the most dangerous of athletic pursuits.
“In the climbing community, it has been really clear from the response to this that it’s a really sensitive subject matter,” Mortimer said.