Strange things pop into my mind while I’m trying to wake up in the morning. This morning, it was the ethical question posed above. Should soloists like Alex Honnold get paid by sponsors? After mulling it over for part of the morning I realized I have no final opinion on this, but I think it’s a great issue for debate.
Update: Just found this great promo that shows some crazy soloing...
Why? Well, before we get into it, let’s first establish that Alex is a total badass athlete, both physically and mentally. His recent solo exploits on Half Dome and El Cap are exceptional feats that continue a tradition of bold solos in the Valley by the likes of Peter Croft, John Bachar, and Dean Potter. I was recently talking with a friend who works in the outdoor industry who said that nothing very interesting has happened in climbing in the last few years. But I think the kind of stuff Alex is doing is an argument against that sentiment. While boulderers might be pushing the v-scale along incrementally, bold solos that break new ground will always be riveting.
However, soloing’s obviously dangerous as hell. And climbers like Alex and Dean seem to make a name for themselves in this subsection of the sport. Sure, one can always argue that all climbing’s dangerous and that we all accept that as a part of the activity (and part of why it’s so attractive to many of us). But soloing is obviously different. I used to free solo some (when I was a "conflicted youth" with something to prove to myself) and the one thing I can say in its defense is that if you go soloing, you’ve probably reached a point where you are ready for it mentally and physically so it doesn’t feel that dangerous. But I also never got hit by a falling rock, or a bird, or a got a bee sting, or got caught in a rainstorm (ie I was lucky). No matter how good you are, other factors can always slip you up.
So what’s the problem with sponsorship? A sponsorship by a company is essentially their way of saying, “We support what you’re doing, and want to be a part of your achievements by association.” Sponsorship of someone whose major achievements are in the realm of soloing is not only saying we support you, but we encourage you. You have to wonder how this affects an athlete and other climbers as well. Would you feel more pressure to pull off bold solo ascents if that’s what your sponsors are implicitly asking of you by giving you more support after such climbs? Will other climbers see this and think that maybe they too can raise their profile by soloing? Is this not in some ways like turning a blind eye to athletes in other sports who are doping? The leagues and sponsors in those sports aren’t compelled to intervene because the athletic feats--especially if they are record breaking ones--are good press for the industry (and often whip fans into a fervor), even if the athlete’s safety is at risk. Of course, no one’s hiding the fact that bold soloists are soloing—it’s all over the climbing media—but does the same lack of concern for the athlete still apply? Hard to say. But the real question remains: Is there a danger in encouraging free soloing by backing such ascents with dollars? And do sponsors, who share in the glow of accomplishment, face any blame in the event of failure?
So those are my thoughts about why sponsoring soloists gets into a weird ethical terrain. However, here are a couple of thoughts on the pro soloing side:
I think that most free-soloists would be doing it regardless of sponsor support. Soloing, for those who undertake it seriously, borders more on a spiritual pursuit, I think. And if they’re going to be doing bold ascents anyway, why not support and recognize the truly remarkable efforts? To do otherwise is to say that the achievements are somehow less worthy because there is more risk. It'd be like taking sponsorships away from athletes who didn't wear helmets, only to a much larger degree.
Another point worth considering is that folks like Alex are achieving more than just soloing, and are deserving of sponsorship for those other efforts, too. Should their sponsorships be taken away just because they also solo and it could send mixed messages to the climbing community? Everyone is responsible for their own choices and actions in a free society, right? If someone tries to solo because they think they can get paid, that's like a smoker lighting up even though they know it's bad for them: accepting the outcome of a dangerous action is a matter of personal choice.
As you can see, there was no clear-cut right or wrong side, at least not to me. But like I said, I think it’s an interesting ethical question. Should the climbing community celebrate such climbs (with big media coverage and sponsorship) or try to discourage such risky pursuits as unnecessarily dangerous?