by Will Gadd | photo by Ryan Creary
On day 18 of a planned 12-day trip, the head of athlete marketing for Red Bull was sliding down the emotional slope from stressed toward very unhappy about what wasn't happening: climbing. It was November 2006 and we were in Nepal to climb a huge new face. Mr. Red Bull was there to oversee where the brand's large chunk of cash was going. Every day we started climbing, only to get turned around by avalanches, frigid temperatures, rockfall or—to be honest—fear. Storms kept loading the 1,000 meters of almost-skiable terrain below the summit. Then, those gullies would release onto 2,000 meters of vertical terrain below. Anyone climbing there would be washed out of the vertical sluice box along with the last beats of their heart.
But we tried, yet again, on day 18. We had a big film crew and the budget for the trip was well into six digits, heading higher at a rapid rate. The smell of failure was in the air, and so was death. But we really wanted the route. Then, as we neared the bottom of the face, the whole upper section ripped out. We watched a massive avalanche blast our chosen line, grinding the ice off the wall like an ice scraper on a windshield.
Back at camp, Mr. Red Bull sat us down in the orange light of the dome tent and said: "Boys. I've been trying to respect what you're doing here. But at this point I just have to ask why the hell are we still here? Let's get out before somebody gets killed. No amount of money is worth that." And it was done. We walked away from the money, time, and effort. The expensive footage was a waste. And I never heard one negative thing about it from Red Bull.
This is the difference between being on a professional and an amateur trip. That year I did three major filming trips. Two of them went very well—from Red Bull's perspective, these more than made up for the failures. My job is to do my sport at a cutting-edge level, and that means failing regularly. But for someone in Nepal on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, they will go all-in because it's their only chance. I think this explains why so many of the Mount Everest wannabes die: It's their only shot at a summit, and common sense goes out the window. The pros, whether they're climbers, skiers, or BASE jumpers, walk away when it's not right. That's what Conrad Anker initially did last year on Everest. Later, when everything was right, he climbed it safely without oxygen. That was long after the hordes left because their two months of carefully saved vacation were up.
The same goes for weekends. In my home range, the Canadian Rockies, the weekenders push way harder in sketchy conditions than the pros. I see this over and over across backcountry sports. The pros and guides choose their days and objectives very carefully, and expect a certain amount of failure. As a guide told me, "I'm paid to climb peaks, but mostly I'm paid to know when NOT to climb them." But the skilled weekenders are going to make the most of their days, come hell or high avalanche hazard.
There is no better illustration of this difference than what I see on my local frozen waterfall, Cascade Falls. It's a classic ice climb, sort of like Corbet's for skiing, but big slides rip down it whenever the avy hazard spikes. My friends who work public safety for the National Parks have put up huge warning signs—although the apartment-building sized debris field should be warning enough. Yet I always see multiple parties on it every weekend, even with the avy forecast pinned to high. And every few years, a party dies on Cascade.
As I watch young athletes in skiing, climbing, and paddling come up, there is sometimes a difficult transition from talented amateur to almost-pro. These guys and girls only get one athlete trip a year until they prove themselves. They tend to go really, really hard—not because of pressure from film companies or sponsors, but because they want to "make it" and get on the ride. And, let's face it, the ride is very good. This intense self-inflicted desire explodes into blown knees, backs, and sketchy judgment. But sponsors don't drive the injuries. The athletes do.
The media and the public often ask me about "the pressure your sponsors put on you." It's assumed that sponsors are the puppet masters, and I have to dance when they pull the strings. But the reality is I dream up my trips and pitch them to sponsors. Athletes ask sponsors for heli budget time, filming trips, and enough money to secure the freedom to hit the biggest days of the season in the most far-flung places—with cameras rolling to pay for it all. In general, sponsors don't understand the sports well enough to even suggest ideas to athletes. Somehow, this is hard for the public to understand.
Two years ago, Antoine Montant died BASE jumping in France. He was a talented multisport athlete, perhaps best known for grinding the cable of the Aguille du Midi cable car on skis while flying a speed wing. Many of his fans pointed the finger at his sponsors when he died. They said Antoine was pushed too far. But the day he died he was out by himself—no cameras, no pressure. Just doing his thing. Eventually, his girlfriend reported him missing. My point? You don't get to be a fully sponsored athlete unless your love for a sport is so great that you're willing to die for it. Compared to that, sponsor pressure is nearly irrelevant.
Occasionally, I'll get out in the mountains with an athlete who talks big about his potential with sponsors, his mad skills, and how he is going to dominate the day. I always find this talk gets silenced when we stand in front of our objective. The mountains strip the bullshit out of people fast. It's one thing to want to be a sponsored athlete when you see them online, but you better have the true love and skill to back that up in reality. Otherwise, you're just the little kid doing the climb of shame off the high dive. Or you're a corpse. And nobody sponsors a corpse.
Alpinist Will Gadd has more than 25 years of experience as an ice and mixed climber, kayaker, and paraglider. The footage his Red Bull team shot in Nepal recently found a home as a training film on risk management and decision-making for athletes and the weekending general public. From the Winter 2013 issue. Subscribe today, get the Winter 2013 issue at the iTunes store, or find Mountain at Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Gander Mountain, and other natural foods and outdoor stores.