Thoughts on Clif Bar Dropping 'Risky' Athletes

Last week Clif Bar dropped sponsorships of athletes that have engaged in BASE jumping, highlining, or free soloing (climbing without a rope), stating: 

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. 

The athletes include those appearing in the Sender Films feature Valley Uprising: Alex Honnold, Dean Potter, Steph Davis, Cedar Wright, and Timmy O'Neill. 

The decision to drop these athletes ignores a fundamental: few people understand risk tolerance and risk management -- and have a deeper, richer appreciation for life as a result -- than highly skilled professional adventure athletes. How many climbers and mountaineers are paid thousands to instruct Fortune 500 leaders on risk management? A lot. (Too many.) 

More importantly this move by Clif Bar turns a blind eye to the passion, inspiration, and good work each of these individuals brings to the climbing community and the world at large (again generally at least in part the result of the athletes' deep understanding of risk management and the appreciation for life brought as a result of their pursuits). That's the greatest harm done by Clif Bar's decision. They are saying to their customer base (a generally healthy, progressive, intelligent group) "Not only do we not have faith in our customers' ability to understand risk, we don't value -- and we don't think you should value -- these athletes and their contributions holistically as people."  

It's like finding out the craft beer you like is made by Walmart and buys commercial time on FOX News. It's a big disappointment from a company rooted -- and branded in -- the most adventurous of adventure sports. And let's have a look at that brand for a moment. The climber illustrated on the Clif Bar logo is climbing an overhanging crux of a difficult outdoor sport route without a helmet. Unsafe! The brand, --in it's core identity -- promotes risky and unsafe practices discouraged by the AMGA, IMFGA, Access Fund, and other standard-bearers of climbing. Clif Bar, are you willing to drop your illustrated brand ambassador too?

By contrast let's look at each athlete: 

Alex Honnold has repeatedly stated when asked about risk he won't free solo anything above his skill level or if conditions aren't exactly perfect. He makes every effort to remove risk from the equation or make it manageable when free soloing. Honnold's perspectives on risk of free soloing balanced against the risk of everyday life are widely available on the Internet.

A Question of Risk - Episode 1 - Alex Honnold from Black Diamond Equipment on Vimeo.

Cedar Wright is not known as a free soloist, highliner, or BASE jumper, and is the most confusing in Clif Bar's list of dropped athletes. Cedar is known as one of the greatest ambassadors of climbing, and consistently promotes the importance of sustainability, connection to the earth and each other, and getting kids outdoors. One of the riskiest activities Cedar has done is be the loyal friend who got pooped and puked on while helping a stuck friend climbing above him, and then let the adventure turn into a viral video.   

VIDEO: High Contrast, a short film by BD athlete Cedar Wright featuring fellow BD athlete Alex Honnold from Black Diamond Equipment on Vimeo.

Through his foundation Paradox Sports and love for his disabled brother, Timmy O'Neill has done great work to make the amazing world of climbing accessible to paraplegic athletes. Is this passionate man talking about life and love and death a man who doesn't fully comprehend risk? 

Wild Love: Timmy O'Neill from Andy Maser on Vimeo.

Steph Davis is the first amazing female climber my wife ever saw, and has been an inspiration to many women and girls to get out and climb - it's not a man's sport and indeed women tend to be generally better at it than men. Like Honnold and Timmy, Davis clearly understands a tolerable amount of risk is required to live and love and fully appreciate life.

Dean Potter is the least surprising on the list. He has devoted his career to pushing frontiers in risky pursuits and has been at the forefront of high lining and BASE jumping, but at the same time has done more for his fellow athletes to safely follow in his footsteps, such as the simple idea of bringing a parachute if you're free soloing so that if you do fall you don't die. It may be partially due to Dean that so many people like to BASE jump and highline, but it's also partially due to Dean that so many people are able to do it and talk about it. 

No athlete is worth putting on a pedestal. But the irony is these five athletes as individuals have so much to teach about risk: living with risk, managing risk, loving as risk, and using risk to obtain and value a fulfilled life. Meanwhile, Clif Bar has a lot to learn about missed opportunities and its customer base ... but retains a two-dimensional climber that really needs to put a helmet on. I've never said this to a climber before -- illustrated or otherwise -- but dude, I hope you fall.   

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