Clif Bar and the Power of the Corporate ‘No’

Well, he is using a rope here...
Well, he IS using a rope here…

The smart money isn’t lining up to defend Clif Bar, which two weeks ago suddenly dropped the contracts of five of its sponsored climbers, Steph Davis, Alex Honnold, Timmy O’Neill, Dean Potter, and Cedar Wright, saying that their free soloing and high lining were too risky to continue to support. I’m neither smart nor moneyed, and I’m not going to defend Clif Bar’s actions (nor would I think of criticizing the climbers’ individual decisions to do what they do). But as all this was going down I found myself thinking about a personal experience, which would seem to bear no relation to Clif Bar, but in fact, I think, is bound up in the same notions of risk assessment and underlying philosophy that led Clif to make a hard though wildly unpopular decision. I do think that Clif’s action, even if bungled, was important, and the controversy over Clif’s move and the ensuing discussion have raised critical but little addressed considerations.

My incident occurred years ago on the east side of the Monte Rosa, many thousands of feet above the tiny village of Alagna, Italy. Joe Sagona, a frequent travel companion, and I were far off-piste and going farther, following a guide-in-training through a series of notches, faces, and more notches, trailing this newbie we’d just met because his mentor, our nominal guide, had something else to do that day (like lead people who actually paid him). We came to one especially steep pitch with massive exposure below, and the young Swedish guide-to-be started digging in the snow to set up a deadman anchor so we could rap through the exposure without worrying about a fall, which most assuredly would have been fatal.

Joe is an insanely good skier, and he was willing to drop into the pitch without protection. I am not insanely good. Oh, I can ski, and I like steeps, but I’m intimately aware of my weaknesses, of the potential for pilot error, and as I stood there watching the guide trying to figure out the deadman, I pondered which was sketchier, just skiing the thing or relying on an anchor built by a guy who’d probably only seen it done. Once. Maybe.

“You know,” Joe said, looking down, “on steep, exposed stuff like this, you have to really want to ski it.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I think I want to have skied it. Key difference.”

In the end, I chose neither. I didn’t yet have the knowledge to build the anchor myself, and the guide clearly didn’t either. I told him we weren’t going to rap on a wing and prayer and that we weren’t going to ski it unprotected. He shrugged, we traversed away from the cliffs, and soon found an equally steep but unexposed pitch, which we descended without incident.

It seemed like just another day of risk assessment in the mountains, but Monte Rosa actually became profoundly important to me, one of those pivotal moments in life, because it prompted me to reevaluate my tolerances for risk and hazard, in particular because I now had young children dependent on me, but also because I finally understood that being friends with some of the best big mountain skiers in the world didn’t mean that I would ever be at their skill level. Something I knew in theory became a cold reality when I stared it in the face, and there in Italy I was finally ready to see (and act on) it.

Without question, Clif Bar booted this one. They dumped their athletes unceremoniously and seemingly without warning, leaving a bitter taste among some of those dropped – Dean Potter called the action “sleazy” in several interviews – and their continuing sponsorship of Valley Uprising, a new climbing movie from Sender Films that shows these athletes high lining and free soloing, opens them to charges of hypocrisy.

But where they drew the line is far less interesting than that they drew a line at all, something that most brands are unwilling to do for fear of alienating customers and losing a buck or two, or maybe because it wouldn’t occur to them to take a stand on anything. This is even true within the outdoor industry, which prides itself on purity of motive and lives by the assumptions that the world is a better place for what it sells or does.

And that may be correct, but today, even with soaring corporate mottos like Google’s “don’t be evil,” most companies are amoral at best, set up philosophically and legally only to make money, even when what they’re selling helps people commune with nature. B Corporations such as Patagonia, which are legally structured to help benefit society, are rare, and most companies neither know what they stand for nor care so long as they rake in the loot.

Maybe I’m naive in thinking that a brand should or could stand for something other than profits, but I don’t think so. When the economy hit the fan in 2008 and 2009, magazines and newspapers and TV were filled with stories about rekindled traditional values, of reconnecting with family, of spending time outside. Now that things are booming again, those ideals seem almost quaint, but we know that they aren’t. The purposeless life is the wasted life, and we all understand this intuitively even if we don’t live it every day. It’s what drives us to be better humans. And corporations might hide behind their logos, but they’re still made up of people, people who want their work to matter.

One reason the Clif Bar incident created such a shitstorm is that the outdoor culture worships risk-taking heroes and conversely dismisses anything less than all-out as illegitimate. When was the last time you saw an advertisement or brand video with someone walking epically down a trail? Even if we’re personally unwilling to climb without a rope, we demand it of our corporate enablers and the people they sponsor, if not through our buying decisions then certainly through our clicks and views and commentary on brand blogs and social media. The most cutting level of criticism weighed at Clif wasn’t that they coldly canned people who’d helped them become who they are but that they pussied out. “Fine,” was the overall sentiment I heard, “Red Bull will be more than happy to have these guys.”

This double standard has repercussions in the real world. It creates cultural pressure on athletes to outperform themselves and others. Only Alex Honnold or Dean Potter or Steph Davis can say what drives them, but, absolutely, their risk taking is one of the biggest things we celebrate, and the rewards, such as they are, flow to them and not to others. Athletes will always push themselves, and they’ll always make mistakes, but our obsession with the extreme certainly contributes to a shove from behind.

So Clif Bar, if their public statements are to be believed, did what all of us do and went through much the same calculus that I did on the Monte Rosa.

“Ultimately, this decision came down to a sense of responsibility to our own story,” Clif said in a statement, “what we endorse and the activities that we encourage – which is largely reflected in our sponsorship of athletes. This responsibility extends to adventurers of all types – climbers, outdoor enthusiasts, as well as children.

“We have and always will support athletes in many adventure-based sports, including climbing. 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 grey area, but we felt a need to start somewhere and start now.”

Alex Honnold, talking to the New York Times, was more forgiving than Potter. “It’s a general reflection on risk,” he 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.”

It was an unpopular action, and Clif handled it poorly. Their athletes deserved better, and their ongoing support of Valley Uprising seems hollow. But Clif’s decision to set limits was a good one. It’s easy to give money to environmental and activist groups and feel good about it; it’s straightforward to set profits as your pole star. It’s much harder to say no. Have any mountain bike companies dropped freeriders because they ride off-trail? Have any ski companies cut the contracts of athletes because they’re too flippant about avalanche safety? It takes courage to risk losing money or customers, or acknowledge that you’ve reached your limit and willingly face the criticism or derision you know will come. But that’s something more companies could learn. It’s something maybe we all could.

Note to commenters: I’ve already deleted two pointlessly negative remarks. Constructive comments and criticism of the issue or my position on it are welcome; gratuitous negativity will be removed. -S.C.

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