Peak profits: The business of rock climbing

Mountaineering and indoor walls are catching on fast with urbanites bored with the gym.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 26 May 2015

On 14 January, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the summit of the Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park, California, after nearly three weeks of pulling themselves up 3,000 feet of sheer, vertical rock with their bare hands (and sleeping on it too). Built on seven years of planning and failed attempts, the feat made climbing history and, in a first for a relatively niche, literally on-the-edge sport, headlines around the world.

Was it a sign of cliff faces and carabiners finally breaking into the mainstream or just another symptom of an internet age where everything from feminist firestorms to the colour of a dress can go viral? Not everyone is up for dangling from ledges by their fingertips with only a rope to stop them plummeting to earth thousands of feet below, and few have the ability to conquer anything even remotely like the Dawn Wall. But increasing numbers of people are buying into climbing, even if only to scramble in the foothills of the sport rather than scale the summits.

British climbing 'started as a Victorian pursuit with Victorian gentlemen and the occasional lady going off to the Alps and getting guided up mountains', says British Mountaineering Council chief executive Dave Turnball. By the turn of the 20th century, small groups of students were scaling cliffs in the Peak District and beyond with whatever ropes they could find, he says. It wasn't until the late 1970s, though, when technology made a much wider range of rock faces safe to climb, that the sport really started taking off around the world.

In recent years that expansion has reached new heights in the UK. Just as cycling pedalled its way into the mainstream 15 years ago, climbing seems to be the latest outdoor pursuit attracting middle-class urbanites with a taste for fresh air and expensive gadgetry.

Jacob Cook climbing in the Verdon Gorge, France. Credit: Tom Richmond

'A lot of the stuff being done in the Alps is very attractive to people in the City and they've spread a lot of cash around,' says Ed Douglas, co-editor of the Alpine Journal. 'I go into their gear cupboards and I'm just blown away.'

'If you were born in a city, grew up in a city, went to university in a city, and live and work in a city, then going to do something like climbing or mountaineering is quite exotic really,' says Climb magazine editor David Pickford.

But it's often not the great outdoors itself that's luring new climbers. Indoors in Bermondsey, south London, pretty much as far away from weather-beaten rock faces as it is possible to be, leggings-clad twenty and thirtysomethings hang out in clusters as they wait their turn to climb three to four metres up various coloured plastic hand and footholds without ropes. The Arch Climbing Wall is attracting around 500 customers a day to its two bouldering centres, up from 300 a year ago, according to 33-year-old director Fred Stone, who started the business with more than £100,000 of his own money in 2007.

Meanwhile, in the north of England and Ireland, Awesome Walls, the biggest, and for a long time the only, independent climbing wall chain, is continuing to expand. Founder Dave Douglas started in Liverpool in 1998 and didn't open his second centre in Stockport until 2007. But the next ones followed rapidly: Stoke-on-Trent in 2010 and franchises in Dublin and Cork in 2012 and 2014. A £1m wall opened in Sheffield, the UK's climbing capital, in 2013 and customers increased 30% in its first year.

'It seems to be a trendy thing for City types to do,' says Jacob Cook, a 26-year-old semi-professional climber who has just finished a maths PhD. 'Instead of going to the gym they now go to the bouldering wall. You get all the benefits of exercise and it's also quite social.'

There are now around 280 climbing walls in the BMC's Climbing Wall Directory, up from 200 in 2008. Dave Douglas thinks the sector is close to saturation point. 'Obviously the industry's growing, but not at the rate climbing walls are growing,' he argues. 'You might lose 30% of your trade to a new wall 10 miles down the road.'

Stone disagrees: 'There's a massive misconception in the climbing industry, which is that's there's a finite pool of customers. Whereas it's the opposite really ... a new wall creates new customers.'

Debates aside, everyone can agree on one thing. 'Indoor climbing walls are the driving force for the rest of the climbing industry,' Stone says. 'We're selling shoes to people who have never climbed outdoors, who have got no interest in climbing outdoors.'

The climbing shoe market is growing fast. The BMC estimates annual sales have gone up by at least two-thirds between 2005 and 2013/14 to 90,000 pairs, 60% to 70% of which are 'entry level'. And two out of the top four UK distributors of climbing shoes reported a more than 25% increase in 2013. That growth even lured in German sporting giant Adidas, which bought Californian shoe brand Five Ten for an undisclosed sum at the end of 2011. But the industry still isn't huge - the European Outdoor Group (EOG) put its value at just £1.4m in the UK in 2013.

Bouldering centres like The Arch give many city dwellers their first taste of the sport.

Similarly, climbing equipment was worth just 2% of the EUR10bn (£7.1bn) 'outdoor' industry (climbing, mountaineering, hiking and camping) in Europe in 2013, of which the UK has a 13.5% share. It's a fragmented market: companies tend to be small and privately owned, their factories still in the Alps where they were founded way back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. DMM, which makes harnesses and all manner of ropes, clips and pulleys in north Wales, is the sole British stalwart.

It's a hard market to break into. 'Your life depends on it,' Ed Douglas says. 'You'll spend money on stuff like hardware and you will go to companies that have been doing it for a long time.' Axel Burkhardt, the matter-of-fact global marketing director for Adidas's outdoor division, admits the acquisition of Five Ten bought the sportswear giant 'credibility'. But many climbers seemed sceptical about its continued quality - even if most hadn't actually bought its shoes recently (which is telling in itself).

There's still plenty of room for gear companies to grow in the UK and beyond, though, if a significant number of newly minted indoor climbers can be persuaded to upgrade from plastic to the real thing. (Increasingly, those who do are eschewing often inaccessibly soggy British cliffs for warmer, dryer climes in France, Spain and Greece or mountaineering in the Alps - perhaps gear companies should team up with travel agents.)

For now, though, the real cash in the outdoor industry is elsewhere. 'The money is in fleeces and Gore-Tex jackets for people walking their dogs at the weekend,' says professional climber Neil Gresham, who has been with his Italian shoe sponsor La Sportiva for 25 years, but whose 'main source of income' is from Nepali Himalayan clothing company Sherpa.

Sure enough, all-weather jackets, waterproof trousers and the like accounted for 53% of the European outdoor market in 2013, and 59% in the UK, according to the EOG. North Face, which is owned by US clothing conglomerate VF, made revenues of $2.3bn (£1.6bn) in 2014, up 11% from the previous year. Fellow American outdoors giant Columbia's increased 25% to $2.1bn. Adidas has said growth in its outdoors division is double-digit. (Although one climber said off the record that local, Adidas-sponsored Matterhorn guides 'weren't overly complementary' about the clothes last autumn - 'They seemed to be wearing a lot of it ... because it was so thin.')

Climbers living a nomadic existence searching for their next slab of virgin rock mostly can't - or won't - spare the cash for a flash new jacket. 'The big companies are not advertising to people like me, because I live on a major budget - like £8,000 a year,' says Cook, who gets free clothing from British brand Rab, which is also likely to sponsor his upcoming expedition to the vividly named Polar Sun Spire on Canada's Baffen Island. 'It's a different culture where adventure and experience are valued much higher than money and security.'

There is a rich history of companies sponsoring climbing expeditions - especially to Mount Everest. Some 100 British companies supported the first ascent in 1953, including Bic pens and Viceroy razors, while Rolex made sure it was the first watch to keep time at the roof of the world (although there is debate about whether it was on Edmund Hillary or Tenzing Norgay's wrist). Barclays' £100,000 backing of Chris Bonington's historic climb to the summit of Everest's south-west face in 1975 caused such a stir that bank customers complained and a question was asked in Parliament.

But serious climbers rarely bother with the circus that is Everest these days and it's unusual they are paid enough to give up the side jobs. 'I make most of my money from my private coaching business,' says boulderer Louis Parkinson. 'I'm very honoured to be part of the British team, believe me, but it's really crippled by a lack of funding.'

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's first ascent of Everest was sponsored by more than 100 brands.

'One reason the best climbers can't make money out of climbing is that brands want more than an athlete who can climb hard. They want people who can promote themselves and the brand,' Hazel Findlay tells me via email in between scaling rock faces in Australia. Findlay, a 25 year-old who grew up climbing sea cliffs with her dad, has more than 17,000 Instagram followers and 13,000 Facebook likes. She is one of the few climbers in the world paid a salary to pursue her dream - unsurprisingly, most of that comes from another clothing company, Utah-based Black Diamond.

Plastering achievements all over social media doesn't sit so well with some older climbers, used to an alternative, tech-free lifestyle and a self-regulating community without official judges. 'I still find the whole thing a little bit vulgar,' says Gresham, who is 43. 'But I try and participate, because I should.'

He doesn't really have any choice. Burkhardt says Adidas won't even sponsor athletes who don't have a sufficient online presence. Unless, of course, they are particularly young and talented - 'then you can build him up and he belongs to us.'

The name that comes up again and again when discussing the brave, not-so-new world of social media marketing and climbing is Sierra Blair-Coyle. SBC, as she's also known, is an all-American, attractive 21 year-old whose Facebook (219,000 likes) and Instagram (40,700 followers) is full of megawatt selfies and sunlit shots of her in Roxy-branded hotpants. 'She's done a few competitions and climbed some moderately difficult boulder problems, but she's certainly not like a shit-hot climber,' says Climb magazine's Pickford.

SBC seems to be the exception rather than the rule - climbers like Findlay are feted as much by their male and female peers as they are by their sponsors and thousands of social media followers. Climbing is a sport where women can be equals: the average man may be stronger and longer-limbed, but women often have proportionally less body weight to lift.

The sport is still male-dominated - the BMC puts female participation in the UK at between a quarter and a third - but less than it used to be. 'You'd go to a climbing wall in the 1980s and if there was a woman there you'd sort of go down on your knees in joy,' says Ed Douglas. 'Whereas now, sometimes you'll find yourself at a wall and there'll be more women than men.'

It's clear more people than ever, both men and women, are pulling themselves up indoor walls instead of pumping iron. Many of those will then make the transition to scaling Alpine peaks or sun-washed Spanish cliffs and buy the gear to go with it. For top climbers willing to take a few summit selfies and their sponsors there will be more money to be made - even if the former aren't going to be spending it like Beckham any time soon.

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