Your Favorite Extreme Athlete is Moonlighting as a Motivational Speaker
“THE JOKE IS ‘Hey, I’ve climbed Everest; now I’m a motivational speaker,’” Conrad Anker told me after I observed that there’s been a noticeable uptick in climbers – many of them former dirtbags and non-Everest types — delivering positivity platitudes and business bromides to Fortune 100s and other paying audiences. Anker, an alpinist of some renown who will soon retire from his three-decade reign as the the captain of The North Face team, concurred. Compared to mugging for their sponsors’ ads or clicking through a PowerPoint deck at a local climbing gym, a big-time speaking gig is great work if you can get it, with fees upwards of $10,000 a throw. (Let’s be clear — we’re not talking Brett Favre, Caitlyn Jenner, or Phil Jackson money, which can run from 7x to over 10x that amount.) Twelve such engagements a year can match or exceed the annual take from sponsorship salaries and endorsement deals. Hence most adventure athletes of sufficient notoriety (and some with none), advertise speaking services on their websites alongside documentary shorts, a steady stream of social media ejecta, and links to their memoirs. Public speaking? For many, it’s not viewed so much as a nice-to-have but a need-to-have to thrive in today’s adventure ecosystem.
This is hardly surprising. Adventurer types have always braved the dais to satisfy their sponsors, to raise funds pre-adventure, and to pay debts post – or to simply relate their stories to fellow inveterates, gratis. And they’ve been tapped for over 100 years by institutions like the Royal Geographic Society, the Alpine Club, the Explorers Club, and National Geographic Society. Lewis and Clark speechified around the country after their sojourn west; John Wesley Powell delivered an account of his float down the Colorado. But mostly it’s been the domain of White Guys Wearing Crampons. Today, the business has been democratized some. Paddlers, free soloists, sport climbers, photojournalists, and runners are finding work — few of them of color, although some of whom, God save us, are female — holding forth onstage. While the spiel has morphed along with cultural norms — today the deft speaker has learned to leaven his recitations with humility (lest he be considered an egotistical dick), the metamessages of motivation themselves have changed little. They consist mainly of Man’s mastery over Nature, Man’s mastery over Self, Man’s mastery over Mechanical Objects, and Man’s mastery over Other Men With Darker Skin.
Straight away you can see how these accounts and the metaphors therein might prove useful to the corporate crowd. In fact, captains of industry routinely deploy the catchphrases of ascent — “To the Summit”; “Climb Higher”; “Reach the Peak”; etc — in the pursuit of “big, hairy, audacious goals,” or BHAGs (a descriptor coined by the management guru Jim Collins, who happens to be a standout climber). Collins isn’t alone: a slew of B-school scholars, leadership experts, and self-help and how-to explainers, have milked adventure narratives dry for lessons learned from the savage heights – or depths – which account for books like Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, or Conquering the Seven Summits of Sales, and Upward Bound: 9 Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits, the latter with chapters contributed mostly by mountaineers and one by Royal Robbins, “Success Through Failure in the School of Hard Rocks.” And then there’s the Everest genre, consisting of lessons learned on the naked slopes of that much-flogged mountain, including a Harvard Business School case study deconstructing the 1996 tragedy.
Because all organizations are unhappy in strikingly similar ways, the thematic overlap is enormous. Speaking points include the importance of establishing healthy communication norms to get what you want; creating highly effective teams to get what you want; deploying situational, participatory leadership to get what you want; designing the optimal supply chain to get what you want; accepting failure as an antecedent to success, so you can get what you want; confronting and using fear to get what you want; persevering through totally fucked up and unpredictable and disruptive environments to get what you want; cultivating emotional intelligence to get what you want; and perhaps the most popular of all: utilizing smart risk management to get what you want.
What’s more, thanks to the TEDxification of the country, there are more nonbusiness speaking opps than ever before. Andrew Pudvah is the senior director of both National Geographic’s speakers bureau and the National Geographic Live! Series, which features adventurers, photojournalists, and researchers torn straight out of the magazine speaking in theaters and performance halls across the country. The number of venues has grown from 30 to 65 in just two years – metastasis by any other name.
All of which is to say that even now, in a venue near you, there is a so-called extreme athlete strutting and fretting upon a stage, voice amplified by one of those wispy headset affairs. “They’re the charismatic megafauna of the outdoor industry,” Anker says of the climbing contingent. “From John Muir to David Brower to Yvon Chouinard, to Royal Robbins,” Anker continues, “they have that persona that is bigger and creates something.”
They certainly do.
IN THE mid-Eighties, Carlos Buhler was living in Bellingham, Washington, surviving on a clutch of jobs: guiding, pounding nails, and giving mountain shop slideshows at $150 per. In 1983, he’d been among a trio of climbers to make the first ascent of Mt. Everest’s Kangshung Face, a route so technical, remote, and forbidding that the South and North Col routes seem like cart paths by comparison. And now a manager from Nortel Networks, one of Canada’s leading telecom companies, was asking Buhler if he’d care to travel to the company’s Toronto headquarters to talk about the Everest climb. Buhler had heard about athletes who spoke to corporations for pay. “How much would you charge?” the Nortel guy was asking. Buhler blurted out a fee he figured was just shy of audacious: “Three hundred dollars plus airfare!” The manager laughed and put his hand on Buhler’s shoulder. “I’ll pay you $2,000.”
Success breeds mimesis. Buhler, who was to become both one of North America’s standout high-altitude alpinists and one of the first of the modern era adventure business speakers, remembers rock climber Todd Skinner grilling him about how to get into the corporate speaking game. Skinner, who died in 2006 in a Yosemite climbing accident, was already a veteran of the slideshow circuit, thanks to his 1988 free ascent of El Cap’s Salathe Wall route with Paul Piana. And he knew something about business: he had an undergraduate degree in finance from the University of Wyoming and had founded a mountain shop in Lander, Wyoming with his wife, Amy. Right around this time, the late Ann Krcik left The North Face to establish Extreme Connection, the outdoor industry’s talent agency and speakers bureau, with Skinner waiting in the wings to become her first and best client. Before long, remembers Amy, Skinner and Krcik landed Apple Inc and Skinner’s career took off. He was well on his way to becoming the foremost adventurer business speaker when his harness loop broke while rappelling a new project on the Leaning Tower. Skinner’s how-to book, Beyond the Summit: Setting and Surpassing Extraordinary Business Goals, co-authored by his sister just three years earlier, invokes Rene Daumal, the metaphysician and poet: “You cannot stay on the summit forever. You have to come down again, so why bother in the first place? Simply this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above.”
In other words, a murky void exists between execution and aspiration; lived experience and Mitty-esque daydreaming. Which is precisely the void the seasoned motivational speaker seeks to fill.
THE RISE of the American motivational industrial complex has arisen from the malign confluence of the Protestant work ethic, the rah-rah sales culture of hypercompetitive capitalism; the metastasis of mass and social media; higher education’s high-margin retailing of the MBA; Manifest Destiny; the Esalen Institute; postmodernism; American football; Think and Grow Rich; Erhard Training Seminars; quarterly earnings reports; quantum mechanics; the Baby Boomers’ quest for self-actualization; 12-step programs; Tibetan Buddhism; and a combination of the positivity and happiness movements, the latter two which now go by the handle of positive psychology. Add to those the $100 billion dollars plowed annually into employee training and leadership development and boom! — you’ve got the necessary additives to support a burgeoning public speaking circuit, which the National Speakers Association puts at over 53,000 strong and counting.
Adventure speakers compose a nanoparticle of that number, but they’re surprisingly ubiquitous. Basically, you’ve got the hardcores and the entertainers. The hardcores, whose names you probably know, are hired for who they are (or were) and what they’ve done (or did). The entertainers, whom you’ve never heard of, are hired for their ability to absolutely kill onstage. By “kill,” I mean the slick delivery and gobsmacking visuals and reductive storylines, which combined, bring down the house. Not surprisingly, many of the entertainers, and increasingly the hardcores, are represented by the country’s top speakers bureaus, like Keppler and WSB.
Generally speaking, the entertainers don’t win Piolet d’Or awards, and the hardcores don’t kill.
The most successful of the entertainers by far is 52-year-old Alison Levine. While her adventure bona fides are not exactly visionary — she’s climbed the seven summits with guides and skied to both poles — they’re plenty good enough to meeting planners who don’t give a rat’s ass whether she or anyone else jumared fixed lines up Everest or dry tooled up Meru. If you can consistently slay audiences, which Levine does, you’re Keppler gold. Levine, whose delivery is reminiscent of Rachel Brosnahan’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, averages over 100 gigs a year. She earns $32,000 per appearance (Dr. J money), out of which come travel expenses and a thirty percent agency fee to Keppler. She has trademarked her most popular line: “Backing up is not the same as backing down.” Although she says she’s been Keppler’s most-requested speaker eight years running, she suffers no such illusions when it comes to her place in the alpinism pantheon, where she admits to being less than a badass athlete. “I just like to tell people don’t worry about being the best and the fastest and the strongest. Just be the most relentless.” Which she’s been, on mountains and at work. By her math, she has delivered the same stand-up routine over 800 times. She says, “I want them to walk out of the room and say there’s nowhere else I would have rather been than in that room listening to Alison Levine.” Apparently they do. She says, “If you stand up there, and you talk about oh, I’m this elite athlete, and I’ve accomplished so much in my life and I trained really hard, and I’m incredibly disciplined and look at all these things I’ve done, then the audience is just out there thinking, okay, good for you, but I just want to hang myself in my cubicle every day. I don’t need to listen to this.” Levine says that speaking is just part of her appeal. “What you do off stage is as important as what you do onstage. When the client wants you to come to the VIP reception and take photos and sign autographs and sign books.” (Levine, like most public speakers, has written a book. In her case it’s On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership in which she does, curiously, chronicle all of the things she’s ever done, sandwiched between aforementioned metaphors and business lessons learned.) “You’ve got to differentiate yourself,” she tells me, “and I chose leadership.” Based on her bio, Levine has never held a significant corporate leadership position in her life, but neither have most adventure public speakers. Doesn’t seem to matter, because business is brisk. Not only are adventure speakers top-of-mind these days (she credits social media and mainstream documentaries like Meru and Free Solo), but there’s never been a better time to be a woman in the business, says Levine. Companies that have hired men only want to hire female speakers instead. Levine tells me to mention that she’d be happy to mentor a few fellow adventurers wanting into the racket. That’s a pretty terrific offer. So what are you waiting for?
Not so fast. The speaking life can get tedious. She says, “Yeah, I’ve been on a plane in the month of October, every day except for two days.” She tells that me she’s not had a really fun adventure in two years. She describes a daily routine that involves little sleep, endless jet lag, monotonous sound checks, constant schmoozing, and gobs of alone time. “I get really homesick and lonely. I miss my husband. We don’t have kids but we have this dog that’s like a kid to us. I feel like my friends forget about me. I feel like I’m the worst friend in the world because I miss funerals. I miss weddings.”
OF THE hardcores, there’s Honnold, 33, who, post-Free Solo, is the most famous climber since Hillary and Norgay stood atop Everest — no, more so, since those two were bereft of Instagram accounts. Honnold has been talk show fodder since 2011, the year 60 Minutes featured him soloing around in Yosemite Valley (after which CBS’s Lara Logan, Honnold’s interlocutor, reverently inspected his hands and fingers). With a foil to introduce him thusly and ply him with questions, Honnold, who by now has given thousands of interviews, does just fine. No, better than that — he kills in interviews, evincing equal parts cyborg and naif and 100 percent adorable, according to my niece, a millennial and fan. This past spring, however, Honnold found himself alone on a stage at TEDx Vancouver explaining how he prepared for Freerider. The lad looked positively C3POish as he attempted to coordinate those much celebrated arms and hands to emphasize various talking points. Midway into it, he became miffed when the audience laughed at a line he didn’t realize was funny. In short, he looked far more gripped onstage than he did on the rock. He definitely did not kill. Still, Jonathan Retseck, Honnold’s agent and co-founder of the agency that caters to adventure athletes, RXR Sports, told me that speaking opps are piling up for Honnold. Retseck expects he’ll soon command up to $50,000 per appearance (Magic Johnson money). If Honnold is willing to tear himself from his climbing projs each month, speakers fees could drive his annual earnings into seven figures, perhaps a first for a professional American rock climber not otherwise engaged in founding a clothing company.
Though it’s difficult to see how Honnold would be censured by the climbing community for making decent money — he’s legitimately badass and donates a third of his annual income to the Honnold Foundation — there’s always been a certain stigmatic stink regarding self-promotion effervescing from the bowels of the climbing community. Adrian Ballinger, for example, continues to be pilloried by members of the climbing tribe for his 2016 and 2017 oxygenless Everest campaigns — the Everest No Filter expeditions — during which he and Cory Richards Snapchatted their way up the Goddess Mother of the World. The allegation: undue spraying and outsized branding. Ballinger, who failed on the first attempt and succeeded on the second – he cut it desperately thin and only stood atop thanks to cajoling from Rich and Topo Mena — told me that the criticism stung. “I believe we should be allowed to make a living,” he says, in a British inflected upspeak. “Sponsored posts and corporate speaking are ways to make a living while doing what we love.” Ball sports athletes do it, asserts Ballinger, and their fans actually expect it. But when it comes to adventure sports – and especially climbing – it’s like “we’re no longer pure or core once we do those things,” he says.
By “those things,” Ballinger means public speaking and social media bursts, sure, but also the talk show appearances and the dozens of feature articles. Ballinger has also advocated climbing humongous mountains (with him, presumably) to become a better leader. I was unaware that Ballinger and Richards had been dissed online, but I wasn’t surprised. Sure, Ballinger and especially Richards are elites, but nearly 200 Everest campaigners have already climbed the peak O-less. Yet Everest No Filter was promoted as if it were historic, and it was: for precisely two people. Surely the two climbers knew they’d catch flak from the chorus.
But consider Ballinger’s bank account. He could have cashed in on his double degree from Georgetown University, going into, say, law. Instead, he lived out of a van doing the dirtbag dance, indentured himself to Russell Brice’s Himex guiding company, and then founded the Squaw Valley-based Alpenglow Expeditions. Why begrudge him a return on the sweat equity he’s poured into the business, which is a notoriously low-margin one, especially, he says, because he says he pays his workers, including his Sherpa guides, top-dollar. So if he can fetch about $15,000 a speech (Johnny Bench money), and with Retseck’s help, secure about 12 gigs a year, he gets some much-needed breathing room. I ask Ballinger to opine about the sentiments behind the abuse.
“I think in our sport, especially in climbing, there’s always been this love for the idea of the dirtbag,” he explains. “Climbing was a fringe sport at first, a way to get away from society, break out and be in the wilderness, and do your thing. People see it as soiled, or ruined by money.”
Later, Anker would bluffly affirm Ballinger’s assertion: “If you’re really a pure climber, you’re gonna eschew self promotion. If you bring media into it, it’s no longer a real story anymore. And that really creates tension within the world of climbing.” In fact, Anker’s employer, a publicly owned holding company called the VF Corporation (owner of The North Face), the entity that cuts checks to Honnold, Ballinger, Chin, Emily Harrington, Hilaree Nelson, and Todd Skinner before them, surely views its athletes as assets that goose brand strategy. The Faustian Pact: We’ll pay you a salary, sure, but your job is to bring attention to yourselves and to pimp the brand. And to what ends? Jess Roskelley, David Lama, and Hansjörg Auer, talented alpinists sponsored by The North Face, (none of whom were moonlighting as public speakers), lost their lives on an alpine wall. Did The North Face fund the climb? Were Roskelley, Lama, and Auer testing next season’s attire and gear? Would the photos from the climb have been used to bolster branding? To all three questions: presumably so. And what of the exigencies of their compact with The North Face? Did the shareholder value imperative contribute to their risk-taking? Or were they impelled to climb due to a genetic predisposition, as “a psychotherapist to The North Face Adventure Team” posited after they died?
“Alex came to us with this project,” filmmaker Jimmy Chin told a roomful of Google employees during his swing through Mountain View in November 2018 to promote Free Solo. Chin assured his onstage interviewer that Honnold, who is a North Face athlete, doesn’t climb for the camera (8:46). “You certainly don’t become a climber for the money and the fame,” Chin said with a chuckle, shifting in his chair. “You climb because you love it,” he continued, “and I know [Honnold] doesn’t care about being famous at all; he just wants to climb and do his thing.”
That’s far too facile an explanation for the phenomenon that is Honnold, who is anything but a diffident dirtbag following his bliss up some of the world’s stoutest walls. He’s simply too savvy to leave the filmography to chance. Let’s say it plain: Honnold is the most successful stealth self-promoter in the history of the sport. No foul. Adventure climbers need photographers and filmmakers to thrust their exploits into the public sphere. It’s through brand recognition Honnold and others can snag endorsement deals and decent speaking fees. While Honnold’s wizardry on rock is comparable to Roger Federer’s on a tennis court, Federer’s earnings make Honnold’s look like chump change. Federer receives sizable paychecks for simply appearing at key tournaments, and makes millions when he wins them. Last year, the 37-year-old signed a $30 million, 10-year endorsement deal with the Japanese clothing manufacturer Uniqlo. Federer isn’t in the public speaking game, his agency told me. He doesn’t have to be. Does Honnold? (I attempted to reach Honnold no less than a half-dozen times for comment, and though Retseck told me Honnold would call, he never did.)
CLIMBING AND other adventure sports make for good narratives — the kind folks pay to hear. Not only does every ascent contain a natural storyline — the classic Freytag’s Triangle resembles a mountain — but the activity is rife with metaphor and steeped in folklore, its most respected protagonists more akin to artists, shamans, and Zen lunatics than the kind of climbers who pay their way up Everest. But today the Van Goghs might be morphing into Warhols. In a piece I wrote for Alpinist about one of the sport’s most unusual actors — the late alpinist Fred Beckey, often referred to as the original dirtbag — the climbing historian Joseph Taylor III told me that the dirtbag “is beginning to fade as a keystone species” as the sport in its various sub-genres goes mainstream.
And so it goes. Even Dylan went electric. But it discomfits when business concerns – including management educators — co-opt and exploit the metaphors of ascent, and dirtbags collude with them by relating stories and projecting visuals to excite the labor pool’s nerve endings. The corporation — which prior to the Trump regime has been called the last bastion of totalitarianism — whose sole mission is to maximize shareholder value, would seem to counterpose the traditional dirtbag’s anticonsumerist, pro-environmental values. (It was the archly anti-corporate climber and Ur-environmentalist David Brower who wrote, “There is no business to be done on a dead planet.”) When it doesn’t, we’ve lost those subversive and irreverent slivers — the “Fuck ‘em If They Can’t Take a Joke” ‘tude — that made one proud to be a member of the tribe.
In January, the extreme skier, climber, and new captain of The North Face athletic team, Hilaree Nelson, found herself sharing a dais with a panel of top-drawer scientists and sustainability specialists, which included Al Gore, who flanked her on the right. The occasion: The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, whose attendees consist of the richest and most powerful men on the globe (women comprised only 21 percent of all attendees). The panel was discussing climate change. Nelson told me that she felt out of her depth and scared shitless up there. But she spoke forthrightly and in a strong, clear alto, about what she had observed in her expeditions: how an Inuit elder on Baffin Island explained to her how climate was affecting migratory patterns of the caribou herds; how the instability of the Khumbu Icefall was affecting the entire tourism economy of Nepal; how winters in her hometown of Telluride have become warmer and obliterated ski tourism. “I have gained so much from snow and ice,” she said. “It’s inspired me every day.” She said that it devastated her to think that her own two children might lose out on experiencing the same.
“If there is hope to be correlated with the Trump administration,” she continued, “– and this is hopefully not naive on my part — but it is the amount of people in the United States who have found a voice, and who are working locally and through their states, through school education… I mean, it is phenomenal…through big businesses, everyone is taking it upon themselves to make it happen…I can’t even believe I’m saying this — but I think that’s a good thing to come from the Trump administration.”
She smiled, stared down at her hands, which she’d been steepling and lacing together throughout, and looked at the panel moderator.
“But I’m saying it. I just did.”
A shorter version of this story appeared in Outside Online.
Brad Rassler, the founding editor of Sustainable Play, works and plays in the Tahoe Sierra.