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Face time

Struggling climbers want it -- need it -- to get to the summit of sponsored paydays. And, as Charles Duhigg reports, it's a long way to the top of the cold callback list.

November 11, 2003|Charles Duhigg

If you are crazy for granite and perilous heights and foolish enough to believe that life rewards passion, your obsession probably began here. It's known, officially, as Camp 4 of Yosemite National Park. But among climbers and mountaineers, it's called Medina. As in the second-holiest place in Islam. The precise location of summit mecca depends on the flavor of adrenaline you prefer. For some, it's Everest. For others, it's the top of El Capitan, the famously difficult crag that overlooks this crowded campground of tattooed and dreadlocked youths. Regardless of which direction you face to pray, you've come here for the same reason Muhammad went to his mountains: because of a dream.

"I'd wake up every day and just climb," explained Heidi Wirtz, 32, a small woman with rosy cheeks and arms like lead pipes who doesn't say things as much as laugh them. "And I'd come home, and my parents would spend all night telling me that I'm wasting my life. But it's all I wanted to do."

Wirtz, raised in Sacramento and now based in Boulder, Colo., has been chasing her dream for a decade, when she's not working construction or waitressing or shoveling snow. The same dream infects Dylan Taylor, 28, who's huddled in a tent at 14,000 feet at the base of the Bhagirathi Mountains in the Indian Himalaya, hoping to ascend to heights that will put his climbing career on the map.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 18, 2003 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Climbing guides -- A story last week about climbing incorrectly stated that the Southern California Mountaineers Assn., a climbing club, offers guide services.

Both of them think, maybe, they're beginning to figure out the rules, the rules that allow you to do this all the time. Others have figured them out -- Ed Viesturs, for instance. Viesturs is probably the most famous climber in the United States, the first American to summit 13 of the 14 tallest peaks in the world without supplemental oxygen. Viesturs is a professional climber, sponsored by multiple companies who pay him -- pay him! -- to climb.

He seems to know the rules. And Taylor and Wirtz think maybe they've figured them out. They're pretty sure.

Almost.

Rule 1

Try to get famous.

When Britain's Royal Geographical Society opened its doors in 1830 as a gathering place for gentleman adventurers, it formalized the career paths for mountaineers. Exploring terra incognita was, unfortunately, expensive and largely unprofitable. So those seeking full-time employment could either be born into great wealth or, by dint of exploits or old-boy connections, persuade the wealthy to hire them as guides or company representatives.

Today it's still tough to live what you love as a professional adventurer. Most climbing and mountaineering guides earn, on average, $8,000 to $10,000 per year. Elite independent guides might make as much as $30,000 to $50,000. But jobs are scarce -- professional guiding services report 60 to 100 applications for every open position -- and guiding can intrude on exploring new terrain.

Rock climbing and mountaineering, however, are popular as never before. Over the last five years, the number of Americans scaling cliff walls and slopes has increased 60% to 16.7 million, according to the Outdoor Industry Assn. Climbing has become a $5-billion-a-year industry, and a trip up Everest or a similar peak can cost upward of $75,000.

The popularity has created a demand for celebrities and spokespersons, and outdoor companies are lining up to sponsor the daring and celebrated. Fame, though, is elusive.

"I get about 50 to 100 applications per month from people who want us to fund an expedition," said Aaron Imholt, athletic expeditions manager at the North Face, a California-based outdoor company that sponsors 15 to 18 trips a year. "We're looking for athletes who are known for something like a first ascent or an unrepeatable climb. Someone who is a great storyteller with stories people want to hear."

So you begin by doing anything you can to get noticed. New climbs. Fast climbs. More mountains in one day than anyone before. Anything unique, which is increasingly difficult in this well-explored world.

And always bring a photographer.

"People started asking if they could take my picture," Wirtz said. "I didn't really want to do it. But someone put me in a movie they were making, and a friend needed my picture to sell an article to a climbing magazine, and suddenly people started knowing who I am."

Wirtz is the newest member of the North Face Athlete Team, so she's in a hurry to make sure she understands the rules. Many of them concern celebrity and marketing. Sponsors, for instance, frequently offer climbers a paycheck if they are photographed by a magazine and the sponsor's logo is visible. Conversations around campfires these days may dwell on the finer points of contract law.

Mountaineering, in short, is changing from a sport of rugged individualism to a new, more "domestic activity," said Karl "Baba" Bralich, a climbing guide who divides his time between Yosemite and Joshua Tree, east of Los Angeles. "Guiding has always been about dangerous and senseless activities. All this money is chasing that romance out."

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