Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Famous climbers - who will be the UK's Sharma?

(Written 10/11/2007)

Photographers, screaming fans, flashing lights, autographs, reporters and sponsors, all part of a days work for a premiership footballer, but can you imagine rock climbing heading in the same direction?

With the recent release of BigUp’s new production, King Lines, we, the climbing community, have been exposed to an unprecedented spectacle.

I am not talking about the film itself, which, arguably, has set a new standard in what can be achieved with the funding and technical ability that has been seen in this latest climbing feature, but about how the United States has embraced climbing in a much more mainstream fashion than that seen in the United Kingdom.

More specifically, the spectacle I am referring to is that of Chris Sharma and his status in America, and the rest of the world, which has been compared to that of a rock star. (No pun intended.)

During the Reel Rock Tour, in which the King Lines film was shown in various establishments across the vast American continent, Chris Sharma impersonation competitions took place. Need more be said?

Well, here it is anyway, to paint a better picture of just how popular these events can be.

Over fifteen thousand fans attended seventy five screenings in cities across North America including San Diego, Salt Lake City, Boulder, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco among many others. Shows sold out with some gaining crowds of up to 650 vying extreme sports enthusiasts – to use an Americanism - lining up around the block. Crowds queued for signed posters and clambered for goodies being thrown from the stage by the man himself.

Sharma has appeared on National television channel NBC and, following the Reel Rock shows, has also popped up on national radio promoting the new film.

This kind of scenario is reserved for a select few sports in the UK and as such we have not yet seen superstar climbers emerge, even though we do hold a handful in high esteem.

Why is the UK behind the US in the department of media hyping of rock climbers and is it a direction that we want to see our sport heading in?

Well we may have already taken the first few steps in that direction.

In December 2005 Tim Emmett and Leo Houlding appeared on the popular BBC television show Top Gear, when they raced up a 7a multi-pitch sport route called Le March De Temps in the picturesque Verdon Gorge in an attempt to beat Jeremy Clarkson’s ascent, via roads, in an Audi RS4.

Tim has also appeared on BBC1 more recently, August 2007, in the show Ultimate Rock Climb, where he introduced beginner climber and Watchdog presenter Julia Bradbury to three iconic climbs in England, Wales and Scotland.

These, in case you wanted to know, were Commando Ridge on the north coast of Cornwall, Crackstone Rib in Llanberis Pass, and The Old Man of Stoer off the North West Coast of Scotland. 
Dave MacLeod has also recently appeared on BBC television, making the first ascent of To Hell and Back, a new E10 at Cairngorm – which was supposed to be a live show but, due to the unpredictable Scottish weather, had to be postponed and shown at a later date.

As well as the television coverage rock climbing has received, it has also been appearing in the national press more often with articles ranging from fitness advantages and beginner courses to achievements of endurance and perseverance.
One of the more prominent and recent articles is that of Steve McClure’s ascent of Overshadow, his new 9a+ sport route at Malham, which gained national coverage because of the “bat hang” maneuver he employs as a resting position.

Is this extra media attention a good thing for climbing? “I really do believe that this progression is a really good idea,” explained Tim Emmett when asked about the subject.

“If the main climbing walls get really busy we can just build some more. It just opens up the potential for support. If it’s really successful it will help build that support. I guess one negative side is that it does make the crags a little busier, but there are plenty of climbs in Britain for everyone to enjoy.”

Tim is one of the UK’s most accomplished all round climbers and, paired with his extrovert nature, it has helped bring him to the attention of the BBC, where there are plans underway for future appearances.

He said: “I really enjoy the media side of it and I would like to do more television. We’re currently organising a rematch with Top Gear which is going to be in Norway but its going to be a much more difficult shoot mainly because of the weather.

“The media can be accommodating for climbing and it can help it change. It has been a catalyst that has helped a lot more climbing walls open which in turn gets more people climbing. It gives them access.”

What about the idea of climbing stars appearing and have you, yourself, noticed changes since your television appearances? “Since the Top Gear programme with Leo [Houlding] and The Ultimate Rock Climb I have noticed big differences and people recognising me. For example; when I get into a taxi and the driver asks me what I do for a living, I say I’m a professional climber. One of the first things they say is “did you see the Top Gear programme when the two climbers raced Clarkson?” and it’s really surprising. I didn’t expect it to have such a big impact because it was just 15 minutes of one show on TV but it has been repeated and shown on “Best Of” programmes and now everyone has seen it!”

The publicity generated by such television appearances has opened new doors and has increased the potential for climbing to reach new audiences.

Leo Houlding is no stranger to stepping into new territory with his adventuress lifestyle, but this new territory is not some remote destination or untouched cliff, it is that of a less tangible and more public domain. 

The Leo Houlding Project is the working title for a new television series due to be shown in February 2008 on freeview channel Virgin 1. 

It follows five Brits as they embark on a series of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Leo is presenting the series and will provide the team with his own brand of extreme tasks as well as helping them through the experiences.

“If you’ve got Leo doing his own TV show then I think that will make him a really big star. If you look at what’s happened with Sharma in the US, I think Leo will be there in the next 12 to 24 months,” predicted Tim.

Undoubtedly the popularity of climbing is increasing and this creates a demand that the media will exploit. This increased publicity will in turn only increase popularity further, creating a perpetuating circle of demand and supply.

Time will tell how far it can go, but on first glance we are only at the foot of a new and unexplored mountain of climbing popularity and climber fame.