Social Media Dawns a New Adventure


The Dawn Wall climb drew unprecedented media coverage. Is that a good thing?
The Dawn Wall climb drew unprecedented media coverage. Is that a good thing?

By Mike Wolfe

Last week, the world was able to watch for the first time—in real time—two climbers scale the longest and hardest free climb ever completed.  Armed simply with smartphones and numerous photographers rappelling in to capture their progress, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson were able to share their monumental effort over a period of 19 days spent on the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite.  Their climb so captured the attention of America President Obama sent out a congratulatory tweet, amongst the accompanying flurry of live NPR interviews and daily New York Times headlines.

All made possible and created by social media. 

While the world is still buzzing from their heroic climb, like Monday water cooler talk after the playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, all I can think about is how wild it was that their effort went viral to a level not seen in mountain sport before—or at least for climbing.  Online dreamers and smartphone-aholics were able to watch their progress daily on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram updates.  The White House paid attention!

How do Tommy and Kevin feel about this?  Did it change their otherwise solitary experience on the cold January Dawn Wall when hardly anyone else is even in Yosemite?  Are they so accustomed to the requirements of social media for their sponsors that this amount of attention was just part of the job?  Did sponsors pressure them to push that much content on social media while they were climbing? Or, did the beast that is social media just spin their story into the hurricane of coverage on it’s own, entirely without their doing?

I reached out to Tommy and Kevin to ask them.  As of this writing, they have not responded to my query.  Tommy has said in other interviews, however, that he was actually relieved “in some ways,” when he dropped his cell phone part way up the climb.  “[I]t was really nice, [a]fterwards, I found myself really in the moment up there and able to sit and absorb what was going on without any distractions.”  In fact, when a New York Times reporter ask him after they finished the climb whether he was aware how much the outside world was watching them, citing the fact that President Obama wanted to call them, Caldwell said “I had a small sense.  Luckily a week ago I dropped my phone.  I’ve been sheltered by some of it.”

My guess is that Tommy and Kevin may have been participating in social media early on in their climb to share their experience, and maybe post some for sponsor obligations. But, I doubt they ever expected or planned for their journey to explode from a few Facebook posts into New York Times headlines. 

Caldwell’s close friend Kelly Cordes confirmed my suspicion. Cordes himself is a world-class alpinist, author, and sponsored climber.  Cordes was in daily communication via phone with Caldwell while he was on the wall (before he dropped his phone), and told me “they definitely didn’t expect that level of attention. Not even close, from what I understand…it was really a perfect storm in a sense.”  Cordes equated what happened to a slowly starting fire, that at some point erupts into something bigger than expected: “maybe those things [bits of social media spreading slowly at first] were all like little pieces of tinder, then somehow, a spark got lit.”

Has social media become its own living breathing beast? Once Tommy and Kevin were up on the wall climbing, and the photographers started rappelling in, and the journalists started calling, how much of a choice did they have?

I curious about what happened up there because I wrestle with my own use of, and participation in, social media every day.  While not ever in the same situation as Tommy and Kevin, as a sponsored ultra-runner, I understand the watchful eye (and loud mouth) we call social media.  People watch major ultra races all over the world in real time with live twitter feed, and now even live with online TV coverage. What once was a solitary sport in the mountains now often feels like a feeding frenzy of cameras and iPhones trying to keep up with our race progress.  I too feel the pressure of sponsors to be a presence on social media: how many followers do I have?  How often do I tag sponsors, or use the correct hash tags?  Most major sponsors do analytic tracking of athletes’ social media presence as a way to determine our value, relevancy in our sport, influence, and brand presence, above and beyond mere results in competition (in my case as an ultra-runner).  To some extent, this is a job requirement.

Now, even when I am on a training run in the mountains of Montana, I often find my mind wandering, looking for a worthy spot to snap an iPhone photo to post.  It drives me crazy.

While on a remote adventure run, or FKT attempt (Fastest Known Time), I feel external pressure to be documenting the experience for sponsors, but also for some sort of validation by the larger running community.  In 2013, when Hal Koerner and myself attempted a new FKT on the John Muir Trail, we set out under full sponsor support from The North Face, and had numerous crew support and photographers following our progress and sending out periodic social media updates.  Beyond that, Hal and I carried a Spot Connect device and sent out daily text and Twitter updates to followers, while we were out on the trail. 

Mike Wolfe documents his FKT attempt on the JMT with Hal Koerner.
Mike Wolfe documents his FKT attempt on the JMT with Hal Koerner.

In retrospect, I cannot say that using social media to stay in touch with the outside world in “real time,” while on the John Muir Trail detracted from my experience out there.  Just like Tommy and Kevin, Hal and I had an epic adventure out there.  We got what we came for.  We suffered, hallucinated, and sure-as-shit had to focus all of our energy on making the 223-mile trek in just over 84 hours of running, with only 4 hours of sleep.  However, I do think that the inclusion of social media in our expedition did change my experience.

Did our from-the-field documentation and sharing make a difference to our followers? Did it validate or legitimize what we did?

Cordes seems to agree with me, and went further.  “I definitely think it detracts from the experience,” he told me.  But, “of course the old way of pulling out a camera did, too.  Every writer is thinking of the story while out there (I do, and I don’t think that has anything to do with social media…) it affects the experience.  But on the same continuum of things, certainly it’s a greater distraction with social media today.  All of these things are not the same, of course.”

Is the spirit or soul of mountain adventure at risk of being drained lifeless by the ever-present camera or iPhone?  Or, is this all just a natural progression in human-created story telling?  First, it was writer on expedition, journaling to save evidence of his experience.  Next, photographer to document and develop the story once home.  Now, social media procurer is out to share his or her story.

Am I just being reluctant to the change? Or is there some meaningful difference with the conversation and communication that social media creates?  Or, as Cordes said, “I wonder what other athletes performing at such extraordinary levels, with such phenomenal gifts as Tommy and Kevin have, would be questioned for earning a living off of their incredible talents and phenomenal hard work?”  Is it just evolution of mountain sport going mainstream?  Is this the first step in adventure sports becoming entertainment like ball sports?

Is my vexing internal struggle with this because climbing, running, whatever else I do in the mountains, feel like at the most basic level pursuits that were intrinsically meant to be solitary, remote, lonely, unconnected, undistracted by some outside conversation that is now perpetually buzzing in the background on our smartphones.  I know people that purposefully do not participate at all in social media, and even turn down sponsorships.  I admire that, and respect such athletes that keep their endeavors free from any outside influence.  They would rather be alone in the mountains, even at the cost of foregoing a sponsor who would pay to support their lifestyle and athleticism.

Duane Raleigh wrote a great commentary on Rock & Ice online while Tommy and Kevin were high up on the wall: “[t]his connectivity has prompted comments from climbers and non-climbers that adventure is dead.”  Hinting that mountain pursuits like climbing have a very spiritual component, he questions “is this spirituality really so frail it is threatened by Facebook?…[a]dventure, arguably, is the mental and physical challenge, while exploration is the journey into the unknown.  Both are in abundance on the Dawn Wall and the fact that Caldwell and Jorgenson are connected and pumping out media content doesn’t take away from either—we watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon via a live television feed, and I don’t recall anyone saying, ‘well, there goes adventure!’”

Tommy and Kevin’s ascent spurred my contemplation of this subject because I have spent time long hours and days on El Capitan too, back in the 90’s when the adage was “no news is good news.”  I loved those solitary days up on the wall, on a chunk of stone so massive that even when there are 20 other teams up there during peak climbing season, and ant-hordes of tourists are swarming on the valley floor below you, we’d still feel alone in our vertical world. We called our families once a month from the Camp 4 pay phone to let them know we were still alive.  It’s hard for me to not miss those days. 

In 2001, three close friends and I had a long and passionate argument over whether to bring a satellite phone on our 90-day, 1,600-mile self-supported paddling trip across the Canadian Arctic to the Arctic Ocean.  My position on the debate was the same as my time in Yosemite climbing: no news is good news.  I argued we were doing the trip to immerse ourselves in the solitude of true wilderness, not report home via satellite.  I felt we should only connect with the outside world if there was a life-or-limb emergency.  And that would only done via the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) we were going to carry.  That device did not allow communication; it was a one-switch emergency locator beacon that just sent the distress signal to call in the troops (literally).  In the end we brought the satellite phone instead, but agreed to limit its use to emergency use only.  We didn’t use it for anything other than what turned out to be a minor medical issue, and to get a boat pickup on the Arctic Ocean.  We also brought two massive cameras, and boxes of film to document our trip for sponsors.  We produced a slide show, and took it on tour.  We told our story, just not in real-time.  Did it change our experiences or impact our solitary wilderness journey?  Not one bit.  I never thought about it.

Change is inevitable. Progress is not.

A few months after I arrived home from paddling to the Arctic, I hopped a plane for Patagonia, to rock climb for three months in the Torres del Paine National Park with my brother.  We spent those three months buried in imposing mountains without any communication.  We put up a new route, repeated an established one, and festered a ton in basecamp watching the weather.  We never told anyone what we did.  Was that a more pure experience?  Was there more spiritual depth? More adventure? Not at all. But, I will freely admit that my memories of the trips I have not shared, that the moments I hold most dearly for myself and no one else, for some reason those feel the fondest.

Sometimes social media posts sometimes inspire me.  Drive me to get out and push my limits.  Like Tommy and Kevin’s free ascent of the Dawn Wall.  Incredibly inspired effort that makes me want to go balls-out on my own adventure in the mountains.  For that, I appreciate social media.  In fact, during their climb, I felt it was even more inspiring to be watching their progress daily. But mostly social media leaves me feeling distracted, unsatisfied, in a new virtual rat race just struggling to keep up with all the rad shit everyone else appears to being doing in their perfect lives as told on social media.

Is there some line to be drawn in the sand?  Is there a difference between taking a photo to later show your friends and your family and taking a GoPro selfie to immediately upload to your Facebook page? At some point is it worth it?  Turning big wall climbing, free soloing, base jumping, ski mountaineering, ultra-running, into made-for-live-consumption entertainment?  Are these mountain sports meant to be left unfettered by the lens, cell coverage or satellite uplinks? Is our experience really tainted by including social media?  Is it really just the next evolution in human story telling or is it simply “look at me and what I’ve done”?

In a recent New Yorker article, “We are Camera,” writer Nick Paumgarten weighed in on the new GoPro culture.  He asks, does mankind just have “some compulsion to leave a record of his exploits—to draw on the walls of the cave?”  Part of what makes us human is our inclination to tell stories.  Share knowledge and insights to our own clan.  We started drawing on the walls of caves 40,000 years ago.  Maybe social media is just that at its most basic level—humankind wanting to share and be a part of the conversation.

Or is it?  As Paumgarten contemplates, “[w]hen the agony of missing the shot trumps the joy of the experience worth shooting, the adventure athlete (climber, surfer, extreme skier) reveals himself to be something else: a filmmaker, a brand, a vessel for the creation of content.”

And that, I think, is my bottom line: social media is pervasive, and at some point the adventure can take second seat to the struggle of “don’t miss the shot!” More so than writing in a journal or taking a photo to document for sharing later.  Social media has its place, and it certainly is not going away. But, I cannot escape the feeling that it leaves me feeling distanced from the conversation, not closer.  More concerned about being recognized, validated, or pushing content for someone else’s purposes, rather then immersing myself in the moment. The mountains make me feel fulfilled, content, connected, even when I am utterly alone.  Social media may be a job requirement for some like Tommy and Kevin. It may be a way to share human stories, educate, inspire.  But when social media takes on some life of it’s own, as it seems to have done with the Dawn Wall, it starts to feel strangely hollow—athletes becoming vessels for the mere creation of content.  That is a scary thought.

[Author’s note: This piece in no way is meant to pass judgment on Tommy or Kevin, or on any particular style or choice an individual mountain athlete makes in his/her use of social media in their pursuit of sport, mountain adventure, or sponsorship. This piece was solely written to help stimulate debate and foster conversation about this topic.  I know I am not in the minority of athletes out there that have misgivings, or at least questions, about the role of social media in our lives and how it impacts our experiences in the mountains.  It is interesting to note that out of ten professional mountain athletes I reached out to for comment, Kelly Cordes was the only one to respond.]

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