UPDATE: I am saddened to learn of the death of Brad Gobright on Wednesday, 27 June, 2019. Gobright fell to his death climbing in El Potrero Chico, Mexico. The following piece was posted on June 18, 2018. Rock and Ice Magazine has the details of the accident here. The following essay appears as it did in June of 2018, with some slight edits for the purposes of clarity.
Okay, let’s be honest, Gobright isn’t exactly unknown; his Instagram account has over 32,000 followers; he’s climbed, regularly, with Alex Honnold and has a series of really difficult climbs under his belt. In 2015, Outside Magazine published a piece about him titled, “Brad Gobright is the Next Great Free Soloist”. This past October, he and Jim Reynolds (pictured left, below with Gobright) broke the speed record on the nose of El Cap with a time of 2:19:44. The previous record of 2:23:46 was held by Honnold and Hans Florein; and if you’ve recently been following climbing news, you’ll know that Honnold and Caldwell broke Gobright’s and Reynold’s record last week: three times, in five days. The current record now stands at under two hours. Insane. Gobright has also been featured in Rock and Ice as well as Climbing magazine. So, the climbing community knows who this guy is. The question now isn’t, “why don’t people know him?”, it’s more like, “why isn’t he as popular as climbers such as Honnold, Caldwell or DiGiulian?. The fact that a greater number of people don’t know the name becomes even more mind-numbing when one begins to check off a list of Gobright’s accomplishments: Dreefee (5.13d): a free solo of Hairstyles and Attitudes (5.12 b/c): a free solo of Doub-Griffith (5.11 c+): the previous (aforementioned) record on the nose: he’s free-soloed The Naked Edge (5.11b), perhaps Colorado’s most famous route, something like twenty-five times. So, what the fuck? Right?
Part of the lack of his wider appeal may stem from the fact that he has, or at least had, relatively few sponsors. (This may be changing, as he is currently sponsored by Friction Labs, Gramicci, and Evolv.) In Cedar Wright’s 2017 film, Safety Third, Wright documents Gobright’s journey toward free-soloing Hairstyles and Attitudes—it should be noted that the film was shot during the 2015 climbing season, and at that time, according to Honnold and Wright, Gobright had next to no sponsors, although, he occasionally receives ropes and climbing shoes. In the film, Gobright endures good-natured ribbing, a broken back and ankle, and achieves a first (underwear) ascent, but Wright’s profile also sheds a pretty interesting light on a pretty quirky character. And this may explain, a little, why he has (or had) so few sponsors.
At the time of filming, Gobright lived the consummate dirtbag lifestyle. He worked as a busboy at a Colorado restaurant and in one scene eats off a table from a basket of bread clearly meant for customers. Gobright also lived in an apartment with five other people. His stated goal: “to work as little as possible and climb as much as I could.” This dude lives to climb and climbs to live. He subsists on a steady injection of bread and sugar: he shows up to climbs eating donuts, glazed croissants, and in one scene we see him polishing off a tin of what appears to once have been an entire apple pie. He’s also a scatterbrain (I sympathize, bruh. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve driven away from my house with my coffee mug on the roof of my vehicle): during one climb, Gobright forgot a pair of shorts, so simply climbed in his boxers: in another incident he realizes he’s forgotten a piece of equipment. As he vacillates between rummaging through his pack and helplessly glancing at the ground, Cedar Wright looks on and highlights, only half-jokingly, part of the problem:
Gobright: “Oh, how did I forget that? Man! It’s like… I just put it in my pack; I must have put it on top of my jacket and it like…”
Wright: “This is what Honnold’s talking about, Brad.”
Gobright: “Ahh, I gotta get it together.”
Wright: “Yeah, this is not the mark of a professional, dude.”
Cedar Wright was referring to Honnold’s suggestion that Gobright lacked the gravitas required to represent a corporate sponsor. Honnold wasn’t being mean, or overly critical; at least, he wasn’t trying to be; he has a great deal of respect for Gobright and was genuinely impressed upon learning that Gobright had free-soloed The Naked Edge twenty-five times, exclaiming, “He’s soloed The Naked Edge twenty-five times!? That’s fucked up.” So, whatever viewers think of Honnold’s criticism of Gobright, he’s not attacking him personally; he’s saying that major sponsorships require climbers to comport themselves in a professional manner, and Brad Gobright does not meet that criteria. Perhaps we should take into account that Honnold’s honesty is infamous in the climbing community. In the 2016 film Africa Fusion, Hazel Findlay lightheartedly complains about this. Findlay grumbles, “He doesn’t give you an inch”, to which Honnold responds, “No, I don’t give you an inch. You’re a professional climber; you’re supposed to represent for the brand.” Or maybe it’s as Hayden Kennedy said: “Honnold doesn’t feel feelings, as far as I’m concerned”. Viewers should also know that Honnold was happy to play the “bad guy” in Safety Third, as he provided a foil for Gobright, and Wright openly discusses this in a piece from earlier this year. Take it for what it’s worth.
That being said, this may be a case where talent alone does not suffice. In other words, corporations care as much about an athlete’s public image as they do that athlete’s ability to perform amazing feats. Hence, Cedar Wright has penned two articles, produced a film, and has nearly single-handedly–as he claims in a 2018 article–been responsible for sling-shooting (or sling-shotting? I honestly have no idea) Gobright into the limelight. But whether you sit slack-jawed watching the time-lapsed version of him (and Reynolds) flying up El Cap, climbing Dreefee, or chasing the speed record on The Naked Edge, you’ll begin to wonder why you haven’t yet replaced that picture of the pope hanging above your mantle with that of Gobright’s glorious countenance. Yes, Gobright has been featured in the best climbing mags; yes, he’s an amazingly accomplished and scrappy little climber (literally: he stands around 5’7”); and yes, this dude is practically fearless: he has endured a broken back and two broken ankles in the last couple of years and still climbs some of the scariest routes on the planet; and yes, you still haven’t heard of him. This shows the impact of corporate backing, or the lack thereof. In an article Wright penned in 2016 called, “The Wright Stuff: An Ode to the Dark Horse”, he half-jokingly remarks that Gobright “likes long solos (sometimes on the beach), big walls, crimpers, and cutting-edge trad climbs, and he’s looking for an eligible and sexy sponsor to sweep him off his dirtbag feet.” Wright has been, and continues, pushing to get Gobright noticed: and it seems to be working.
This type of notoriety, or effort to gain such notoriety, has split the climbing community. On the one hand are guys like Cedar Wright, Alex Honnold (to some extent), Sasha DiGiulian and Joe Kinder: these climbers are all over social media and post regularly to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. By being visible they court big name sponsors, get free gear, paid travel, all of which allows them to do their craft. Travel and the gear necessary for big name climbs can get really expensive. On the other hand, you’ve got climbers such as the late Hayden Kennedy, who not only avoided corporate sponsorship, but also, according to Wright, hated the thought of being the face of a media giant. When asked to be featured in an article for Outside, for example, Kennedy declined. The late Fred Beckey was another notorious climber who avoided the spotlight. Some climbers just don’t care.
These two attitudes were particularly visible in a conversation I recently participated in on Andrew Bisharat’s blog in an article titled “No Country for Pro Climbers”. Here, Bisharat laments the lack of purity in the sport, and wonders whether social media is partly to blame. Online forums can be visceral and vitriolic on a good day, and in part, this one was no exception. Some accuse Bisharat of being a “no-talent hack”, and accosted the piece as “muddled”. But those who took such a view clearly missed the point. Bisharat’s stance is clear: he’s a purist at heart. If he were climbing in the middle of the last century he would have been considered a “valley Christian” along with “Golden Age” climbers such as Royal Robbins and Steve Roper: rely on skill, minimal bolting and equipment, climb for climbing’s sake, follow the rules: climbing, afterall has ethics. That being said, many detractors clearly missed the byline of his article: “Is cutting-edge climbing taking a back seat to celebrity, marketing, and social media?” To me, and I hope Mr. Bisharat agrees, he was not lampooning the savvy purveyors of likes, clicks and views on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook; he is trying, through his writing, to work out the answer to that question and provides solid evidence that the answer to that question might be yes. It’s probably true that many purists simply never get noticed; it’s also just as true that if you want to make a living climbing, do the biggest and baddest climbs, corporate sponsorship helps, and being part of the media machine comes with that territory. Re-enter Gobright.
It’s not clear whether Gobright will become the next “golden-boy” of Black Diamond sports. What is clear about Brad Gobright is that he is one of the best pure climbers in the sport. Yes, he has social media accounts. His Instagram account has something like 32,000 followers, and it seems like every time I look he has another thousand more. He’s also a throwback to the days when guys showed up to climb in tennis shoes with a rope they stole from the phone company, and nothing else. He hikes out to spires, big walls and pinnacles in his climbing shoes, and probably only shows up with those and a chalk bag. Yvonne Chouinard, in Valley Uprising, tells the story of how he and his crew once went and bought up all the damaged cans of cat food at the store so they could have something to eat all Summer, and essentially live in Camp 4 and do nothing but climb. We’re in a new world for climbers now. A world in which corporate sponsorships allow you to live the dream while concurrently providing a paycheck–no one wants to eat cat food, and money always comes with strings. While it may be the ideal for purists, sponsored athletes no longer need to go the lengths climbers did in the sixties and seventies. If Brad Gobright is a little unprofessional, a bit absent-minded, perhaps a bit disheveled (I mean, have you ever seen an interview where Honnold had combed his hair?), he’s also very human; and that aspect endears him to fans. Maybe it’s true that if climbers want to bag big corporate sponsors they must develop a professional persona, or comport themselves in such and such a way, or present their “best face” to the world. Maybe it’s also true that corporate sponsors ought to meet athletes in the middle, and change their ideas about what it means to be a pro climber.
A very special thanks to Dan Krauss and Brad Gobright for allowing me to use their photos in this piece.
Dan’s shot appears as the cover photo of this article and features Gobright climbing a route called “Golden Gate”, in Yosemite. You can see more of Dan’s amazing work at www.dankraussphoto.com/
Brad granted me permission to use any selfie of his other than the donut pic! His graciousness, like his climbing ability, is epic. I’ve linked to several of his climbs in this piece, so if you’ve already scrolled by, go back and watch them now .
And remember, get out there!