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We’re In This Together: Climbing Magazine’s Contributor’s Fund

Freelancers are the lifeblood of the outdoor media industry, but COVID-19 has shrunk journalism budgets across the board. Climbing Magazine, which gets about 75% of their content from contributors, is keeping up the work, and even doling out cash.



“You do it because you love it, or you have to, like a compulsion.”

Those words, and variations of, have been shared with me time and again from freelance writers, photographers and artists. Through grins and contemplative stares, over beers and across Zoom calls, the sub-text is that you don’t do it for the money.

The inner drive buttresses morale through tough times, but when work dries up, cash helps too.

For over 50 years, Climbing Magazine has been leading the way. Thanks to a new initiative by the publisher, they are giving a portion of their revenues directly to freelancers through their Climbing Contributor’s Fund (CCF). During April and May, 25% of proceeds from new Summit Memberships are apportioned to the fund. For every 50 signups, $500 gets doled out.

I spoke with Matt Samet, the Editor at Climbing, and Kevin Riley, Associate Publisher, to learn more about their new effort, the only one of its kind in the industry.



Author: How did the idea for the fund come about?

Matt Samet (MS): This was all Kevin Riley’s, idea. He goes on long trail runs and does these epic solo brainstorming sessions and comes back with tons of great ideas. Almost makes me wish I was still a runner! 

Anyway, when the COVID-19 closures hit and everyone was sent home from work, we at Climbing all saw these effects trickle down pretty quickly, especially in the form of our many beloved freelancers. I’ve been a freelancer on and off myself over the years, and you’re always hustling, always saying “Yes” to any and all gigs because you don’t know when you’ll hit a dry spell. 

With the economy basically put on pause, we knew there would be a big dry spell for many of our contributors, who are often piecing together a living with multiple gigs, including contributing to the magazine. We wanted to do whatever we could, while at the same time encouraging more people to sign up for our Summit Membership, which in turn supports our staff to work with freelancers to develop our content.

Why do you feel this is important to do as a publisher? 

Kevin Riley (KR): Helen Keller said, “Alone, we can do little; together, we can do much.” 

Climbing reaches over 1M people across its platforms, giving it the unique ability to galvanize the community to help the writers, photographers, and artists that make climbing (and Climbing) so special. As climbers, we take care of our own and many climbing contributors are facing difficult financial situations right now. Sure, being a climbing writer or photographer might sound glamourous, but the truth is it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to do what they do.

Each issue of Climbing Magazine features about 75% of its content from freelancers. Photo source: Climbing Magazine


Can you talk about the role that freelancers play for Climbing? 

MS: I reckon that 75 percent or so of our content comes from freelancers, who are out in the field, writing, shooting, creating video, and creating all this original content. 

We are able to create some content ourselves here, too, being based in a climbing center like Boulder, Colorado, and with the three of us on staff—me, Kevin Riley, and Digital Editor, Kevin Corrigan—all being passionate writers (and the two Kevins are great photographers). But because we work in a deadline-based industry, we’re chained to our desks much of the time, so there’s only so much we can do from here. We rely on our network of freelancers to bring us the goods from all over the world.

How do you fund this?

KR: The CCF is funded through the Summit subscription. 

The important difference is that we committed to expediate payments to contributors, so they get checks in their hands right away. We decided to allocate a portion of Summit Membership sales to CCF because it had the best potential to raise funds while CCF recipients could provide exclusive content for Summit Members as a token of gratitude.

How has response been from readers and the larger climbing community?

MS: So far, it’s been great. Our first contribution went to the photographer and photo editor, Irene Yee (@LadyLockoff), who’s based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and is an amazing talent and someone we work with often. 

Irene created a video sharing her processes for both photo selection and editing in Lightroom, using shots from The Firewall in Liming, China—it’s a very cool behind-the-scenes look at a photographer’s process from hanging in the harness, shooting photos, to editing, to publication, and a great resource for anyone interested in climbing photography.



If you enjoy climbing and adventure stories, consider signing up to become a Summit Member with Climbing (which includes a bevy of other goodies) or sign up for a subscription to another publisher to help assure they continue to operate (and provide work for freelancers). Adventure Journal, Sidetracked, Rock and Ice, Alpinist and others widely use freelancers for content.

Are you a freelancer? 
Here are a few additional resources for those in the outdoor media industry:

Feature photo source: Climbing Magazine

Bright Lights Across a Dark Space: Angst in the Time of Corona

I hemmed and hawed and let the cursor hover over the buy button.

Returning to the U.S. didn’t feel great, but staying in Mexico seemed unwise.

After a layover in DFW and the first American-made IPA in almost half a year, the plane touched down in Boston. That was over a month ago. How time flies.

Life’s been up and down, like the arc of a return journey or my sense of security throughout the week. At first it was concern about personal safety. Then money, then long-term prospects, then the big why? Like moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of angst. 

Things have settled a bit, as muddy water does when left alone. Too much action agitates the mental pot which circulates the noetic debris, if you’ll allow the metaphor. Sometimes you just have to let things sit. So I’ve been trying to sit with it.

It, as in freelancing, which I’ve been doing for 1.33 years now. A year and a half sounds more impressive, but that’s a lot of rounding up when the total number is small. So 1.33 it is.

There are questions about whether this can work. From many accounts it’s a fraught existence. You do it because you love it, or couldn’t do anything else, or you have a trust fund. You certainly don’t do it for the money. 

Money isn’t the be-all-end-all, but it matters when you’re getting to an age where whether you want to have a family in the future starts factoring into personal finance. 

If I had started in my 20s it’d be easer to ride the wave, I think. In your 30s, when many others are now rising in their careers, buying homes, having kids, it makes one think twice about the path and the prospects of your career choices. 

After all, writing and journalism isn’t a make it big vocation. Hell, it’s barely a make $50k a year occupation.

I’ve been telling myself I’d give it three years. But a pandemic didn’t really factor into that. Thank GOD for PUA or I’d be SOL. So I’m sitting.

Then it was the future. There’s a lot of high-minded talk about the importance of journalism for democracy. But high praise isn’t pocketable and newsrooms have been going barren for the past twenty years. Orgs are making it work, like the NYTimes, but I know publishers in my domain are having a hard go like many others. 

Journalism also seems untenable when it relies on the likes of Jeff Bezos to swoop in to save the WSJ, or leaders around the world flout the truth and disparage the searching minds and mouthpieces that express it. And of course the trend of #FakeNews.

But I like it—writing— so I started to think I should diversity my beat, look for market opportunities, have contingency plans. There are internships and jobs, grants and fellowships, grad school and the like. But at the end of the day it mostly made me want to look into the bottom of a hole, tail feathers up. So I’m sitting.

When I was younger I used to think life was easy. It seems like it’s gotten harder over the years. 

Depending on your glare, the world looks ablaze or bleak. There are bright spots sure, like solar flares ripping through the vacuumed nothingness firing energy like uncoiled punches saying, “bring it on!

Those bursts are the good and true and the universal. They are what make you breathe again and feel proud to be part of the human condition. 

The other night meteorites scorched through the night sky. I slept through it. But I knew the glittering lights were there.

Because I’ve been sitting with it.


Feature photo by Luca Iaconelli on Unsplash

From Helsinki to Mexico City: A Long Way to Open a Climbing Gym

Helsinki is 6,125 miles from Mexico City. Yet for Finnish climbers, Ben Koponen and Juha Kurikka, it wasn’t too far to open their dream gym. 

Even if Ben had never been to the country before.

They arrived in Mexico City in the summer of 2017, not really knowing what to expect.


From Roots in Finland

Ben likes emerging climbing communities, apparently. 

He grew up in Finland during the rapid rise of the sport in the early 2000s, learning on the hard granite of Nummi, just outside of Helsinki, at Falkberget, and farther afield. Finland won’t be mistaken for cliff-laden destinations like France or Spain—most of the country tops out under 656′ tall—but that hasn’t stopped locals from seeking out the best of what’s around. Or from becoming some of the top in the world, like Nalle Hukkataival, one of the strongest boulderers today. 

Bouldering exploded onto the scene with the discovery of Vaasa in 2000. The boreal forests which cover roughly 75% of the land, offer enchanting solitude and barely touched bouldering potential. This is the environment that Ben grew up in: The thrill of finding undiscovered places, the dedication to develop something new, and the ruggedness to endure long winters (though I’m told the climbing season makes the wait worth it).

Perhaps there’s something about the eagerness to get outdoors post-hibernation that’s blossomed a strong climbing culture. Ben estimates there’s about 120,000 in the country whose total population is one-quarter the size of Mexico City.

(If you’re interested, you can watch the documentary, “Cold Rock,” to learn more about the history of climbing in Finland).

As climbing gained in popularity, so did the demand for indoor options.

From dust to dyno. Photo courtesy of RockSolid.


The First Time Around

Today, there are eight climbing gyms in Helsinki, or about one for every 8,100 citizens.

Ben ran a gym in 2011 when things were on the upswing. But he and his partner were a bit early.

“It was growing, but not that fast and my partner lost interest. So we decided to close it down,” says Ben. “But I was always telling my friends, ‘Some day I’m going to open another one.’”


What About Mexico?

Juha was looking for a change and proposed the idea: “What about a climbing gym? And what about in Mexico?,” recalls Ben.

“I thought about it for two seconds… Let’s go!,” he says, laughing.

Ben had never been to Mexico before, but Juha had spent 6 months there in 2015, then went on a two week fact finding mission in early 2017.

“We wanted to know: What is there? Is there any potential? Is this just a crazy idea?,” Ben jokes.

Upon Juha’s return to Finland, an unfortunate snowmobiling accident resulted in 3 bed-ridden months with a broken leg. Turns out an exercise in immobility is a good opportunity to hatch a business plan.

They were on the move to Mexico City later that summer, crutches and all.

A ray of light portends what’s to come in an old dusty print house. Photo courtesy of RockSolid.

Sprinting to Stop

“The nice thing about Mexico is if I want to open a book store, I can get it up and running a week later. That’s basically what we did here: I rented the space from a friend, ordered about 1,000 books, built the shelfs, and put up a small sign on the window.” 

That was how it was described to me by El Jefe at Librería La Comezón in Querétaro. I heard other iterations thereof, from opening a pizza shop to starting a crash pad company. You can basically just start, and move things along quickly.

That wasn’t the case with RockSolid.

“We didn’t know anything about the city,” begins Ben. “The first thing we did was to print a whole bedroom wall-sized map. We marked all the schools, the Metro lines, bus lines, etc. to get the idea of what the city was about.”

They started searching uptown around Polanco then moved south. Sometimes they’d show up to a listing found online to find nothing resembling the pictures. Other times the location just didn’t work. Eventually, they uncovered an old printing factory that had gone defunct 6 years earlier. 

Legal work took four months. Wood they had pre-bought for the buildout had been sold to another customer, so they had to wait for new timber to be cut and dried. And then construction took longer than expected.

“Eight months of building and before that, one year of planning and finding a place,” says Ben.

“We opened RockSolid on July 6, 2019,” he declares, beaming.

It was the biggest gym in the country at the time. 

An international crew gathers for a Reel Rock showing. Photo courtesy of RockSolid.


A New Home

“I’m really happy to be a part of the community here in Mexico,” shares Ben, reflecting on the opening of the gym and of his time so far. “I felt home from the moment I came.” 

They’re just in the beginning, not even a year in since opening. But Ben seems pleased with the progress.

“It’s been good. Super long and rough journey, but it was all worth it.” Just like winters in Finland.

High Drama Book Review: History and Intrigue Dominate

Competition climbing wasn’t always a thing.

People used to just try hard on real rock and rain mattered. But like sport climbing, then bouldering, then gyms… love it or hate it, the trend has taken root and is here to stay.

Comp (short for “competition”) climbing is a sub-discipline of the sport that takes place indoors and puts athletes into structured events designed to “see who’s the best,” or something like that. Kinda like the tennis or golfing version of climbing.

Since lead, speed, and bouldering were admitted into the Olympics for 2020 2021, I was curious: Why did it take so long for the sport to be included?

I also wanted to know more about what comp climbing is about, and to some extent, who is interested in this anyway?

“If given the choice between going bouldering or watching a world class climbing comp, I’d rather watch the climbing comp,” says John Burgman, one of the leading voices on the sport.

Wait. What?

“People can’t wrap their head around that,” he professes.

John has been tracking comp climbing since 2014, regularly writes on the topic for Climbing Magazine and Climbing Business Journal, and is a frequent guest on Plastic Weekly, an indoor and competitive climbing industry podcast. 

He also recently released High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, in early March, to cover the topic in more—well, much more—depth.

The final of the girls’ sport climbing at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires on 9 October 2018.” Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons


Anyways, a few weeks ago I didn’t know much about comp climbing. Now I do.

Working through the fast-paced historical account, a few things stood out: 1) The story is fraught with tales of intrigue and 2) John loves history. 

He must have interviewed dozens of key players from the annals and frankly, only Sauron and John know how he managed to keep track of the details. After awhile, my head began to swim like soup trying to follow all the names, places, feats, and spectacles.

Still, John has a ceramicists’ touch to smooth out a vast quantity of material to make something appreciably easy on the eyes, that’s readable and entertaining.


John tracks the story beginning in late-80s:

“One hazy afternoon in 1987, a young California rock climber named Jim Thornburg met up with a longtime friend, Scott Frye, to carry out an ambitious plan.”


The duo loaded up their car with epoxy and rocks gathered from Tuolumne in Yosemite, and headed towards a quiet on-ramp at the back of Lake Temescal reservoir northeast of Oakland. Their plan was to glue holds onto the girders, and in doing so, they created some of the earliest artificial climbing routes in The States. 

Contrast those humble beginnings to today’s super-mega 50,000+ square feet climbing gyms, and you get a sense of how things have grown.

“America’s largest climbing gym is now open in Englewood.” Photo by Helen H. Richardson of The Denver Post

Said another way, climbing has evolved. Fast

While the book covers 30 years of the sport, it feels like 3 or 5 generations have passed in that time. If you read too quickly, it’s like Robin Williams’ Jack all up in here (points to head), or Lisa’s colony of small beings.

From a trad-only ethos that peaked with the Stonemasters to gym-only super climbers of today, there’s a veritable cast of characters that have helped develop the sport.  

You’ll recognize names like Lynn Hill, Jeff Lowe, and Alison Osius, will probably have heard of people such as Hans Florine or Mia Axon, and may not know about (but should!) the contributions of folks like Kynan Waggoner, Jackie Hueftle, and Scott Rennak, among countless others. 


Heck, just take a gander at the Olympic roster to see evolution in action.

In 1989, Robyn Erbesfield (now Erbesfield-Raboutou) and Didier Raboutou met while competing at the Second International Sport Climbing Competition (ISCC) at Snowbird, organized by Jeff Lowe. The event was also the second ever World Cup event in the U.S. (following the first iteration of the ISCC the year prior, where the Finals route was rated in the low 5.13s). If the last name sounds familiar, that’s because Brooke Raboutou, their daughter, is on the inaugural Olympic team, while their son, Shawn, now boulders V16.

“Many people feel that sport climbing will eventually be included in the Olympics,” suggests a recap of the event in a Climbing article at the time. 

Prescient. But it would still be a long road to 2020, with a lot of history to be made along the way. 

You can buy John Burgman’s High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing on Amazon. 

Please note: Amazon affiliate links were used in this post.

Are These Modular Bouldering Walls the Future of Playgrounds?

Move over monkey bars, these polygonal bouldering blocks are the playground equipment of the future. 

Hard Body Hang (HBH) out of Budapest, Hungary has created decahedron and tetrahedron “Urban Boulders” to help more people enjoy the thrills of climbing, outdoors and for free, while in the city.

In an increasingly urbanized world, not everyone can skip town to get to real rock. Today, 55% of the world’s population live in cities, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050 based on predictions by the United Nations

Accordingly for urbanites, the sport of climbing is growing fueled by indoor facilities. 

Pro climber, Kinga Zsilák (gold medalist at Hungarian Lead Climbing Cup 2019), showing off the posibilites. Photo courtesy of Hard Body Hang.


In the U.S. there are over 7.7 million climbers, according to an Outdoor Industry Association report from 2014, with over five million frequenting the gym, as noted in the 2019 State of Climbing report by the American Alpine Club. The Climbing Business Journal tracks the commercial gym industry and their research shows about a 6% yearly growth rate for new climbing gyms since 2000. Based off data from the Climbing Wall Association, gym facilities average over 100 new members per month.

That’s a lot of people flocking indoors, which HBH is trying to change.

As former rowers, Szabolcs Csepregi and Tamás Erdélyi spent much of their career training inside. When they retired, they began looking for a way to stay fit alfresco; Ideally cheaply and always accessible. That’s when they came across body-weight exercises in city parks.  

“We started making street workout equipment six years ago [think pull-up bars, monkey bars, parallel bars],” says Mezős Balázs, the Marketing Director of the company. “Our motto is ‘playground for all,’ because the important thing is that these are sports for anyone—You don’t need any extra equipment. Anyone can go and start working out and having fun.”

HBH gained in popularity as the parkour and street workout movement grew across Europe. Parkour is like American Ninja Warrior in a metro setting, emphasizing dynamic movements—such as swinging, stemming, and jumping—to navigate through complex environments and structures typically found in city parks, subway stations, and stairwells. Part of the allure of the activity is the freedom it allows participants to reimagine the concrete jungle. 

Since 2013, the company has installed over 300 workout parks from Segovia to Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi to Ruka.

Workout park among the mountains of Fagernes in Norway. Photo courtesy of Hard Body Hang.


Bouldering parallels parkour for its potential accessibility. After all, you only need shoes and something to climb as a baseline. However, crags are often far from downtown and inaccessible by public transport, while gyms are expensive.

Bernard Gara, one of the newest members of the team, joined with 20 years of climbing experience and encouraged the group to think about new types of equipment for public spaces. They began designing ways to make bouldering available for any inhabitant of a city.

Thus, the Zigzag boulders were born. 

Modular Zigzag boulder. Photo courtesy of Hard Body Hang.


Made from hot-dip galvanized steel and weather-proof materials, the modules provide a fully customizable human-sized puzzle. And if the blocks remind you of the maddening Rubik’s Cube, that’s because they were inspired by the 3-D combination game, which is, *ahem*, another Hungarian invention. (Thanks, Ernő!).

“Today, in Hungary, people rarely go rock climbing,” begins Mezős. “They climb indoors and that’s why I think it’s important to show them how much better it is go to outside.” Even if it’s in the city. 

No TP, No Gel, Not Anymore

I didn’t use to think much of shitting in the woods. Or carrying toilet paper out of doors.

But in these times where the white fluff is in such high demand, I’m reminded of a woman I dated who wilded me. For the first time, scatting outside was temporal.

Those were the days when toilet paper was abundant and antibacterial gel was a small bottle one of your germ-conscious friends touted around on their backpack or purse, attached by that silly little plastic lanyard thing. It always struck me as excessive, until you really needed it.

Gel and TP. These consumer products have become symbols of basic needs gone unmet. They are the tip of the spear; the trifling consumer-end of an axis with a lack of healthcare and job insecurity at the other. When people worry about their long-term viability we compensate by hoarding the graspable representation of safety. Think cash runs on the bank or re-stocking your “french toast” supplies ahead of hurricanes. 

Anyways, let’s talk about pooping outside.



I’ve been outdoors.

I go hiking, backpacking, and climbing. I was in the Scouts.

Still, I can’t remember ever pooping in the woods. I’m not sure why, but there are some guesses: I’ve held a slight aversion; There has always been access to an outhouse; Strong bowels. Really strong bowels?

Then a funny thing happened.

A few years ago a woman came into my life that liked to relieve herself outdoors. Dang it if every time we went on a trip to nature did she take advantage to plop one down in it.

Take Poland. 16km outside of Krakow is a valley with lots of old rock. We stayed at a well-made campground with a restaurant and plenty of toilets. A road winds through the grounds to access the climbing areas. One morning, we decided to go further afield. The path was quiet beside the clanking of metal carabiners that matched the tempo of our stride. Then, abruptly, she handed me her gear and darted up the hill. “Don’t look this way,” she called as I milled around. “And maybe walk on a bit.”

Take two, in Turkey. We had a routine at camp: Morning coffee, breakfast, and milling about. We’d wait for the sun to warm the rock and stir our souls. She had a routine at the crag: Harness on, about to rope up, and a dash off to the woods. It was uncanny and consistent, no matter the efforts made ahead of time. “I think it’s something about the walk here,” she’d begin. “And knowing I’ll be high up on a wall.”

I found it amusing, a touch annoying, and often preposterous in that, “Really? Again, really?” kinda way. But shame on me for expecting a different outcome. Call me mad.

Still, you have to hand it to her. She was always prepared. In the least, she had a package of tissue—a roll of toilet paper at best—and one or two of those fiddly transportable antibac bottles.

Even then, in the presence of an incontinent conspirator, I can’t say I took advantage of the opportunity.


Her preparation has stayed with me. 

Now, always a package of tissue paper in my bag. Rarely antibacterial gel. It seems like a waste of plastic. But certainly water. Always a bottle of water. Which is close enough.

Alas, the time came. (Drumroll, please). A few weeks back I did the deed out of doors. (I’m waiting for your applause).

Walking about an expansive high desert mired by red dusty dirt swirling about red dusty spires, my stomach became tense and fraught with discomfort. There was no way I was holding it in. 

I plopped down behind the cover of a dry dusty shrub. Seek if you will, under pine needles and small stones, lays my forever accomplishment.



In this time of seriousness and tension, her mannerisms for relieving pressing personal needs makes me laugh. That she was ready, inclined, and consistent speaks to her comfort and adaptability in the outdoors. Which I always did admire. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some duty to attend to.

Sunsets in Guanajuato

The sun sets over the hills northwest of the city. Where I’m staying.

A darkening sky fades into a dusty crimson. Mojave red and carnation pink simmers at the edge of the light, before settling below the tree-less mounds. I watch from the steps at the Plaza de la Alhondiga, as has been the case the past few days.

I get sick of being cooped up. Walking sets my mind free and clears the day’s mental cache. It’s the simple movements, I think. Like molasses spilling over the edge of the kitchen counter and pooling on the floor.

Yesterday, the trees across from the OXXO shone brilliant in blooms of robin egg blues. It’s an indication that spring is here. Or on the way.

Already the flowers are falling. Perhaps one-quarter of all that have blossomed have fled. They sit on the grey sidewalk, browning. 

The grass, too, is starting to green. Interspersed as it is among the low stalky chaff, the color stands out. Again, spring is here. Or on the way.

Yesterday, they mowed the young grass. You know the smell.

Anyways, through the park with the fresh cut you eventually get to the grandstand where I watch the sun downing and people milling. Some are smoking, none are social distancing. Twenty steps up, or so, I sit. 

The plaza opens below, and a young boy is dancing. Or rather, he’s half-running and half-whirling dervish. His mad cavorting is a public display of irreverence and imagination. He’s wholly smiling in ecstasy.

Part of me wants to join him, and then I see his mother (or is that his sister?) eyeing me. She’s far, and you can’t really make out the details, but something says she’s cute, and probably too young.

I go back to watching the sun slowly smolder behind the hills. The shadows grow long, and the boy keeps twirling. Keeps smiling.

I think, spring is here. Yes. And with it, fresh air, flowers, color, hope. I pause, get up and go on my way.