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Is A New Climbing Reality Show Coming Soon?

Whether you love the idea or you laugh at it, admit it—you’d probably watch.

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Ed Note: Turns out, John Burgman was on point with this one (unsurprising, if you follow his writing). Since penning this article, it was announced that there will, in fact, be a climbing reality show: The Climb, staring (guess!) Chris Sharma and Jason Momoa. Look for it on HBO Max. 

 

The ABC television network recently announced that a new reality show called The Ultimate Surfer will premiere this summer and feature a cast of surfers living together, competing in elimination challenges, and vying to be on the World Surfing League’s Championship Tour. Since climbing and surfing are so often coupled together in high-profile entertainment ventures—from each being part of ESPN’s X Games in the past to making their Olympic debut in Tokyo—it is not outlandish to wonder whether a comparable climbing show (The Ultimate Climber?) might soon get pitched in network board rooms. Seriously. So, it’s worth taking a closer look at The Ultimate Surfer and speculating how a climbing iteration could work. 

For starters, consider how The Ultimate Surfer is being promoted. A press release from the show’s production company, Pilgrim Media Group, reads: “14 of the most promising young surfers are looking to catch their big break when they head to Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California in the hope of competing amongst the best athletes in the world’s fastest-growing sport.” In a quick perusal of other press materials as well, it’s clear that Kelly Slater’s star power is being used extensively to help market this new surfing show. That is a smart play; Slater’s appearance in episodes will likely be a big draw. Some articles are even framing The Ultimate Surfer as a series “starring” Kelly Slater.  

In light of that, a climbing version of the show would likely have to lean heavily on someone with proportionate celebrity cache—think Alex Honnold or Lynn Hill as the figurehead. And if a climbing formulation would utilize a competitive format akin to that of The Ultimate Surfer, it would make sense to surround the climbing show’s host with additional correspondents who are deeply entrenched in the present-day competition climbing milieu: Meagan Martin and Alex Johnson come to mind, as the duo recently served as the commentators for USA Climbing’s National Team Trials. On-air guest appearances from Olympian climbers could provide some gravitas as well.  

Regarding the show’s top prize, competition climbing does not yet have payouts as massive as those of the World Surf League—which can hover around six-figures. However, it is conceivable that a climbing show could award its male and female winners with expenses-paid stints on the IFSC’s World Cup circuit. Covering such costs would be significant, as some climbers in the past have opted to crowd-fund their requisite travel. Why not also award those winners with new Ford Broncos, since a branding connection to competition climbing was recently established via Brooke Raboutou?

When it comes to the contestants themselves, The Ultimate Surfer has compiled a cast of surfers that range in age from 22 to 34 years old and hail mostly from California and Florida. But a climbing show, to its advantage, would not have to be so exclusively coastal when selecting its participants. With a little planning and coordination, climbing gyms around North America could hold their own open tryouts in the form of local competitions that feed into an eventual network program. This would be a logical way to allow the climbing world to organically market—and legitimize—the climbing show. Including a few of the most well-known competition climbers in the cast could add to the intrigue, and spotlighting the craft of routesetting would add some depth to the show. 

Not much has been divulged about the weekly elimination challenges that will be featured on The Ultimate Surfer, although the challenges will apparently pertain to various surfing disciplines. This multi-discipline format seems easily transferable to climbing. Bouldering, lead, and speed climbing could all be contested on a television program. And if would-be producers would want to pan out even more, trad climbing, ice climbing, deep-water soloing, and even MoonBoarding all have competitive potential and some contest lineage too.

Of course, any mention of a climbing reality show—or “competition series,” as The Ultimate Surfer is being touted—will automatically have its detractors. Admittedly, from big-budget movies to bank commercials, climbing’s portrayal in non-climbing-specific outlets has historically been a mixed bag. But it’s worth pointing out that a show on a prominent network like ABC would introduce climbing to a lot of people who might otherwise not gain any awareness of the sport. A network climbing series could also prompt more non-endemic brands to explore the climbing market, and this might ultimately usher in more money and fresh ideas. Some evidence of potential merit lies in The Ultimate Fighter, an analogous series produced by Pilgrim Media Group President and CEO Craig Piligian approximately 15 years ago that was integral in giving the sport of mixed martial arts a firm foothold in popular culture—a foothold that remains solid to this day with MMA possessing superstar athletes, lucrative sponsorship deals, and the type of diversified and widespread media coverage that climbing should strive for. 

Most importantly, climbing already has some heritage when it comes to competition-style television programming. A multi-sport show in the 1980s called Survival of the Fittest featured climbing and was won a number of times by Lynn Hill (as recounted extensively in Hill’s autobiography). 

So, while The Ultimate Surfer is set to kick off on August 23, perhaps now is the ideal time for competition climbing and network television to collaborate once again.