How to become a professional climber: 10 climbing & mountaineering careers to explore

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May.2.19


10 MIN READ

As the sport of rock climbing continues to evolve and expand, growing in popularity across the globe, new careers, gear, and opportunities will mirror that growth. While the life of a sponsored climber may seem like the ultimate rock climbing goal, careers in climbing photography, climbing writing, climbing shoe repair are equally vital and keep the climbing world turning. Choosing the career that best fits your experience and interests will help you land on both feet in the professional climbing industry.  Take a look at these top rock climbing and mountaineering careers for climbers passionate enough about the sport that they want to live the climbing life.

Top 10 Climbing Careers to Explore

  1. Climbing Photographer/Videographer
  2. Climbing Gear Representative
  3. Climbing Guide/Instructor
  4. Mountaineering Guide
  5. Outdoor PR/Marketing
  6. Climbing Ranger
  7. Climbing Shoe Cobbler
  8. Climbing Writer
  9. Climbing Gym Employee
  10. Sponsored Rock Climber

In order to choose the right career, it helps to be familiar with certain professional climber associations and organizations, know the names of notable rock climbers, and be able to recognize prominent rock climbing brands. This knowledge will help propel you into the professional rock climbing world.

Expert story: Cedric ice climbing

Top 10 Climbing Careers to Explore

The climbing industry doesn’t offer the same financial benefits as other professional sports (even Alex Honnold had to eat a lot of ramen dinners), but if you’re passionate about the world of rock climbing, there’s a place in the professional climbing world for you.

  1. Climbing Photographer/Videographer

Climbing photography and videography require all the same skills, dedication and time that regular professional photography involves: travel to shoot sites, edit thousands of shots, take photography assignments (but also pitch your own), and, of course, shoot jaw-dropping photos and film. For rock climbing photography, the shoot sites might just be a little harder to reach. You may need significant climbing experience to break into this role. The film crew team that climbed El Cap with Alex Honnold certainly needed more skills than a traditional wedding photographer.

Climbing Photographer Experience: There’s only so much a photography class can teach. Field experience will help you  find and reach those awe-inspiring angles.

Pros: Climbing Photographer Travel, climbing, photography — what more do you need? There’s also potential for it to be a lucrative career choice. Rock climbing photography is a niche career. As climbing grows in popularity, so will the need for climbing photographers. Do it well and you could rocket to the top. The most skilled, experienced rock climbing photographers can make $100,000 per year.

Cons: Climbing Photographer Photography jobs might be few and far between, especially at the beginning. Rock climbing photographers, just like regular professional photographers, may need additional jobs to pay the bills. This leaves less time for your own climbing.

Climbing Photographer Salary: $10,000 Entry Level

Climbing Photographer Hours: 40+ per week

Certifications Helpful for Climbing Photographers: Certified Professional Photographer (CPP) credential from the Professional Photographers of America.

 

  1. Climbing Gear Representative

Climbing gear representatives bring the newest, coolest gear to shops all over the world. Sometimes, this means traveling to gear distributors and shops. Other times, it means analyzing how certain brands are performing in the field to develop strategies for selling gear. Gear reps become experts in climbing equipment and get to attend exclusive events, host demos and be part of trade shows all over the country.

Mountaineering and Climbing Experience: Typically, a college degree in marketing, business, or a similar field.

Pros: Climbing Gear Rep You’ll be on the cutting edge of climbing equipment and technology — and you get to bring that edge to climbers all over the world. Of course, there will be some free gear in there for you, too.

Cons: Climbing Gear Rep You’ll have to commit to a significant amount of travel. And, since this is one of the higher paying careers within the climbing industry, there’s a lot of competition.

Climbing Gear Representative Salary: $30,000 to $50,000 per year

Climbing Gear Rep Hours: 40 per week (not including travel)

Certifications Helpful for Climbing Gear Representatives: Degree in marketing, business, or a similar field

 

  1. Climbing Guide/Instructor

Climbing guides and instructors lead beginners groups, where the participants need a lot of instruction, as well as leading advanced groups featuring climbing aficionados looking for new challenges. For this job, you’ll need to be extremely confident in both your climbing experience, teaching style and risk management skills.

Climbing Guide Experience: These positions involve a lot of training, and rightly so. In order to be a climbing guide or instructor, you’ll need a certification from the American Mountain Guides Association.

Pros: Climbing Guide Again, thanks to Alex Honnold and “Free Solo,” the climbing world has seen a huge influx of first-time climbers, and is expecting even more growth. It’s the perfect time to become a climbing guide — or even start your own rock climbing instructor organization, like climber Cedric Gaudry, president of Parcours Aventures. On top of that, you won’t be spending much time behind a desk. This is one career that involves A LOT of climbing.

Cons: Climbing Guide High risk and high pressure. Your ability to maintain a safe environment is life or death, so you’ll need to be prepared to handle any injury or type of fall.

Climbing Guide Salary: $20,000 to $40,000 per year, depending on the season and location

Climbing Guide Hours: Up to 60 hours weekly during peak climbing season

Certifications Helpful for Climbing Guides: American Mountain Guides Association Certification

 

  1. Mountaineering Guide

Closely related to professional climbing is mountaineering, commonly called mountain climbing. This technical type of backcountry hiking, camping and exploration is designed to tackle the tallest mountains and the wildest wilderness you can find. Becoming a mountain

guide is no small feat, but if you’re interested in becoming a professional climber you may also want to look at a career guiding people on bucket list-type backpacking trips to big mountains around the world.

Mountaineering Experience: Similar to a rock climbing guide, becoming a mountaineering guide requires extensive training. Only certified mountaineers approved by the American Mountain Guides Association can guide professionally.

Pros: Mountaineering Guide A mountaineering expedition can take you to the peaks of the Himalayas in Central Asia, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa or many other lesser known, but just as beautiful, mountain ranges around the world. By utilizing different climbing techniques, expert mountaineers

can conquer the hazards of the granddaddy of them all, Mount Everest.

Cons: Mountaineering Guide

Don’t count on sleeping much at base camp as you acclimatize to the extreme elevation. You’ll have to pack in tons of equipment and there will be few comforts from home for weeks at a time.

Mountaineering Guide Salary: $25,000 to $40,000 per year, depending on the season and location

Mountaineering Guide Hours: 50-60 hours per week during peak climbing season

Certifications Helpful for Mountaineering Guides: American Mountain Guides Association Certification

 

  1. Outdoor Public Relations and Marketing

An outdoor PR/marketing job is similar to a gear representative job — just one step further behind a desk. PR and marketing in the climbing industry involve designing effective advertisements for gear, planning and executing events and campaigns and sharing the best parts of climbing culture with both climbers and non-climbers alike.

Public Relations Experience: Just like gear reps, jobs in public relations and marketing often require a degree in a related field.

Pros: Outdoor Marketing Outdoor PR/marketing has one of the highest starting salaries at $35,000 to $60,000. Besides a love of climbing you may also need a marketing degree or marketing experience to land one of these coveted climbing jobs.  You’ll be competing with other PR and marketing experts who may have honed their marketing skills in non-climbing industries. Climbing organizations and companies looking for top talent may value your climbing expertise and enthusiasm over other applicants.

Cons: Outdoor Marketing It’s primarily a desk job. While you may travel to demos, events or client offices occasionally, there’s very little climbing involved in this role. A typical outdoor PR job will have typical office hours and may even include a lot of travel or weekend events.  These work hours might make it hard to squeeze in time for climbing — the activity that drew you to this career in the first place.

Outdoor Industry PR Salary: $45,000 to $50,000 per year (entry level)

Outdoor Industry Public Relations Hours: 40+ hours per week

Certifications Helpful for Outdoor PR Jobs: Degree in public relations, marketing or a similar field

  1. Climbing Ranger

A climbing ranger is similar to a park ranger — with a few extra skills. They maintain outdoor climbing environments and monitor climber usage. And in the event of an emergency, a climbing ranger will provide search and rescue support.

Climbing Ranger Experience: While a degree in forest conservation or a similar field might be helpful, training and field experience will really help you land this job.

Pros: Climber Ranger You’ll enjoy the benefits of being a park ranger — always outside with close proximity to nature.  You’ll protect and preserve the climbs you love, and enjoy the perks of being a government employee.

Cons: Climbing Ranger Work is typically seasonal, so you’ll likely need a second source of income for off-season months. As a Climbing Ranger you’ll be responsible for many aspects of the area and mountain range you supervise. As part of your job, you may encounter and possibly need to confront disrespectful climbers or hikers.

 

  1. Climbing Shoe Cobbler

Climbing shoe cobblers resole the worn-out bottoms of rock climbing shoes. There aren’t many resoling locations, so shoes are often shipped to a specialist for repair. Instead of purchasing a new pair, climbers often prefer to prolong the life of their gear by saving their soles. Similar to climbing photography, being a Climbing Shoe Cobbler is an art form.

Climbing Shoe Cobbler Experience: It can be tricky to break into this kind of career. Gaining on-the-job experience is the only way to develop the unique skills needed to resole the performance footwear. Expect to start as an apprentice before becoming established on your own.

Pros: Climbing Shoe Cobbler This is another growing field in the industry. While entry-level salaries are relatively low, there are plenty of opportunities to establish a new resoling location near popular cliffs and rock climbing hubs.

Cons: Climbing Shoe Cobbler You’ll have to develop a nose for the unique odor of climber’s foot.

Climbing Shoe Cobbler Salary: $10,000 to $20,000 per year (entry level)

Shoe Cobbler Hours: Varies based on need

Certifications Helpful for Climbing Shoe Cobblers: None

  1. Climbing Writer

Becoming a writer is hard work (trust me, I know.) And being able to get your foot in the door and write about the industry you love can be even harder. But if you have a love for hittin’ the crag and a way with words, it’s definitely worth a shot. Climbing writers have the opportunity to cover the industry, from famous climbers to the best gear and the best brands.  They may write for magazines, forums, strength-training guides or for big players in the industry, like important climbing brands, retailers or websites.

Climbing Writer Experience: Typically a degree in English or a related field

Pros: Climbing Writer This career has the potential to gracefully combine two fields that don’t seem like they would mix well:writing and climbing. On top of that, these writers act as a sort of ambassador between the climbing world and the non-climbing world, doing the important job of communicating the wonderful stories and culture of climbing.

Cons: Climbing Writer Because it’s such a niche role in a specific industry, , jobs might be hard to come by.

Climbing Writer Salary: Varies significantly. With pay usually around 5-10 cents per word, entry-level climbing writers often make less than $10,000 per year.

Climbing Writer Hours: Vary significantly but more often than not can be worked from the comfort of your home.

Certifications Helpful for Climbing Writers: Advanced degrees in literature, English, journalism or a similar field

  1. Climbing Gym Employee

Depending on experience and skill level, climbing gym employees do everything from sweeping floors to setting routes. They typically perform customer service duties in addition to teaching climbing courses, leading beginner groups and overseeing certifications. Some employees also serve as a coach or instructor. Most gyms sell gear and apparel, so familiarity and in-depth knowledge of climbing equipment may be necessary. If you live near a climbing gym, this may be the easiest way to break into the industry.

Climbing Gym Experience: Retail, customer service and climbing experience are required. However, these skills can be taught on the job.

Pros: Climbing Gym Instructor This is a relatively easy profession to break into compared to some of the other climbing careers. And as soon as you’re off the clock, you can hop on the wall for a fun workout.

Cons: Climbing Gym Instructor Working at a climbing gym has all the  drawbacks that come with customer service. At the end of the day, it’s an indoor gig with customers who may be frustrated or disrespectful; not like other climbing careers that are usually less customer-focused and often involve being in the great outdoors.

Climbing Gym Employee Salary: $10,000 per year (entry level)

Climbing Gym Employee Hours: Part-time

Certifications Helpful for Climbing Instructors: None

  1. Sponsored Climber

Being a sponsored climber is the Holy Grail of climbing careers. These are the Alex Honnolds and Margo Hayeses of the climbing world. Your primary job is to be an extremely good capable climber. And while pitching peaks will be the majority of the role, you may also need to be a brand ambassador, speak at events, share diet and strength training tips and provide product recommendations.

Sponsored Climber Experience: Becoming a sponsored climber involves marketing yourself to top brands. And, at the end of the day you need to be a badass on the crag.

Pros: Sponsored Climber As a sponsored climber, your passion truly becomes your profession.

Cons: Sponsored Climber Oddly enough, the main disadvantage of this career choice is also one of the primary benefits — you’re monetizing your hobby. There’s a misconception that professional, sponsored rock climbers make a lot of money. Financially, this field isn’t very lucrative, though you’ll likely obtain high-quality gear at no cost. For very little money, a professional climbing career is a 24/7 job that requires a strict diet and countless hours of training.

Sponsored Climber Salary: $5,000 to $20,000 per year (with potential to earn up to $100,000)

Sponsored Climber Hours: 24 hours a day and 7 days a week

Certifications Helpful for Sponsored Climbers: None

Regardless of what climbing career you decide on and pursue, you’ll be a qualified expert on ExpertVoice. Climbing experts can all enjoy exclusive access to brands, product information and more. Signing up is easy. 

 

Professional Climber Associations and Organizations

There are a number of professional climbing organizations that can help climbers turn their favorite hobby into a profession. By joining these organizations, you can establish yourself as an expert and authority on rock climbing, which can help advance your career. The most prominent of these is the American Mountain Guide Association, but others include the American Safe Climbing Association, American Alpine Club and the Professional Climbing Instructors Association.

American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA)

AMGA is a non-profit dedicated to educating and supporting the mountain guide community in the U.S. They offer certification programs for mountain guides, climbing guides and instructors. And their 3,100 guides and instructors partner with The North Face to advocate for public lands and conservation.

American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA)

ASCA is a non-profit group of climbers who replace unsafe anchors, bolts and gear on outdoor routes across the country. These replacements make the routes safer for climbers and reduce the visual and physical environmental impact climbers have on the environment.

American Alpine Club (AAC)

AAC’s mission is to support their shared passion for climbing and respect for the cliffs they ascend. Out of the many prominent rock climbing organizations, AAC offers some of the most benefits to members, including gear and gym discounts, grants, library perks, rescue and insurance benefits and even premium rates on lodging and publications.

Professional Climbing Instructors Association (PCIA)

PCIA is a non-profit organization that provides climbing instructors with quality education through training and accreditation programs. Any individual looking to establish a career as a professional rock climber should be familiar with the courses and core competencies of the PCIA.

Mountain Project

Mountain Project, powered by REI, is the most comprehensive resource for climbers looking for outdoor routes, new or used gear, classes or expert advice. The organization’s online Rock Climbing Guide includes 191,133 climbing routes — and it’s growing.

USA Climbing

USA Climbing is the governing body of competition climbing for bouldering, speed and sport climbing. This is the organization that hosts the competitions for big-time climbers like Alex Johnson, Emily Harrington and Ashima Shiraishi. Membership is required to compete as an athlete— but member benefits also include magazine subscriptions and discounts.

ExpertVoice

Expert rock climbers can join ExpertVoice, where members share their knowledge and team up with the industry’s leading brands to provide recommendations of high-quality climbing gear they get at a deep discount thanks to their ExpertVoice membership. 

 

Most Notable Rock Climbers

With such a wide range of climbing styles and the different forms of strength and endurance each requires, it’s hard to determine who is the strongest rock climber in the world. Overall, these individuals should certainly be considered in the running. Becoming familiar with these individuals and emulating some of their habits will help you get a professional foot in the door of the rock climbing world.

Adam Ondra

Czech citizen Adam Ondra, 26, climbed his first 9a route at just 13-years-old. Considered one of the strongest climbers in the world, Ondra successfully ascended the “Dawn Wall” on the face of El Capitan, one of the hardest multi-pitch routes in the world. He also completed an onsight climb of Il Domani (9a).

Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold, 33, is best known as the climber who free soloed all 3,000 feet of El Capitan — but he started climbing long before that. In fact, Honnold began rock climbing at the age of five. His countless climbing accolades include the fastest ascent of the Triple Crown in Yosemite. Honnold describes himself as a “dirtbag” climber — living a minimalist style out of a van. His sponsors include La Sportiva, The North Face and Black Diamond.

Chris Sharma

Chris Sharma, 37, sits alongside Ondra as one of the only two climbers to ascent 9b+ routes. Sharma started climbing at 12-years-old and won his first competition at 14. Hailing from Santa Cruz, California, Sharma describes himself as an ambassador and entrepreneur and is recognized for establishing the first 5.15c route.

Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson, 29, won her first national championship at 12. She made history in 2008 when she became the first American to win a Bouldering World Cup in the United States at the GoPro Mountain Games. And she’s made numerous first female ascents on routes across the country, including V12s in Colorado and California.

Emily Harrington

Emily Harrington, 32, holds five U.S. National Sport Climbing Championships and 2 North American Championships. She was the first female ascent on 5.14 routes around the world, free climbed El Capitan, and summited Everest. Her sponsors include The North Face, La Sportiva and Petzl.

Margo Hayes

Margo Hayes, 21, recently became the first female to ascend 5.15a route La Rambla in Spain — arguably making her the strongest female rock climber in the world. Hayes started climbing competitively at age 10 and competes in all three arenas: lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering.

David Lama

David Lama, 28, is best known for his free ascent of Cerro Torre in 2012. He started climbing at age five and was the youngest person to compete in the world cup at just 15. He’s also the youngest person ever to win a IFSC World Cup in both lead climbing and bouldering.

 

Most Notable Rock Climbing Brands

Regardless of which climbing career appeals to you, it’s important to know the prominent climbing brands. These companies sell everything: holds, chalk bags, shoes, apparel, helmets, harnesses, ropes, cams, carabiners, quickdraws and any type of gear under the sun. Across the dozens of climbing brands, some of the most notable ones include Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Petzl, Scarpa, The North Face, So iLL, Friction Labs and Wild Country.

While all of these brands sell a range of gear, some of them specialize in specific products. For example, So iLL is best known for selling climbing holds. Black Diamond offers a wide range of ice climbing gear. Wild Country specializes in trad climbing hardware such as cams, draws, and helmets. The North Face specializes in apparel while Friction Labs specializes in chalk. La Sportiva and Scarpa both specialize in shoes, while Petzl is a leading hardware manufacturer.

 

How to Become a Professional Climber

Rock climbing as a hobby has significantly grown in popularity in the last year thanks to Alex Honnold and “Free Solo.” If you’ve ever wanted to take your love of rock climbing to the next level, now is a great time to break into the industry professionally. While this is not a complete list of climbing careers, these are the main climbing jobs widely available.   Just like when you’re halfway up the wall on a technical climb, you may need to get creative and find your own path to score a successful climbing career.

Being familiar with notable rock climbers, prominent climbing organizations and the different specialties of climbing brands will also significantly help any individual hoping to turn a climbing hobby or passion into a full-time profession. Stay up to date on revolutionary moves in the climbing world and become a rock climbing product brand expert with ExpertVoice. Influential climbers are leading the climbing world and certain brands are on the cutting edge right beside them. Becoming an authority among rock climbers puts you on the frontlines of the professional climbing world, where you can share your stories with other rock climbing enthusiasts.

 

Not sure a climbing career is right for you? Check out our other career guides below:
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Hunting and fishing guide
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