Honesty and storytelling: A conversation with Andrew Bisharat


Interview by Angus Taylor

Illustration by Ciaran Murphy

The journalist Andrew Bisharat has had his hand on many of our most treasured climbing written works. His tenure as editor of Rock and Ice, and now being fancy-free with his independent media platform Evening Sends, have taken him through laudable praise to mobbed criticism. While a lot has changed since the fall of the print empire, storytelling is still our primary driver for sharing—it just looks a bit different these days. Andrew speaks candidly about ‘clickbait’, how things have changed in the climbing culture and the significance of truthfulness in our narratives.

The way we absorb climbing media and storytelling has changed a lot since its boom in the 70s/80s, from campfire tales, handwritten books on ethics, to printed mags, Instagram, online subscriptions, and podcasts. How do you feel about the new mediums for sharing and creating climbing stories?

I think all the new technology is undeniably better for storytelling because so many more people can find ways to tell their stories, and there are more avenues to share what’s going on in the climbing world. But there’s obviously a downside, and as a writer who loves reading well-written climbing stories, I do see a decline in the written word, where people really sit down to think about what experiences meant to them and try to create a compelling and interesting piece of writing around their climbing experiences. Part of the responsibility for this decline is that the most popular way to share in climbing right now is a limited word count on Instagram (2,200 characters).

You know, there’s this really rich history of mountaineering literature, books that have been written by the greats and go back hundreds of years. When I started Evening Sends, there was this perception that sport climbing and bouldering didn’t lend itself to long-form stories—as in they just weren’t rich enough or deep enough to be as well considered when compared with mountaineering. In some sense, this is true because a mountaineering ascent usually takes multiple days and the variety of experiences between starting at the bottom, getting to the top and getting back down can be staggering. There’s a very natural arc of the beginning, middle, and end that more or less lends itself to a book-length form. When you send your sport climb, it’s over in a matter of minutes or a boulder in a matter of seconds. As a result, there was a long-held perception that you couldn’t write richly, profoundly, and deeply about these things. I was one who thought this—obviously—was not true.

Part of the reason I started Evening Sends and why I was attracted to certain stories as an editor for Rock and Ice magazine was to encourage people to approach sport climbing and bouldering with a more literary lens. It’s about one day you do this thing that you’ve been working on, but really this story has played out for months, you think about the route, train for the route, there’s things you learn along the way, people you meet, and partners you share this with. While climbing is objectively this unimportant thing, there’s no reason why we can’t add that sense of meaning to something that we spend a lot of time doing, and doing that by sitting down and writing it down in a deeper way.

How have you personally seen the evolution of climbing storytelling?

I guess the big picture evolution of storytelling is that it’s changed from mostly written work to video content. There’s so much visual content now that you can almost become kind of numb to it in a way. I remember being in college, and there were four climbing videos on the internet that you could hack and download. I had them saved on my computer and I watched them multiple times a day. It’s such a different world, and I kind of miss it, but I think I miss it because there was such a scarcity of content that anything you had became special. Those four videos were cherished files on my computer.

Today, Instagram has become the hub for sharing visual stories, and it’s effortless to just flick through with your thumb, see a rad photo, and then in another flick, you see another rad photo. I think because there are so many people doing so many great things, it’s hard to keep track of what’s notable. There was that special time in climbing where it almost felt like it was still underground, like going to see the band you loved in the basement of your favourite bar down the street. Now that band has become famous, and they’re everywhere, and you’ll never recreate that experience of a dingy little club watching your favourite band. It’s no one’s fault it’s gotten so big, and it’s a testament to the fact that we all love it so much, but it’s made possible by the fact everyone has a camera in their pocket.

What would you say are some of the stories that helped craft climbing into what it is today, particularly their contribution to climbing culture?

I think it’s different for everyone. People identify with different climbing heroes or someone that represents you, or a struggle you’re having in some way. Personally, I think the culture is shaped by climbers themselves and largely professional climbers, where part of their job is to be savvy media people and the creators of those stories. As a writer, it’s not like I’m coming up with some separate story that I’m imposing onto Chris Sharma for example, I’m just a journalist who is trying to accurately reflect who someone like Emily Harrington or Adam Ondra is. They have unique visions, ideas and concepts for what is beautiful, important, and interesting in climbing. As a storyteller, if you can help convey whatever those things are, I think that’s what helps shape the culture.

So, to flip the coin, I believe it’s much less to do with the storytelling per se and more about the honesty in how we share climbers stories, themes, ideas, and concepts. I think the culture is constantly changing, and interestingly it’s been nudged in various ways by who’s the best climber in the world—maybe that’s changing, but it’s certainly a big part of how things have evolved.

What have been the stories that inspired you in your journey to becoming a writer?

Of course, John Long, people like Nial Grimes I’ve always loved. When I think of some of the best climbing stories I love, Leo Houlding comes to mind, he’s an incredible writer, and his story on The Prophet was a great piece. Yuji Hirayama also wrote a piece on trying to onsight El Cap, and I think that was a seminal piece of writing that definitely left an impact on me. I really enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s works like Into the Wild as well.

To briefly contradict what I mentioned about acting as the conduit for climbers, Krakauer is actually an example of someone who can see stories where no one else can see them. In that book, Into the Wild, there was a newspaper clipping of some guy who went out to Alaska and died in the woods. I’m sure a lot of gifted writers could have seen that and not seen a book there, but Krakauer did. That’s a mark of an excellent storyteller, seeing something that others aren’t seeing and being able to tell it in a way that makes millions of people feel something.

Many might say you’re quite vocal in the climbing community on certain issues—cancel culture, challenging popular opinion, etc. What would you say are the most important values to you in storytelling, and have they been hard to balance in a world where it can feel like you’re walking on eggshells?

I am the sort of person that has that defect where I can’t shut up or turn a blind eye to something dishonest or wrong. This causes a lot of hardship in my life that I could simply avoid by not having an open opinion on something, but I’m just not built that way. Though, I dare say there are a lot of other writers like me in that sense; I mean, one of the main reasons why you start writing is because you feel a need to say something. There’s a very careful line you need to consider anytime you’re writing something controversial or opinionated, and I think the key is whether or not you can stand behind what you’re saying. Even if it’s a friend who’s upset, or if it’s causing people on the internet to grab the pitchforks and pile on, it’s a question of whether you feel it was worth it, to go there, to speak that truth.

I’m not sure if I can exactly articulate where that line is for me, why one thing is worth it and one thing isn’t, but it’s a sensibility you cultivate over the years the more you write and get into trouble. Readers hold you to account and help you define where that line is. I think it’s not about pulling your punches, but it’s also not about overreaching either. I think the balance lies somewhere in 75% positive feedback to 25% negative, and if it’s flipped the other way, I need to consider if I’ve overstepped. People on the internet can make telling that aspect of truth or sharing a different perspective very hard; there was a piece I wrote about 6 years ago on the First Female Ascent (FFA) and people lost their minds over that, but it was a result of people focusing on one line that was used to purposefully misunderstand or confuse the point that was being made. I’ve just realised that some people will go out of their way to misinterpret what you write. So you can have a moral/value-based compass that you bring into your writing, but we have to accept the reality that people will misinterpret what we are trying to say and we need to keep that in mind at all times.

What advice can you give to other writers or storytellers out there in the climbing space?

There’s a quote that says something like, “you should write something worth reading or do something that’s worth writing about”. I forget who said that, but I think it also applies to climbing. For most, I think the latter is true, that the best experiences in climbing are the ones worth writing about. I think it can also be a really meaningful way to experience writing, by doing something where you can’t help but want to write it down. Ultimately, there’s the craft of stitching words together, and then there’s the art that identifies what the story is and what makes it interesting, and that’s what Jon Krakauer did when he heard about this kid who went out into the woods in Alaska. That was the art right there. But Krakauer then had the skill as a craftsman to put the sentences together in a way that was articulate, grammatically correct, lively and didn’t drag down. 

The art is: what is the story? Why is this interesting? What makes people want to dive into this and not put it down? Some of the best advice for getting an understanding of this is, aside from reading as much as possible, to ask yourself ‘if I told this story in a bar, would they be riveted, or would they turn away?’. Anyone can be a great writer if they hone the craft and combine that with the vision for seeing something compelling that others can’t, something that will make people think, and even change peoples lives.

What was the path like to set up your own long-form publication format, the Evening sends website, and why did you pursue this? you’re not fond of the clickbait/digital rush era, have you had to renounce anything in order to avoid that?

I started Evening Sends in 2006, a time when not many people had social media and everyone had blogs, and now everyone has social media and not many people have blogs. I wanted to keep my blog, and it’s always been a passion project and not something that generates much income. Recently I’ve switched to a subscription model and mentally that has done so much for my motivation to write because I’ve never given a fuck about advertising. To give you an example of how bad a business-minded person I am, I had an email from an outdoors gear brand who wanted to give me 10k to buy an ad on the website and I literally never got back to them. Not because I didn’t need to, just that the ‘business’ side of things is just not how my brain works. Believe me, I needed the money, I was in debt, and for the next year, I was kicking myself that I didn’t have those 10k.

The point is that while I’m not the savviest business person, I’m not writing for that reason, I do it because climbing is this thing we all love. I don’t need to do clickbait to get clicks, because I don’t care about clicks, and I don’t need to do a post every single day because I’m not trying to please the advertiser who gave me 10k. Hopefully, the people who are supporting me are the people who like what I’m doing and want to support that in a small way, and that means a lot.

I think the way forward for artists, especially in these weird niche spaces, is if you want to protect your integrity, your voice, and your ability to say what you want to say, you need to guard against the pressures that would otherwise sway you one way or another. It’s a thing I’ve seen a lot of writers doing these days, leaving major publications, starting their own thing, and some of those people are making a lot of money now. It just shows you that people will pay for good quality content and they want you to be you, they don’t want you to be a generic voice, and when you build an audience it’s usually because you have a unique voice. If you can do that then I think it’s worth pursuing.

What do you think the role is for climbing media in a time where climbing is exploding, and getting, in many cases, more impactful outdoors?

I think climbing media’s role should always be built on honesty, and to portray issues fairly. While this isn’t specific to climbing, it’s always been journalism’s role to hold power to account. Climbing isn’t exactly political, but there is more and more of it in climbing and it’s important that climbing journalism accurately captures what is really happening so we can participate as a responsible community. I also feel a big part of the role of climbing media is to motivate people, get them off the couch and out on the wall so more people can enjoy climbing, the key being that we should all feel inspired by the stories shared with us.

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