When I read last week that Alpinist had folded I wasn’t shocked. The glossy climbing magazine, headquartered in Jackson Hole since 2002, had little advertising, a $13 cover price and appealed to a demographic with a penchant for living in pickup trucks. With 9,000 subscribers, it’s clear there was an audience for Alpinist’s uncompromising style. Unfortunately, that audience wasn’t large enough.
The mere fact that the lovingly-constructed quarterly had held on long enough to produce 25 gorgeous issues is a remarkable achievement in its own right. From its first issue to it’s last, editor Christian Beckwith and his staff maintained a consistent voice and belief in what they were doing. Ironically, Alpinist had just relocated to a new, larger office space at the end of September. In April, a business office had opened in Chicago. The publication’s web site announced plans for an expansion of the four-year old Alpinist Film Festival.
Outdoors and sports magazines generally cater to the lowest common denominator of readership. Covers are splashed with headlines offering “10 hot adventure travel destinations” and token feature stories are wedged between fashion shoots and easy to digest 300-word snippets. Simple stuff for browsing and light reading.
Beckwith’s purist aesthetic translated to a sophisticated publication that was a joy to pore over. Alpinist gave a voice to climbers, allowing them to explain and explore why they suffered for their pursuit and why they found such peace in the mountains. It was that voice which made browsing through each issue such a joy. The stories dripped with authenticity, literate reports of agonizing ascents of obscure peaks, all done in the requisite “purist” style. There were no stories of bolted sport climbs. Instead, there were profiles of famous peaks and stunning photography. Alpinist looked and read like a book, not a magazine suitable for stuffing in a backpack with ropes and harnesses.
But no publication can exist forever on artistic merit alone, especially one that’s not profitable in an era of increasing financial uncertainty. All the goodwill, loyalty and community that Alpinist created vanished abruptly last week. Publisher Marc Ewing, a Jackson Hole homeowner and software tycoon who had bankrolled the publication since its beginnings, apparently decided he would no longer fund the operation. According to a note posted by Beckwith on the magazine’s website, “The October 2008 financial crisis has forced Alpinist to suspend operations.”
Alpinist wasn’t all smooth sailing. Beckwith was known for his mercurial personality and refusal to compromise his values. Prior to working at Alpinist he was fired as editor of the venerable American Alpine Journal and clashed occasionally with his employees. Some of the pieces penned by well-known climbers struggled to reach the standard of the photography, no matter how heavy the editing hand. Ultimately, it was the magazine’s limited audience and exclusivity that was its undoing. Dirtbag climbing bums, even those with an appreciation for art who supported Alpinist’s core philosophy, have a hard time paying through the nose to look at photographs and read tales of exotic locales.
The loss of Alpinist is a reminder that a commitment to artistic excellence and the purist ethic that Beckwith championed and celebrated are not always the foundation of a strong business model. The publication’s loyal subscribers certainly recognize how unique Alpinist was. Some are wondering if the community that Alpinist created can be preserved in some form online. I hope it can.
Though ski mountaineering is as close as I come to participating in alpinism as the editors defined it, I could relate to the type of accomplishments they were trying to highlight. I salute Alpinist for its ability to find a niche, for remaining true to its ideals of substance over style, and for a presentation that was head and shoulders above its peers. The climbing world is a better place for its existence, and the publishing world will be a little worse without its presence.
Michael Pearlman blogs from Sheridan, Wyoming.