Silicon peaks

Are mountain sports dot-coms and their sponsored athletes climbing too high?

EXTREME SPORTS SELL, as books, magazines, and Web sites proliferate and profit from the appetites of armchair adventurers. Climbing in particular has seized the public imagination since 1997's Into Thin Air, while last fall's avalanche death of the internationally renowned mountaineer Alex Lowe merited attention in The New York Times. Prominently mentioned in that account was a major sponsor of the expedition, which sought to make the first ski descent of a 26,291-foot Tibetan peak—which some might uncharitably describe as a stunt. Who put up money to send Lowe there and provided live Webcasts up to—and following—his death? Seattle's own MountainZone.com, established in 1996.

Last year Lowe dragged himself up a new route on Pakistan's Great Trango tower, despite illness and injury. That expedition's sponsor? Another dot-com—Quokka Sports of San Francisco, which recently announced its $25 million stock-swap acquisition of MountainZone, a deal expected to close at the end of this month.

That acquisition brings together two high-profile dot-coms that have made danger their business. Quokka boasts site traffic of over 600,000 users per month. While that's double MountainZone's usual traffic, the Seattle-based site has spiked to greater heights during some high-profile events. Last year's Everest expedition that found the body of George Mallory, for example, drew millions of visitors.

Founded in 1997, Quokka had its IPO last year and now boasts a market cap of some $550 million. Its ambition is clearly to be a sort of ESPN of the Web, a network that carries several adventure sports including sailing, the Olympics, and auto racing. By contrast, niche-oriented MountainZone remained part of privately held ZoneNetworks, which counts Vans and Federated Department Stores among its principal investors. They and MountainZone's other founders now probably feel pretty good about the appreciation of their original ownership stakes.

MountainZone thus becomes a part—or channel, if you will—of a burgeoning international Quokka Sports Network. Quokka projects that the acquisition will contribute $6 million to its anticipated $47 million revenues in 2000. The company reported a $56 million loss for fiscal '99 and revenues of $13 million.

Those results aren't too surprising. While Quokka and MountainZone are betting there's money to be made in the Death Zone, most outdoorsy dot-coms seem to be running in the red. Profit margins are nil in content, but advertisers are increasingly spending their aspirational marketing dollars on an elite and desirable demographic of affluent, educated consumers. And, as anyone at the climbing gym will notice, option-holding high-tech types are drawn to the precise, demanding sport. Moreover, climbers are inveterate gearheads, as evidenced by the click-and-buy e-commerce ads prominently displayed on most pages. While the average MountainZone reader may not be ready to lead Outer Space on the Snow Creek Wall, the requisite cams, chocks, and apparel are all for sale. (And you can always clip a 'biner on your Patagonia briefcase for extra street cred.)

THE LINK BETWEEN climbing and Web publishing seems a natural to MountainZone editor and publisher Peter Potterfield. "We invented it," he says of mountain sports cybercasting. "We introduced the concept of reliable reporting from remote locations." Yet what he calls "the drama of high-altitude mountaineering" speaks to the fact that many high-profile climbs are, in effect, staged events—reported by their sponsors as news-cum-entertainment. It's a journalistic conflict recalling the early 20th-century days when reporter/celebrities like Nellie Bly were sent on dangerous round-the-world journeys underwritten by their publishers. Granted, Potterfield is no Hearst, and MountainZone doesn't want to jeopardize its athletes by sending them in harm's way.

But what Potterfield carefully calls "the ultimate uncertainty of the events that we cover"—i.e., the risk inherent in serious climbing—is necessarily part of their appeal. Nobody's interested in a live cybercast of your weekend jaunt up majestic Mount Si with your golden retriever. (And forget about sponsorship.) However, Potterfield insists that "summits are secondary" to safety, that his site only supports "climbers with proven abilities," not foolhardy daredevils seeking fame and fortune.

Meanwhile, down at sea level, Quokka president and CEO Alan Ramadan enthuses over the "rock stars" being created on the Web, which he compares to the early days of television—back when pro sports were still small potatoes. He boosts his new roster of athletes as the new Michael Jordans of cyberspace. "It's just a natural evolution of a new medium," he declares.

Clearly, Quokka will pull MountainZone in an even more commercial direction, and that process will necessarily include more athletes who—unlike Michael Jordan—risk their lives in the big event. "Many people were sending Alex Lowe e-mails directly as he was half-way up Trango Tower," Ramadan exclaims, "and he was responding!"

HEROES ARE NECESSARY, in other words, to draw us to the Web sites documenting their exploits, which in turn enhances their celebrity and marketability. "We both created that phenomenon and benefited from it," Potterfield candidly notes, as have the professional mountaineers whose parkas are festooned like stock car racers with the logos of their sponsors.

In this elite group stands Ed Viesturs, MountainZone's preeminent surviving high-altitude athlete, who's planning an April climb of Annapurna, the 13th of the world's 14 8,000 meter peaks—that's about 26,000 feet—he's climbed without bottled oxygen. (Already having knocked off Everest, K2, and 10 others, he would become the first American to accomplish this feat.)

Preparing to depart for Nepal, Viesturs says, "For good or bad, the public is intrigued with the sport now." Of the newfound money and attention, he adds, "It's helping me, definitely. If I can make a living doing what I have a passion for, that's great." People followed his career before the advent of Web publicity, he notes, but "being with MountainZone gives those people a more intimate connection with me." However, the modest, affable veteran climber hardly sounds like one of Quokka's Jordans-in-the-making. "I don't feel like a superstar," says Viesturs. "I'm just a normal guy."

What of other younger, less prudent climbers hoping to profit from dangerous new routes? "Oh, you see it all the time," he answers. "And those are all the wrong reasons for climbing. And you see it in how people are selecting their climbs. Something that is so objectively dangerous—if they pull it off—it's an amazing thing; but it's so far over the edge that if they die, they look like fools. And that's how competitive some aspects [of climbing] are getting. And I don't want anything to do with that." In the sport's future, he says, "there'll still be the traditionalists, and there'll still be the extremists"—each camp attracting sponsors selling one image or the other.

As a sponsorship opportunity, MountainZone's Potterfield says, the once-obscure sport is "probably underpriced right now." It's certainly cheaper than Super Bowl advertising, as corporations are discovering. He notes that "the majority of big climbs are sponsored by automotive or other mainstream industries." Indeed, as on Quokka's recent America's Cup coverage, where sails function like giant billboards, the future of extreme-sports cybercasting is increasingly likely to resemble, well, the Super Bowl ads. (And if there's a way to have Cindy Crawford drive up Everest in an SUV, you can be sure that Ford is working on it now.)

"This fascination with climbing isn't going to go away," says Potterfield optimistically. If he's right, neither will its risky rewards.

 
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