Rock climbing is often a dangerous sport, but a handful of outdoor journalists are embarking on something even more risky: starting a print magazine.
Well, restarting it, anyway.
This month marks the official revival of climbing’s classic print magazine, Summit Journal. From 1955 until its closure in 1996, this glossy magazine represented the pinnacle of climbing journalism. Its pages were filled with stories from the sport’s biggest names, like Yvon Chouinard, Lynn Hill, and even Royal Robbins — a longtime editor.
Now the tradition returns with stories from climbing’s new luminaries, including Tommy Caldwell, Margo Hayes, John Long, and Conrad Anker. Climbing, even compared to other outdoor sports, has always had “dramatic DNA,” says Editor Michael Levy, who will lead the magazine.
Now he’ll found out if climbers — and readers — will still pay to read that drama in print.
‘Part of the Climbing Tribe’
“The real good storytelling — I think there’s a dearth of it,” Levy told me during an interview last week, and he’s got the cred to back it up.
Levy has quickly become one of the sport’s best storytellers. From the tragic tale of American free soloist Austin Howell to the community-driven climbing of Malawi, Levy has a knack for finding climbers and crags that reveal something fundamental about the sport and where it might be going.
With Summit Journal, he will lean on his experience as an editor for Rock & Ice to offer the kind of climbing magazine he always loved reading. And he sees an opportunity to fill a gap in coverage.
“In general, a high-quality print product covering bouldering and sport climbing could work because there’s an audience for that that’s not being served,” Levy said.
A fast-growing sport that just joined the roster of Olympic events in 2020, climbing provides a form of identity for thousands of people around the world. Many climbers (including myself) fondly remember thumbing through Rock & Ice or Climbing while hanging out in smelly rock gyms in the 1990s. Levy hopes Summit Journal can become the kind of keepsake that climbers turn to for enjoyment and a sense of community.
“Climbing is addictive, and it becomes an identification marker for people,” Levy said. “I think a print magazine is one of those markers. It’s meant to build community and show that you’re part of the climbing tribe.”
Magazine to Launch in 2024
During its heyday, Summit Journal was a monthly magazine. Its update, however, will come more infrequently.
The new Summit Journal launches in 2024 as a biannual magazine. For $60, subscribers will receive two large-format “keepsake” publications a year. Measuring 9.5 by 13 inches, the magazines (more like a coffee-table book) are “going to be beautiful to behold,” Levy said.
And you shouldn’t expect to read the journalism online, either. The staff plans to adhere to a strict print-only policy. You don’t pay for the magazine — you don’t get the content.
As of August 8, it’s possible to start buying subscriptions through the Summit Journal website. It’s available to ship to stoked climbers in the U.S., Canada, and most of Europe.
But it will arrive in an increasingly barren media landscape for literary journalism about the outdoors. Rock & Ice, Climbing, and Ascent haven’t had a print magazine for years. Outside Media laid off nearly 100 staff members last year. National Geographic Magazine, owned by Disney, fired its last full-time writers and editors in June.
That’s the context in which this scrappy magazine hopes to survive.
“Compared to other outdoor sports, climbing writing tends to be more literary and complex, which is why I think a print magazine is better than just scrolling through the Internet,” Levy said.
“One of the nice things about this model is you only need a few thousand readers. It’s a passion project, and I think there are enough people who hopefully want to share in that project.”
Full disclosure, dear readers: I plan on buying a subscription as soon as possible — and I hope you do, too.