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Last week, Jared Leto top roped on the Empire State Building. Yes, top roped on it. In a high-vis jumpsuit reminiscent of a Santa costume. Leto did it legally, too, which means that someone, somewhere, took the time to approve permits for this internet-breaking “feat.”
His climb began on the 86th floor (not street level), concluded on the 104th, and took approximately 20 minutes. Today, when you Google “Jared Leto Empire State Building,” there are 9,610,000 search results.
Ostensibly Leto’s childhood dream, the televised ascent was also a way to promote the fading rockstar’s upcoming band tour. A press release from the Live Nation wrote: “Having always been fascinated with the incredible landmark since he was a child, Leto said, ‘The building is a testament of all the things that can be done in the world if we put our minds to it, which is largely the inspiration behind our most recent album, It’s the End of the World But It’s a Beautiful Day.’”
Don’t bother re-reading that. Considering Leto’s climb, the distilled takeaway is a familiar one—if you’ve got even a modicum of talent, anything in this world can be accomplished if you’re wealthy. Which is so obviously the state of the modern world that I sometimes think problematizing publicity stunts like this is a waste of my time. Furthermore, why highlight mediocrity? (Sorry Leto… those edges are, what, 30 millimeters? Basically huge hand holds mixed in with no-hands stances.) And as the dilettante’s morning TR-session was shockingly above board, safe, and seemingly offenseless—predictably, the morning’s Today Show article led with “Jared Leto got about 30 seconds closer to Mars”—what’s really the harm?
As it happens, climbing’s greatest problem is its incomprehensibility. I’ll excuse you if you don’t climb and think that everyone who does should be referred to as Spiderman. Or if Free Solo and The Alpinist have formed the basis of your understanding of our seemingly simple yet in fact elaborate sport. As one hiker once asked my friend who had just finished the hardest multi-pitch of his career: You realize you could have just walked up the back, right? The varied interpretations of climbing illustrate that there are rules to this sport’s game, and those rules are entirely self-directed. Climbing, in other words, gets to be what you choose to make it. The catch: the sport really only thrives in the context of explanation.
Nascent enthusiasts, inaccurate media, and false idols like Leto shock and confound the masses rather than further climbing as a sport. The more eyes the better, right? But the result is further misunderstanding about what climbing is—what’s cool and what isn’t, what’s hard and what’s, by the looks of it, 5.10—which darkens the fog.
Consider this: Our biggest traffic drivers last year had to deal with Alex Honnold, an auto-belay accident which led to an unfortunate anal impalement, and six-pack abs. If I title this article “Alex Honnold, Who Has a Great Six Pack, Was Impaled Anally Due to an Auto Belay Accident” I imagine it would also drive a lot of people to the site. But that doesn’t make it good for the sport.
I have no problem acknowledging that Leto is in fact a decent climber. His footwork is precise enough, and he clearly has some endurance. But if news outlets worldwide are talking about someone who climbed something, shouldn’t it be because their feat is worth talking about? Just this past week, Frenchman Charles Albert claimed the first ascent of another boulder which could be among the hardest in the world. He did so barefoot. Brooke Raboutou may have just become the first women to flash V13 boulder problem (depending on how the grade solidifies over time), Adam Ondra established yet another difficult sport climb, and Laura Rogora sent “Lapsus,” another immensely difficult route. Each of those involved far more work, dedication, and soul than Leto’s 20 minute session.
Plus, well, Leto top roped it. I feel I needn’t say more, but allow me to state—for the record—that Leto’s ascent of the Empire State Building does not count.