Chalk Cartel: By and For Routesetters, As It Should Be

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Timy Fairfield at a PCA comp
Chalk Cartel’s masterminds have long been rocking comps, slinging grips and building businesses with a counter-cultural swagger that today is all about powering the work of the public servants in the routesetting trade. (Pictured: Fairfield throwing down at a PCA comp; photo by Jansen Gundersen)

Authored by Emma Walker

“Being rebellious is usually a little uncomfortable,” says Timy Fairfield. He would know.

At first glance, Fairfield looks like he’d be just as comfortable on a skateboard as on a climbing wall—and certainly more at home in either of those settings than in a boardroom. It turns out that’s true.

“It’s rare that pro climbers actually own a company,” he points out. “You can still have guiding principles that are core to the subculture of the sport and be a CEO.” Fairfield and partner Brandi Proffitt’s combined experience as professional climbers and routesetters on the international scene is key to Chalk Cartel’s ability to put those who use their product most—those who need their tools to work in order to make a living—first.

Chalk Cartel’s branding has the gritty, blue-collar feel of an 80s analog-era skate video, evocative of a pre-sponsorship era when athletes filmed themselves and their friends pushing boundaries and, perhaps more importantly, having fun. Cheeky references on the brand’s website (brushes are filed under “paraphernalia”) give a nod to climbing’s anti-establishment roots, which is exactly how Fairfield and Proffitt like it.

When Fairfield called me from the couple’s Airstream in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico—also home to a freestanding MoonBoard with a view of the Sangre de Cristos—I was eager to dig into his climbing and routesetting accomplishments. I figured we’d mostly chat about what it meant to be the first American to flash V10 (on Left Martini at Hueco Tanks) or about his many podium finishes all over the world. I had a long list of questions about his stats, but I quickly learned that for Fairfield the most significant accomplishments revolve around the people he’s connected with through his climbing experiences.

Global citizens, united by climbing

Over the course of his 12 years on the World Cup circuit, Fairfield met and became dear friends with people he’d been taught to think of as “enemies” during his Cold War-era upbringing. In the course of his travels, he visited over 40 countries and competed in more than 100 international events; he’s also the only American climber to have won professional-level international competitions in all three World Cup disciplines—speed climbing, bouldering and sport climbing.

Proffitt and Fairfield at 2005 X-Games Seoul South-Korea
Fairfield and Proffitt’s pro climbing and setting brought them all around the world, including on international comp crews driven by a shared love for climbing. (Pictured: the crew at the 2005 X-Games in Seoul, South Korea)

During that time, Fairfield—who describes himself as “very Gen X”—picked up French, Spanish, and bits and pieces of a handful of other languages. “Connecting with people, particularly immigrants, changes how you’re included in their community,” he says. Climbing, in other words, allowed Fairfield to become a global citizen of the world and to see how his fellow humans lived.

Proffitt, too, is a veteran of the international climbing scene (and a crusher on steep, powerful boulder problems). Each year from 2001 to 2005, she ranked among the top 10 women in U.S. national bouldering competitions; she earned the titles of Canadian National Bouldering Champion in 2003 and Western U.S. Bouldering Champion in 2006. Proffitt was also the first woman to be nationally accredited by USA Climbing’s coaching certification program, and she has been a certified personal trainer since 2006.

Brandi Proffitt at a PCA comp
Proffitt and Fairfield’s comp climbing exploits date back over 20 years ago, and they first met one another on the pro circuit. (Pictured: Proffitt crushing it at a PCA comp; photo by Jansen Gundersen)

Unsurprisingly, the international powerhouses first crossed paths at a climbing comp—they were each warming up to compete at a Professional Climbers’ Association (PCA) event in Salt Lake City in 2001. Though both had years of setting and coaching experience under their respective belts by then, Proffitt had just entered the national-level comp scene (she was then living in California and working for Boeing), while Fairfield was already well established as a pro climber and international competitor. Serendipitously, Proffitt had begun to explore the idea of a career and lifestyle change that would give her more time to climb, travel and compete; Fairfield, based in New Mexico, had established a life that allowed him to do exactly that. As the duo got to know each other better, it turned out their complementary skills opened new doors—and allowed them to focus their energy, both separately and collectively, in ways that fed their shared passion for the sport.

A shift behind the scenes

Pulling on all those holds during his time on the international climbing circuit meant Fairfield knew what worked and what didn’t, and his deep experience fostered creative solutions to improve upon even the best products on the market. He dipped his toes into the world of climbing hold design during an internship with Sport Climbing Systems in 1989 and went on to design holds for Alpine Artworks, Straight-Up, Nicros and Revolution Climbing in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Fairfield and Proffitt setting at 2007 X-Games Shanghai China
Fairfield and Proffitt have set at multiple X-Games together, from Malaysia to South Korea. (Pictured: the duo preparing the 2007 Asian X-Games in Shanghai, China)

At the same time, Fairfield added routesetting to his repertoire, beginning with the 1998 Swiss National Sport Climbing Championship in Zurich. Over the next decade, he would set for televised international competitions all over the world, including the Canadian National Bouldering Championships in Ontario (twice), and the Western U.S. Bouldering Championships. He also worked as head routesetter at a gym in Santa Fe, where he loved watching (and helping) climbers progress their plastic projects.

Proffitt, too, got into commercial routesetting around this time. For nine years, she worked as a setter at Rockreation in Costa Mesa, California; she remembers the days when holds were ridiculously heavy and setters didn’t have the luxuries of impact drivers, vertical access safety equipment, or boom lifts. “It was truly a labor of love,” Proffitt recalls, adding that she loved it from the day she set her first route.

Proffitt forerunning at 2005 X-Games Seoul South Korea
From day one, routesetting has always been “a labor of love” for Proffitt and Fairfield. (Pictured: Proffitt forerunning at the 2005 X-Games in Seoul, South Korea)

As with many of their other endeavors, when it comes to comp routesetting, Fairfield and Proffitt are greater than the sum of their parts. Together, they’ve set for the ESPN X-Games five times (thrice in Kuala Lumpur, as well as in Seoul and Shanghai) and for the Outdoor Live Network Ford Adventure Sport Challenge bouldering comp in Beaver Creek, Colorado.

It turned out that, in addition to their climbing and setting acumen, the pair had a knack behind the scenes. Founded in 2009, Futurist Climbing Consultants offers a range of business development services to current and prospective climbing gym owners, including preliminary project assessment, market analysis, budgeting, financial projections, investment structuring, and routesetter-friendly climbing gym design.

Once a dirtbag, always a dirtbag

“I am aware that just because I’m an accomplished hardcore climber doesn’t mean that I’m automatically good at business,” Fairfield chuckles. “There has been a lot of learning on the job.” (He’s being a bit modest, if not sarcastic; he was already the CEO of Futurist Climbing Consultants when Chalk Cartel was founded in 2017.) Fortunately, Proffitt shines on the business side of things—a former financial and planning analyst for Boeing, she was responsible for budgeting and forecasting production contracts with a total budget in excess of $1 billion. As co-founders, the two share a common ethos: “A financial decision has to meet other criteria,” Fairfield explains. “We’re not motivated purely by money; we’re motivated by how we earn money.”

Routesetting at Focus Climbing Center
Serving routesetters, the “public servants who curate climbing experiences,” is at the center of how Proffitt and Fairfield manage Chalk Cartel business decisions. (Pictured: a setting day at Focus Climbing Center; photo courtesy of Joe Czerwinski)

Fairfield, who studied philosophy and ethics in college, lists his mother—who, as he puts it, “started her own investment advisory services company in a man’s world”—among his business role models. His and Proffitt’s focus on ethically achieving financial success allows them to prioritize the customers who need and use their products the most: routesetters.

“They’re the ultimate contributors to climbing culture,” Fairfield says. “They’re public servants who curate climbing experiences—often thanklessly—and they’re critical to the programming circle that climbing gyms offer.” He adds that the same is true of outdoor route developers, whose often thankless and always laborious work opens doors for the climbing community. And while his own routesetting resume is nothing to sniff at, he remains modest, acknowledging that his own routesetting is creative but relatively inefficient. This experience (and his humility) has lent him great appreciation for the tough job of routesetting, and it’s motivated him to create the best possible product in Chalk Cartel. So far, it’s working; they’re the official sponsor of USAC National Routesetting Teams.

Routesetting at 2021 USAC Nationals
Routesetting is hard manual labor that’s under high pressure at high-level comps, an impetus behind Chalk Cartel’s sponsorship of USAC National Routesetting Teams. (Pictured: setting for the 2021 USAC Nationals; photo by Bree Robles @breesframes)

Mike Bockino, National Routesetting Program Manager at USA Climbing and Chalk Cartel-sponsored athlete, echoed Fairfield’s opinion of routesetters’ importance to their communities. “The number of weekly impressions that you have as a routesetter with a product is so much higher than a pro climber,” he says, and he continues to be impressed that Chalk Cartel sees that. “The cool thing about [Timy and Brandi] is that they recognize that there are people in the climbing industry [who] may not have these internet presences but are spending time in the climbing community in an authentic sense,” he explains. “Most companies won’t even deal with you if you don’t have social media, and this speaks to their ability to understand the value routesetters bring.”

As Bockino points out, the company doesn’t simply tout its values; it really does remain loyal to the audience who uses its products the most. In addition to its Routesetter Loyalty Program (which includes deeper discounts for gyms who burn through higher volumes of chalk) and pro deals for setters, they recently released the Routesetter Bundle. Aimed at its core audience, the bundle represents a discount on a five-gallon bucket of chalk, brushes, chalk balls, coffee, energy bars and the newly released TACO skin sander, an essential tool for routesetters.

Chalk Cartel routesetter bundle
The new Routesetter Bundle from Chalk Cartel includes all the basics, and additional discounts are available for gym managers and routesetters in the industry.

Chalk Cartel’s bold branding means Fairfield and Proffitt carefully navigate the optics of being edgy; fortunately, they’re no strangers to that concept. The brand’s propaganda art-inspired image celebrates New Mexican, indigenous and Mexican cultures, all with a healthy dose of anti-authoritarian defiance. In other words, while it’s certainly counter-cultural, it’s rooted in respect; they expect the same of the athletes who represent the brand.

“While we are ‘Chalk Cartel,’ we are obviously not a ‘cartel’ in the negative context commonly invoked by the term,” the ambassador agreement explains. It goes on to list the imagery, language and actions to avoid while acting for the brand, including racism, misogyny and violence. The document is only a page long, but it speaks volumes; it’s stripped-down and DIY—very punk rock.

About the Author

Emma Walker

Emma Walker has written for Outside, Powder and Alaska magazines and is the author of Dead Reckoning: Learning from Accidents in the Outdoors (Falcon, 2021). She lives, works and plays in Anchorage, Alaska.

 

 

 


This story was paid for by the sponsor and does not necessarily represent the views of the Climbing Business Journal editorial team.

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