‘The Summit Journal’s’ editor hopes to offer an independent voice in climbing media after most print publications merged
Ollie Hancock/High Country News
In 1955, at a time when women were not expected (or encouraged) to either climb mountains or start magazines, Jean Crenshaw and Helen Kilness started Summit Magazine. Concerned that no one would read it if they knew it was produced by women, they didn’t disclose their gender in the masthead; instead, Jean became Jene, and Helen became H.V.J. Kilness. They ran the publication from their shared home in Big Bear and never corrected letters that began with “Dear Sirs.” The publication, which started with a focus on mountaineering, documented the genesis of rock climbing and its sub-disciplines — bouldering, sport climbing and ice-climbing — and eventually, became an essential voice in climbing journalism. Royal Robbins, a pioneer of American rock climbing, worked as an editor there and touted the “clean climbing” ethics that have come to define the sport. The magazine also became known for editorial cartoons that captured the climber’s dirtbag lifestyle.
Since then, the landscape for publications like Summit has changed radically. Outside Inc. publishes more than 20 magazines covering outdoor sports and lifestyle. The company purchased Climbing, Ascent, Rock & Ice and Gym Climber in 2021 and combined them under the single title Climbing, which publishes solely online. The merger was followed by dozens of layoffs at Outside Inc.’s various publications. Meanwhile, smaller independent publications like the Climbing Zine and California Climber are hanging on.
In August, journalist Michael Levy revived Summit Magazine as Summit Journal in the hope of providing an independent voice, moving away from clickbait content and gear reviews and reveling in long-form storytelling in large-format print. High Country News spoke with Levy last month about how he plans to build on the legacy of Jean Crenshaw and Helen Kilness. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
High Country News: Since Outside Inc. combined all those print publications, the climbing media landscape has felt monolithic. Can you explain the media landscape that Summit is emerging — or reemerging — into?
Michael Levy: I worked as an editor at Rock & Ice for a number of years, and then, back in 2020, we were acquired by startup Pocket Outdoor Media, which also acquired Climbing Magazine and Backpacker. Pocket Outdoor Media bought up a lot of these smaller publications and had this vision to be a one-stop shop for all outdoor media. They later bought Outside Inc., and because it didn’t fit into their business model and their vision, they axed print across pretty much every title.
So, before that happened, there was kind of a spectrum of climbing publications. Alpinist, Rock & Ice, Climbing and the Climbing Zine were the American climbing magazines, and they had Gripped up north in Canada. Once Rock & Ice and Climbing disappeared, it felt to me the broad middle wasn’t being served in terms of really quality long-form storytelling.
There’s also just this need to feed the internet beast. So much of what is out there is just this pumping out of content, and a lot of the good stuff just gets lost in the fray. I think there’s something really worthwhile about carefully curating a collection of stories and devoting time to longer-form (writing), because climbing has this particularly literary history, I’d say — more than certain other adventure sports out there.
HCN: With outdoor sports publications, it feels like there’s a lot of focus on gear consumption. Are you departing from that?
ML: In terms of the actual content in the magazine, it’s all about long-form storytelling. One of the maxims that I’ve kind of adopted for myself is, you know, if the internet can do something better, I should let it. It just seems it would be ludicrous to waste limited editorial space on gear reviews you can find everywhere online. The gear reviews in the outdoor industry very much feel like a tit-for-tat relationship. You know, if you advertise with us, we’ll review your gear, and that happens to be the reason why you see very, very few negative reviews on outdoor gear sites, right? Because there isn’t that journalistic independence.
HCN: So, two women founded Summit in the 1950s. Will today’s editorial team maintain diverse leadership?
ML: That’s one of the things I’ve been very anxious about because I’m taking this legacy that they created, but I am a straight white male, and my web designer and my artistic director are both straight men. My marketing director is a white woman. But I’m very conscious and trying to make sure that I keep that legacy of diversity in mind and push the sport in different ways.
I had this idea to resurrect Summit, but I wanted to make sure I got the blessing of the niece of Jean Crenshaw. Paula Crenshaw, who and is a longtime climber herself, was really excited to see it coming back.
HCN: Are you planning on bringing diversity to the publication in new ways?
ML: I’ve been striving as much as possible to make sure that I have representation as much as possible in both writers, photographers and people on the page. And I’m certain I won’t do a perfect job and that I have a long way to go. I don’t want it to be performative, and I don’t want it to be tokenism. I want it to be proper storytelling. The more representation there is in the magazine, the more people will be encouraged to get outside and feel comfortable climbing and creating safe spaces, and then there are more people with stories to tell.
HCN: You’re talking about covering climbing in an accessible way, but it’s priced at a luxury price. How do you plan to tread that line?
ML: It is a personal luxury price. But at the same time, you know, if you divide it by month, it’s $60 with $10 shipping, $70 bucks a year. It’s about six bucks or so a month. That’s a fancy cup of coffee or a beer. Making a quality product requires a certain amount of money. My goal, at the end of the day, is to one day be as reliant on subscriber revenue as possible for support. The goal is never to be a gatekeeper or to be prohibitively expensive.
Republished with Permission from High Country News. Originally published on October 13, 2023
Link to Original Article ~ Historic climbing magazine returns after nearly 30 years