Prana’s spring catalog has spurred an outcry due to an image of Chris Sharma climbing the walls of an underground cave. In the photo, titled “pitch black mallorcan cave,” a flip-flop clad Sharma works his way up a delicate-looking formation.
“Sure, Prana ambassador @Chris_Sharma could map new routes with his eyes closed,” the caption reads. “But can he do it in the dark, in a cave, in flip-flops? Spoiler alert! Yes, he can.” But for members of the National Speleological Society, a group devoted to cave exploration and protection, the photo did more than showcase the athletic abilities of a professional climber.
Caves are ecologically rich environments, home to a host of life forms and biological processes that evolve over thousands of years and are the subject of constant scientific study. They are also extremely delicate. As the National Parks Service explains on its website, “The discoveries, scientific studies, recreational values, educational opportunities and fresh water supplies don’t come cheap, though. Cave and karst areas are fragile and easy to impact and contaminate.” The National Speleological Society's website displays a long list of best practices for cave exploration, including staying on established trails when possible and taking care to not harm cave structures or disturb life forms.
The photo in Prana’s catalog displays the opposite of all of these things, the cavers cry. Not only does it depict Sharma causing possible harm to the cave environment, critics argue, but it could also send the message that climbing on and touching sensitive cave formations is acceptable.
On Wednesday, a member of the National Speleological Society posted a photo of the catalog on Facebook, along with a caption expressing consternation that an environmentally minded company like Prana would let the image’s negative environmental messaging slip past its radar. Since then, the post has racked up 67 angry comments, many urging others to reach out to Prana’s customer service.
In a prepared statement, Russ Hopcus, Prana’s president, acknowledged that the company had hired the photographer who took the photo, but did not elaborate on the details of their arrangement. “We know that responsible caving and care for fragile cave environments is critical to cave conservation,” Hopcus wrote in a statement. “It was a mistake to shoot this photo and to share it in our catalog, and we deeply regret [it].” The statement goes on to explain that Prana is treating the incident as a wakeup call to pay closer attention to the location choices and processes for creating photo and video content.
Update, February 7, 2019: Prana has removed the photo from the digital version of its catalog, and replaced it with a message from Hopcus. The text explains the nature of the photo’s controversy, apologizes for publishing it, and encourages readers to recreate responsibly.