How North Face Athletes Compete for Expedition Funding
The company sponsors some of the best athletes in the world, from Emily Harrington to Alex Honnold, all of whom are vying for a slice of the brand’s annual budget to support their expeditions. The process can be as competitive as getting into an Ivy League university—except, if approved, the athletes are often taking on death-defying adventures.
In October 2019, in a world of still busy airport terminals and long security lines, North Face athlete Manoah Ainuu logged on to his computer to submit a proposal to the company for a dream trip. The climber, who is based in Bozeman, Montana, was hoping to visit Ethiopia’s Tigray region, known for dozens of mysterious Christian churches carved into sandstone cliffs and towers in likely the sixth century, some of which require 5.4 routes to reach. Ainuu, 26, was planning to put up some new routes on the walls with a trio of North Face teammates. First and foremost, they planned to climb with kids from a local nonprofit at a smaller crag near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. They’d also visit the town of Hayk, where Ainuu’s mother was born and his grandparents live, and which he has been to just once, when he was 13. To fund the trip, Ainuu was asking the North Face for $36,000.
To siphon that sum from the company’s annual expedition budget, his proposal would compete with as many as 200 others from a roster of superstar climbers, ultrarunners, and skiers, a lineup stacked with icons like Emily Harrington, Ashima Shiraishi, Alex Honnold, and Jimmy Chin. It’s a high bar to make the cut as one of the six to twelve expeditions that are typically funded each year. Ainuu’s proposal would have to wow some tough critics—every athlete on the team gets a vote.
The North Face made its expedition peer-review process official in 2015 and added an athlete-only website for submissions in 2018. Today Ainuu clicked around the site, typed in the name of his expedition—“Mission to the Motherland”—and then filled in the fields for its description, significance, and budget. He also noted his production partner, Sender Films, which planned to document it.
He uploaded a few photos of Tigray’s rock towers, which resemble those in Moab, Utah, and a 60-second video he filmed with his phone while sitting on his couch. “What’s up y’all, Manoah here, talking about the expedition proposal to Ethiopia,” he says in it, his long dreadlocks cascading down his right shoulder. He described wanting to invigorate the sport he loves in “one of the greatest countries and civilizations out there.”
He hit submit and then started scrolling through submissions from other North Face athletes. Ainuu had to critique and rate the other proposals using a ten-point scale for these criteria: (1) How exciting is the idea; (2) Is it a disruptive piece within the sport; (3) Will it generate community buzz and attract media; and (4) Does it have global relevancy and reach, and will people outside the sport care about it? The highest scores then went to a selection committee made up of the marketing department and athlete team captain Hilaree Nelson, and the winners for the 2020 trips would be announced by email in December. Scanning the proposals, Ainuu was chagrined to find another Ethiopian climbing trip among them.
Sponsored athletes are a staple of outdoor gear brands, from Salomon to ski maker DPS to Red Bull, lending credibility to a company’s products by employing them to notch impressive feats in enviable locales. The athletes also serve as brand marketers, walking—or climbing, or wingsuit-jumping—billboards. The North Face (TNF) began sponsoring expeditions soon after its inception in 1966, and sponsored climbers have been central to its identity ever since.
With one of the largest teams, TNF athletes have notched some particularly impressive feats recently. In 2018, Nelson and Jim Morrison became the first to ski the Lhotse Couloir from the summit of the world’s fourth-highest peak—27,940-foot Lhotse, which straddles the Nepal-Tibet border. That same year, David Lama summited 22,661-foot Lunag Ri, Nepal’s highest unclimbed, unprohibited peak, and was posthumously awarded a coveted Piolet d’Or in 2019. (Lama died in 2019 on Howse Peak, which sits on the Alberta–British Columbia border, with North Face teammates Jess Roskelley and Hansjörg Auer.) And of course there’s Chin, who won an Oscar for Free Solo, for which he and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, documented Honnold’s mind-boggling ropeless ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider.
Since the 1990s, the North Face team has grown more than tenfold and broadened from alpinists to include trail runners like Mike Foote and snowboarders like Jess Kimura, who specializes in freestyle riding in gritty, urban locations. With more than 100 athletes vying for funding, a more structured selection process became necessary. “The peer-review process was an easy way to add transparency,” says Scott Mellin, TNF’s global vice president of mountain sports. “Athletes can compare their proposals and understand why they may or may not have been funded.”
The process has also helped reform a very insular old-boy network, says Emily Harrington, who made headlines last fall with her record in-a-single-day free climb of El Cap’s 3,000-foot Golden Gate route. “I think we’ve been ahead of the curve on changing that,” she says. The company has also been focused on adding athletes of color to its team. In the past two years, climbers Ainuu, Fred Campbell, and Nina Williams, alpinist Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, and runner and Eco-Challenge star Coree Woltering, among others, have joined.
Even though the expedition application process is more transparent now, the peer-review website can still be intimidating. “Eight years ago, if you wanted to propose a trip, you just quietly emailed your team manager,” says trail runner Mike Foote. “Now you are cc’ing 100 of the best athletes in the world.”
Several of the proposals green-lit in recent years were in line with the company’s push to highlight social issues like sustainability and accessibility, including a trip that Harrington, Williams, and two other teammates made to Peru in January 2019 to put up new routes above 13,000 feet in the Ch’acco Huayllascca valley. The North Face paid the Indigenous Quechua a permit fee and helped with a plan to further develop the land as a sport-climbing destination.
And last year, Ainuu’s “Mission to the Motherland” was chosen over the competing Ethiopia proposal. “With his backstory there, it was obviously more compelling,” says Nelson, who began taking over team-captain duties from legendary mountaineer and longtime North Face athlete Conrad Anker in 2018. Ainuu had offered to combine the two Ethiopian expeditions, but the pandemic rendered that moot, and a civil war that erupted last fall in the region may take it off the table for quite some time.
Even though the expedition application process is more transparent now, the peer-review website can still be intimidating, says Mike Foote, whose projects have included running sections of the U.S.-Mexican border and a 600-mile mountain traverse from his doorstep in Missoula, Montana, to Banff, Alberta. “Eight years ago, if you wanted to propose a trip, you just quietly emailed your team manager,” he says. “Now you are cc’ing 100 of the best athletes in the world.”
At the same time, “it’s pretty cool getting a say in Renan Ozturk’s plans,” he says of the award-winning filmmaker and fellow TNF athlete. “I take that responsibility seriously.”
Athletes are encouraged to comment—good or bad—on the proposals via the internal website. Legendary climber Peter Croft has been known for not holding back on submissions that strike him as lame. “I suppose I was blunt at times if the proposal’s author was making way too big of a mountain out of a mediocre molehill, but I also heaped on the praise whenever I saw the real deal,” Croft says. Nelson believes that outdoor athletes can handle it: “We are all big girls and boys,” she says.
The addition of mandatory minute-long videos has added some good entertainment, says Jamie Starr, TNF’s global director of sports marketing. He mentions a video from Austin Smith, in which the snowboarder is profusely sweating inside a homemade sauna he’d built from an old U-Haul trailer. “I’m glad they didn’t take that one,” says Smith, who is based in Bend, Oregon. “My proposal was to drive the sauna farther and farther into the woods on a snowboard vision quest. I’m pretty sure I would have ended up losing my mind.”
Once the reviews are tabulated, the marketing team convenes for an all-day meeting to select six to twelve proposals from the top of the list, often in accordance with the company’s marketing objectives—the launch of a new shoe or fabric, for example. The North Face uses the eventual photos, videos, and other content from approved expeditions in its promotional materials. Details of its team members’ adventures also end up in magazines, on the film-festival circuit, and on athletes’ social media accounts, some of which have substantial followings. (Honnold has 2.1 million Instagram followers; Chin, 2.8 million.)
Athletes provide key context. “Marketing sometimes wants to move a trip to a different season for sales reasons, and I might have to point out that snowpack or weather won’t allow it,” Nelson says. “Sometimes they’ll try to add a new athlete to an expedition, and I’ll have to say, ‘Actually, those two don’t get along.’”
Standout ideas tend to rise to the top, such as Nelson’s descent of the Lhotse Couloir. The narrow chute dropping from the summit of the world’s fourth-highest peak had been attempted close to a dozen times over the years but never completed. “That was exactly the kind of thing we should be doing,” Croft says. “Classic objectives, moving fast and light, with real consequences.”
TNF skier Griffin Post also gave Nelson’s mission top marks, even if he was a bit jealous. Keeping the objective a secret was critical, but that can be challenging when a large team is involved. Honnold’s 2017 project to free-solo El Capitan never went through the peer-review process and was kept secret to decrease any pressure he might have felt to go through with the dangerous climb. Mellin estimates that only five TNF staffers knew about it.
Placing an emphasis on COVID-19 protocols, the company paused its remaining 2020 projects and encouraged athletes to pivot to attempts they could make closer to home. This shift has still led to some impressive feats: among others, Ainuu, Anker, Chin, and Savannah Cummins knocked off a well-publicized Teton traverse, and Harrington accomplished her El Cap ascent. The company has also postponed the expedition-proposal process. When it’s safe to travel internationally, it will review which 2020 expeditions can move forward, as well as open the door to others.
Being a sponsored athlete isn’t the only way to get someone else to help pay for an expedition. Grants from organizations like the American Alpine Club and the Mazamas have funded exploration for decades, and applications are sometimes open to the general public. But even before pandemic-related disruptions, some of the best-known grants have dried up in recent years. In 2017, W. L. Gore and Associates awarded the last of its Shipton-Tilman grants, which divvied up $20,000 to $30,000 annually since 1990. Polartec discontinued its similar Challenge Grant after 2014. And at the end of 2016, National Geographic ended its Expeditions Council, which had poured $1.25 million to $2.5 million annually into a range of expeditions since 1998, from Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner’s 2011 ascent of K2 without supplemental oxygen to ecologist Mike Fay’s landmark 1999 Megatransect of the Congo Basin. (The council was merged into other grant programs run by the National Geographic Society.)
Corporate sponsorship has funded adventure and exploration since at least 1910, when Fry’s Cocoa and Heinz Baked Beans backed Robert Falcon Scott’s ultimately fatal attempt to reach the South Pole first. Warren Harding appeared in Busch Beer ads soon after completing his 1958 first ascent of El Cap, and Chris Bonington’s 1975 expedition to scale Mount Everest’s southwest face was largely bankrolled by Barclays. In 1978, during his ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen, Reinhold Messner was famously repping Rolex watches and Italian sportswear brand Fila. Most indelibly, in 1940, American Richard Byrd named a significant piece of Antarctica’s coastline for one of his sponsors, Charles Walgreen, founder of the drugstore chain.
The North Face’s first major sponsored athlete was Ned Gillette, a cross-country skier from Vermont known for his offbeat but hardcore objectives. In 1982, he and three friends completed a 120-day ski-hike-climb circumnavigation of Everest that was also backed by Camel cigarettes, and in 1988, he and three others crossed the Drake Passage from South America to Antarctica in a bulbous red rowboat called the Sea Tomato. The modern mountain-athlete team as we know it, however, started after Conrad Anker began to build one at the North Face in 1992. As a cutting-edge climber, he was concerned that the sponsorship program had gotten too soft, he says, and that “the athletes were just going out and doing photo shoots for the catalog.”
“I put Greg Child, one of the most legendary climbers in history, on a rope, and every hold is breaking off in his hand,” Mark Synnott says. “And he’s like, ‘We sailed halfway around the world for this?’”
By 1995, Anker had solidified a team of climbing superstars like Lynn Hill, Greg Child, and Alex Lowe—referred to by some as the Dream Team—and set them loose on substantial international objectives. Throughout the 1990s, TNF climbers would score major firsts every year in places like Pakistan, Alaska, Patagonia, Tibet, and Kyrgyzstan, culminating in 1996–97’s Queen Maud Land expedition, during which Anker, Lowe, and four others put up several new routes in Antarctica’s Filchner Mountains, landing them a famous National Geographic cover.
In those days, the TNF team was small—about nine climbers, plus extreme-skiing star Scot Schmidt—and athletes pitched their expeditions to the marketing department through Anker. “It was all pretty informal,” Anker says. “We tried to sponsor a couple of big objectives every year and had a limit of around $30,000 per expedition.”
The team’s most prolific expedition planner was probably New Hampshire–based climber Mark Synnott. Between 1996 and 2012, Synnott cooked up at least one major annual trip, knocking off objectives like Baffin Island’s Polar Sun Spire, Pakistan’s Great Trango Tower, and Chad’s Ennedi towers, all with a rotating cast that ranged from Anker, Lowe, and Child to Nelson, Honnold, and Chin. “The secret recipe was to sell a magazine or TV network on the story,” says Synnott, “and to invite Jimmy Chin.”
Despite the team’s best intentions, trips didn’t always yield groundbreaking accomplishments. Case in point: Synnott’s 2005 Pitcairn Islands mission. Located 3,000 miles northeast of New Zealand, the archipelago is famous for being inhabited by the descendants of mutineers from the HMS Bounty. The islands are so compact, remote, and rugged that the mutineers and their offspring lived there undetected from 1790 to 1808. Synnott says the North Face and National Geographic offered $30,000 apiece to help charter a 66-foot sailboat to get the team there. (The islands lack an airport.)
Unfortunately, the photos of towering sea cliffs that Synnott had seen turned out to be composed of crumbly volcanic rock. “I put Greg Child, one of the most legendary climbers in history, on a rope, and every hold is breaking off in his hand,” Synnott says. “And he’s like, ‘We sailed halfway around the world for this?’”
When the marketing department got a look at Chin’s photos—of the climbers drinking cocktails on the boat and playing badminton on the beach—“They were like, ‘What the fuck is this?’” Synnott says. “Let’s just say it wasn’t super rugged.”
But there were some upsides. The one good first ascent they pioneered was a 100-foot tower, on which they were accompanied by Brenda Christian—a seventh-generation descendant of Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian—who, incidentally, made the climb barefoot.
So what qualities stand out in an expedition submission?
“Sponsors can see through your proposal if it lacks commitment,” says Mike Foote. On the other hand, efforts like Anker, Chin, and Ozturk’s second attempt at India’s Shark’s Fin climb, which was featured in the film Meru, and the free solo of El Cap by Honnold, feel like destiny. “That’s what makes a great story,” Foote says.
Two years ago, the marketing department changed the questions it used to rate proposals from ones that heavily weighted first ascents and dangerous missions to others that focus on storytelling. It also made the previously optional minute-long video introduction mandatory. “Charisma is an important part of being on the team,” says Anker in explanation.
Superlatives still sell. Like the highest, fastest, or, in the case of Italian mountaineer Simone Moro, coldest. Moro specializes in winter ascents, including a 2018 expedition to climb Siberia’s Pobeda, which is located in the most frigid inhabited region on the planet. And it’s important to invite recently added TNF team members, like Harrington did with Nina Williams, because the company likes new recruits to be included. In 2009, Synnott made room on a big-wall expedition to Borneo for rising star Honnold. “He called me Mr. Safety for asking him why he hadn’t brought a helmet,” Synnott recalls.
Including an icon like Honnold or a photographer like Chin can push a proposal. But this strategy doesn’t always work. Climber Cedar Wright was surprised when his 2013 proposal to link ascents of all 15 of California’s 14,000-foot peaks by bike was turned down, despite his plan to team up with Honnold, and despite asking for a modest $1,000. “I thought I had the golden Honnold ticket,” he says. The pair paid for the trip out of their own pockets, but when Sufferfest, Wright’s 2013 film about the misadventure, won a Radical Reels audience-choice award at the Banff Film Festival, the North Face pitched in for the sequel, 2015’s Sufferfest 2: Desert Alpine AKA 34 Pieces of Choss and 5 Horrendous Life Experiences.
Including an icon like Honnold or Chin can push a proposal. But this strategy doesn’t always work. Climber Cedar Wright was surprised when his 2013 proposal to link ascents of all 15 of California’s 14,000-foot peaks by bike was turned down, despite his plan to team up with Honnold, and despite asking for a modest $1,000.
Watching costs is important. Climbing’s frugal dirtbag culture is valued at the company, and its athletes are hawkish about saving money. “I always look at cost,” says skier Griffin Post. Harrington’s Peru budget requested just $4,000 apiece for a team of four. Many TNF athletes spent years living the dirtbag lifestyle before being signed on by the company. Snowboarder Jess Kimura worked as an apprentice stonemason and lived in a closet in Whistler, B.C., in her twenties while honing her skills, and Peter Croft used hardware store machine nuts threaded with climbing cord for protection before he could afford a real climbing rack.
But there are exceptions to frugality. In 2017, Wright landed what he called “my Moby Dick,” an expedition to Queen Maud Land. As a kid, he’d been inspired to start climbing by the National Geographic story of Anker and Lowe’s 1996–97 expedition to the same range. “They looked like astronauts to me,” he says. Wright’s origin story and the 20th anniversary of Anker’s trip checked TNF’s first submission criterion—excitement—while the potential for the team to rack up a dozen first descents in the seldom-visited range covered another. Next, he invited newcomers Anna Pfaff and Savannah Cummins and then stacked the deck by including Chin, Honnold, and, of course, Anker.
Ultimately, Wright’s Queen Maud Land expedition notched eight first ascents over 15 days and was the centerpiece of the North Face’s 2018 marketing campaign. According to Wright, it also blew the budget, running up an “eye-watering” tab. “I’m not really sure why they let me do it,” he says, “but it was worth every penny that wasn’t mine.”