The Mount Everest Foundation is the UK's most important source of mountain expedition funding, currently paying out over £40,000 per year, at an average of £1,800 per expedition. Rebecca Coles is a mountaineer, expedition leader and mountaineering instructor based in the UK. She has funded many of her own expeditions through grants and she nows sits on the screening committee for the MEF applications.
I talked to Rebecca about how to take advantage of what the MEF has to offer.
The interview answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
"During the last 60 years it has supported over 1600 expeditions with grants that total over one million pounds." The MEF is financed by the interest from funds that include the surplus from the successful 1953 British Everest Expedition, royalties from the expedition book The Ascent of Everest, and funds from a nation-wide lecture tour held at the time. An annual fund-raising lecture is held each November at the RGS in London. [Information, and the graph below, from the 2015-16 Annual Review.]
MEF Expedition grants 1988 to 2016
Tell me a little about your personal experience with adventure grants? How many trips have you managed to do with adventure grant backing?
I was a student for a long time because I did a PhD. I love mountaineering and wanted to go to South America, Alaska, Nepal. But it was difficult to find the money. If I had had money, I would’ve probably just gone on trips to commercial peaks like Ama Dablam.
Instead I started looking into how I could fund my ideas and I realised that there’s a lot of funding for exploratory mountaineering trips. I started to do research and then to do expeditions to central Asia - places like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan - to try and climb peaks that hadn’t been climbed before. I probably wouldn’t have done those sorts of trips if it hadn’t have been for these grants.
I've certainly found it really easy to fill out a grant form once I’ve got the objective. And it’s a lot easier than trying to hassle people for corporate sponsorship! That’s really hard work. I've had a lot of rejections from corporate sponsorship and a lot more success with grants. They’re not ideal for really big budget trips. It’s the small budget expeditions that they suit the best.
Most recently I did a two-person trip to the far west of Nepal. We climbed a really beautiful 6200 metre peak, Lasarmula. We kept the costs low. That’s the biggest thing - make sure the cost is kept low so as you can fund it as much as possible through grants. We funded that trip nearly 100% through a MEF grant, an Alpine Club grant and a BMC grant. We funded that trip nearly 100% through an MEF grant, a grant from the Montane Alpine Climbing Club fund, an Austrian Alpine Club grant and a BMC Expedition grant.
What was the budget of that trip?
It was about £5,000 for both of us, including flights and insurance. We had internal flights in Nepal as well, and a guy with a couple of mules to get us to base camp. We were there for several weeks.
Rebecca has been a member of the MEF screening committee since 2014.
How does the grant-giving process work?
There’s about half a dozen of us that sit on the screening committee and we sift through all the applications. We might interview some of them, especially applicants that haven’t applied previously. Then our notes go to the management committee. They agree or not, and sign off the exact amounts that the expedition teams will get in funding.
The grants are for exploratory expeditions in mountain ranges by amateur teams, with members from the UK and/or New Zealand. How do you define an amateur mountaineer?
We don’t support people on commercial expeditions or expeditions that seem to be reccies for future commercial expeditions. It's really aimed for people that do other things with their lives apart from just mountaineering.
How important is the exploratory aspect?
They have to be first ascents or significant new routes or mountains. They’re not first female ascents, they’re not repeats of routes. For the Mount Everest Foundation it really is new ground and first ascents.
Does it have to be at a high technical level or is it open to exploration of newly opened areas in the world?
Not just technical mountains, not at all. The grant is open to any level of route or mountain. We get applications for mountains around the PD level [Alpine grade peu difficile = somewhat difficult], right up to really technical hard routes as well, so the whole range is supported.
So there is an opportunity for people to come up with their first self-organised expedition as long as they’ve chosen to go somewhere that seems to be untraveled territory.
Yes absolutely. That’s what the Mount Everest Foundation really wants to support. We recognise that it can be a hard first step for people to take. To move their mountaineering on from known routes and well-travelled routes to the exploratory level. We are very keen to support those first steps, and then to support people as they venture into more technical terrain.
How does the British and New Zealand nationality qualification work?
Half or more of the team must be Brits or New Zealanders. How much the team gets in grant money depends on the proportion of Brits and New Zealanders on the team. But the whole team can benefit from the money.
What sort of previous experience do you need to apply for a MEF grant?
We certainly look at your previous experience in the mountains. We want to encourage people to get into the mountains. But if they’ve got a really ambitious objective and that doesn't match their CV, we usually ask them some more questions. We don’t mind ambition, but it’s got to fit with your experience.
Are these grants going to pay the entire cost of these expeditions?
No. The grants are between £1,500 and £2,500, depending on the objective. Most people would them apply for other grants to top up the expedition funds. And it is expected that participants will fund some of the expedition themselves.
The Alison Chadwick award is also administered by the MEF?
Yes, the Alison Chadwick award is for female mountaineers. It’s a top up for expeditions that have female mountaineers. One of those grants is awarded each year.
Grants are handed out twice a year?
The deadlines are the end of January and the end of September. We usually get the bulk of the applications for the end of January deadline.
From the website: The Screening Committee meets to consider applications twice a year – in November and March. Closing dates for receipt of completed applications are 30th September and 31st January prior to the meetings. These dates are strictly observed, and expeditions are never considered in retrospect.
What do teams need to do in return for this?
The agreement is that you’ll write an expedition report - a brief report as soon as you return, and then a full report after that. That’s it.
From the website: “The main obligation of an expedition accepting support is to provide a Summary Report and an account of expenses within six weeks of completion. A Final Report is required as soon as possible afterwards. Failure to observe this important requirement is likely to result in a leader being refused future support.”
Do you see the same names applying time and again?
Yes, definitely. People work out that this is a really good way of getting money for expeditions and relatively simple compared to trying to get corporate sponsorship. If they keep their expedition costs quite low, it’s possible that grants from the MEF, the Alpine Club, and the BMC grant will pay a huge proportion of your expedition.
Once people cotton onto that, then they apply year after year. For us, it’s really important to get the word out that we are welcoming applications. We do want new people to apply.
Are MEF grants given for projects like crossing an unexplored piece of Greenland or travelling through remote valleys in Central Asia?
No, the MEF grant is for for peaks and mountains. It’s not for polar crossings. There has to be a summit involved in there. Ski mountaineering is included, we’ve supported trips on skis in places like Greenland and the like. We also support scientific expeditions, support is given to education and research across a wide range of subjects including geography, glaciology, and the effects of altitude. [They also support caving expeditions, applications are passed on to the MEF from the Ghar Parau Foundation.]
What happens if the expedition doesn’t achieve its objective?
Doing exploratory mountaineering often means not achieving your objective. That’s what it’s about, it’s exploratory, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s good to have some back-up objectives to try. But you don’t have to give the money back. As long as you get out there, that’s okay.
So if people fail to leave England, they’re expected to give the money back, but if they get out on the trip and then it all falls apart, that’s life?
Yes, exactly. These are big trips. Sometimes people do apply for grants and then life happens and they can’t go. They just give the money back.
How many applications do you get that don’t fit the criteria?
Very few actually, most people do read the criteria. Occasionally we get some from people going to commercial peaks. They haven’t quite understood what the MEF grant is for. We usually have a chat to them and hope they apply in the future again.
If you fit the criteria when you apply, you’ve got a high chance of gaining that Mount Everest Foundation grant. You’ve got really good odds.
[Coming soon - a blog post of how you gain the experience and then do the planning to propose your self-led expedition to an exploratory area.]