Digging through recent events from the (mostly) British world of (mostly) climbing adventure to see what works for sponsorship, adventure grants, media attention, record setting and charity fund-raising.
Everest remains a public icon of adventurous achievement. It is never just climbed, it is ‘scaled’ or ‘conquered’. In 2017 claiming the record of first X to climb Everest, on the standard route in spring as a client on a commercial expedition, will have much of the climbing community rolling their eyes in disdain. It won’t get you any of the climbing grants, or win any of that peer respect.
"...talented black-belt alpinists who spend their lives making visionary ascents in the great ranges... get little recognition, while any Joe Blow who paid his way onto a guided ascent of Everest appears on talk shows, writes books, and becomes a motivational speaker" - Greg Child (& he said that in 2004!)
But even in the UK - who claimed that first Everest ascent back in 1953 - you can get both corporate sponsorship and national media attention for an Everest ascent. Here success is absolutely about getting to the summit via the easiest way currently possible.
SPONSORSHIP, MEDIA & RECORDS
This spring 26-year-old Mollie Hughes @MollieJHughes climbed Everest from the north side with a professional guide. Her website lists the records she achieved as 'the Youngest Woman in the World and the First English Woman to summit Mount Everest from both sides.' The achievement won her national newspaper and TV coverage. Her climb was sponsored by the outdoor retailer Tiso (and also also supported by philanthropist Kae Tinto Murray @kaetinto, Osprey Backpacks and engineering firm, CH2M.
Looking at her records, the first woman climbed Everest 42 years ago, in 1975. The first woman to climb Everest from both sides did so 18 years ago*. The record for the maximum number of Everest ascents by a woman reached eight in 2017 - by Lhakpa Sherpa. The youngest person (a girl) to climb Everest was Malavath Poorna, a 13-year-old from India who climbed in 2014. Both Nepal and China have now imposed minimum age-limits to stop children (or more accurately the adults who enable the children) from chasing an ever-lower age record.
On the world stage Mollie's records are not ground-breaking but they are accurate and worked well to earn her sponsorship, media coverage, and corporate speeches.
Mollie was guided by Jon Gupta @MountExpeds (bespoke expeditions, price on request). Because Jon is not an IFMGA guide he can guide on Everest but he can't guide in the Alps in Europe. Jon is a Montane sponsored athlete, with a successful adventure career as the kind of outdoor athlete that calls themselves a climber rather than an adventurer. In addition to guiding, he is published freelance writer and has presented for the BBC.
The climbs that Jon pursues in his own time are objectives like The Snow Leopard Award (which as a Soviet mountaineering award for climbing all 5 peaks over 7000m in the USSR) and more recently, unclimbed peaks in the Himalaya. These are the kind of objectives that are supported by adventure grants.
ADVENTURE GRANTS & WINNING AWARDS
An example of an expedition supported by adventure grants is the autumn 2016 climb done by British mountaineers Becky Coles and Simon Verspeak. The peak has no name, it is lower than the advanced base camp on Mollie's Everest route and technically easier, and their successful ascent gets called a probable first ascent because there is evidence of earlier attempts but no evidence of a previous summit. Yet this climb won adventure grants from the Mount Everest Foundation, the Montane Alpine Club Climbing Fund and the Austrian Alpine Club (UK branch) - none of which would have supported Mollie's climb. What mattered was the element of exploration.
To quote from the Mount Everest Fund guidelines, "expeditions proposing to visit little-explored or formerly inaccessible areas are particularly encouraged". Their 2015 Annual Review (the latest available) says they supported 32 expeditions with a total sum of £51,075. The biggest individual grant was £2,700 for Martin Moran's (ultimately unsuccessful) expedition to the NE Spur of Nanda Devi East.
These are not the kind of expeditions that get any press coverage beyond local climbing magazines. But if difficult enough and successful, they can earn the accolades and world-wide respect of the mountaineering community. In 2016 British climbers Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden won a Piolet d’Or (the only climbers ever to have won it three times) for their alpine-style first ascent of the North Face of Gave Ding 6571m in Nepal.
Alpine style explicitly rejects all the elements of a modern Everest ascent - guides, oxygen, Sherpa support, fixed camps, fixed ropes. To quote from the criteria for the Piolet d'Or: “The style should take precedence over the conquest of an objective. Success is no longer about getting to the summit at all costs.” It stands in stark contrast to the kind of adventure being sort out by commercial Everest climbers.
Despite all their first ascents, neither Mick Fowler nor Paul Ramsden fits the climber adventurer mould, the way Jon Gupta does. Mick @MickFowler is a Berghaus-sponsored athlete who uses Twitter and Facebook. Paul doesn't have a sponsor, or a website, or a social media presence. Both men have normal corporate jobs (or had, Mick recently retired).
CROWDFUNDING & CHARITY FUNDRAISING
However, most adventurers are not in the athletic elite. Many are sharing their adventures to raise money for charity (or at least, are using that as their justification). Mollie's fundraising for Cancer Research UK raised only £1,965.17 of her £8,848 target. (At the time of writing.)
A fascinating case-study is British climber Ian Toothill @IanToothill, who did the same route as Mollie at the same time. He received national press coverage as “the first cancer patient to climb Everest”. He was on a commercial Summit Climbs expedition (cost on website £21,350), led by British climber David O'Brien.
His aim was explicitly about raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support but he lost his corporate sponsor early in 2017. He turned to crowdfunding, launching an appeal on Go Fund Me early in February. It got rapid traction, at one point trending as one of top six Go Fund Me sites in the world.
He put £29,100 towards paying for the climb, with the rest of the £35,576 raised going to the charity. On Just Giving he declared a target of £220,000 - and then raised £10,034. What is fascinating about these numbers is that his appeal to raise money to climb Everest to raise money for charity, raised more money than he then managed to raise for the charity. (£29,100 for the climb vs £16,510 for the charity.)
£16,500 is still a significant sum but it is clear that if charity fund-raising is your No. 1 objective, some adventures do better than others. Alex Staniforth @Alex_Staniforth recently completed his Climb the UK challenge - climbing to the highest point of all 100 UK counties in 72 days, using human-powered travel. As an objective, it was low on cost and low on risk, but high on effort and effective as a fundraiser. He was promoting mental health and supporting the Young Minds Trust. He doubled his initial target from £10,000 to £20,000 and had raised £22,023 at time of this post.
Part of his success was that he was travelling in his own country, in a manner that let other people join in for sections of the journey. He could work his social media and stop to promote his cause with local media and solicit money from local business. The adventure also played out over two and a half months, letting momentum build for both publicity and fundraising.
Contrast that with Chaz Powell @CPExpeditions @WalkTheZambezi. In 2016 he attempted to walk the length of the Zambezi river in southern Africa, alone and unaided, to raise money for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. That adventure meets all the criteria of being bold, risky and with uncertain outcomes. The 2016 attempt was cut short when he was advised to quit because of the danger of kidnap or murder in Mozambique. The effort was enough to get him shortlisted for the 2016 European Adventurer of the Year Award. Chaz restarts the walk this month. Despite all the effort involved, his Just Giving page sits at £1,120 (at the time of writing).
INTERNATIONAL MEDIA & RECORDS
Circling back to climbing, assuming you are not doing it as a charity fundraiser, what are the adventures that win both respect by the climbing community and international media attention? Everest had one candidate in 2017 - Kilian Jornet @KilianJ with his two ascents of Everest in one week, done with "no oxygen, no fixed ropes, no assistance". In the process he (probably) set a speed record, going from the North side base camp to the summit in 26 hours. There is some disagreement over how to measure speed records on Everest and a modicum of grumbling about the lack of evidence (no summit photo, no GPS track) but Kilian's known ability and reputation means everyone takes his word for it.
Kilian's approach to sponsorship has been interesting. He has been a Salomon athlete since 2003. His first set of Fastest Known Time (FTK) record-setting adventures was done in a high profile collaboration with Salomon, titled Kilian's Quest. He chose to move on to the Summits of My Life project, a more ambitious mountain FTK & film project done in collaboration with Sebastien Montaz. They eschewed the sponsorship they could undoubtedly have raised, presumably in exchange for the freedom to do it their way without external pressure.
The kind of adventure record set via a (probable) first ascent or (maybe) Everest speed record, or first cancer patient or youngest British woman on Everest, stands in contrast to another endurance record controversy currently playing out in the UK. In 2016 British ultra-runner Amy Hughes @53Marathons set out to break the women's single-week treadmill-miles record, as adjudicated by the Guinness World Records. The record is held by another British runner, Sharon Gayter @SGayter.
Guinness hold 40,000 current records in their database and receive almost 1,000 applications a week. Following the fine print of their standards for proof is crucial if you want to qualify. Amy's record has been turned down for not meeting the witness criteria, with Guinness pointing to "the lack of impartiality of the witness who took the recording of the distance she covered".
There is plenty of publicity around it and a petition of protest in process but it seems unlikely to change the outcome. In short, don't use your boyfriend as your official witness. On the other hand, a lot more people are now aware of Amy and her record run, given that no one disputes that she did the distance.
HITTING THE JACKPOT
Probably the best recent example of the elite level adventure that wins the respect of the niche community but also breaks into the media mainstream, is the 2015 first free ascent of the Dawn Wall in Yosemite, by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. It has been called “arguably the most difficult ascent in the history of rock climbing” while also getting massive media coverage including extensive New York Times coverage (with careful explanations of what 'first free ascent' means). That explosion of media coverage required a very particular set of circumstances. “With cell service throughout their climb and a team of photographers and filmmakers including Corey Rich, Bligh Gillies, and Brett Lowell tagging along, the pair generated a media buzz rarely seen in the climbing world.”
Tommy Cadwell’s autobiography (published this year by Penguin Random House, already a New York Times bestseller) will do well. Nevertheless, despite his world-class climbing achievements, all the book publicity leads with the stories of “how he sawed off his finger” and how he faced killing a man to survive a kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.
If you want to break into the big time in adventure, nothing beats the project where it all goes horribly wrong (but still has a happy ending).
* I was the first woman in the world to climb Everest from both side (neither climb was guided but we did use Sherpa support, and oxygen). I am conscious of the irony of dissing Everest records when my own career as a motivational speaker is built on one, and my book is all about Everest. I am well aware of the power and value of an Everest record. I was a climber long before I joined the 1st South African Everest Expedition and remain one three decades later.