You might call Alex Honnold a simple man, a purist. He just wants to climb. The less gear, the better. Give him a pair of La Sportiva shoes and lightweight pants from The North Face, and he’ll scale El Capitan — any chalk bag slung around his waist will do.
But now that he’s taking on one alpine climb per year, Honnold has had to adjust to new territory. “It’s not just the cold,” he says. “There’s just a lot of self-care that needs to be done — sunscreen, sunglasses, layers, making sure you don’t get wet, making sure you don’t freeze. It’s a lot to think about all the time.”
So who better to be his partner in Alaska’s mammoth Ruth Gorge than complex climber-cum-artist/filmmaker Renan Ozturk. Known for taking on such challenges as the first ascent of the 20,700-foot Mount Meru with Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin only five months after a near-fatal ski accident, Ozturk is used to wielding pounds of mountaineering equipment on snowy terrain with his RED camera and paintbrushes in tow. He’s a man who knows frostbite, knows the importance of the right gear and is certainly not a purist.
The Ruth Gorge in Denali National Park rivals the expanse of the Grand Canyon with walls protruding some 5,000 feet from the glacier and extending nearly 4,000 feet below the ice. The duo, along with alpinist Freddie Wilkinson, set out on Honnold’s first alpine mission to Alaska in 2013: attempting to ascend the Wine Bottle Tower (“a really beautiful line,” says Ozturk) on the eastern face of Mount Dickey, a 5,250-foot wall of granite, the longest free climb in North America, sent only once before as an aid climb in 1988.
“You are always limited by nature.”
“The trip in 2013 was a full fish-out-of-water experience for Alex — he learned how to put on his crampons,” says Ozturk. “That environment, to him, was bigger and more serious than other places he’s gone.” They scaled about 15 percent of the route before having to turn back due to poor conditions. After that failed ascent four years ago, the intention was to return in 2017 and be the first to traverse the line without aid. Honnold spent time honing his skills in Patagonia in between. But climbing in this environment is entirely unpredictable. “We experienced a lot of bad weather,” Ozturk says. “When we went back this year the planes couldn’t land where they normally do because of —– call it climate change, call it bad melting conditions —– and we had to schlep our gear, hundreds of pounds, five miles down-glacier to build camp.”
They spent two weeks living in The North Face’s 2-Meter Dome tent watching avalanches barrel down the mountain. “Knowing how much more serious and unpredictable things can be in the bigger mountains like that, it comes to following your gut. There actually is a chance of you dying, and you have to wait for the right conditions — mental, as well as physical, conditions,” Ozturk says.
“You are always limited by nature,” adds Honnold.
While their ultimate goal on Mount Dickey, one Ozturk dreamt of for a decade, wasn’t met, the team still managed to do some climbing outside of the soul-searching done inside their bright yellow tent. Outfitted in the latest iteration of The North Face’s high-performing Summit Series, they tested the new line and got feedback to the brand’s product team, who had set up camp nearby on the glacier.
“As far as getting product out to our athletes, we pick a handful during our prototyping process and we’ll order additional prototypes in their sizes so we can get early feedback in order to affect the actual product that comes out to consumers,” says Shelby Collins, product manager for mountain sports at The North Face. “Then, there are other expeditions that come along the way and we’ll try to outfit them completely so that we can get some great feedback.”
While Ozturk calls Honnold “one of the boldest, most capable climbers in the world,” he’s still a relative novice in alpine climates. Which is another reason why he may be the perfect sidekick to a more experienced cold-weather climber like Ozturk: two opposite ends of the spectrum for product specialists to see how their gear handles in the field.
When designing gear, The North Face often has a particular peak and an application in mind. But athletes still favor certain styles, and the brand can’t predict how someone —- professional athlete or not —– might use a product in practice; it’s entirely outside of their control. For example, while the more seasoned Ozturk is sensibly partial to a durable, featherweight puffer, in Alaska, Honnold chose to put on an ultralight emergency rain shell while scaling a sandpaper-like granite wall. “Alex was definitely using it in a super aggressive way, so we had a lot of learning about that piece,” says Collins. “It was not at all built for the application that I used it in,” Honnold says. “It was shredded like a tiger. But that’s kind of the nature of being a beginner.”
“It definitely happens that some of the stuff we put on our athletes will fail,” says Collins. “But that’s how we learn to make better products.” That jacket might not have been designed to be chewed on by coarse granite, but The North Face product team is always pushing to achieve the perfect balance between lightweight and durable product — to meet the needs of both the rookie and the veteran. Sending athletes into unpredictable landscapes to test and abuse their gear is part of the process.
“Using them as a collective, it’s important for us to develop a product that suits all of our climbing and mountaineering athletes,” says Collins. “And of course, it’s important to keep in mind the consumer that may not fall within the athlete or guide category –– there are a lot of hardcore people out there getting after it.”