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Ben Stookesberry Looks Back on Five Years of First Ascent
Posted on November 18, 2014

Ben Stookesberry in the Rwenzori Mountains photo: Chris Korbulic

Named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2007, Ben Stookesberry has run some of the world’s most remote rivers, from Bhutan and Brazil to Greenland and Africa. His personal tally tops 60 first descents for rivers, sections of rivers and waterfalls, but it’s the geographic remoteness of his explorations that have notched him an impressive resume in the world of global adventure. Ben has been part of the First Ascent effort since the early days and his expedition drive has made him an ideal candidate for putting our expedition gear to the ultimate test. He’s also an aspiring filmmaker with award-winning festival films Kadoma and Walled In to his credit, as well as an upcoming cinematic saga that will chronicle their Destination Torngat epic to the remote reached of Northern Labrador. As part of our Five Years of First Ascent celebration sat down with him to get his take on the significance of First Ascent hitting the five year mark and perspective on the Guide Built process. —LYA Editor

Ben and Chris en route to the Iso Gorge on Papua New Guinea's New Britain Island

What drew you to First Ascent? 

As a kid I grew up in a pretty suburban environment, with this view of the Rockies — this little jagged ridgeline out in the horizon. I always wanted to get to the mountains. I always wanted to get to the rivers. And so the brand, that makes casual and outdoors clothing, always appeal to me.

After becoming a kayaker and hearing that Eddie Bauer was trying to get back to its roots, which was really founded in those first American attempts up Everest, I was intrigued. I wanted to get onboard with a company that has such a rich history in American alpinism and outdoor adventure. And that they were so attracted to our expedition kayaking was cool to me. That they wanted their outdoor gear to be functional for so many different adventures was also very appealing. I think the brand was probably six or eight months old when the kayakers came on. We’ve been with Eddie Bauer almost since the inception of the First Ascent line.

When you got involved with the brand, did you think you’d be doing as much product testing and product development as you have? 

I’ve been involved with other kayak-specific brands – Jackson Kayak – and we definitely give a lot of feedback. But the whole structural set up of the Guide Built process that Eddie Bauer uses is pretty awesome, in terms of the technical side of it. We all give our input to one website called Base Camp. It then gets organized and spread out to Eddie Bauer’s amazing design team.

I feel like our feedback has a very significant impact on the gear itself, which is hard to do because of the person-to-person filter. With the infrastructure that we have with Eddie Bauer and the connectivity that’s available because of the technology, we can give our feedback from the other side of the world and it gets back to Seattle in a heartbeat. It’s significant and you can see it reflected in the product when it actually hits the floor of the stores. It’s definitely exceeded my expectations in terms of the amount of input that I’ve been able to give to the product line.

When you got involved, what did you expect out of the brand? Was there anything surprising to you about what it became? 

Initially, when I became a part of the Eddie Bauer brand, I understood that it was a large company. It’s a corporation, and there are expectations that come with that. The thing that was so surprising to me was that it’s more like a family than this huge company. I know the CEO on a first-name basis. I know all the designers and I’ve become friends with the ski team, some of the climbers, and the people in marketing and IT. So it’s a really cool group of individuals. It’s interesting that everybody, from the folks who work in headquarters all the way out to those testing and utilizing the product, seem to have a pretty similar ethos. It’s surprising that what seems like a corporate culture is a really cool group of people that I would consider friends, as opposed to bosses or co-workers, whatever the case may be.

Ben Stookesberry on the expedition feedback loop

What do you think the cross pollination of these great alpine climbers, rock climbers, and fly-fishing guys brings to the brand? 

Sitting at the table with a whole range of different athletes and personalities, from legends of ski, like the Crist brothers, to some relatively unknown backcountry split boarders and crazy dirt-bag climbers, to some of the most well known alpinists on earth like Ed Viesturs, there are just so many different personalities and certainly ages involved there. So you get a whole host of different ideas and really pertinent ideas about how the product should function, look, and, at the end of the day, cut out the superfluous stuff that the customer won’t need. Through all of our different experiences, the input comes together into a product that represents a whole range of ethos. From a legendary 50-year-old climber, all the way down to a 20-year-old jibber skier, you come out with this product that functionally and stylistically is right on the money. So I think that it’s a great team and a great group of individuals.

Did you ever think that First Ascent would have such a big influence on Eddie Bauer when you got involved? 

Yeah, that was pretty impressive because the time that we live in right now is day to day. Brands come and brands go. But Eddie Bauer has been this sort of stalwart thing that has survived the collapse of so many of its other contemporaries. Just over the course of five years of this First Ascent brand, of this rebirth of the really adventurous, technical side the Eddie Bauer line, it’s been pretty amazing to see how much of an influence it’s had on the rest of the brand. It’s pulled the brand from the casual side of things, from bed sheets and bath mats, all the way back to the mountains and the rivers. And for that to happen in such a short period of time really speaks to where the brand originally was and where it’s going — and that’s really exciting to see.

Which adventure do you consider the biggest of the past year?

I’d say one of the biggest adventures from this past year was my first trip to the Khumbu Region of Nepal. I was lucky enough to go there with Melissa Arnot, Everest climber. While her focus was Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, mine was the river that was literally flowing off the top of Everest into the Dudh Kosi. Going into that river we realized that the river is famous because thousands of trekkers go there every year to go to Everest Base Camp, but a huge portion of the river had never been attempted by kayak.

That really turned into one of the most epic missions of this whole year, and it was one of those missions where it was so unexpected because from what I had heard about the river, it had already been done before. It had been done in rafts, it was done in 1976 in fiberglass kayaks, so I had expected a river that was doable, that had already been done, already been seen. And what I found was a huge section, a huge canyon that had never been attempted before. What originally started as somewhat of a normal mission, turned into the most epic expedition of the year.

Culturally, what was so unique about the experience for you?

In the Dudh Kosi, it was just my Nepali counterpart, Surjan Tamang, and me. So we had access to tiny villages and places that I might have been able to go to, but I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with the people without him. It was an amazing experience to go into these villages and find the people were so excited that there was this Nepali doing the first exploration of the canyon. So he gave us access to all the stories about what the people do to survive on a daily basis. We talked to some of the Sherpas that made a living off going up Everest, and basically figured out this canyon based on a lot of the intel that we’d gotten from the villages – where the trails were, where the access was to these vertical wall gorges. The trip would not have been possible without having a local right alongside me. And then, on top of that, being able to laugh and share our stories and hear the stories from the villagers was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

Were you surprised at the levels to which your Nepali counterpart was kayaking?

Yeah, absolutely. I was very surprised at how good a kayaker Surjan was and how well trained he was. I had an idea that he would be fairly good because we had been told that he was the only Nepali kayaker that had ever attended the World Class Kayak Academy, which is a kayaking prep school.

Kayaking is the center point of this traveling school and they complete their studies around it. So we knew that he had been trained by some of the best kayakers in the United States. But to see his skills and how good of shape he was in…

Chris and I have the record for doing something called the Middle Kings in a day, which is 12 miles of hiking and 40 miles of kayaking in a single day. We did it in 17 hours. So we consider ourselves to be some of the most in-shape kayakers around. Surjan, literally, would just blow our doors off on some of these treks into the rivers.

So it was a pretty humbling and pretty cool experience to see this Nepali kayaker push us in that sense.

Tell us about the avalanche that you experienced when you were up there.

One of the rivers that Surjan and the Nepal Kayak Club had recommended for us to do was called the Seti River. It’s a river that comes out of the Annapurna range, from 8,000-meter peaks, and right through the second largest city in Nepal, called Pokhara. Two years ago, there had been an apocalyptic flood because of a GLOF, which is a glacial lake outburst flood. It happens when there’s a lake that forms on top of a glacier. All of a sudden the glacier gets away and a huge, 100- or 200-foot wall of water comes rushing down the river. Unfortunately something like 250-300 people lost their lives over those several hours when the river was more mud and trees than it was actually water.

And what happened was that the flood was so powerful that it literally changed the course of the river. It completely changed the whole canyon section of the river. We were the first group of kayakers to go back in and the river was totally different from the bay that we had had before. It was like a complete first ascent.

We had that in the back of our minds. Boating in the Himalayas, you know that those sorts of catastrophic events can happen at any moment. They’re more likely to happen in the summer than they are in the winter, but it really doesn’t matter. They could happen at any time.

When we were in the Modi, one drainage over, there was this amazing 5,000- or 4,000-meter face of mountain right in front of us. The mountain was like an 8,000-meter peak and it was just this huge face of snow. On day three we’re boating down the river and I’m shooting an interview with Pedro. All of a sudden, his whole face goes deadpan. Eventually he says, “Oh, my God, look at that!” And I turn around and there’s this massive avalanche, coming right down on top of us. You know, it’s five miles away, but we’re all wondering: is it going to come rushing down the canyon? It is a huge snow and ice avalanche coming down a face that’s taller than any mountain in the continental United States.

For those first few minutes, I was really afraid that there was going to be a rush of water or rock or snow blasting down through the canyon. But, slowly, as we got our wits about us, we realized that it’s five miles away. It’s not going to do anything but it’s just something that you could never see anywhere else — especially with the size of the face of that mountain. There are no other mountains on earth that are that large.

I felt really lucky to actually be able to see that in person and to not be in too much of harm’s way. It goes to show that these environments that we go into, especially in the Himalayas, are so untamed, so wild, and so unpredictable that it just becomes a part of the equation. It’s something that you sign up for. There are definitely ways that we mitigate the risk for those rivers, like going in the wintertime and going when it’s low water, but we also know, at the same time, there’s this massive force of nature.

Do you have a mission picked out to go back and run a different river?

Yeah, absolutely. The Nepal Kayak Club has opened so many doors to this amazing portion of the Himalayas, the highest portion of the Himalayas. Our experience in the Annapurna region and then with Surjan down the Dudh Kosi from the Khumbu were just two spots on a map and this is a pretty vast region of the Himalayas. So I want to go back as soon as possible.

There’s a region called the Dolpo Region that gets more and more remote as you get closer to the border with China and towards India and then on the opposite side when you get closer to the other border with China and the other border with India, on the Sikkim side. There are so many different rivers that make it a place that’s worth going back to. The access is getting a little bit better and it even allows us to get into places that you probably couldn’t have even gotten into 20 years ago. We’re already thinking about our next trip.

Ben Stookesberry Bio

Five years ago we had a mission: draw on our brand’s heritage of technical innovation and alpine exploration to launch Eddie Bauer First Ascent and set a new standard for gear in the alpine realm. Five years after First Ascent launched, our record speaks volumes: 13 industry best-in-class awards, 53 pioneering testing expeditions, and a series of innovative technical gear that has enabled personal adventures, big and small, around the globe. For the month of November we’ll be profiling the First Ascent effort on Instagram, on the Live Your Adventure blog, at eddiebauer.com and with our YouTube playlist. Check back daily for guide-built, expedition tested and award winning product stories behind the making of First Ascent.

Author: - Tuesday, November 18th, 2014
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  1. Guillaume

    I purchased my first First Ascent product last year but it seems this great line is going downhill.

    My first product was an Emperor parka. It was super warm and bombproof but a couple manufacturing qualities made me returning it. I would have exchanged it for a new one but it’s discontinued already though I think it was released in 2012.

    I replaced it with the BC Microtherm StormDown which I’m not happy with at all despite the awesome fit and light weight. It’s lacking pockets and the 800 fill is grossly over-rated. I will be returning it as well and try the BC Downlight instead, which is not as nice looking but seems more insulated.

    Then I see other great products also already being discontinued such as the

    – Peak XV,
    – Downline jacket
    – Bomshell jacket

    and others. As as great as the First Ascent line is, since last year consumers have been wondering if EB is dropping it slowly.

  2. John Trousdale

    Hi Guillame. Thanks for the thoughtful question. First Ascent is alive and well with no plans of being dropped. Sorry to hear some of your favorite products are no longer available. As we celebrate First Ascent’s fifth birthday, we continue to develop, refine and test gear, and will continue to release innovative products for the next five years and beyond.

  3. Rob L.

    Glad to hear the First Ascent line will be staying! I’ve just ordered a Katabatic tent and can’t wait to get it. The footprint doesn’t seem to be available anymore though. One of the products I miss the most are the original base layers released during I believe the 1st year, especially the the tops with the thumb holes. I have 3 bottoms and 4 tops and they are still going strong.

  4. Matt

    Question for Eddie Bauer:

    The Men’s Peak XV jacket has been out of stock and I’ve been waiting for the site to stock up more. Is that ever going to happen or has it been discontinued? It was one of the only super warm, down style, but also water proof/resistant jacket out there. It’s already January and has been getting colder. Can you please get more in soon!

  5. Eddie Bauer Social Media Team

    Hey Matt. We’re checking on availability and will let you know as soon as we have more info.

  6. Eddie Bauer Social Media Team

    Just heard back. No more Peak XV this winter, but we’ll get more for climbing season (late Spring). Thanks.

  7. John Lynch

    Regarding First Ascent Uprising Jeans. I purchased several pairs of these pants years ago which were far and away the most comfortable jeans I’ve ever worn; the gusseted crotch was awesome. However, this product has been missing from Eddie Bauer for years … I need these jeans back in stock. I have been trying similar styles from other manufactures and none match the fit and comfort of the uprising jeans. Please get these back in stock!!!


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