Big Walls to Big Boxes: The Ill-Fated History of A5 Adventures


Long before ‘trail sneakers’ and #GORPCORE, there existed a brand so core, so rooted in climbing and outdoor culture, that Jerry and the Dead jammed along at its launch party 1968. What began as a retail experience catering to Northern California’s big wall climbers expanded into a multinational brand synonymous with the world’s most extreme athletes, expeditions, and captivating subcultures. Though The North Face may not be the go-to logo supplier for your favorite Instagram moodboard, the brand revolutionized the outdoor industry by establishing a steady demand for premium gear from the lifestyle consumer
 
Despite its rocky corporate history and its dedication to the bottom line (as the brand is a fully owned subsidiary of VF Corp), The North Face has always maintained its dedication to servicing those on the cutting edge of action and adventure sports. This adherence to its roots has led to the creation of the brand’s most coveted and iconic items and labels. Steep Tech jackets for freeski pioneer Scott Schmidt and GeoDome tents for ultralight backpackers pushed the design standards of the outdoor industry long before becoming co-opted by Method Man’s blunt rollers and SoHo interior designers.
 
Scott Schmidt in Fernie, BC. Source: Island Lake Lodge
 
North Face A5 'On the Rocks' Shirt. Available Now.
 
 
In 1998, The North Face acquired A5 Adventures, a small climbing company hailing from Flagstaff, Arizona. A5 was founded by world renowned big wall climber and Stanford engineer John Middendorf (a mountaineer worthy of a stand-alone feature). What began with a hammer grew steadily into a fully developed line of innovative and awarding winning portaledges capable of withstanding the relentless weather conditions of Asia’s high mountain ranges. The portaledges captivated both the climbing and design worlds, accompanying Middendorf and Xaver Bongard in the first ascent of Pakistan’s Great Trango tower in 1992 and gracing the pages of Italian design magazine Abitare.
 
1996 Catalogue Cover. Source: A5
 
A5 Two Person 'Double' Portaledge. Source: BigWalls.net 
 
 
Naturally, A5’s technical innovation drew interest from The North Face, leading to the acquisition of Middendorf’s brand and its assets. Unfortunately, it would ultimately be the death of the label. Prior to and after the acquisition, The North Face was seemingly on the cusp of a corporate freefall. The company went public in 1996, experiencing a multitude of logistical and executive issues in the years following. Keeping aligned with their famous ‘Never Stop Exploring’ slogan, the brand tapped into ‘alternative methods’ of pleasing shareholders; falsifying financial information that would ultimately lead investors to sue, chaotically halting trading on the NASDAQ and triggering a response from the SEC. The North Face was soon purchased in entirety by VF Corp, and the A5 line was put to rest during the restructure. John Middendorf continued to direct the A5 line for two years after the acquisition, ultimately leaving the brand behind. 
 
Original A5 Outfitters Artwork Source: BigWalls.net 
 
North Face A5 Climbing Pants. Available Now.
 
 
The A5 brand remained dormant until 2006, when The North Face relaunched the label as an ‘Mountain Lifestyle’ apparel line. Reinforced cotton pants, cargos, graphic tees, hoodies, hats, and plaid button-ups soon found their way into outdoor and sporting retailers across the globe. Though the pieces themselves didn’t challenge the wardrobe of the average REI consumer, A5’s simplicity and attention to detail garnered the attention of consumers looking for understated garments capable of adventure. Most notable, the line featured a series of track jackets dawning the names, elevations, and (respective) flags of the Seven Summits.
 
 A5 Television Commercial
 
A5 Mt. Everest Track Jacket
 
What ceased to return under the A5 label was what cemented the brand’s legend in the first place: the portaledges. In 2001, during the VF rebuild, legendary climber, North Face athlete, and certified bag chaser Conrad Anker purchased the portaledge designs under his own company, Anker Climbing Equipment, producing the product until 2005, when Black Diamond purchased the entity. The A5 sub label was short-lived as well, with The North Face discontinuing the line shortly after its inception. In 2012, John Middendorf filed a trademark for the logo, only for it to be abandoned shortly after.
 
D4 Designs Portal Ledge Sketch via John Middendorf. Source: Common Climber 
 
Though it is unlikely the consumer market will see A5 again, John Middendorf continues to evolve the portaledge through his new venture, D4 BigWallGear. Ultimately, The North Face failed to capitalize upon the heritage of the brand, opting for a short-lived sublabel that failed to tell its story. The story of A5 is one that helps us understand the last 20 years of The North Face. Though the brand continues to fund the world’s top athletes and adventurers, it has done so under the pretense of generating shareholder value. The North Face’s roots in climbing, mountaineering, and skiing have taken on a new life as material used by marketers to sell backpacks come back to school season.