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More Women Mountaineers: Thoughts from Sunny Stroeer

Catching up with our friend and colleague Sunny Stoeer, founder of AWExpeditions and its Summit Scholarship program.

Sunny! Thank you so much for taking the time to “visit” with us. You have so many hats – but for anyone who maybe doesn’t know you, can you introduce yourself? 

Of course! My name is Sunny Stroeer, and I love to push boundaries in the outdoors.  That’s probably the most succinct and all-encompassing way to sum up my bio.

If you’re asking about the nitty gritty behind that statement, here’s the list: I am a record-setting endurance athlete — high altitude ultra distances are my specialty — as well as a rock climber, mountaineer, and all-around adventurer. I am also a recovering strategy consultant; I have an MBA from Harvard Business School and built a career in business for a few years before I quit corporate in 2015 to embrace the wild ride and uncertainty of trying to build a sustainable life in the outdoor adventure realm.  Today, I live in Kanab, Utah, where my husband and I co-own Dreamland Safari Tours. I also founded and manage AWExpeditions, which is an all-female mountaineering organization.

So many threads to follow! But let’s dial in on AWE. What led you to form AWExpeditions? Was there a singular experience that crystallized the concept of for you, or was it something that percolated over time and finally was ready to launch? 

AWE (pronounced /ô/ — just like in awesome) is the manifestation of a lot of things that I am passionate about: the mountains, altitude, pushing hard, building relationships and increasing female participation in the world of outdoor adventure.  I knew that I wanted to find a way to help bring more women into outdoor adventure in general, and the big mountain realm in specific, the moment that I returned from my first solo ascent of Aconcagua in 2014. I had a great climb, but kept having to answer the same silly questions over and over again: “You’re here by yourself?” — “Where’s your boyfriend?” — “Do you not have a guide?” There were several male solo climbers on the mountain at the same time; none of them received those questions. That didn’t sit right with me, and I decided then and there that I didn’t want to just lament these gender dynamics, but do something to change them. That’s how AWE was born.

Speaking from our own experience, we know that launching a whole new thing can be a bumpy ride – what have been some of the highs and lows of the AWE adventure so far? What have you learned, and where is that guiding you as you look to the future? 

Ha. That’s a great question, and an important one. AWE started as a true passion project.  It was never meant to be a profit-focused endeavor since, thanks to Dreamland Safari Tours, I have a “day job” that pays the bills. I don’t draw a salary from AWE; our Director of Operations and Strategy DeLacy also works pro bono. In the past that has allowed us to price AWE trips in such a way that they’re as affordable as possible; any money left over from our trips gets invested into the Summit Scholarship program and into opening up more destinations.

Now that AWE is growing, every unpaid hour that I spend on AWE takes away from my responsibilities at Dreamland; at the same time there is more and more work to be done to develop our programs and achieve what we want to do — which is to get more women into the big mountain realm. Because of that, I know that AWE’s scrappy ‘no margin’ volunteer approach has to change. In order for us to have a bigger impact and touch more women’s lives, AWE has to be running on a financially sustainable model which inevitably means higher prices for our guests. It’s been a real mental struggle for me to emotionally accept what I’ve rationally known for years.

On the bright side — the two unquestionable highs of running AWE have been the Summit Scholarship program, which I’ll talk more about below, and spending time with AWE climbers on the trail and on the mountain.  Seeing unlikely friendships and deep emotional bonds develop forged by an extreme environment… that’s magical.  I regularly find myself going back to look at what AWE climbers wrote after coming back down from a mountain, like this post from Andrea Lane Jacobs after three weeks on Aconcagua with AWE.

‘Something happened up there, a change, a shift. An unshakeable confidence in my identity and capabilities was born. A weight was lifted. I let loose of my grasp on doubt, anxiety of what is to come, fear of breaking down and not being able to come through for myself. A stripping down and paring away is happening. There is less unnecessary noise. Peace is drowning out the words of doubt that I would have told myself before.’ 

Witnessing these profound experiences amongst AWE climbers reminds me that spending time up there in the mountains isn’t just luxury – it profoundly impacts the lives of those who are lucky enough to have the opportunity to put themselves into such environments. That’s exactly why AWE exists.

We’re so proud that The Cairn Project is able to partner with you on the Summit Scholarship program. Why is this part of what you’re building with AWE? How would you characterize the need you’re serving with that opportunity? 

I am tremendously grateful for The Cairn Projects ongoing support for the Summit Scholarship – it’s an amazing program that is at the heart of all that AWE stands for: breaking down barriers and increasing access to the mountains for women from all walks of life. It all started in 2019 with a single scholarship to Nepaland — with the Cairn Project’s help — has grown from there to 4x $5000 Kilimanjaro scholarships in 2020 and, COVID notwithstanding, 3x $2500 US-based glacier school scholarships in 2021. In 2022, the Summit Scholarship program will be in its 4th year, and we hope to once again be able to create multiple stipends for women to join an AWE climb at no charge.

The reason for the Summit Scholarship program is simple: spending time on big mountains, just like many other types of immersive outdoor adventure, is transformative — but it is also expensive and typically a privilege of the affluent.  Marisa, one of our 2021 Summit Scholarship recipients, said it best: “If — as I was — you’re homeless, working a minimum-wage job, managing your mental illnesses while lacking social and community support, you’re not going to say, ‘Tomorrow on my one day off I’m going to go train on this mountain.’ That just doesn’t make sense.”

My hope is that the Summit Scholarship program can be a catalyst for those women to experience the mountains who typically wouldn’t be in a position to afford an adventure like this. But it also goes beyond that — it’s not just about the handful of women who are awarded the Summit Scholarship stipend in any given year.  It’s also about the hundreds of women who apply – because having a program like the Summit Scholarship gives all of us permission to dream big. It’s someone whispering in your ear: “What if money were no object…” and daring you to imagine yourself doing something beyond what you think is possible.  THAT’s the power of the Summit Scholarship program.

And based on your experience to date, what’s the impact of the Summit Scholarship program? Can you share a story or anecdote that brings the program to life? 

Yes I can! Let’s start with the numbers though:

  • More than a thousand women from fifty different countries who applied since the inception of the program, ranging in age from 18 (our minimum age requirement) to 65
  • 8 scholarships that have been awarded totalling $32,500 in expedition fees, travel stipends and mountaineering gear
  • Four different trips that have been eligible for scholarships so far: Island Peak (Everest Region), Kilimanjaro, Mount Shasta Glacier School and Komo Kulshan (Mount Baker) Glacier School

From an emotional perspective, I firmly believe that the Summit Scholarship has transformative power not just for the scholarship recipients, but for all the applicants — which is evidenced by the many thank you notes and comments that AWE receives even from women who weren’t awarded a stipend, talking about how cathartic writing the application essay had been.

For me, personally, the scholarship program also carries tremendous emotional meaning: year after year, reading all the deeply personal and moving applications affirms my commitment to AWE.  It’s what reminds me why growing AWE is important: so that we can help provide an environment for more women to chase their big mountain dreams and to experience the life-changing energy that the mountains hold ready for us.

Let’s take the next question back to you: what new place are you most excited to explore once the pandemic wanes and travel restrictions are lifted? 

Mmmh, new places… I am really excited about going back to Alaska for the Iditarod Trail Invitational in March, though I guess that doesn’t count as a new place for me.  We do have some new destinations for AWE on the calendar in 2022, specifically Peru and Russia, and I’m really looking forward to both of those!

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Sunny Stroeer
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Sunny Stroeer loves to push boundaries in the outdoors.