AAC Unveils Awards, Major Initiatives

Royal Robbins. Photo by John Scurlock

3/3/11 - The 109-year-old American Alpine Club held its annual meeting and benefit dinner in Seattle last weekend, and along with the usual awards and presentations, the club announced sweeping changes to its direction for the coming years.

A sold-out crowd of 400-plus gathered Saturday night for the awards ceremony, fund-raiser, and a compelling conversation “On Commitment” between Dr. Tom Hornbein and Steve House. The energy level at the weekend-long event was palpable, and paddle-able—during a raise-your-paddle fund-raising event on Saturday, about $200,000 was pledged to support the club’s mission, including a $50,000 match offered by several longtime members.

Awards were presented to a wide range of individuals, young and old. Fred Beckey, 88, received the Robert and Miriam Underhill Award for Outstanding Climbing Achievement. Accepting the award, Beckey said that in his view he should have received the “Bad Housekeeping Award” for knocking over the oatmeal while tent-bound below Devils Thumb with Robert Craig, recipient of the club’s Angelo Heilprin Citation for Exemplary Service to the AAC. Hayden Kennedy, 21, the son of longtime Climbing editor Michael Kennedy, received the Robert Hicks Bates Award, for Outstanding Accomplishment by a Young Climber. Royal Robbins and Tom Frost also received recognition, for literary achievement and mountain conservation, respectively.

Wrapping up the evening, Dr Tom Hornbein, who with Willi Unsoeld made the first ascent of the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1963, and Steve House, who with Vince Anderson climbed the direct Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in 2005, two of the last century’s most impressive alpine achievements, shared the stage to talk about commitment in climbing. Said Hornbein, “Justifiable risk is when you come back alive.”

Tom Hornbein and Fred Beckey. Photo by John Scurlock

Tom Hornbein and Fred Beckey. Photo by John Scurlock

The 8,500-member AAC, whose not-so-distant-past membership process included mandatory sponsorship by at least two existing members and the submission of one's climbing resume, has engaged in an extensive self- examination over the past two years, involving thousands of interviews with both members and non-members. The result is a new five-year strategic plan, ratified by the board of directors on Friday, February 25. Though many details are still to be finalized, the gist is that the club has decided that it needs to devote far more of its efforts to the support and development of localized, community resources.

As Executive Director Phil Powers put it, “Let's face it, climbing at its best, is really a local thing. Your crags, gyms, partners, watering holes are all local. And if the AAC isn't there too, we just won't be relevant.”

While in the past, the AAC has operated with more of a top-down, national perspective, the organization now has adopted a bottoms-up approach. In Seattle, the club announced that it had retained Washington native and climber Eddie Espinosa as the first of several dispersed employees to take on regional volunteer support and club promotion. Community Programs Director Deanne Buck said of the club’s new focus on local support, "Anything that helps members grow in their identity as climbers, that’s what we want to do."

The AAC will increase its advocacy for pro-climbing land management policies and support domestic and international conservation-oriented projects. The club also plans to enhance its rescue-services program. In addition, Information and Marketing Director Erik Lambert has begun a major project to collect all of the AAC’s information resources, from the American Alpine Journal to the thousands of volumes in the club’s library in Golden, Colorado, into one centralized, searchable, and downloadable online database. Said Lambert, "In the coming years, these assets will be available to the world online in a single searchable database, changing the way that climbers research, plan, and get inspired."

Date of event: February 2011