2012 American Alpine Club Benefit Dinner

Posted on: March 15, 2012

The remains of the 2012 American Alpine Club Benefit Dinner. [Photo] Keese Lane

Beards and Bow Ties

"Do I hear $3,000. $3,000. $3,500. $3,500. Yes, $3,500." Empty wine glasses covered the table as I watched an ice axe sell for the same amount as the combined price of my first, second and current Saab 900. My eyes met those of Alpinist's Assistant Editor, and we both raised our eyebrows. We were seated in the back of Boston's Seaport Hotel conference room watching the bidding frenzy of the American Alpine Club's Annual Benefit Dinner. White haired men raised their fingers and numbered cards to bid on art, travel and collectors' items. We were a long way from the mountains, dressed not in Gore-Tex but in black suits and dresses. I took my scotch and slipped from the dining room. In the hallway mingled a handful of climbers and reps whose tans and partially trimmed facial hair contrasted with their pressed suits. Everyone seemed to be eyeing the others, observing their duds and comparing who pulled off the hoitey-toitey look best. Their usual canned domestic beer replaced with wine and scotch. The division at the event was clear. Inside the ballroom were the people who could call this event home, those who had $4,000 to bid on a painting of an ice climber. Laughing in the hallway were industry people, climbers, media, reps for various manufacturers—most faking the ease with which they wore their black ties. Missing from the event were my partners: the men and women who climb everyday and don't have a media pass to get them past the $125 plate fee.


"At either end of the socioeconomic spectrum there is a leisure class." - Eric Beck

Abruzzi was a duke. Cassin was a steel worker. Perry-Smith came from family money. Heckmair was a gardener. The climbing community has always spanned the gap between those with the independent wealth to travel and climb, and those who have forsaken everything else for the mountains. I cannot claim to be as destitute as Heckmair or as dedicated as Cassin, but I always felt some jealousy for my partners' racks of shiny new cams and wiregates. My gear came off the consignment rack of the local gear exchange. The AAC Benefit Dinner was the territory of the higher end leisure class and a strange window into a society many of us at the other end of the spectrum barely understand or know about. Still it was exciting to jump the old boundaries and mingle before dinner with club members from across the spectrum.

Representatives of the climbing media on their way to the AAC Dinner. [Photo] Keese Lane

Go West Old Man

For almost a century the AAC was branded as an elitist organization, and it was one. Prospective members had to be nominated and their climbing resumes and cover letters approved in order to gain admittance into the exclusive club. As climbers basked in Camp Four during the Yosemite glory days, the AAC maintained their physical presence in New York City. However, since the reign of Club Presidents Jim McCarthy and Glenn Porzak, the AAC has been taking the advice of Horace Greeley and moving West, to Colorado, trying to appeal to younger and more diverse members of the community. In the late '80s and early '90s the Club began to slowly shift directions— away from its past as an old boy's network of a few thousand individuals, towards a truly national climbing association. Creating and then spinning off the Access Fund as well as playing a role in the creation of sport climbing competitions in the US, the Club embraced the greater climbing community. Now the AAC is a year into its Five Year Plan. Membership in the AAC has reached record levels and, with initiatives like the Live Your Dreams Grant and the Sport Climbing Award, the Club is making an effort to appeal to a younger and less elite audience.

Items in the silent auction at the Dinner. [Photo] Keese Lane


Despite their efforts, I cannot help but hear an echoing "but" hanging over the new movement. As the AAC held to its elite role and reviewed applicant's resumes the Vulgarians of the East climbed naked and carried kegs up Cannon while a certain Western secret society may or may not have dynamited a bridge to keep its clubhouse undisturbed. Now the AAC is seeking to fill the role it neglected as a club for climbers of all grades and styles. But other local and national organizations have closed the gaps left by the AAC, providing education, community and resource protection to climbers regardless of their credentials. When the self-addressed envelopes appear in my mailbox from Crag VT, SWMCC, the Access Fund, the AAC and Friends of Hyalite, I will feel the need to give back to the organizations that made me the climber I am today. But I doubt I will be sending back checks to every one of these organizations.

Standing in the hallway, I accepted the offer of bourbon from a representative of a gear manufacturer and chatted with a casually dressed Kurt Diemberger and a very fashionable local hardman. Word spread that the bidding frenzy had ceased and Mark Richey, Steve Swenson and Freddie Wilkinson took the stage to talk about Saser Khangri II. Refilling our tumblers, we headed back into the dark room.

Presidential Climbings

I listened to them share their Saser Khangri II experience and was struck by how much they'd devoted themselves to climbing and alpinism, a strange contrast to the auction. Watching video footage of Swenson hacking chunks of God-knows-what from his lungs in a cramped tent above an audience with gold watches and pearls was by far the most unique part of the night. The Dinner was one of the most unique gatherings I have ever witnessed in the climbing community, and the only one I've attended wearing a bow tie. Two weeks after the event, I am still impressed with the balancing act performed by a club simultaneously attracting the elite of Boston and courting the dirtbags of the climbing community.

Where ALL Climbers Unite

One year into its Five Year Plan, the AAC is attempting to place itself at the center of a more broadly defined American climbing world. Still heavily funded by the elites, the Club's century of Eastern privilege was very clear at the Boston fundraising dinner. But Mark Richey, and Steve Swenson, both past presidents of the Club, have truly lived the climbing life. And with the formation of the regional coordinator positions, Live Your Dreams Grant and John L. Horn Memorial Sport Climbing Award, the AAC is backing its lofty plans with cash and manpower committed to aspects of the sport it has long neglected. The big question seems to be how the Club will manage and integrate with the climbing organizations that grew prior to the AAC's interest in the average climber.

I hope that next year, as I sip a free drink and watch an autographed piece of gear sell for more than the value of my rack, I can share a raised eyebrow and comfortable evening with my partners— the ones who crush moderate routes and scare themselves on the old classics.

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At the time I wrote this piece I drove a '92 Saab 900. That's not my car.

2014-09-09 12:06:52

There is nothing 'ballsy' about this article - it is simply passive-aggressive and neurotic. The oh-so-humble reporter's wagon displays material wealth and recreational opportunities that are unimaginable in most of the world. The author owes all of the AAC - not just the attendees of the dinner - an apology for this divisive, hypocritical drivel.

2012-03-21 20:48:14

Seems to me that Keese reported honestly on his perspective from the AAC dinner. And, in contrast to some of the comments below, I fail to see what is wrong with that. He has no obligation to do some unflinchingly uncritical press-release-style bullshit love-in piece. (I, for one, have little use for that sort of crap.) So he noted some of the things that seemed awkward to him. Those very things would certainly seem awkward to a great portion of the *active* climbing population. That’s fine. And — not "but," and — the AAC dinner raises a lot of money. Great. Keese noted many, many positives as well.

The selective reading of some of the commenters below is astounding, seemingly wishing for only praise about the event, with no questions asked, no honest observations made. Such a mindset bears similarities, ironically, to the club’s old provincial ways that, fortunately, they are working hard to change.

Congrats to the club for trying to change, and congrats to Keese for having the balls to write an honest piece. Plus, it was fun to read – unless it evoked something defensive for you. But I liked it.

2012-03-18 06:29:20

keese, dude, exactly what were you expecting? All annual dinners and fundraising benefits are events where an organization's members and guests can recognize and celebrate the achievements of their members, staff and organization, as well as raise money to facilitate their missions. If you can afford it, bidding up on some auction item is just more fun than sending a donation in an envelope...and you get something cool for it. Vitually all the old grey haired folks in ties that you are so dismissive of probably had a dirtbag phase in their earlier lives—but many became successful enough to be able to give back to an organization that does so much for the climbing community. Maybe one day you and your friends will be in that position too—-and you'll look back on your column with embarassment, because it really does miss the point of a great evening.

2012-03-17 00:40:36

Wow, I was expecting a more mature, informative report of the AAC Benefit Dinner. Not this dribble.

2012-03-15 21:57:02

Damian (3-15, 16:51:10) is a very admirable example of the sort of mountaineer the older AAC would have embraced. An explorer, professional guide and author, his career in the mountains so far is the stuff of which clubs like the AAC were made until recent decades. But being Australian and born in 1969 might put him a bit towards the outer edge of grasping what Americans had experienced with the Club before 1970 and then what changed afterwards, perhaps missing as well, the humorous aspects of this long story.

The AAC’s current “Five Year Plan” is a tremendous and commendable rebound from a very long period of regionalistic and elitistic policy, despite its many august and generous members through about 100 years. This is just simple fact, a dead horse even at this point, and indeed how I characterized the Club when I joined in 1972. Since then, today, I am far more thrilled with what is going on in the Club, with Phil Powers, Swenson, and in general the new wave of efforts made in every direction at AAC. There is so much going on there, it is hard to tally! If one needs an indication how much has taken place just in a couple short years, I suggest a visit to the Club’s awesome new website. But I also have to say, the changes came just in time.

Damian, I think you have misread young Keese Lane’s journalistic effort here and have instead taken the unfair opportunity to raise a stink ignoring our long at times ironic history at the organization and why someone in Keese’s position would find wry humor as well as plain good value in such evenings. Many younger climbers share with each other at these soirees nationwide the funny aspects of a wonderfully posh evening avidly shared by many who sometime in the past have undergone extreme deprivation and peril. His view is partly generational too and occurs whenever young and old socialize, except perhaps in totalitarian societies. His was a fun quick read, that is all, and useful enough. A serious current report of the nearly Herculean tasks the Club has set in front of itself is much needed as well, as Damian suggests; in the meantime it surely is fair game for a puckish short piece by younger staff at Alpinist.

2012-03-15 18:53:13


There's a sneering tone of reverse snobbery here, which is a bit tiresome, if not hypocritical. You seem to be suggesting that some in the climbing community are on a more valid path than others, but of course that your path is the coolest. And yet in the same breadth berating the AAC for having previously not been sufficiently inclusive of all paths. Does your Saab not have a mirror?

You mention 'the role it neglected' but a) who ever said it had to encompass all climbers? and b) in decades past rockclimbing, let alone bouldering, were not the separate, highly specialised activities that they are now. It's an *alpine* club. It's only a recent, and not even entirely unanimous, attitude to embrace all kinds of climbers so proactively. If you don't like alpine clubs, don't join an alpine club.

The 'century of Eastern privilege' you smugly deride has also been a century of excellence in representing part of the mountain world, an excellence that has lasted so we can all share in it. I don't agree with or like everything the AAC does, but I've invariably found AAC members welcoming and helpful, like the club itself. Not so, plenty of too-cool hipster hardcore wannabes around the crag or gym - who never leave that crag or gym.

When I meet older members of the AAC I'm usually most impressed by how much they managed to achieve in their working and family lives on top of whatever hard climbs they may have done. They may no longer be cool climbers, but they are great people. I've shared basecamps with old AAC members whose names are on big first ascents but who have gone on to save countless lives as (rich, east coast) surgeons and made breakthroughs in nuclear physics. Those affluent, silver-haired bastards! How dare they wear a tuxedo to dinner with their friends?

Juvenile glorification of the so-called 'dirtbag' climbing lifestyle is lame. Some of America's most successful climbers have achieved that success with full time professional jobs and families - George Lowe, Steve Swenson etc. Your self-proclaimed hardcore dirtbag buddies will be doing well if they tick a quarter of what those guys have done. Maybe you're just lazy?

And six mentions of booze? I didn't realise we were still in high school.

Keese, the boundaries are in your mind, and you put them there. Alpinist.com/mag doing an insightful, hard-hitting, unsympathetic critique of the AAC would be good to read. Suffice to say, this ain't it.

All that aside, accepting hospitality then publicly trashing the host is just plain fucking rude.

- Damien Gildea

2012-03-15 16:51:10

Interesting to read about the transformation of the AAC to an inclusive rather than elite organisation. How it was formerly is still true of the Alpine Club (Britain) which remains, unfortunately, elite and is, largely, culturally still an old boy's network. Amongst other things, it could do with taking a leaf out of the AAC's book and moving its head office to the mountains. Good job done by those heading change at AAC!

2012-03-15 14:13:43


welcome to new wave of journalists who don't get the history and only comment on things they see at face value. These types of dinners have been going on at the AAC for years and, as you pointed out, fill a very necessary niche for fundraising. Too bad the journalist commenting on this dinner didn't either have the background surrounding this dinner or feel the need, as a responsible member of the media, to get the correct background.

2012-03-15 10:24:38

Well said, Swenson!

2012-03-15 06:40:35


The AAC is investing heavily in projects and programs that the climbing community has said that they want. This is a very deliberate and focused effort to be a national organization for all American climbers. We can look forward to additional campgrounds and huts at affordable rates, doubling the $$ value of the member rescue benefit, more information about climbing that is accessible to everyone online, local programs that benefit climbers where they live, and in the process reinforcing those values that define what it means to be a climber such as partnership, fortitude, stewardship, independence and creativity - no matter what your skill level. Keep in mind that the event you attended is just one of the 300 events sponsored by the AAC each year and this one appeals to a very specific and important segment of the tribe that we all belong to - the one that generously contributes to the AAC so that we can make all these programs available to everyone. So the next time you talk to your friends who recieved grants to go climbing or who climb at crags that received a grant for a local conservation project from the AAC remember that we need to have a big inclusive community to make this possible. If we work to unite our community and not divide it, we will all benefit.

2012-03-15 05:50:53
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