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New partnership catalyzes a united climbing community

After a 100-year relationship, four climbing organizations decide it’s time to take the next step: putting a label on things and formalizing a unity that could revolutionize the future of climbing education and advocacy.

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American Alpine Club
Ron Funderburke, education director for the American Alpine Club, teaches at the International Climbers’ Meet. // Photo: Drew Smith

Rife with lone wolves and adrenaline fiends, the climbing community has historically operated as a loose collective rather than a united front. But in the face of rising popularity, educational inconsistencies, and political threats, that could start to change.

The American Alpine Club and three regional clubs — the Colorado Mountain Club, Portland-based climbing club The Mazamas, and The Mountaineers, which serves the Pacific Northwest — have formally joined forces for the first time in each of their century-long histories.

“Climbing has always been a very independent activity. Climbers by nature are a little bit renegade,” said AAC CEO Phil Powers. “I’m generalizing, but most of the time they’re not [club] joiners. It takes a certain amount of personal ego and confidence to get out there on the lead, and that personality has rolled up into the institutional level where institutions have gone their own direction.”

In the face of climbing’s growing popularity and the resulting influx of new climbers, this attitude has started to shift toward a spirit of strategic cooperation.

The now-formal partnership is intended to standardize educational curricula for instructors across the various regional clubs.

“As a sport, we have a confidence problem,” says The Mazamas Executive Director Lee Davis. “People see climbing as this really dangerous thing.” To change that, the climbing community needs to have instructional standards and a vetted certification process for volunteer instructors as well as formally trained guides.

Now, regional clubs will be able to earn an AAC stamp certifying curricula in nine different categories, including mountain trekking, traditional rock climbing, and glacier travel, to ensure those courses and instructors meet AAC criteria. The exact standards have yet to be finalized, but AAC and club executives intend them to include specific safety procedures, broad-stroke philosophies like Leave No Trace, and standards for interpersonal interaction between instructors and clients, among other topics.

The four clubs involved in the partnership had been meeting since 2007 but only started organizing a formal relationship in earnest over the last six months or so, Powers said.

“This new direction allows us to work together to train and certify each other’s instructors so the client can know that the instructor is validated and certified by a third party organization,” he said.

According to Powers, the end goal will be to gather more regional clubs into the fold, starting with the Appalachian Mountain Club. He hopes to see the new standards eventually applied nationwide, similar to the way the highly-respected International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) standards are applied throughout climbing organizations Europe.

Colorado Mountain Club Executive Director Scott Robson said that while timing of the partnership was primarily due to the growth of climbing — not the political climate — the agreement will have the fringe benefit of providing regional climbing communities with a more unified national voice.

Robson said the partnership sets the stage for future agreements and cooperation in the face of threats to climbing access, including environmental degradation or public land sell-off.

“If I went to Washington D.C. six months ago to advocate for climbers’ rights, I’d be going as the AAC,” said Powers. “Now I go to Washington D.C. with the solidarity of these other regional institutions behind me. We’re in this world where we don’t want to divide up the public policy pie with slightly nuanced different agendas, but instead speak in a unified fashion as climbers.”