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When Phil Powers took over as CEO of the American Alpine Club (AAC) in 2005, his membership had lapsed, not out of any deliberate protest, but simply because he had forgotten about it. He was no doubt an active climber, although he didn’t see the relevance or benefit of the club at the time. And even as the leader of the organization now, he’s not afraid to admit this. It’s a good example of just how far the club has come in the last 14 years under his and his staff’s direction to deliver on its mission to promote and preserve the climbing way of life. He thinks the organization is more relevant to American climbers than ever before.
The club’s next chapter is forthcoming, with Powers announcing his exit today and President Deanne Buck‘s term set to expire in March 2020. But this is not goodbye just yet. Powers, 58, will remain at the helm of the Golden, Colorado-based national climbing organization for the next year to help search for a new leader and wrap up projects.
The week before the AAC announced the news, Outside Business Journal talked to Powers on the phone while he was at his hilltop farm in Vermont, overlooking a ridge and a summit called “The Pinnacle,” though it’s covered in trees. He opened up about his 70-foot fall in 2011, climbing in the 2020 Olympics, the sport’s drastic evolution, and his next steps.
How have you witnessed climbing change over the last 15 years?
Phil Powers: Obviously, climbing has changed a ton. Twenty years ago, if you went to a cocktail party and said you were a climber, people would look at you like “I don’t even know what that means.” They might ask you if you had climbed Mt. Everest. Climbing is just a bigger part of America now. Even before Free Solo and The Dawn Wall movies, you’d see climbing in commercials and in magazine ads. Now if you tell people you climb, they say, “Do you know Alex Honnold?” and they’ll ask you to tell them more about it.
What do you consider some highlights and accomplishments?
PP: We’ve significantly expanded our public policy work through the Climb the Hill event and a public policy newsletter to become force that supports public lands in the United States. Our education program has been a long, slow effort, but it may be my greatest passion. Years ago, we helped the [American Mountain Guides Association] launch their single-pitch instructors course. Recently we’ve expanded that and we’re right on the front edge of launching certifications for volunteer leaders across the nation.
The quantitative accomplishments are nice, but what I’m more proud of are the qualitative accomplishments, such as the character and complexion of the climbing community today and the membership at the AAC. We’ve vastly reduced the average age of membership and we’ve significantly improved the gender balance. We’re still working on diversity in the club. There are 70 chapters around the country, each with people working to make those chapters vibrant and relevant in their own communities.
You were a big supporter of the #SafeOutside survey about sexual harassment and assault in climbing. Did the results surprise you? Do you think the raised awareness is impacting behavior?
PP: I can’t say that those results surprised me, but I was disappointed. I hoped to be surprised the other way. We needed to know the truth and we needed to wake ourselves up to this topic. We also needed to take a stand and help people understand that [sexual harassment and assault] isn’t just something that happens to other people or in a different community. It’s happening all around us. Climbers have always struggled with confronting other climbers in unsafe situations. That survey and the conversations around it gave people wonderful tools to not be a bystander and to be helpful in the moment. I think climbers have taken the advice aimed at how they can intervene in a situation where someone’s being harassed and they’ve also applied it to intervene better when it comes to competency or belaying or safety at the crag.
You were working at the AAC when you fell 70 feet on a climb with staff. If you could go back to that day, what would you do differently?
PP: If you ever read Accidents in North American Climbing, you’ll find that sticking to a schedule is often a contributing factor in accidents. That was part of our day. I was getting my staff out climbing. We’d gotten out a little later than I wanted and I wanted to get them climbing quickly, so there was a certain pace in the day. As a result, I could’ve done more talking and communing to my belayer. I grew up climbing in a world where every time you were put on belay, the belayer approached the belay as if it was a first ascent. Even if it was not a first ascent, even if you read something out of a guidebook, you weren’t sure if the anchor was really there or not or whether the guidebook was accurate. That’s different now. Climbing demands not just a three-point check—knot, harness, and belay—but a fourth point. What are you going to do at the top? What’s the plan for descent? Back then, you couldn’t have said what the plan was because it was impossible to know. But now, especially at a crag like in Clear Creek, it is possible to know. That’s what I could’ve done better before I even left the ground.
How did your fall inform your role or your way of thinking about your role at the AAC?
PP: I was already passionate about education. I came from an outdoor education background. But I think my fall definitely reinforced the importance of the AAC taking a stand in establishing some education and best practices. We’re by no means done and in many respects we’ve only begun. Hopefully it’ll also be a hallmark of the next administration.
Why leave now? What’s next for you?
PP: I’m not a big fan of institutions where the CEO is in place for so long that it becomes an individual’s company. I started this job with a sensitivity to that. But my goal of 10 years came and went. I’d been vaguely wondering out loud with people, “How does this end?” That has always been very unclear. I often thought two more years, but no one makes a plan around two years. This summer, I found myself feeling ready to pay more attention to my company, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. I’m ready to do some of the other things that I’ve been nursing in the background and am not ready to share about yet. This is a great opportunity for me to spend more time on my business, do some other things around the edges, but also spend a lot more time climbing and getting outside with my family.
What are your hopes for the next leader of the AAC? What’s the biggest challenge they’ll face?
PP: It’s very hard to run a business like the American Alpine Club. We do a lot of things. We deliver on membership value. We’ve started a public policy program and education program. We run a publishing arm, a museum, and a library. We have a building. We have a lodging network across the nation. To partake in all of that, we only charge members $85 a year. You really have to pay attention to the resources and funding. The people who’ve supported the club over the years are a huge help. That’s a big job and whoever comes into this role needs to not just be aware of that, but needs to be good at finding the resources to make the club great on behalf of climbing in America.
The next chapters of the AAC are probably something I can’t even imagine and I think that’s why now is the right time for me to leave. I’m very comfortable with the solid foundation we built. I’d hate to see anything we started go away. We’ve added a lot, but we haven’t subtracted very much and I do think the organization could be more focused. The next person will have a great staff, and a lot of freedom to maneuver and come up with new ideas.
With Alex and Free Solo and Tommy, Kevin, and The Dawn Wall, climbing is becoming more mainstream and glamorous. How psyched are you to see climbing in the 2020 summer Olympics? How do you think the big stage will impact the public’s general interest in and growth of the sport?
PP: The point to remember is that climbing is in the Olympics because it’s already growing. We’re already growing 20 to 25 percent, but it’s bound to impact it event more. I think it’s just amazing that [American pro climber] Brooke Raboutou qualified for Team USA and I think we’ll have more than one American competitor. The combination of lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing is kind of an odd combo. It’ll be fun as hell to watch though. I think it’ll stay in the Olympics and just evolve. We ran the UIAA Ice Climbing World Fup in Denver in February and it was the most amazing spectacle that I’ve ever been a part of putting on. That’ll end up in the Olympics one day. I do know many climbers who almost lament the popularity because there was a day when we were such a counterculture. We were a unique, rare group and it was a special group to be a part of it. It still is, but it’s just a much bigger special group.
How do you hope the sport and lifestyle of climbing will evolve in the next 15 years?
PP: All kinds of positive life attributes are anchored by climbing. I see that just growing in America. You go to an event like Climb the Hill and have 50 to 80 climbers at the after-party hanging out. I think we drank a little beer, but most people were thinking about what they were going to do the next day. They’d say “I don’t want to have too many beers because I have to go climbing tomorrow.” We’re on a great trajectory. When I think about growing up in America, if you don’t play football or baseball, the school system doesn’t really offer you very much. But I do think there’s a future in which individual health, sports, and spiritual practice even can be more a part of the way we bring our children up so everyone can lead a healthy life. I see it in the way it drives my kids’ decision-making and health.
Any climbs you’re still itching to do?
PP: If I were to zero in on one place, it’s back to my roots in Wyoming. I want to spend more time in the Wind River Range and take my kids up the classics. Most of my kids are actually better climbers than me now, so it’s not like I’m going to take them up—they’re going to take me up things.
Before you leave, is there anything else you want people to know about your time at the AAC?
PP: It takes a village to make the American Alpine Club work. It’s really an ecosystem of volunteers and my staff. They’re just the most amazing, fun, young people. If anything, I delayed leaving the club because I just have so much fun working with them.
The other thing is climbing is dangerous. Everyone who is a climber or has been a climber for more than a little while has either experienced loss or a close call, or knows someone who has. There’s a lot of potential for sadness and grief in this world. Let’s do whatever we can to keep it safe. Let’s do the practice, let’s do the training, let’s check each other, let’s care for each other. And then let’s also acknowledge that when bad things happen, it’s normal to feel some grief and sadness. That’s why we set up the Climbing Grief Fund. That’s the kind of thing we need to talk about more and be more open about.
This interview has been edited and condensed.