By Richard Randall
4:30 PM last Saturday saw me scrambling around my dorm in Stanford, begging people to let me borrow a tie. I don’t get many excuses to dress up living in California, so over the years I’ve stopped keeping fancy clothes at school with me. But here I was in need of a tie, for a climbers’ dinner of all things. I found all my clothes and zoomed up the freeway to San Francisco for the annual American Alpine Club Benefit Dinner.
I attended thanks to College Outside, a long-time partner of the American Alpine Club that serves as a conduit to reach a new generation of young climbers. My date and schmoozing guide for the night was Sarah Lockwood, College Outside’s CEO. As soon as we stepped in the door, my eyes bugged out; climber Mikey Schaefer stood ten feet away, chatting with some friends. I’ve long been a fan of his for putting up crazy big wall routes in Yosemite and repeating the hardest routes in Tuolumne Meadows, but he recently got famous as the stressed-out cameraman in the documentary Free Solo.
That feeling of awe repeated itself many times throughout the cocktail reception as Sarah and I mingled, shaking hands and checking out the auction items. I saw Emily Harrington–the night’s MC, and the star of my favorite climbing video ever. We talked to Kate Rutherford, who made the first female ascent of the Freerider route on El Cap and is on the cover of the latest Yosemite guidebook. I even got to meet Conrad Anker, a legend of mountaineering. In the crowd were dozens of pioneers who have made modern climbing what it is today. As a college student and amateur climber, it was surreal to spend a night in their midst.
Eventually, we all got herded into a humongous dining room for the night’s main program of awards, speeches, and dinner. Early in the night, Tom Hornbein, who ascended the West Ridge of Mt. Everest in 1963, presented the Robert Hicks Bates Award for outstanding accomplishment by a young climber. The award went to Brette Harrington, who has climbed 5.14 sport, 5.13 trad, and recently free-soloed huge mixed routes in Patagonia. In his speech, Hornbein said that “whatever differences there may be between men and women, now, in the mountains, everything is equal.” Hearing that from someone who made his mark in an era when men completely dominated elite alpinism, and who spent years in that mindset, was pretty incredible.
At the end of the night, alpinist Colin Haley gave a wild slideshow about his recent objectives in Patagonia. After learning to ice climb in the Cascades in high school, Haley found himself returning over and over to Patagonia. In the last two years, he’s teamed up to attempt a route called the Torre Traverse in Patagonia, a route tagging multiple huge granite towers with thousands of feet of ice, rock, and mixed climbing. His stories of bailing off the wrong side of a Patagonian peak in a storm, then hiking 30 miles to civilization with no food captivated the audience.
Overall, a theme throughout the night seemed to be a transition from this old guard of alpinists to a newer generation. Many of the older folks in the audience, and many of those onstage, began climbing in an age of pitons and siege-style mountaineering, when climbing was a fringe, outsiders pursuit. At the dinner, the awardees were young athletes known for making fast and light ascents, benefiting from huge advances in training, gear, and gyms over the past fifty years. After dinner, I saw Conrad Anker talking to young climber Connor Herson. Connor’s an up-and-coming name: at age 15, he recently made a splash by free-climbing the Nose on El Capitan. Watching the two talk gave the appearance of a torch being passed between generations.
The AAC is passing that same torch with their activism and conservation work. I saw a lot of young faces in the audience, tied to their older counterparts by shared roots in the mountains. The organization isn’t just a clubhouse for elite athletes: it’s a way to unite everyone who cares about advocacy for preserving climbing access, fighting climate change, and protecting mountainous wilderness. Just this past week, thanks in part to the AAC’s work, a bill was enacted that encourages the use of climbing hardware on protected public lands. That work needs to continue, and for that to happen, our generation needs to get behind the AAC.
Around 10:30, I peeled myself away from the dinner, then said bye to Sarah and headed home (to look at alpine routes on Mountain Project). I can’t thank her and the College Outside team enough for bringing me along, and I’m excited to put my new AAC membership through its paces in the coming year.