There’s something comical about a roomful of rock climbers and mountaineers all clad in tuxedos and sequined gowns. I thought this as I tottered into the cocktail hour at the American Alpine Club’s Annual Benefit Dinner. I wore a dress and high heels that I’d last donned half a decade ago at a high school dance. Across the room, I spotted Alex Honnold sporting a pair of La Sportiva approach shoes with his coat and tie. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I fiddled with my nametag and scanned the room for other famous climbers. My feeling out of place was twofold. First of all, I had never been served wine off a tray before. Second, what was I doing in the same room as Alex Honnold?
The 2018 dinner, held at Boston’s Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, welcomed the likes of Margo Hayes, Hans Florine, and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Americans on K2. I, a college senior and mere 5.10 sport climber, felt honored to be in the presence of such legends. I attended the dinner on behalf of College Outside, a longtime partner of the AAC. Sarah Lockwood, College Outside’s founder and CEO, my co-worker Becky, and I spent the weekend fan-girling over (and taking selfies with) our climbing idols and listening with awe to their stories of adventure. We held back tears while Quinn Brett recounted her near-death accident on El Capitan in October. At Friday evening’s climber’s gathering, we toproped 5.9s while Margo Hayes floated up the hardest routes in the gym. We even cornered Alex Honnold during lunch and taught him our company “gang sign.”
After a morning of inspiring presentations, we three entered the cocktail reception, and following our college student/dirt bag climber instincts, beelined for the buffet table. I surveyed the crowd, mostly grey-haired men in bowties with their wives eyeing auction items that were displayed throughout the ballroom. On appearances, it was easy to compare the other guests to my parents—comfortably aging suburban 60-somethings socializing over hors d’oeuvres and glasses of merlot. In reality, I was surrounded by a bunch of absolute badasses—pioneers of mountaineering with tick-lists and stories I could only dream of. As one of the youngest attendees, I felt at once out of place and star struck by the history and accomplishment present.
Though the age demographic clearly put me and my co-workers in the minority, the event was hardly all about the old boys of climbing. The dinner was highlighted by the presenting of the 2018 Climbing Awards, honoring five climbers for outstanding accomplishment in the past year and over the courses of their careers. Among others, Margo Hayes received the Robert Hicks Bates Award, which recognizes “a young climber who—in the judgment of the selection committee—has demonstrated exceptional skill and character in the climbing or mountaineering arts and has outstanding promise for future accomplishment.”
To see Margo, a year or two my junior, address the crowded ballroom was more than inspiring; I was filled with an inexplicable sense of pride to see someone not wholly unlike me (well, not in terms of climbing accomplishment, but a girl can dream) recognized by the Club. Hayes expressed her own feeling of being inspired by the 1978 K2 team, who were honored at the dinner, and her own grandfather, accomplished mountaineer Dr. Jim Morrissey, who was also in attendance. What emerged in every award presentation and acceptance speech was a mutual sense of admiration between climbers and across generations. The events of the evening reaffirmed that the AAC, and the larger climbing community, welcomes us all: the old-timers and the new kids all bound by a shared love for the mountains.
Over the past five years, the AAC’s partnership with College Outside has been instrumental in fostering this community by helping young people access the world of climbing. The AAC has sponsored a number of College Outside events aimed at introducing students to ice climbing and leadership development. The two organizations also collaborated to design the AAC’s student membership, which affords young climbers member benefits on a college budget. At the dinner, I watched with gratitude as thousands of dollars were raised to expand the Rattlesnake Campground at Rumney, which my college friends and I frequent. I was reminded that the AAC exists to support us all, regardless of age or accomplishment.
In addition to getting to meet a few of my heroes, I left the dinner feeling thankful to the AAC for helping to nurture the next generation of climbers, mountaineers, benefactors, and activists. If climbers like Margo are any indication, the climbing world is sure to reach unimaginable new heights in the years to come. It is a comfort to know that the AAC will be there to support us along the way.