Founded in 1902 by a small group of climbers and conservationists, The American Alpine Club became one of the earliest established groups to promote and protect climbing, both within the outdoor community and at times, through more mainstream channels.
From its onset, the club’s mission has been to provide knowledge and inspiration, and to support the climbing community. But until recently their focus was primarily local and community-centric, meaning that most of their efforts were centered around clean ups, trail development, and crag development. That’s about to change.
Soon after founding, the AAC evolved from a loose social club for elite adventurers on the East Coast to a Denver-based establishment that started to dabble in larger conversations about policy, safety and medicine for alpine environments, and gear innovation. They began to sponsor expeditions and fund research on broad-reaching climbing questions and controversies such as etiquette and safety on some of the tallest peaks in the world.
By 1940, the club was well established and was a key player in the formation of the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, an elite special group for harsh alpine conditions, helping train much of the unit.
The club helped sponsor significant exploration, including a 1939 summit attempt on K2, the 1963 first American summit of Everest and the 1966 summit of Antarctica’s Mt. Vinson. In the 1980s, the Access Fund was spun out of the AAC, a nationwide non-profit focusing on climbing areas.
Starting in 1908 with the AAC’s second president, John Muir, the club began to take part in conservation, developing relationships with the Forest Service and National Park Service to discuss issues around land use and ethics on access, management, and road development.
While the club has been involved in environmental issues for years, today the AAC is poised for another evolution, this one towards international climate advocacy. The AAC’s 2019 Accidents in North American Climbing Report — published annually since 1948 — shows an uptick in accidents attributed to factors related to climate change, like rock fall. And in a 2019 member survey, 64% of respondents noted they had first-hand witnessed change climate in the mountains, and 94% believed that climate change poses a risk to the places they ski and climb.
In response, the AAC has dug into the conversation on climate change, and is encouraging others to participate in pursuing solutions. “Alpine environments provide the backdrop for activities most cherished by AAC members, but they are in peril and it is time to act,” says a Policy Position Statement released by the AAC in June. To address these concerns, the AAC is planning the following action:
Grants and Research
The AAC aims to give away $25,000 worth of research grants this year, skewing towards climate-related projects. This represents a 54% increase over 2018. The club also hopes to roughly double the size of individual grants.
Climbers Carbon Offset Program
The AAC is developing a platform where climbers can calculate their carbon footprint when traveling for climbing trips, providing them the knowledge to help offset their impact on the environment while in the alpine. They aim to have this ready by the end of the year.
Climb the Hill
The AAC helps organize an advocacy effort called Climb the Hill, in which they bring key members to Washington, D.C. to meet with legislators about climate-related issues and policy. This annual event focuses on issues within five main themes, including climate change. The AAC’s internal policy team is currently in the process of vetting climate-based legislation, such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.
Moving Towards Carbon Neutral
The organization is currently auditing its own energy consumption and is looking at a few models on how they can offset their own carbon emissions that result from the organization’s operations. This may involve purchasing offsets, installing solar across AAC-owned buildings, or other energy efficiencies. They hope to have a strategy to do so by the end of the year.
Outlining the Impact of Energy Development
The AAC believes that any effort to seriously address greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change necessitates a shift in energy management, especially on public lands. The organization is worried the federal government is failing to manage public lands and that climbing, skiing and mountaineering venues are in danger. The club hopes to encourage the government to adequately analyze the potential emissions from energy developments and the associated impacts on our climate and recreation areas.
The climbing community bares significantly more witness to the effects of climate change due to its obsession with mountains, glaciers, snow, and rock walls. These environments are warming at a much more rapid pace than more temperate environments, which is adding a new element of risk for climbers.
“Whether you boulder, sport climb or spend your time in the high alpine, climate change is one of the greatest threats to our sport, our lives, and our planet,” wrote AAC President Phil Powers in an open letter that accompanied the AAC Policy Statement. “The voice of the climbing community is critically important in today’s environmental and social efforts.”
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