'Go get a dog, go on a hike, be peaceful and come back and fight for public lands': The 2017 Annual Benefit Dinner
By John Heilprin, AAC Board Director / Co-Chair of AAC Membership Committee
The American Alpine Club hosts many events each year, but the most highly anticipated is the Annual Benefit Dinner. As a club that works toward its vision of a united community of competent climbers and healthy climbing landscapes, the AAC partnered with The North Face to bring on Conrad Anker as its special inspirational guest for the February 25 dinner in Seattle. “I want to remind you that the most significant climbs are the ones we do ourselves,” the AAC’s CEO Phil Powers emphasized at one point over the weekend. “Climbing is special in different ways for each of us.” Attendees enjoyed the opportunity to hear Anker speak about his love for climbing that has taken him all over the world. He also focused on Nepal, where he and his wife Jenni Lowe-Anker run a nonprofit that helps increase the safety of Nepali climbers and high altitude workers, and where he found George Mallory’s body, summited Everest multiple times and climbed many of the most technical peaks in the region. AAC board member John Heilprin recounts some of Anker’s stories and other highlights from an unforgettable night and weekend.
It is hard to avoid sneaking in the comparison, once that thought, like a tiny Velcro ball, lodges somewhere inside these thin finger cracks of the brain. For a man whose craggy face represents a new age of super technical explorers, professional mountaineer Conrad Anker comes across in his slide show like some kind of latter-day Professor Indiana Jones, mindfully swapping insights and incredible tales of adventure and survival amid the warmth of a good many of his brothers and sisters of the vertical landscape. Indeed, the American Alpine Club’s 2017 Annual Benefit Dinner represents perhaps one of the rare occasions where the 54-year-old Anker, who has achieved an almost legendary status as a climber’s climber, can speak to a room of climbers whose exploits qualify some of them, in varying degrees, as among his peers. The completely sold-out dinner drew just over 550 people and raised at least $340,000 for AAC core programs like conservation, advocacy and education. That included a record amount during the Raise Your Paddle: More than $145,000 for conservation and advocacy.
As the captain of The North Face global athlete team, Anker is at the pinnacle of a professional sponsor that presented the AAC dinner, organized by a host committee led by past president and Seattleite Mark Kroese. Anker began his presentation with an eye cast back toward some of the early pioneers who were exploring the global alpine environment, many decades before the advent of fossil fuel burning made the prospect of rapidly melting glaciers and diminished habitats for plant and animal species into an urgent planetary concern.
“It’s something that we all care about because we’re climbers and we love the alpine environment,” Anker began. “Our second president was an immigrant who was an environmentalist by the name of John Muir,” Anker added, drawing applause through his subtle reference to the controversy over newly elected US President Donald Trump’s plans for a sweeping crackdown on undocumented immigrants to America. “He loved nothing more than traipsing around the mountains.”
Muir, the American naturalist, conservationist and glaciologist, not only served as the Club’s second president from 1908 to 1910 but also was one of the earliest proponents of national parks and founded the Sierra Club in 1892 – a decade before his colleague, the geologist, naturalist and explorer Angelo Heilprin, founded the AAC in 1902. Both men were part of newly immigrated families in the United States in the mid-19th century.
Even before Anker took the stage, the AAC dinner heard a brief but fiery speech from one of Washington State’s two Democratic United States senators, Maria Cantwell, who enjoys climbing and is an AAC member. As the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the third-term senator has become a vocal and leading opponent of Trump administration policies to expand energy development on public lands.
“You have to admit: Seattle’s a better place than being in Washington, D.C.,” Cantwell said to loud cheers and laughs among a largely sympathetic crowd in a state that has become known as the epicenter of resistance to Trump’s agenda.
“We are going to see numerous attacks on our Antiquities Act, our public lands, and clean air and clean water – so thank you, American Alpine Club, for the dynamic role that you play in making sure we preserve great climbing experiences throughout the United States,” she said.
Cantwell praised the organizers of the lucrative Outdoor Retailer show for their decision to leave Utah after two decades there. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the state's Republican leaders face a backlash from the outdoor industry for their calls to have Trump rescind the designation of Utah’s new climbing-rich Bears Ears National Monument. Utah is among the Western states pushing hard to seize more control of federal lands.
“Go get a dog, go on a hike, be peaceful and come back and fight for public lands,” she summed up.
The highest award that the AAC can bestow, honorary membership, went to AAC past president Mark Richey. His love of climbing since his first explorations at the age of 15 in the Quincy Quarries of Massachusetts has led him to make more than 40 expeditions to the greater mountain ranges through the world. Honorary membership "represents a chance to permanently welcome extraordinary members of the climbing community into the AAC family, by recognizing their lasting impact on the craft of climbing," AAC President Matt Culberson told the dinner. Richey, an expert at all forms of climbing, already has received the AAC's highest award for lifetime achievement based on technical alpine style ascents, exploratory climbing, and adventurous travel.
His first ascents include the East Face of Cayesh and the South Face of Oecshapalka in Peru, unclimbed rock spires in southern Greenland and Pakistan, Yamandaka in the Indian Karakoram, and a fast second ascent of Shivling's East Ridge, a Garwhal testpiece. He climbed Everest as part of the first New England expedition to the summit in 1991. Other notable ascents include the Eiger North Face, North Face of the Matterhorn and Cerro Torre in Patagonia. In 2011, Richey, AAC past president Steve Swenson and well-known writer, climber and guide Freddie Wilkinson made the first ascent of Saser Kangri II, then the second-highest unclimbed mountain in the world.
Away from the mountains, Richey has earned a reputation for his unassailable character and his dedication and generosity to the climbing community, ranging from his stint as AAC president from 2003 to 2006 to his extensive contributions to the rebuilding efforts in Nepal following the devastating earthquake in 2015. He also is a successful businessman, co-founding with his wife Teresa a high-quality architectural woodworking company that has expanded steadily ever since its opening 36 years ago.
The woman who could well be Indy’s Marion Ravenwood – Anker’s wife, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, was accompanied by one of their three sons, Isaac – provided an emotional counterpoint for the man whose accomplishments framed the Club’s yearly gathering. A well-known Western artist, author and non-profit founder, Jenni Lowe-Anker also is a force of nature, particularly since the aftermath of a 1999 avalanche that ended the lives of her then-husband, the legendary climber Alex Lowe, and his young rope mate, David Bridges.
The avalanche partially buried Anker, who was Alex Lowe’s regular climbing partner and best friend, and whom she would wed in 2001. Anker also later adopted his best friend’s three young sons. Lowe-Anker penned a gripping memoir, Forget Me Not, about the unusual love story of their losses and recovery, and signed copies of it at the AAC gathering. Only last April, more than 16 years after their disappearance, the bodies of Lowe and Bridges were found. Anker and Lowe-Anker traveled back to recover Lowe’s body and to cremate him.
“There, we cremated our loved ones in a traditional Tibetan ceremony that was both beautiful and brutally heart-rending,” Jenni Lowe-Anker wrote in a thank-you letter to the AAC after the weekend gathering.
With so much drama to draw on, the 54-year-old Conrad Anker seemed surprisingly low-key and relaxed, surrounded by many people with shared histories and interests. He was riveting nonetheless, and wasted little time setting out to address the proverbial elephant in the room – the surprise heart attack that he suffered last November at 20,000 feet, while attempting an unclimbed peak in Nepal.
He was seconding a climb one morning when he felt tired and out of breath, and then suddenly realized what was happening to him. He still had to rappel back to base camp before a chopper could bring him to a local hospital. He has since fully recovered, but he now has a stent in his heart made of wire mesh, and indicated to the AAC crowd that his high-altitude climbing days are pretty much behind him.
“People ask me, ‘How can you know when you’re having a heart attack?’ I’m like, ‘When you have it, you will know,’ ” he said. The strangeness was compounded by it being the first time he needed a rescue in the mountains: “It was a real life-opening thing for me.”
When he returned home to Bozeman, Mont., for Christmas, he had time to reflect. “I came back and at Christmas time we’re together with the family, it was a neat thing,” he said. “I think was sort of like a wakeup call that it might be time to do something else – but also climbing! Monday morning, I’m going climbing. Tuesday, I’m going climbing,” he reassured the hushed crowd. “But today, we gather the tribe of climbing.”
At the dinner, Anker rifled through assorted slides from his three decades-plus of adventures: Alaska, Antarctica, Pakistan, Patagonia, and, of course, Nepal, where he and Jenni now oversee the Khumbu Climbing Center, founded in 2003 as a project by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. They and others help keep alive Alex Lowe’s love of connection with and compassion for many of the people indigenous to the high mountain regions where his expeditions took him.
His climbing friend Jimmy Chin – another North Face athlete with world-renowned achievements in the mountains while working as director, cinematographer and photographer – introduced Anker, with whom he made the first ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Meru, India. Anker’s climbing CV also includes Everest with oxygen and the first ascent of the East Face of Antarctica’s Vinson Massif. The 2015 film Meru, which documented Anker’s drive to fulfill his greatest ambition, gained a wide following.
In her thank-you letter, Jenni Lowe-Anker expressed gratitude for their warm welcome. “The weekend gave us some time to reflect on our rich history of lasting partnerships and friendships, along with intergenerational and cross-cultural mentorships, education and inspiration, that is part of the essential DNA of our climbing tribe,” she wrote.
It was some of that “good karma” that helped her husband to survive, she noted.
“In Conrad's presentation, you had a glimpse of the work that the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation has achieved over the last 15 years in Nepal. We have both supported and safeguarded the indigenous climbing community,” she wrote. “That includes Lakpa Sherpa, who guided the helicopter pilot to Conrad’s rescue on Lunag Ri. Had Lakpa not been there, the pilot may well have turned back.”
The AAC handed out five awards during the dinner to honor the courage, dedication and humanity shown by five people:
The Angelo Heilprin Citation, the top award for exemplary service to the Club, went to Dave Riggs. The Club recognized him for his prodigious time and efforts spent while serving as the board chair of the AAC’s community committee and as volunteer chair of the Sierra Nevada section.
The Robert and Miriam Underhill Award, given to those who demonstrate the highest level of skill and outstanding success in mountaineering, was handed to Mark Twight, whose has made first ascents and notable climbs around world and written several award winning books.
The David R. Brower Award, which recognizes leadership and commitment to preserving mountain regions worldwide, went to Kris McDivitt Tompkins, a conservationist and former CEO of Patagonia, who is the widow of executive and conservationist Douglas Tompkins. She gratefully accepted the honor via pre-recorded video from southern Chile, where much of their work is done.
The Robert Hicks Bates Award, which recognizes a young climber with exceptional skill, character and promise, was given to Mason Earle for his difficult rock climbs.
The H. Adams Carter Literary Award went to David Stevenson, director of the Creative Writing and Literary Arts Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is the author of the short fiction collection Letters from Chamonix, winner of the Banff Mountain Festival Fiction Prize.
Earlier in the day, the AAC sponsored a series of panel discussions that highlighted important issues and developments for climbers. One talk focused on AAC efforts to educate climbers for more than a century. Another delved into the drive for more inclusiveness as climbing transitions from its counterculture heritage in natural settings to urban and indoor environments. A third provided a forum for mountain guide Melissa Arnot Reid to speak about how she promotes partnership and mentorship in the mountains. She recalled the special feeling she had in 2016 when she became the first American woman to summit and to survive the descent of Everest without supplemental oxygen via its less popular north side. “I had a feeling of having a rubber band tied around me for my entire life, and for those four days it was released. I just knew it would work,” she said.
And on the evening of February 24, Vertical World Seattle – which opened the first rock climbing gym in America in 1987 in Seattle – sponsored the AAC Climbers' Gathering. As befits its mission, The North Face worked with the AAC and Vertical World to create a grassroots community event that inspired people to get more involved with climbing and the climbing community (and Chef Brian served up hotdogs all night). In a competition, the Vertical World Youth Team blew away the AAC team (which included Anker)!
The weekend gathering was preceded by a February 23 memorial celebration of the life of AAC past president Nick Clinch, who led history-making and first-ascent expeditions in the Karakoram, Himalaya and Antarctica. He died in Palo Alto, Calif., at the age of 85, having become one of the most important proponents of American mountaineering and the AAC.
He also was a long-time executive director of the Sierra Club Foundation and early board member at REI, which hosted the AAC’s Feb. 24 board meeting. Along with his climbing achievements, Clinch was a prodigious collector of mountaineering books, an extremely generous donor to the Club and, most of all, a beloved person with adoring family and friends.
The gathering of more than 100 people got underway with videotaped interview he gave that was produced by the AAC’s archival Video Inspiration Project. “When you’re older, you realize the most important thing you’ve gotten out of climbing is your friends,” Clinch said. After watching the video, attendees chimed in with their favorite words to describe their old friend: “humble,” “kind,” genuine,” “wonderful,” “dedicated,” “a talker,” “wise,” “an inspiration,” endless stories,” inspirational,” “funny,” and “generous,” were among the heap of adjectives.
“My Dad taught me that suffering in the outdoors was fun,” his daughter Alison Clinch said. She had people laughing when she recounted how her father once suffered hours of pain because he unknowingly putting his rear-entry ski boots on the wrong feet.
“I lost count how many times we were the only ones on the chairlift,” she said, adding that “no amount of pain and suffering” could ever deter her father from embarking on an outdoor adventure in the mountains. “He devoted himself to the brotherhood and sisterhood of the rope.”
Legendary climber Tom Hornbein, who pioneered the Everest West Ridge route, recalled the long friendship he had with Clinch since both served as teenage camp counselors in Estes Park, Colo. He said his old dear friend had been “the person who really empowered us and was responsible for the climbing I was able to do.” Hornbein brought down the house when he ended the emotional ceremony by playing a recording of Clinch singing. “This is a guy that really touched my life to the core,” Hornbein said. “Nick was very precious.”
And so it began, and so it continued through a weekend of high emotion – a community of climbers united by the passion for climbing and a deep reverence for the places we climb.
See photos from the weekend HERE.