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AAC Five-Year Plan: The Long-Awaited Remodel

In the time since its formation in 1902, The American Alpine Club (AAC) has been criticized heavily for its elitism, narrow focus on alpine climbing and lack of a clear and relevant mission. To solve these problems, the Club surveyed hundreds of AAC members and other climbers, asking them, “If you could build the AAC from the ground up today, what would it look like?” Using the responses they gathered, the Club recently formulated and launched a five-year strategic plan they say will result in “the most significant changes to AAC programs in its 109-year history.”

If successful, the plan will accomplish three goals: 1) improve member benefits, 2) deliver more programs at a local level and 3) make the AAC the definitive source for climbing information that it once was.

Though the plan was well received by members during its launch at the Club’s annual dinner in Seattle three months ago, there are still lingering questions about its execution. “This is an extraordinarily ambitious plan. Supporting and empowering local AAC chapters and providing a compelling array of member benefits–the central components of the five-year plan–will be wonderful accomplishments if the Club can pull them off,” said Alpinist Editor-in-Chief Michael Kennedy, who has been an AAC member since 1977. “Most Americans aren’t very club-oriented, and climbers in particular tend to be very independent, so I worry a bit about any organization’s ability to achieve such lofty goals.”

Improving Member Benefits

Among the new member benefits are improved rescue benefits, discounts on gear, gym memberships and magazine subscriptions. The Club’s rescue insurance program was first developed by volunteer Mike Browning in the late 1980s. It was a $5,000-insurance program that reimbursed members for expenses incurred during a rescue. “We left that program mostly because we weren’t happy with how it was run,” said AAC Executive Director Phil Powers. Now, the domestic insurance plan is back, added to the current $5,000 international rescue service through Global Rescue. For a full list of benefits, please see

A helicopter flies near Manaslu during a rescue on the 8163-meter peak. The Club now offers $5000 domestic rescue insurance in addition to its $5000 rescue benefit.

Delivering More Programs Locally

Perhaps the biggest change will be the AAC’s emphasis on locally delivered programs. “For those last 20 years, the Club has put much of those dues dollars toward the strength of the national organization,” said Information and Marketing Director Erik Lambert. “But in the process of building a strong center, we lost touch with the local communities that make climbing so valuable to each of us.” To strengthen their local programs, the Club has created the Cornerstone Preservation Grant, giving $25,000 to fund infrastructure projects at climbing areas proposed by local individuals, climbing groups and AAC sections or chapters.

In addition to putting more money into local sections and chapters, the Club also plans to hire a total of five regional coordinators to help organize community events and conservation projects, among other tasks. “We have no idea in Golden (at the AAC headquarters) what various communities might need at their local crags or as social activities,” Powers said. “We need to push the decision-making out to local sections and chapters so that they can build the great social events and traditions and accomplish conservation projects that make sense.”

Recently, one of the five positions was filled by Eddie Espinosa, the Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator. In the last few months, Espinosa has worked with local climbing organizations to help install toilets in two climbing areas, helped organize new events in Washington and Oregon and secured discounts for members at gyms across the West. The AAC is also in the process of bringing on a Northeast Coordinator.

“The results of this, we hope, are vibrant local chapters, each with their own character and supported by regional staff,” Lambert said.

While many independent climbing organizations will welcome the AAC’s increased local involvement in their regions, others will see this as direct competition for member dues. Through the years, the Club’s historical nationwide focus has left room for the formation of dozens of these small clubs. The AAC may face a struggle to prove its relevance in places already served by other grassroots groups.

The AAC as the Definitive Source for Climbing Information

The AAC Library at their headquarters in Golden, CO is host to more than 60,000 books, videos, photographs and historical documents–some of which cannot be found anywhere else. While an online library catalogue does exist, members have to physically go to the AAC library and search the shelves and, in some cases, rooms full of boxes to access archives. In order to make the library a more useful source for the Club’s members on a national level, they will hire staff to organize and implement a Digital Asset Management System that will make the library’s digital and digitized files searchable online by members, and made accessible for future online tools such as climbing history research and trip planning components.

The American Alpine Club Library at the headquarters in Golden, CO. As part of the five-year plan, the Club is working to digitize its archives so they are more accessible to members across the nation.

Looking Ahead

AAC membership has quadrupled since 1989, when the Club opened its doors to all climbers, not just the mountaineering elite. As the organization has grown, so too has the demand for better member benefits, the Club’s local and national staffing needs and the available but difficult-to-access information resources. In crafting the five-year strategic plan, the Club scrutinized the very roots of the organization, and decided on a philosophical shift that requires the renovation of every detail, from altering job descriptions to building new programs and interacting with the climbing community in a new way, Lambert said. Key to the effort will be improved communication and outreach to all segments of the climbing community, particularly younger climbers. “By redefining the Club’s mission and focusing its efforts on very tangible member benefits and programs,” observes Kennedy, “the five-year plan, once implemented, should indeed change the Club for the better, making it more inclusive and of greater value to the community.”

Sources: Erik Lambert, James McCarthy, Michael Kennedy, Becca Polglase, Phil Powers, AAC Five-Year Strategic Plan,