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American Alpine Club’s 2021 Benefit Gala and Awards will be a free virtual event

Ron Kauk on top of Uli Biaho, 1979. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Ron Kauk on top of Uli Biaho, 1979. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

As the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic continues, the American Alpine Club’s Annual Benefit Gala and award presentation will once again be held virtually on February 20. The good news is that for the first time ever this will allow anyone with an Internet connection to have free access to the speeches and award presentations with some of climbing’s biggest names. The theme is “Celebrating Grit.”

“Our Annual Benefit Dinner is where we bring AAC members together to celebrate climbing, achievements, and dream of future possibilities. We are excited for the opportunity created by the pandemic to host our first virtual event, which will be accessible to all AAC members and the broader climbing community,” American Alpine Club CEO Mitsu Iwasaki said in the club’s press release.

This year’s honorees are Ron Kauk, Kai Lightner, Joanne and Jorge Urioste, author David Smart, former AAC president Glenn Porzak, Congressman Raul Grijalva, and AAC volunteers Rick Merritt and Nancy Savickas. The online event will also include many special guests, including Tommy Caldwell, Meagan Martin, Kilian Jornet, Emily Harrington and more.

While the event is free, registration is required. The Annual Benefit Gala is also a key fundraising event for the club, so there are opportunities to upgrade your experience, such as hosting a VIP “Pod Party” with a celebrity climber. (Click here to register or learn more.)

A press release about this years awardees reads:

Chairman Raul Grijalva: Brower Conservation Award

Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

A native of Tucson, Arizona, and son of a bracero, Raul M. Grijalva has been advocating for his community’s needs for more than 30 years. He began his career in public service as a community organizer in Tucson. Four decades later, he continues to be an advocate for those in need and a voice for the constituents of his home community. From 1974 to 1986, Raul served on the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, including six years as Chairman. In 1988, he was elected to the Pima County Board of Supervisors, where he served for the next 15 years, chairing the board for two of those years.

He later resigned his seat on the Board of Supervisors in 2002 to run successfully for Congress and has represented Southern Arizona in Congress ever since…. He joined the House Natural Resources Committee and became one of Congress’ most outspoken champions for endangered species, wilderness, national parks, public lands and stronger oil and gas regulations, and authored the National Landscape Conservation System Act and the Federal Lands Restoration Act, both of which President Obama signed into law as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.

Throughout his career, Raul has always fought for underrepresented voices. Since becoming Ranking Member of the Natural Resources Committee in January 2015, Rep. Grijalva has focused on diversifying the environmental movement beyond traditional activist groups, holding a number of Capitol Hill roundtables with women’s groups, Latino organizations, Native American tribes and other communities traditionally underrepresented in environmental decision-making. He continues to lead an effort supported by multiple tribes to establish the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, which would protect the Grand Canyon watershed and sacred Native American historical and cultural sites.

In addition to his chairmanship on the Natural Resources Committee, he is also a senior member of the Committee on Education and Labor, the Chairman Emeritus of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and a long-standing member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Married to Ramona Grijalva, they have three daughters, Adelita, Raquel and Marisa, and are proud grandparents to five.

David Smart: Ad Carter Literary Award

David Smart. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

David Smart. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

David Smart was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1962. He started rock climbing in 1976 and has climbed in many places in North America and Europe. He is the author of five climbing guidebooks to Eastern Canada, a memoir, A Youth Wasted Climbing, and the historical climbing novels, Above the Reich and Cinema Vertigo. In Paul Preuss, Lord of the Abyss, he explored the life of the legendary Austrian free soloist. It was short-listed for the Boardman Tasker prize in 2019. His book Emilio Comici, Angel of the Dolomites won the Mountain Literature Prize at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival in 2020. He is a recipient of the Summit of Excellence prize from the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. He is the co-founder of Gripped Magazine and continues to be active as a new-route climber in the Rockies and northeastern Canada. He attended the University of Toronto and lives there with his wife, Katrina. His latest project is a biography of the great American climber Royal Robbins. [Alpinist Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives received the award in 2016.]

Glenn Porzak: Honorary Membership

Glenn Porzak. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Glenn Porzak. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Glenn is a lifelong mountaineer. Climbing has taken him all over the world…. He’s led nine Himalayan expeditions and more than 30 expeditions worldwide. His climbing resume is vast, but some highlights include summiting the Seven Summits in 1994, and over 50 ascents in the Swiss and French Alps, including the Matterhorn in 1966 and again 50 years later in 2016. Glenn was also the first person to climb the 100 highest peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park, including an estimated 80 ascents of Longs Peak by 14 different routes.

Glenn’s resume goes far beyond tick lists. He was also a very active member of the climbing community, feeling the need to give back. He has served as president of both the American Alpine Club and Colorado Mountain Club. During his tenure as AAC President he was instrumental in moving the club’s headquarters from New York to Colorado, the center of the American climbing world. He also removed the club’s membership requirement, making it more accessible for people to join.

Glenn’s work for the climbing community has been recognized by awards like the CMC’s highest award, the Ellinwood Medal, and by the Explorer’s Club with a Citation of Merit. Now, we add the AAC’s highest recognition, Honorary Membership, to Glenn’s esteemed resume.

Jorge and Joanne Urisote: Honorary Membership

Joanne and Jorge Urioste after completing yet another first ascent, 2019. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Joanne and Jorge Urioste after completing yet another first ascent, 2019. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Fifty years ago, a teenage girl met a Jesuit priest in upstate New York, and a very unlikely sequence of events exploded and cascaded thereafter.

It was a different era back then; climbers were few. Finding a serious climbing partner was like a desert tortoise trying to find a mate on devastated acres [that had been] plowed-up for development.

But the two tortoises did meet and immediately they climbed hard and incessantly, pioneering ice climbing in New England, gobbling alpine routes all over North America, rock climbing in Yosemite and jumping on unclimbed biggies in the Andes. It was an unrestrained banquet where we gobbled up as much as we could eat, as fast as we could eat it; and then we immediately went for more.

Our wanderings brought us to the edge of the Mojave Desert in 1974, where a wilderness of 1,000-meter walls had been hardened by the Keystone Thrust Fault, the place known as Red Rock [Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada]. We tumbled into this sandstone maze, feeling wonder as we gazed up at huge, glistening lines. We climbed many of these lines, which are now classic routes. [A Crag Profile about Red Rock and the Uriostes’ prolific activity in the area can be found in Alpinist 28 (2009).]

Given the amount of climbing obsession in our lives, people often ask, “Do you do other things, too?” Our answer is, “Yes.” Jorge left the priesthood and we got married. He was an anthropology professor for 35 years. We had two kids and Joanne was a dedicated at-home mom, during which time she temporarily stopped climbing, but ran wilderness ultra-marathons, some solo and unsupported up to 165 miles. Joanne became a [registered nurse] and co-owned a small business running pharmaceutical research in rheumatology. Joanne is fluent in Spanish and has worked with underserved populations. One of our greatest satisfactions is our son and daughter, with whom we currently climb and do first ascents.

Kai Lightner: Bates Award

Kai Lightner. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Kai Lightner. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

In 2006, 6-year-old Kai Lightner walked into The Climbing Place in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and discovered the world of rock climbing. That year he began competing in the USA Climbing organization (the national governing body for competitive climbing) and attended his first sport climbing national championship competition in 2007. In 2010 Kai won his first sport climbing national championship. In September 2014 he earned the gold medal for his age category (14-15) at the Youth World championship in Noumea, New Caledonia, becoming the first American Lead World Champion since 1995. In 2015, at the age of 15, Kai became the Open/Adult Lead Climbing National Champion in his first year of eligibility. Overall, Kai has earned 12 National Championship titles (10 in youth categories; two in the adult circuit), and is a five-time youth world championship medalist.

Kai has a passion for indoor competitive climbing and enjoys “pushing the limits” through outdoor sport climbing. In 2013, Kai reached new heights outdoors, climbing his first 5.14a route. Since that time, he has climbed numerous 5.14 graded routes, reaching a new milestone in April 2015 with his ascent of Era Vella (5.14d) in Margalef, Spain. He aims to continue tackling new outdoor challenges, and competing in international climbing competitions, but he has also launched himself into the world of social justice with the creation of his organization Climbing for Change. The organization’s mission is to connect underserved communities with individuals and organizations that seek to increase minority participation in rock climbing and the outdoor adventure industry. From athletes to industry leaders or filmmakers, they aim to make our industry a more inclusive environment. [Lightner wrote a story about trad climbing with Doug Robinson that first appeared in Alpinist 55 (2016), titled “Between the Earth and the Sky.”]

Past Bates Award recipients include Alex Honnold, Chris Sharma, Tommy Caldwell, Steph Davis, Hayden Kennedy, Colin Haley, Sasha DiGiulian, Margo Hayes, and Brette Harrington.

Rick Merritt: Heilprin Award

Rick Merritt, Matterhorn Peak, California. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Rick Merritt, Matterhorn Peak, California. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Rick grew up and lives in Norwell, Massachusetts. His love of mountains began with family vacations to the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the late 1960s. Hiking with his father eventually led to rock climbing and to ice climbing and to the AAC. Rick has climbed throughout the United States and in Canada, Mexico, South America, Africa and Switzerland.

He became a member of the AAC in 1989 and has volunteered for the Club since the 1990s. He became NE Section Co-Chair in 2009 when Nancy Savickas became the Chair. Over the years, Rick has become known as the New England Section grill master, sometimes cooking for as many as 60 attendees at the summer and fall barbecues. Additionally Rick has served the Club by volunteering on several Annual Benefit Dinner host committee’s after advocating for their return. He has also been an instrumental figure (and personality) at the Rumney Craggin’ Classic and is a Great Ranges Fellowship member.

When not climbing, Rick enjoys family, politics, golf and fishing.

Nancy Savickas: Heilprin Award

Nancy Savickas. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Nancy Savickas. [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Nancy caught the climbing bug on a trekking trip to Nepal in the mid-1980s. Since then she has learned the skills necessary to travel in the mountains and on rock and ice. She’s been lucky enough to have climbed on all but one continent. Her first love is ice and alpine climbing but a weekend in the Gunks on warm rock is great, too. She’s been a member of the AAC since 1995 and has served as chair of the New England Section since 2010. In addition to the AAC she is a card-carrying member of the UK’s Lancashire Mountain Club. She resides south of Boston with a variety of parrots and tortoises.

Ron Kauk: Underhill Award

Ron Kauk on Magic Line (5.14). [Photo] Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Ron Kauk on Magic Line (5.14), Yosemite Valley. [Photo] Jim Thornburg/Courtesy of the American Alpine Club

Legendary Yosemite climber Ron Kauk was born in Redwood City, California on September 23, 1957. At age 14, Ron went on a 20-day backcountry experience that was organized by his school. For the fun of it, one of the adults bet a milkshake for anyone who could complete a difficult climb, which Ron successfully won. Transfixed by the beauty of climbing, and encouraged by role models in the rock climbing community in Yosemite, Ron was faced with the choice of continuing with his formal education or moving his education to a different venue. He chose the path of nature and moved to Yosemite at age 17.

At the climber’s campground in Yosemite Valley, known as Camp 4, Ron was surrounded by a community of like-minded individuals seeking meaning in the vertical challenges of the granite walls–walls carved by the forces of nature. A list of Ron’s contemporaries would be a Who’s Who of American rock climbing. Together, they explored the Valley and beyond, venturing into the granite domes of the high country in Tuolumne Meadows and down into the eastern Sierras. They had a blank canvas in the natural art of Yosemite, and pushed the limits of human climbing.

Ron’s climbing accomplishments are many, but they all involve expanding the horizons of climbing. Among the more iconic achievements is a boulder problem right in the middle of Camp 4 known as Midnight Lightning [V8]. Another well-known [Yosemite] climb is Astroman (5.11c, 1,200′)…. Yet another, Magic Line [5.14], is a very thin crack that is on the right side of Vernal Falls, which Ron considers one of his “lifetime accomplishment” climbs because of its difficulty. These climbs, and many more, can easily be found on climbing videos and web posts as signs of the admiration by the world climbing community for Ron’s barrier-breaking vision in rock climbing.

Ron’s career as a climber quickly reached international proportions, and he spent several years in Europe exploring its climbing areas and participating in climbing competitions. His reputation created media opportunities, including roles in the Hollywood productions “Cliffhanger” and “Mission Impossible.” He continues to consider climbing as a way of life that furthers his education and commitment to respecting Yosemite, a place that powerfully evokes the reality of our connection to the natural world. [A feature about Ron’s son Lonnie Kauk following in his father’s footsteps and completing the first true redpoint ascent of Magic Line (placing all gear on lead) was featured in Alpinist 66 (2019).]

About The American Alpine Club
The American Alpine Club is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization whose vision is a united community of competent climbers and healthy climbing landscapes. Together with our members, the AAC advocates for American climbers domestically and around the world; provides grants and volunteer opportunities to protect and conserve the places we climb; hosts local and national climbing festivals and events; publishes two of the world’s most sought-after climbing annuals, the
American Alpine Journal and Accidents in North American Climbing; cares for the world’s leading climbing library and country’s leading mountaineering museum; manages five campgrounds as part of a larger lodging network for climbers; and annually gives $80,000+ toward climbing, conservation, and research grants that fund adventurers who travel the world. Learn about additional programs and become a member at