Phil Powers announced this week that he intends to step down as CEO of the American Alpine Club—a position which he has held for nearly 15 years.
Powers is a lifelong climber, author and educator, and one of the owners of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. He has served on the boards of the American Mountain Guides Association and Access Fund, and has led numerous expeditions to South America, Alaska and the Karakoram in Pakistan, where he has made ascents of K2 and Gasherbrum II without the use of supplemental oxygen. He also made the first ascent of the Washburn Face of Denali, the first ascent of Western Edge on Lukpilla Brakk, Pakistan, and the first winter traverse of the Cathedral Group of the Teton Range.
He has written two books on climbing, titled Wilderness Mountaineering and Climbing: Expedition Planning. His essays and articles have appeared in multiple journals and newspapers, and he has received numerous grants and awards, including the American Mountain Foundation’s VIIth Grade Award for climbing achievement, the AAC Mountaineering Fellowship Grant, the Mugs Stump Climbing Grant, the Wilderness Education Association’s Paul Petzoldt Award for Excellence in Outdoor Education, and the AAC Heilprin Award for service.
In a 2005 Rock and Ice profile of Powers just following the beginning of his tenure at the AAC, Dick Jackson, the then-president of the AMGA, described him as “incredibly articulate…and very persistent and powerful.”
Rock and Ice caught up with Powers to discuss his time as CEO, his hopes for the future of the AAC, and his own life as a climber.
Q&A with Phil Powers
What led you into your job at the AAC?
It’s kind of a perfect job for me. I wasn’t even aware it was available, and Jed Williamson, a former president of the Club and former head of the U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team, called me up and said, “Why haven’t you applied?” And I was like, “Because I didn’t know it was open!” So I applied.
What have your priorities been during your time as CEO?
The Club has had a heritage of—I wouldn’t say being, but at least seeming—exclusive. Even in the name, American Alpine Club, it feels as if it’s for alpinists. My real agenda, since the start, has been to welcome people, and that began with welcoming all kinds of climbing. Especially in the beginning, to remind ourselves that we were about all kinds of climbing, whether it was rock climbing or bouldering or climbing that hadn’t even been invented yet. It began with a diversity of [types of] climbers, and it’s extended to a diversity of people within climbing.
What are you most proud of from your time with the AAC?
People often point to the growth, but I’m much more interested in the quality of that growth. I was just at Climb the Hill in D.C., and to look around the room at the afterparty and see the wide variety of people that are now not just participating in but shaping climbing, guiding climbing, leading our future, that’s far more inspiring to me than the quantity of growth.
[Also] our education program, where we’re really actively trying to improve the consistency and quality of delivery of education through the volunteer network in the United States. By far the majority of climbing education happens through volunteers; there are all manner of volunteer-based networks that are teaching climbing.
What we have focused on is helping their instructors speak with one another, share best practices, and together, get better. In the long run, we will be certifying instructors so that the clientele knows that when they go to learn to climb from an institution whose teachers are volunteers, that those volunteers have been trained.
Are there any specific moments during your time with the AAC that you would point to as highlights?
Oh, so many. To be able to become friends with a generation of climbers that made a difference in climbing but also really, by and large, all had their own professions—they weren’t professional climbers, they had their own ways of making a living—to be able to meet and know and become friends with those guys was an amazing experience.
And spending time with extraordinary younger people, who are not just making a difference in climbing but are changing the entire activity, raising the bar, doing things that we never imagined. And to be able to—I wouldn’t say keep up with them, by any means—but to be able to get outside with them and go to Climb the Hill with them, and talk to them about what they think the future of climbing holds, has just been wonderful.
What would you say is the biggest challenge that you’ve faced during your time there?
Well, it’s always hard to make a nonprofit business work. We’re not selling Camalots. It’s hard to run a business that is based on doing good works in the world. That’s not always understood, that’s not always valued the way one thinks it should be, so I’ve really benefited from great marketing people who can tell that story well enough to convince people to join the AAC and participate.
What are you most proud of in your climbing career?
I’m pretty proud of my failures. I failed on Latok III with my partner Greg Collins, on what I thought was a really great adventure. I think some of those “failures” are some of my best trips, some of my most rewarding adventures. And they also sort of mark what it means to be a climber for me, which is good decision-making and living in the moment and not climbing for some result but instead for the climbing itself and for the partnership involved.
Have you had any low points in your climbing career?
I’ve certainly had low points. I fell 75 feet and broke my back in four places and broke my arm. I guess that’s a low point. But on the other hand, I was surrounded by wonderful people, and in many respects that was a high point, just to recognize how wonderful this community is, and how special it is to have the kinds of friendships that I’ve been able to enjoy.
Why did you decide that now is the time to leave?
When I started this job, I thought, 10 years would be a great run. I don’t think any institution should have too much of one executive. So I thought 10 years would be a good run, and ever since that mark, I’ve been trying to figure out how to leave. What’s the right time? What do I want to get done? I kept imagining, Okay, maybe two more years, and then I realized two years is not a plan. No one can think two years out.
I went from this kind of rolling two-year vagueness to realizing that I’d like to do some things in my own life that make a difference. I’d like to pay attention to Jackson Hole Mountain Guides a little bit more. There are other things in the works that I think will have meaning for me.
Honestly, one of my favorite episodes here at the Club was when we, in the spring, came out with our own position on climate change and began to take a stand there. And there are some things and categories, like climate change and the way food is distributed in the world, that have meaning in my life and I’d like to pay attention to that a little bit. I’d actually like to grow a little food right here in Vermont.
What are your hopes for the future of the AAC?
Climbers are powerful people. They have big opinions, they have a great drive, they have a huge work ethic. And they have amazing values. One of the things that has inspired me most at the AAC is the degree to which the Club, and its volunteers and its membership and its leadership, care not just about the mountain or the crag that they want to climb, or the climbing area in their own backyard, but care in a much larger way about the ecosystem in which those places reside, the landscape around that ecosystem, and the planet itself.
I’m most pleased when the Club can play above its normal game a little bit and comment on, make a difference in, and have some sway about things that affect the larger world, the planet, the larger environment.
That’s what I look forward to seeing more of.