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Thursday, April 6, 2017

The American Alpine Club; Promises, Politics, and the Myth of Advocacy


Despite a sunny start, we always suspected it would end in tears.


What we couldn't know was how much insight it would give us to the inner politics and contradictions of the advocates


After years of flying under our own power, Cindy and I recently began exploring a new option: founding a Smoke Hole Chapter of the American Alpine Club.


This came on the heels of a regional AAC Summit, held in Seneca Rocks this past March 10-11, to which I had been invited by D.C. Section chairman Dave Giacomin.

With my wife Cindy along to make notes and keep me on a level footing, I crossed North Mountain from our Franklin home, winding down Germany Valley and past the soaring blade of Seneca to find the AAC crew gathered in Yokum’s Family Cabin #4; Tom Cecil and Diane Kearns, the Seneca co-chairs, Dave G., and a handful of chapter chairs from Pittsburgh, Richmond, and D.C. 


After a warm greeting, we settled in and listened to a lot of eager new leaders and relatively new climbers who were working hard to offset the ignorance and reversals of the new administration in the White House.


We shared some of our own activities and ideas, and at the end of the meeting, Dave handed us parting gifts and said, “Just let me know if you want to start a Smoke Hole chapter; I can do that for you, no problem.”


Two days later, we sent a text and asked Dave to go ahead with that idea; we wanted to form a Smoke Hole chapter of the AAC.


While there is a Seneca Rocks Chapter, we felt that Smoke Hole deserved a separate chapter for many reasons, chief among being that Cindy and I would be the first chapter chairs with a personal rather than professional connection to the area.


I grew up less than an hour away in the Shenandoah Valley, and first came to the region as a young caver in junior high, exploring passages from Sinnet-Thorn to Nut and Trout Caves, learning to rappel and navigate in a wonderland of fantastic formations, underground streams, hypothermia, mud and darkness. My mentor in all of these adventures was Kris Kline, one of the most prolific and unrecognized explorers and climbers of the Blue Ridge and Alleghenies in the late 70s.


As a new sport climber, I was among the first generation to enjoy the bolted lines of Franklin, where I joined the crowd putting up routes with my own contributions, Belly of the Whale, Aloha, and Hard Thang. Here, I learned the deeper art of the sport known as rock climbing from local legends like John Burcham, Ed Begoon, Darrell Hensley, Tony Barnes, Dan Miller and George Powell.


In 1993, Darrell Hensley invited Troy Johnson and myself to join the climbers already developing lines in Smoke Hole. We put up the first lines at the Long Branch Buttress and on the Ninja Walls, and in the 24 years since then, I’ve put up over 50 trad and sport lines in the canyon.


When I realized that, although once a city park, the cliffs of Franklin were in fact private property, I contacted the landowners, and was one of the only visitors to ever ask permission, even belatedly, to climb there.


Mike Fisher and I constructed the first coherent trail plan at Franklin, and I began looking for volunteers, soon finding them in the Nolan LaVoy and the students of the Miller School in Albemarle County, who built steps and repaired trails in 2006.


The following year, I coordinated with Jamie Struck of Lyndon State College in Vermont, bringing New England student volunteers to repair the trails of Franklin and Reed Creek, a tradition that is now in its tenth year.


In 2007, I also created the first Franklin Trail Daze, at which the newly-formed Mid-Atlantic Climbers’ Coalition recruited members and gave away swag. Near the end of the event, I introduced two of the officers to the landowners, who had driven into the Gorge to “see what all the fuss was about”.


My wife Cindy learned to climb in Smoke Hole, coming to the sport in her late 40s, after two back surgeries, a stroke and ten years of battling Multiple Sclerosis. She loves to fish, swim, hike and climb there as much as I do, perhaps a bit more when it comes to fishing. Her daughter’s family lives just outside Petersburg, 20 miles from Smoke Hole; her son-in-law has been hunting, fishing, and exploring Smoke Hole for most of his life, and our granddaughters are learning to fish and climb and love the outdoors as they grow up in and around the canyon.


At the meeting in Seneca Rocks, Tom Cecil and Diane Kearns agreed that Seneca Rocks is a very unique crag, with a tremendous history and very distinct character, and that “the Chapter of the AAC was founded just for Seneca Rocks and Seneca climbers”.


Tom and Diane also made it clear that they are incredibly busy running two guide services, a gear shop, the Seneca Rocks Historical program, and acting as the Educational Director, as well as participating in all the programs talked about for the coming year.


Tom pointed out that many if not most of the people who climb in Seneca don't come to Franklin or Smoke Hole, and vice-versa; very different places with very different cultures and climbers.


Here are just a few of the differences:

Since the beginning of 2017, the Smoke Hole Canyon page has posted about environmental and political issues affecting West Virginia and outdoor recreation across the U.S.; the Appalachian Pipeline Project, the attempted sale of our Public Lands, the overturn of the Stream Protection Rule, the attempted reversal of Bears Ears Monument status and the subsequent withdrawal of Patagonia from the annual Outdoor Retail event. Across the hill, the Seneca Rocks page remained silent on all these issues, but came back strong with an endorsement of climbing... in Cuba.


We're working with the MNFS to support both system and climbing access trails, and will shortly be commencing with the restoration of the Cave Mountain Trail and Picnic area, giving local access to their heritage and offering climbers a better way to access the climbing potential of Cave Mountain. We'll also be working to support the entire 23-mile stretch of the North Fork Trail.

The Seneca Rocks Chapter 'supports' trail work, but without actual participation.


We're working to bring climbers and the community together; reviewing restaurants and campgrounds, stores and local services, and encouraging climbers to attend local fundraising dinners and events that have nothing to do with climbing.

We are working with the Lambert Hilltop Park Association in Circleville (that's south of SR in Germany Valley) to supply bedding, utensils, and appliances for the local community center and disaster shelter.


We're trying to secure climbing access in Franklin and other private crags, instead of calling "No Trespassing" signs 'sensitive access'.


We're teaching people the correct and least damaging way to replace bolts, and determining which type of bolts and anchors work best for the rock in our region.


We continue upgrading hardware on climbs, across the region, strictly out of pocket.


Meanwhile, across North Fork Mountain, they're raising funds to replace bolts and install high-quality anchors... again, in Cuba.

Here are some of the inconsistencies:


The AAC is very proud of its support of women, but they lied to and rejected Cindy, a former nurse, EMT and firefighter who started several businesses, worked for Habitat for Humanity building homes for poor West Virginians, learned how to climb in her 40s and has gone on to lead routes up to 5.8, as well as building trail and completing dozens of first ascents with me, across the United States?


The meeting stressed the AAC’s determination to support diversity and reach out to at-risk communities; Cindy is a descendant of Seneca Indians, a foster child who started her life in abuse and poverty in the slum, and my paternal family escaped the poverty of Appalachia working with the CCC crews who built the walls along the Skyline Drive and the Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.


The AAC highlights its outreach to the disabled, including one such story as a "Live Your Dream" grant in their 2016 Guide to membership. 

Cindy has survived and recovered from a stroke that all but paralyzed one side of her body, she has battled Multiple Sclerosis for the last fifteen years, and still struggles against the degenerative disc disease that required the complete rebuild of her lower spine. Last year, Cindy survived a cerebral aneurysm that horrified the best neurosurgeon in the United States, requiring a 4 hour operation that was "the most complex procedure (he) had ever completed or witnessed".

Perhaps her lack of visible disability isn't dramatic enough for a fundraiser or membership drive photo.


As for my resume, most of you know it; over 180 first ascents and miles of trail built or repaired in Virginia, West Virginia, Arizona and Colorado.

I helped build the Stairmaster at Seneca, did the first trail work and created Trail Daze to benefit trails in Franklin and Smoke Hole.

I was a SAR EMT with the Civil Air Patrol in this region during Hurricanes Hugo and Floyd and Isabel, and supported clean-up and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, after which I worked with the local Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the poorer folks of Pendleton County.

I've been a volunteer host in the Tonto National Forest and Superstition Mountains in Arizona, where I also fed 40 homeless people hot food three times a week out of my own pocket while working a minimum wage job.  

After that, I spent two years working as maintenance and campground host in Elevenmile Canyon in the Pike National forest of Colorado.

I am currently working with the Monongahela National Forest to restore and maintain system trails in and around Smoke Hole, and still actively developing new crags and lines for people to enjoy. 


I admit to a past with the advocates, but while I have questioned the paradox of an AAC that sponsors huge events and film festivals with massive carbon footprints, I was willing to work for change from the inside, to make peace for the good of the crags and local climbing community.


I hoped the AAC would consider all of this, instead of simply holding a grudge, or looking at a map and measuring distances.

Hope springs eternal, but the cold hard facts of institutional stupidity never go away, as I was to learn.


After two days of waiting, Dave G reluctantly informed us that he had promised something he could not deliver, and began rather petulantly asking what the differences between ourselves and Seneca would be, despite having heard us tell him those exact details at the meeting four days earlier.


(You might think about that the next time your AAC section or chapter chairs and/or other admins ask for feedback; no matter how enthusiastic they sound, just how much are they actually listening to, and how much will they care to remember?)


Determined to stop wasting time on messenger boys, we made contact with a number of Smoke Hole climbers and encouraged them to write to letters of support for the new chapter, and to send them to Adam Peters, the AAC’s go-to guy for forming new Chapters, according to Dave and the AAC’s Guide to Membership.


When Adam returned from vacation on March 21st, he sent an email and we scheduled a chat for the evening of the following day, Wednesday the 22nd.


After twenty minutes on the phone, Adam was enthusiastic and excited about the idea, as well, and said he was “emailing Dave to let him know we’re making you a new chapter, and getting the ball rolling on this end.”


Cindy and I immediately began creating a schedule that would not conflict with Seneca AAC events, and reaching out to local businesses that we hoped to support with events that would bring together climbers and the local community.


The following day, Thursday, March 23rd, Adam sent an email to AAC HQ, asking for creation of a new email address for the chapter.


The weekend came, and, after sending emails to Adam and Dave telling them that we would like to announce the new Chapter at our upcoming Reed’s Creek trail and Adopt-a-Highway event,  Cindy and I went about the business of planning events we did not yet know would never happen.


On Tuesday, March 28th, we mailed in short bio pieces and pictures to go with the New Chapter page.


That afternoon, a full six days after giving us the green light, Adam Peters called to tell us that, despite all the promises he and Dave Giacomin had poured out, the Smoke Hole Chapter of the American Alpine Club was not going to happen.


This is where the story gets confusing; first Adam said the decision had come down from on high, then later defended it as his own.

Adam said that we were not eligible for consideration due to a list of qualifications, conditions for a new chapter that were obviously not applied to Seneca Rocks.

Despite all this email evidence, Adam and his handlers now insist that it is my history, of pointing out the double standards and hypocrisies of the advocates, which took us out of the running. I find that a bit incredible given that it took six days for him to change his mind from "We're a big GO on the Smoke Hole Chapter!" to "We're not fulfilling a promise made by two administrators of the American Alpine Club."

Yes, I have criticized the priorities and lackluster activism of the advocates in the past, and given their present course and policies, I will no doubt do so again.

When the AAC highlights Duane Raleigh fawning over gym climbers while blaming those of us climbing outdoors for their deaths in a TNB article, I will call the advocates and the publisher on the fact that his magazine sells an awful lot of ad space to gyms.

When, in the next tremendous waste of paper and time that is Rock and Ice, Duane tells the 2,000 people who begin climbing in gyms every month that "every climber should put up a new route before they die", I will ask where exactly he thinks all those routes would go, and propose that he might like to start by showing them some of his favorite secret places. I will also point out just how many people who sell bolting equipment also use his ad space.

When Duane goes on to say that those newbies should also replace an anchor, without any mention of experience or education, I wonder just what kind of Swiss cheese cluster foxtrot Duane would like to find atop classic lines at his own favorite crag.

This is called criticism, not slander, although the AAC and the AF would love for you to forget that there is actually a difference.

Questioning the advocates is not heresy.

And there is plenty to question;

The chapter program was described as “experimental”, even though the Seneca meeting had given the impression of a system that is so freeform that Dave never batted an eye while admitting that he was “forming a Maryland Chapter, even though we all know D.C. doesn’t need another chapter, but I’ve gotta give Piotr (the relocating San Francisco co-chair) something to do.”


When asked specifically why Smoke Hole didn’t qualify, Adam listed a number of things that are equally true about Seneca Rocks, but refused to admit that was a double standard, then asked us to list differences we had already explained in both emails and phone conversations.


The message was clear; the decision is made, and you’re screwed.


Adam still held out the consolation prize of free memberships, but I had no doubt that those memberships came with an unstated but inflexible gag order regarding AAC posts and events; despite repeated offers, we declined the free collar and muzzle.


After someone forwarded an email I had sent out explaining the situation to the climbers who had supported our new chapter, I was unfriended on Facebook by Dave G, who then not only blocked me from his page but from the D.C. Section page.


Although none of them had ever done more than ask for clarification of the incident, several of my friends have now also been unfriended by Dave, and have also been blocked from accessing or commenting on the FB pages of the D.C. section and Seneca Rocks Chapter.


From the outside, this looks a lot like trying to stop a dialogue between members and climbers; sweeping the mess they created under the rug while trying desperately insisting that, like Smoke Hole, there is nothing to see here.


It begs the question; just how many times have the leaders of the AAC done this, and what kind of collateral damage have they kept from their members?


Is the American Alpine Club actually profiting from their own indiscretions by creating fundraisers to deal with issues exacerbated by administrative arrogance and double-dealing?

"But wait a minute, Mike... those folks represent us; they're our advocates, and they care deeply about us... Don't they?"

Not so much.

Neil Arsenault has been a member of the AAC for 40 years; when he asked to be included in the meeting to add some perspective, he was told, flatly, "Not this time, Neil."

Another friend and dues-paying member wrote to the AAC about this issue, and he received not a single reply; a highly respected legal professional who grew up in Colorado and got his membership decades ago, the kind of member who buys a lifetime membership and then gives one to his kids, ignored when  he asked hard questions.

While you might have been given a questionnaire about what you think the focus of the AAC should be, we learned in the Seneca Summit that

1) outside of the obligatory membership drives and fundraisers, the chapter and section chairs of the AAC have little or no clue how to accomplish the goals they set and

2) actual policy is set by feedback from climbing manufacturers, not members.

(That is a direct quote, BTW.)

That means if the manufacturers want the AAC to oppose trade sanctions with the world's leading polluter and human rights violator, China, based on the fact that most of the outdoor industry sells products manufactured in that country, the AAC falls right in line.

It means that when Barack Obama signed off on the biggest giveaway of Public Lands in U.S. history, the advocates let that issue idle on the back burner.

"Why?", you ask.

Look at your guide to membership, and think about just how many of the "valued partners" make the majority of their goods in or buy them from China.

Black Diamond just brought cam manufacturing home, but for most of the fight to save Oak Flat, their Camalots came from China. And valued AF partner Jeep uses quite a bit of copper; want to guess where it comes from?

So what? So, the principle shareholder in the companies that benefitted from the land swap is China. The most likely place for the copper to be refined and marketed is China.

That translates into just enough action on the issues that the advocates can claim to be involved, but never involved enough to really push these issues to the forefront of the climbing community's consciousness.

Right now, the AAC is focusing on the Bear's Ears Monument designation. What they don't want to talk about is how Obama could have used this to reverse the Oak Flat decision, or the fact that Obama trimmed off the NE corner of the new monument to allow a uranium mine to continue drawing water.

The advocates don't want bad news; my invitation to the summit was made on the non-negotiable condition that I not bring up a single issue that deeply affects the region.

Once I saw all the shiny new climbers they had transformed into chapter chairs, I understood; no one must be allowed to pollute the propaganda stream with questions and critical thinking.

It is for this same reason that administrators are not elected by the membership, nor are positions created at their behest.

No, instead, positions deemed necessary by the very elite upper echelon of the AAC are filled by the chosen of that elite; candidates selected from among a small cadre of business owners and guides who can best benefit the corporate image of the AAC, instead of choosing leaders who are most capable of serving the needs of the members, based on their input.


If you are a member or are thinking about becoming a member, and believe changes are needed in how the AAC creates and fills official positions, how it treats potential members and ignores local climbers with decades of experience, speak out and write to your advocates.


If you want to see an end to double standards and the beginning of a major perspective shift in the priorities of the Chapter Program, please write to Adam Peters apeters@americanalpineclub.org, or contact the CEO, Phil Powers https://www.facebook.com/philpowers and let them know what you think.


Represent yourself, climbers; the crags you save may be your own.


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