Big, sharp and pointy
A talk with Dunham Gooding about the American Alpine Institute
By Pat Grubb
The American Alpine Institute (AAI) has grown from its beginnings in 1975 as a small outfit offering guided mountaineering trips and climbing instruction to an operation with worldwide reach. Where in the world do you want to climb? AAI can take you there. Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, the harrowing account of a Mt. Everest ascent, describes AAI as “The best all around climbing school and guide service in North America.” New York Times writer Matt Mooney wrote, “AAI is the Harvard of climbing schools.” Recently MBE sat down and talked to Dunham Gooding, founder and director of AAI, to find out the story behind the accolades.
MBE: Tell us about yourself.
I went to college at Lewis and Clark in Portland in 1966. Mt. Hood was within striking distance, and I immediately began to learn how to climb on glaciers and to enjoy their beauties. After grad school and a few years working in Portland, I got a job at Western Washington University (WWU) teaching writing, and my wife and I moved up here.
MBE: So how did AAI come about?
The first year we ran one or two courses that were incredibly cheap. I didn’t know how much to charge or what the market could bear. It was all a process of discovery. It was intriguing, it was problem solving, it was like climbing. After that, we began scouting for countries to offer programs. Within a couple of years, we were offering programs in Bolivia in the summer, Ecuador in the winter, and as the years wore on we kept adding more trips to Peru, Chile, Argentina, Nepal, India. Locally, we were offering at first glacier climbing, then rock climbing in the mountains. We didn’t make much money then because everything we made we put back into the business to help it grow.
MBE: How were you different from other companies?
MBE: How did the name American Alpine Institute come about:
MBE: You have a huge number of guides on your roster. Are they all staff?
MBE: What sort of clients can take your courses? I was surprised to see how many of the courses were coded suitable for beginners.
MBE: What would be the greatest adventures you’ve had in this business?
MBE: You offer trips all over the world. Where are the new places you’re going to?
MBE: What’s changed in this business since 1975?
MBE: Tell me about Guide’s Choice Award:
We want our clients to have the best gear too, because if it’s lighter, if it’s more functional, if it keeps them dry, it means the trip will be more successful. It’s in the team’s best interest for everyone to be comfortable and safe. So when we find a piece of gear that’s the best in its category, we give it our Guide’s Choice Award. Our tests usually last anywhere from six to eighteen months. Our guides use and wear this stuff six days a week intensely so it gets far more wear than the typical climber.
MBE: Where do your customers come from?
MBE: How about locally?
We’ve really been doing a lot, especially in the last five years, to convey to people that all they have to be is in good shape, they don’t have to be athletes. We can equip them, teach them the fundamentals of what they need to know, and they can do an easy route on Mt. Baker in three days and have an experience of a lifetime. It’s really exciting and it’s a lot of work but as long as they’re in good shape, we can help them get ready for it. Three months is plenty of time to get into shape.
Many of them don’t plan on becoming climbers but once they get on the glacier the sense of achievement is so great. When they get to the summit, it’s nothing like they’ve ever done before. A lot of people do it because they think they ought to, or they think it’s cool, but once they do it, they are bowled over by its beauty, its complexity and the sense of achievement.
MBE: Any other courses of interest to locals?
Things may look normal or right, whatever that means, there may be tracks from someone else, but the wind load is different or the temperature has changed. Next thing you know, there’s a slab avalanche; it’s very hard to get out of them. If you’re in it, you’re probably buried.
Unless you have a transceiver and your friends have them and know how to use them, no one’s going to find you in time to get you out.
A big component of who we are is our advocacy for the environment. We have been doing it for many years. Recreation has become hugely important to our economy. It has reversed the balance where the extractive industries had a huge impact on the economy in the past and recreation was pretty small; now, it’s the opposite. Part of giving people recreational opportunities is access to public lands, but there is a terrible maintenance backlog on bridges and access roads, especially with the U.S. Forest Service.
We do our best to point out to members of Congress not only the importance of recreation to their constituents’ lives but also the economic importance of recreation. We also spend a lot of staff time on reading and commenting on draft environmental impact statements, draft management plans for the Bureau of Land Management and forest service. Everybody cares about that stuff but very few take the time to read and to make their views known.
We also frequently visit legislators in Washington, D.C., and provide them with information about the industry. I always tell our group that humbleness and succinctness is important. They don’t have time for lots of information. Give them just enough and they’ll ask for more.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact that Dunham Gooding and the American Alpine Institute have had on the sport of climbing. From introducing newcomers to the sport, the teaching of professionals, to the education of government officials, Gooding and AAI have led the way. The creed of excellence that permeates the Institute is as clear and beautiful as the big and sharp and pointy mountains that first set Gooding on his life’s journey. X