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.
Dunham Gooding: I grew up in Connecticut hiking the peaks back there. When I was 15, I went to the Tetons with my brother and suddenly, dramatically, discovered what big mountains were like. I was blown over – the Tetons are a fault block, they rise up, and they’re sharp and pointy and very impressive. I was smitten.
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?
Dunham Gooding: WWU was a part-time position, and I had to do something to earn money. I thought, “I’m a good teacher, and I’m a really good climber,” and the idea of running my own business was quite intriguing, so I offered some courses. There wasn’t much around in terms of climbing schools, a few guide services, and they were very much in the European tradition where you teach the climber the minimum you need to teach in order to haul them up and down the peak. That wasn’t my vision of what climbing is all about. Here was an opportunity to have a real school where you teach people skills at whatever level they need, introductory or advanced, and we did both, but also to teach them good judgment in the mountain so they keep themselves safe and efficient in terms of their goals.
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?
Dunham Gooding: We had a very high standard for ourselves in terms of packing each course with as much information as the student could handle. It was typical for students to comment at the end of the course about how much they had learned. That really helped us to grow because word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing.
MBE: How did the name American Alpine Institute come about:
Dunham Gooding: We had two names before this one but they didn’t really describe what we were all about. We were doing a variety of programs, including things that were quasi-academic that had to do with medicine, research on high altitude illness such as pulmonary and cerebral edema. We were also developing some technical aspects in terms of rescue techniques, and teaching rescuers and military instructors how to be instructors. We were not only teaching the skills, we were teaching people how to teach the skills. We have been recognized over the years for our contribution to training professionals. Institute seemed to capture the nature of what we were doing. The name American Alpine Institute name was born in a soggy tent in Bolivia when we were snowed in.
MBE: You have a huge number of guides on your roster. Are they all staff?
Dunham Gooding: Everyone who works for us is staff; we don’t have any sub-contractors. Some work full-time year-round, others work full-time seasonally depending where they are located. At any time of the year, there is great weather somewhere in the world. Many of our staff have been here for a long time, and that is unusual in this business. A lot of people would like to work here. We advertise for guides frequently because we want to have guides who are as perfect as possible, and we have a huge applicant pool as a result. We typically choose people who have had some instructing and guiding experience. Technical skills are the easiest things to identify, and we need them to be really good climbers but beyond that, we need them to be really skilled with people. They have to be out in the field not just because of the climbing but because they want to share it with other people.
MBE: What sort of clients can take your courses? I was surprised to see how many of the courses were coded suitable for beginners.
Dunham Gooding: We serve people at every skill level, from people who are expert at climbing but want to become more efficient or do longer routes faster to people who have never climbed anything in their lives. We do want them to have backpacked, which is not too hard a thing to do on your own. We offer backpacking trips but most of our courses are climbing courses. We want them to know the fundamentals first because there is so much to learn about climbing.
MBE: You offer training for the Seven Summits. What summits do you offer?
DG: We offer all seven. We have a partner company in New Zealand; we take the lead on some climbs and they take the lead on others. We share other programs. We do Ecuador and Bolivia while they do most of Nepal.
MBE: What would be the greatest adventures you’ve had in this business?
Dunham Gooding: I think doing unclimbed peaks because of the mystery, the lack of certitude as to whether you’re going to get there or whether it’s going to work out. In Bolivia I had a number of trips where we climbed in a remote part of the Cordillera Real. It reminded me of the first explorations in India and Nepal where they had trouble getting to the base of the mountain because they didn’t know how the valleys worked. There was no mapping. We had some Bolivian military maps but they weren’t very useful. Mostly it was hiring local llama herders who do some high pasturing and getting their help in figuring how to get to these peaks. Some of those were pretty straightforward climbing, some of them were pretty hard, technically, but I think the biggest reward was making it all work out. We felt like explorers, and it was really fun and special because there aren’t many places like that in the world.
MBE: You offer trips all over the world. Where are the new places you’re going to?
Dunham Gooding: There aren’t many places we haven’t explored. We go to 16 countries now. The biggest area that is moderately new for us is western China, Szechuan. It’s not hard to get into very remote areas, and it’s mainly a Tibetan culture. There are hundreds of unclimbed peaks.
MBE: What’s changed in this business since 1975?
Dunham Gooding: When we first started, there were guide services that didn’t teach – they mostly got people up and down peaks, and there were clubs that did their best to teach fundamental skills. Since then, a professional aspect of this and other forms of recreation has developed, and I think that’s partly due to a recognition in our culture of the value of recreation and how much can be gained from it. It’s physical health, mental health and the development of character. The problem solving that goes on in climbing is extremely rewarding. Also, I think that because of that recognition of value in recreation, the industry has become far more professional instead of just winging it.
MBE: Tell me about Guide’s Choice Award:
Dunham Gooding: We’ve worked with manufacturers for about 30 years and Guide’s Choice has a very high level of integrity. We don’t get any financial benefit from the manufacturers. We often test products side-by-side. We give our feedback confidentially to the companies, and they’re always eager to get that and to make adjustments.
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?
Dunham Gooding: They come from all over the world. The make-up of the group depends on where the climb is. Our biggest numbers come from Washington state, then California, then eastern U.S. For Denali, only half of our customers are American. In Ecuador, it’s about half American, the rest come from around the world.
MBE: How about locally?
Dunham Gooding: I think one of the biggest and most enjoyable things that we do is climb Mt. Baker a lot. Many people who don’t see themselves as climbers living in the county or in southern British Columbia and lower mainland look at that mountain for years and years and think “wouldn’t it be cool to climb that some day.”
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?
Dunham Gooding: A lot of folks here like to go into the backcountry during the winter on skis or snowboard but also a lot of hikers or snowshoers. It’s a really hazardous environment so they should take one of our avalanche courses. The first thing they learn is how much there is to learn and how dangerous it is. These courses save a lot of lives. If you’re going into the backcountry, make sure you take one of these courses. It’s so easy to get caught.
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.
At first we would just meet with staffers; now we meet with the members themselves.
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