This morning, I’m returning home from a four-day business trip to New York City. The meetings in New York were productive and it was good for the change in scenery — well, it’s not bad staying in Mid-Town either.
It’s hard to believe that the American Alpine Club was once headquartered here in the Borough of Manhattan for most of its history. It moved to Golden, Colorado rather recently — in 1993, along with the library and all.
It makes much more sense for the AAC to be located near the mountains where we “practice our religion,” rather surrounded by skyscrapers of a major city. Yet, interestingly, the AAC Benefit Dinner is held in a major city annually, rather than a ski resort or someplace similar, among the mountains. This past March it was held in Boston, Massachusetts.
Boston I get, however. The Harvard Mountaineering Club out of Cambridge has made first ascents in Alaska, Canada and throughout the world. The Boston Museum of Science was lead by HMC member and alpinist Bradford Washburn. But, I just don’t know the connection between climbing and some of these other cities — or if there is any connection at all!
Coming from a prejudiced view of what climbing is and what it ought to be, I’ve judged Washington, DC — my Peaklessburg — pretty hard. It’s taken 10 years to soften and broaden my view. I no longer mean to deride it. Overall, I have begun to recognize and respect the climbing culture here.
I remember that Marcel Schatz, a member of the 1950 Annapurna first ascent expedition, lived and worked in Paris but visited Chamonix every weekend to climb. Despite working in his own Peaklessburg, he was fortunate to be in striking distance to those 4,000-meter mountains. There are lots of stories of city-dweller climbers that escape routinely to feed their restless need. That used to be me too until I made room for other life priorities.
Like Boston, Washington, DC is a starting point for some mountain exploration. The US Geological Survey, headquartered here, supported some mountain exploration. In 1890, the USGS partnered with the relatively new National Geographic Society in sending Israel Russel to Alaska. The NGS was established by Washingtonian businessmen, lawyers and scientists “interested in the world and all that is in it.” Part of that was mountain ranges. The Russel expedition explored the Yakutat Bay area and Mount Saint Elias (18,008 ft./5,489 m.) After mapping the area, Russel returned to his home in New York City. National Geographic also played a significant role in sponsoring the first American ascent of Mount Everest (29,035 ft./8,848 m.) in 1963.
Today, National Geographic hosts events at its headquarters with the subjects of its films and publications. I’ve mentioned presentations by Andrew Skurka, Ed Viesturs, David Roberts, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and others before.
Climbing in the area is limited but not entirely nonexistent. From Washington, the closest crags are reputable top roping sites on the banks of the Potomac River west of the city at Great Falls, Virginia and Carderock, Maryland. There are even a couple of boulder problems if you only have your shoes and you’re climbing alone. Seneca Rocks — that awesome narrow, multi-pitch rock fin in West Virginia, is about four hours away. For things greater, keep going to Red River Gorge in Kentucky or head north to the Gunks in New Paltz, New York. But there isn’t any water ice within a reasonable days drive… Make a weekend trip to the Adirondacks or New England for that.
Washington also has an active indoor climbing culture with Earth Treks north of the city and SportRock in Northern Virginia south of the city. Sasha DiGuilian is the local climbing phenom. DiGuilian is currently climbing harder routes than any other American woman climber, though only the sport climbing community seems to be really excited about that, she’s a national name in that space.
So I’ve come to realize it is possible to be in the city and be a climber. It’s not ideal. The AAC learned that. But it’s a starting point. It’s where we go from here that matters.