The former senior vice president of marketing at REI took a 3-year hiatus form the outdoor industry to work with start-up companies in Seattle. But now he’s re-joined the tribe as the CEO of The Mountaineers, the 110-year old, volunteer-based non-profit that leads courses, teaches skills, advocates for conservation and publishes outdoor books.
SNEWS The outdoor industry is like Hotel California: you can check out (for a little while) but never leave. Glad you’re back, Tom. Some might find it surprising that you’re switching to the non-profit side of things, after coming from REI. What are your biggest challenges with running The Mountaineers?
TV It’s so good to be back in the outdoor industry. I’ve always been motivated by challenges, whether that’s at work or things like climbing. The Mountaineers is a healthy organization that is on very solid footing thanks to the leadership, vision and hard work of the staff, volunteers and board. It’s also an organization that has a storied 110-year history. That said, I firmly believe that the best days for The Mountaineers are yet ahead.
One of the challenges I’m excited about is working with our team on how to continue being highly relevant to a community that’s becoming more diverse and whose needs and expectations are changing. To lead change in an organization that’s been around for more than 100 years may take a little more patience than a scrappy startup. But I have confidence we’ll navigate the path needed to ensure The Mountaineers will still be thriving 100 years from now.
SNEWS Most people probably consider The Mountaineers very northwest-centric. Is that fair? And if so, is that where The Mountaineers aims to stay, or will you expand geographically to engage people all across the country?
TV The roots of the Mountaineers are certainly in the Pacific Northwest but we’re happy to serve members and customers around the world. For example, even though most of our members are in the state of Washington, we have members across the country and even a few who live overseas in places like the UK, France and the Philippines. Our publications division is another good example. You can find Mountaineers Books in many places around the country and we have books published in eight languages and sold in more than 20 countries.
We also work closely with partners across the country, for example, as part of the “Alpine 5,” a collaborative that includes The Mountaineers, The Mazamas, the Colorado Mountain Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the American Alpine Club, sharing ideas and offering reciprocity on many of our member benefits.
Finally, through our conservation efforts we partner with organizations across the country on opportunities such as public land advocacy and recreational use access. While we have no plans to expand our program centers beyond the Pacific Northwest, our impact is much broader.
SNEWS What makes Mountaineers courses different from other outdoor education courses?
TVThe fact that our courses and trips are volunteer-led makes them unique from any other outdoor education experience you can think of. Our volunteers have an unmatched passion and enthusiasm for what they’re teaching, and they won’t hesitate to go out of their way to spend an extra hour or even an extra day with a student who’s struggling with a particular skill. The Mountaineers are not a guide service. Our volunteers and leaders provide skilled mentorship, but our students come away able to go out on their own safely and responsibly.
When people take a course with The Mountaineers, they gain much more than simply the skills taught. They are welcomed into a community of friends, mentors and adventure buddies. Our students graduate and then have opportunities to take advanced courses, learn leadership skills, and mentor the next group of students. This is something that makes our approach unique in that they come to us seeking skills, and they end up with a community.
SNEWS Have you ever taken a Mountaineers course? Is there one you want to take this year?
TV Many people who join The Mountaineers start off in a course like Basic Climbing or Scrambling. When I moved to the Northwest 10 years ago I was fortunate to have quickly met people who helped mentor me in skills like mountaineering, alpine climbing, sport and trad so I haven’t yet taken a Mountaineers course. In the coming year, I want to sharpen my skills in a few areas. I lost my close friend, Doug Walker in an avalanche on New Year’s Eve last year, so that’s one class in particular I plan on taking this coming year.
SNEWS Something tells me that Doug would be pleased that you have chosen a path with The Mountaineers.
TV I like to think so. He and I became friends when he served on the REI board and we ended up doing a lot of climbing together. Ironically, Granite Mountain (where he died) was the first climb we did together back in 2006.
In addition to being a climbing partner, Doug was also a mentor and in many ways influenced my interest in taking a serious look at the CEO role at The Mountaineers. After his death, many of my close friends and colleagues were left asking the question, “how might we each be able to carry forward the important work that Doug so passionately cared about?” I’m hopeful that in my role at The Mountaineers I’ll have the opportunity to advance some of the work he was doing in areas such as public lands advocacy, recreational access and inclusion.