A Very Informal Interview with Mitsu Iwasaki

Last month the American Alpine Club announced that Mitsu Iwasaki would be the organization’s new CEO. This was big news, as he’d be replacing Phil Powers, who has headed the club for the past 15 years and announced he would be retiring last October. It was big news to me, too, because I’ve been friends with Mitsu since 2008 and have shared many adventures with him, from climbing and skiing volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest to trail-running in the Grand Canyon to this one time we helped a couple of random guys load a massive roll of carpet pad onto a very small pickup outside a Home Depot in Denver, without once asking them if they thought it was a safe idea (by the look of how bottomed out the truck was as it drove away, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t). 

So when Mitsu got the AAC job, I thought it would be fun to interview him, but not so formally. I suggested iMessage, since that’s how we communicate about 90 percent of the time anyway. I hope it helps paint a picture of the person now leading the 25,000-member climbing organization. 

Brendan

So I have some professional questions and some not-as-professional questions, which I hope will keep you awake and make this interesting. I think the best strategy here is to just be yourself.

Mitsu

OK. Sounds good.

I like tacos

Getting ahead

Brendan

We’ll do that part later.

Ok, so it would appear that you are the new CEO of the American Alpine Club, as of last month.

Mitsu

Yes, as of August 3

I’m the new CEO at the AAC 

Brendan

Do I talk to you about getting new membership cards, or who handles that?

(Photo: Brendan Leonard)

Mitsu

You could talk to me about membership, but it might be faster to log into the AAC website.

Brendan

Just kidding

Mitsu

Oh wow! I can help get you a non-moldy card.

Brendan

I don’t think that’s mold

Mitsu

What’s going on on the edges 

?

Brendan

Just some general abrasion from being in my wallet I think

Mitsu

Very well used! Love it! Also love that you haven’t had to call the rescue hotline.

Brendan

I know, hoping to keep my streak alive for the rest of my life if possible

Anyway, was the interview for the job like half work-experience questions and half climbing questions, or how did it go?

Mitsu

I was impressed with the search committee. They made an early decision to focus on future vision of the club and not as much on my climbing résumé. It was important to the AAC that I’m an authentic climber—building a lifestyle around climbing—but wasn’t important to know what or what not I’ve climbed.

So, to answer your question more directly. 50 percent work experience and 50 percent vision.

0 percent climbing résumé

I am taking an opportunity now, after the interview, to talk climbing with staff, board, members, and supporters.

Brendan

Did the search committee mention that Phil Powers climbed K2 and 5.13 in the same year?

Mitsu

Yes!

Those are big shoes to follow.

Phil and I compared actual shoe size. We are both 8.5

Brendan

Hahaha

You should ask them if they’ll settle for Mt. Rainier and 5.11 in the same year

Mitsu

Haha!

Brendan

For the purposes of this interview though, what would you list as some important parts of your climbing résumé?

(Besides our visionary 30,000th ascent of Ancient Art)

Mitsu

Oh interesting question. My impulse is to list the 5.12s and hard(ish) mountains routes in South America, Alps, Canadian Rockies, North Cascades, etc.

But

I think what’s important to me isn’t so much the grades.

But the ‘résumé’ of close friendships formed in the mountains

Including you.

Brendan

Dude you’re blowing my journalistic objectivity

But agreed, thank you

Mitsu

I mean, I still remember our Estes Park expedition

epic 

Brendan

I thought you were going to say “What’s important to me isn’t so much the grades, but the fact that I have a master’s degree”

Mitsu

Haha

Brendan

Feel free to use that one if it comes up in conversation

Mitsu

I do think in addition to friendships, there’s been a lot of soul searching and learning in the mountains too.

And maybe those are more important to me now.

In my 20s I did think the objective was to climb the hardest thing I can.

But wasn’t learning anything from it, besides checking off a tick list

Being thoughtful and being honest with myself has resulted in a lot more joy

To your earlier statement, I’m surprised Ancient Art is still there

Jamie Logan, Mia Axon, and I were talking about and remembering Billy Roos last night over dinner

First ascensionist of Cork Screw Route

Brendan

On South Six Shooter?

Mitsu

Ancient Art

Oh sorry

Stolen Chimney

Brendan

South Face of South Six Shooter as well, I just checked.

So let’s go through your biography a little bit: born in Japan, grew up in Seattle, graduated from Western Washington University, started working at Outward Bound right after college, do I have all that correct?

Mitsu

Yes. That’s correct.

Really chose Western because of its proximity to the North Cascades

I often say that I #vanlifed before the hashtag

Lived in a VW van for the majority of the 90s

Brendan

and went vegan

Mitsu

Ha!

Yes.

Brendan

Long hair

Mitsu

For about 3 years

Inconvenient to get haircuts in vanlife

Past my shoulders

My parents were horrified

American Alpine Club(Photo: Brendan Leonard)

Brendan

So the Outward Bound trips you led were in California, Baja, where else?

Mitsu

North Cascades, San Juan Islands, Central Cascades, Sierras, and Baja

Lived in Joshua Tree (or 29 Palms) for a few winters during that tie

Time

So. Yah. Taught a whole bunch of climbing courses out of Joshua Tree.

Brendan

And did you have leadership positions with OB too?

Mitsu

Yes, I’ve had a few opportunities with OB. I was the executive director of Northwest Outward Bound School from 2013 through 2018.

Brendan

Ah sorry, I was going chronologically

Mitsu

ah 

So, yes

Program director at the Pacific Crest Outward Bound School

And also Thompson Island Outward Bound School

And then helped with a merger of Outward Bound Los Angeles with the larger network

Brendan

Did you get the Thompson Island job and then decide to go to grad school in Boston, or vice versa?

Mitsu

Yes, chronologically yes

Brendan

So you went to grad school, got a masters in … nonprofit management?

Mitsu

Yes

I knew I wanted to be in the nonprofit space and in the outdoor industry, but my experiences at Outward Bound taught me that I was a good educator and climber, but didn’t have the background to lead organizations.

And to make a career in this space, leading organizations, I needed to go back to school.

I think there’s a narrative that we can learn on the job, and I do believe a lot of people can, and have, but felt that learning from other people’s experiences and from experts made more sense to me.

At least, in the sense that I would be more effective with education.

Brendan

So shortly after that you became the director of operations and safety at Big City Mountaineers, where we met, and you no longer had a van, were no longer vegan, but still had long hair

Or am I missing a step?

Mitsu

You’re exactly right

I moved to Denver, sold my van and bought a Subaru

I loved that Subaru

It died last year…

Brendan

Wait, did you get a new one?

Mitsu

I’m in a new one now!

2019 version of the same car

Brendan

New car, seems pretty elite

Mitsu

Haha! So true

I read somewhere a Tesla could be a good road tripping/adventure car

That would be elite!

Brendan

Indeed

Would you say your time at Big City Mountaineers was the low point of work-life balance (or the peak of work-life imbalance)? I remember you and I bailing on lots of stuff at trailheads during those years.

Mitsu

Yah. I’d say that was lowest point of work-life balance

And also of just personal health

Brendan

Yeah I don’t know if I ever saw you drink water in the office, just coffee

Mitsu

Lots of coffee! It’s mostly water. Right?

Brendan

Chemically, yes

Mitsu

I also remember eating a croissant bread pudding for your birthday

*chocolate* croissant

Or was that your going away?

Anyway. yes. Too much coffee & not good work-life balance.

Brendan

Going-away, Buffalo Doughboy Bakery

Mitsu

Yes!

Brendan

One time you and I drove up to Lumpy Ridge, and in the parking lot it was really windy, and I said I think the climb we were going to do would be safe, just the rappel might be a little difficult and you said, “I’m not worried about it being not safe; I’m worried about it being not fun.” I often quote this when talking about bailing.

Mitsu

Haha! That day turned out well. We drank

coffee….

Brendan

I believe there were breakfast burritos too

Mitsu

We fed our soul

Brendan

OK sorry for all the logistical questions, but you left Big City Mountaineers in 2012? And became the executive director at NW Outward Bound.

Mitsu

Yes

Moved to Portland

American Alpine Club(Photo: Brendan Leonard)

Brendan

What year did you cut your hair? And get welcomed back into your family.

Mitsu

I cut my hair day -1 of Outward Bound

My thinking was that donors, supporters, partners, etc. should remember the contents of the conversation rather than the ED’s hair

Brendan

interesting

Mitsu

So, it was a choice to put the focus on the organization than on myself

I also figured I had a hill to climb already being Asian

So

Reduce self created challenges in my work

Brendan

Ah OK

Plus long hair is a pain in the ass

Mitsu

That’s true

Brendan

And being back in Portland, you started climbing and skiing the Cascade Volcanoes with our friend Kendall.

Her idea or your idea?

Mitsu

Yes!

I’m not sure who has claim to the idea

If I were to guess, I’d defer to Kendall

Brendan

That’s what I was going to say

Mitsu

At some point we decided there aren’t enough volcanoes in the Cascades and are now climbing and skiing the Pacific Rim volcanoes

Brendan

So, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak … did you do all the Oregon ones?

Mitsu

We haven’t skied the OR ones so much. I think Hood x 3 times. I haven’t skied Glacier.

Brendan

Ah OK

Mitsu

The North Cascades volcanoes are a little steeper than the Central Cascades

And a little more interesting

Brendan

Right, Lassen doesn’t look that exciting

Mitsu

Haha

American Alpine Club(Photo: Brendan Leonard)

Brendan

OK so after NW Outward Bound, you became the executive director at Mazamas in 2017?

Mitsu

I had a short interim ED gig at the Association for Experiential Education between Northwest Outward Bound and the Mazamas

8 months?

Brendan

ah that’s right

Mitsu

So super short interim thing

And then the Mazamas

Which I’m still feeling tortured about

I was there for less than a year before this opportunity to lead the AAC appeared

It’s a great organization and I’m super grateful and proud to have had an opportunity to work with the staff and members at the Mazamas. And in the short time, I learned a lot about leading member organizations.

Brendan

Well that’s nice of you but I’m sure they understand

Mitsu

Member *driven*

yes, everyone at the Mazamas were gracious and understanding

Supportive, really

Brendan

I quit a telemarketing job after 4.5 days in 2004 if it makes you feel better

Mitsu

Ha

I read that as I quit telemarking after 4.5 days

Brendan

Good transition, want to talk about how you quit telemarking after 20 years?

Mitsu

I finally sold my telemark skis before moving back to Denver

Yeah, I still love the telemark turn and I still believe my tele turn is better than my parallel

But efficiency

AT skis are lighter, more dependable, and less physical effort

I’m aging

Almost 50!

Brendan

You certainly don’t have to sell me on it

Mitsu

While I did sell my tele skis, I couldn’t let go of the boots

So, still hanging onto the idea that I’ll return to tele

Someday

Brendan

Ace Kvale swears it’s better for old knees

Mitsu

I think he’s an expert

Maybe I will rethink this

Brendan

OK I want to be conscious of your time here—how about some AAC stuff?

Mitsu

Sounds good

Brendan

What are some of the vision pieces you’re thinking about in your new role at the AAC?

Mitsu

I think the AAC under Phil’s vision and direction over the past 15 years has gone through incredible growth; we grew from 7,000 members to 25,000

And with that growth, we’ve built capacity and greater presence in the outdoor industry

What I’d like to do with that is for us to lean into community building, education, and advocacy

As part of that, I think we can help to build a cohesive and understandable gym-to-crag pathway in partnership with regional climbing organizations

Also, I think there’s an opportunity for us to lean into difficult conversations

Some of those conversations being equity and inclusion, misogyny, eating disorders, substance use/abuse

On the advocacy/policy side, I’d like to invest more resources into building political power to protect our climbing areas in partnership with the Access Fund and LCOs

We’ll of course continue to create opportunities and fund/support expeditions and climbs that inspire us

I like to create/inspire dreams

And we want to support entry into climbing, be a club for everyone, and inspire all of us into further adventure

I know that I was a little cagey about what I’ve climbed earlier

That comes from my feeling that we’re all on great adventures and we’re all pushing ourselves, whether it’s a big mountain in the Himalayas or a windy day on Lumpy Ridge 

Brendan

Right on, yes, was just hoping to establish that you have some credentials

Mitsu

Yes. True

And I think that’s important.

And so appreciated

Brendan

So overall, it sounds like your mission is to help the club evolve and embrace the diversity of climbing and climbers, in so many words?

Mitsu

Yes. Embrace all climbers and expression of being climber/human.

And be a force in creating opportunity for climbers, protect our climbing areas, and engage in important conversations

Important conversation—culture

Brendan

That sounds great. So if you were talking to climbers at, say, Brooklyn Boulders, how would you sell the idea of an AAC membership to them—especially as it relates to the future of the club?

(Brooklyn Boulders as opposed to, say, climbers at Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier)

Mitsu

Invest in the AAC to support advocacy and education for the climbing community

And as an organization that holds much of our history as American climbers in our library and archives

We, AAC, represent and are a club for all expressions of climbing.

We also have a campground/ranch in Hueco. 

Brendan

And the Gunks, correct?

Mitsu

So let’s get outside and climb together!

Yes

Gunks

Grand Teton

Red River

A small hut in AK

Rumney

Not Red River

Sorry

New River

Brendan

Big difference there

Mitsu

Lots of miles in between

And, I suppose, as someone looks to transition outdoors, membership comes with rescue insurance

Brendan

OK, last question from me so I can let you get back to work: Did you happen to see the not-insignificant collection of Japanese Alpine Club journals in the AAC Library?

Mitsu

I did!

I haven’t read them yet. Once I’ve settled in and have a bit of time to breathe, I’m definitely going down to the library and sitting down with those journals

With a cup of coffee

Our mission to inspire readers to get outside has never been more critical. In recent years, Outside Online has reported on groundbreaking research linking time in nature to improved mental and physical health, and we’ve kept you informed about the unprecedented threats to America’s public lands. Our rigorous coverage helps spark important debates about wellness and travel and adventure, and it provides readers an accessible gateway to new outdoor passions. Time outside is essential—and we can help you make the most of it. Making a financial contribution to Outside Online only takes a few minutes and will ensure we can continue supplying the trailblazing, informative journalism that readers like you depend on. We hope you’ll support us. Thank you.

Contribute to Outside

Lead Photo: Brendan Leonard


Source link

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments

Leave a Reply: