02 Mar 2017

Such Great Heights

Tom Vogl, CEO of The Mountaineers explores the past, present, and future of the adventure business


Tom Vogl (MBA 1998) was named CEO of the Mountaineers, an 11,000-member outdoor community in the Pacific Northwest, in February 2016. A lifelong climber, the job gave Vogl a new perspective on how the sport is changing—and the broad challenges faced by an outdoor recreation sector that contributes 650 billion dollars to our national economy. He talked to associate editor April White about the sport’s past, it’s future, and the toughest climb he ever made.


April White: In the March issue of the HBS Alumni Bulletin, we write about Terris Moore, who is an MBA student in 1931, who went off in search of a mountain higher than Everest. Tom, it's really great to have you here today to give us that modern day perspective of mountaineering and the outdoor recreation business. Let's begin at the start of your interest in mountaineering. How long have you been a climber?

Tom Vogl: I've been a climber most of my life actually. I started climbing when I was in high school and have continued really through my adult life. And I'm increasingly as I have spent time working in the outdoor industry since I moved to Seattle in 2006.

White: What was it that attracted you to mountaineering?

Vogl: As kids I think we sort of naturally gravitate towards climbing trees or spending time playing in the outdoors. I also always have loved the snow. And so for me, combining sort of this thrill of climbing things with being off in the mountains, and being in snow, and eventually climbing glaciers was something that was just sort of a natural outcome for me.

White: So you were climbing for years before you turned your hobby into a job. Tell me about your career path.

Vogl: I graduated in '98. I took a job down in Austin, Texas, with Dell computer. And during my years at Dell-- I was there about eight years-- I worked in marketing and e-commerce. I had a couple of overseas assignments but always loved exploring. And in fact, living overseas a couple of times was a chance for me to explore other parts of the world.

When I found out about an opportunity at REI, the large outdoor retailer, it was just a terrific chance for me to combine my passions for outdoors activities with a really wonderful career opportunity and also living in a part of the country and the world that was just amazing from an outdoor experience standpoint.

REI has a very long history I know. And your current organization, The Mountaineers, I believe has an even longer history. Can you tell me about the history of The Mountaineers?

The Mountaineers was formed in 1906, so we'd been around for going on 111 years, which is pretty amazing. We were formed by a group of 151 climbers and mountaineers who saw all these peaks around them here in the Northwest and wanted to get out and explore all these blank places on the map. REI, and the Mountaineers have a shared creation story.

REI was created in 1938 by Lloyd and Mary Anderson who are both mountaineers, and they were having a hard time finding good climbing gear from Europe. And so they formed a buying cooperative mainly to support their friends from The Mountaineers so they had better gear to go out and explore the Northwest and do it safely.

White: Tom, you used a phrase that the mountaineers in my story I used frequently-- this idea of the "blank areas" of the map. Now, that's not something we really think about anymore. We don't think about there being blank areas to fill in. Why do you find that people climb today?

Vogl: I think that people will climb today for the same reason that they did back in 100, 110 years ago or the first expeditions on the big mountains like Everest or K2. It's that spirit of challenge, and accomplishment, and adventure. I think as human beings, we're naturally wired as adventurers. And climbing and mountaineering allows people to do that. Today, there's not a lot of first ascents that are taking place anymore because many of the big mountains have been conquered. But it gives what otherwise would be ordinary people the chance to do extraordinary things.

White: The Mountaineers was very active in the 1930s and 1940s when our story takes place. Can you give me a sense of what the mountaineering community was like at that time?

Vogl: The 1930s and 1940s really were a very interesting time worldwide for climbing and mountaineering. The same time that people were attempting Everest and were trying to find peaks that were potentially higher than Everest, the same thing was going on here in the Northwest. People would set off and see a mountain off in the distance, and they wouldn't have any information about how high it was or what the route was. But they were just driven by this sense of exploration. People were pioneering new techniques for how to ascend mountains, and they were getting other people involved into the sport. It was a really wonderful time in mountaineering.

White: I know you've had an opportunity to meet with some of the climbers who have taken some of those storied early ascents.

Vogl: Just last week we hosted an event with Leif and Jim Whittaker. Both Jim and Leif are mountaineers. And Jim was the first American to summit Mt. Everest back in 1964. He's been a longtime member of the organization, and his son, Leif, just wrote a book about his life growing up as a mountaineer in the shadow of his dad, one of the most famous American climbers of all time.

I also recently had the chance to meet and talk with Dee Molenaar, who is 98 years old, and Dee has been a mountaineer for over 70 years. And he was on not only the first American expedition to K2, which is the second tallest mountain in the world, but Dee was on the first expedition overall to K2 and survived a really incredible rescue story on an unsuccessful attempt there. So it's really so wonderful to be able to be in a position where you literally get to meet people that are part of mountaineering and climbing history-- these living legends.

White: That was one of the interesting things that became clear to me as I was working on A Summit Higher than Everest-- the idea that there is a really strong sense of history and a strong sense of community among mountaineers. How do you think that developed?

Vogl: I think one of the reasons why history and a sense of heritage is so important in mountaineering is that it's a sport that is fairly complicated, and it requires a lot of training, a lot of mentoring. In a lot of ways, it's passed down from generation to generation. We have people that help teach our climbing courses here at The Mountaineers that are in their 60s and 70s that have been climbing for their entire adult lives, and they're still just as passionate about the sport but more importantly about passing on that knowledge and experience to other people.

White: I know the history of The Mountaineers is very important to you, but I also know the future is very important to you. What do you see for The Mountaineers in the future?

Vogl: One of the trends that we're seeing and climbing now is the rise in popularity of indoor climbing at climbing gyms. There are literally thousands of people nationwide that every day are getting introduced to the sport of climbing through climbing gyms. And so one of our areas of focus is to try to make it an easy experience for people to go from the climbing gym to learning how to get out and climb on real rock or maybe go up and even climb glaciated volcanoes here in the Northwest. So that's a really big trend that we see. Another one that's really important to us is getting the next generation into the outdoors and learning activities like hiking and climbing.

White: You get to see this as a sport. You also really get to see it as a business, and you've observed that over a number of years. In what ways has the outdoor recreation economy grown, and what do you see for its future?

Vogl: Well, the outdoor recreation economy is actually a very large industry. Nationwide, outdoor recreation, broadly speaking, contributes about $650 billion to our economy. Nearly 2 million jobs are supported through the outdoor recreation economy. Just in the state of Washington, that number is $20 billion and close to 200,000 people.

It's a very large contributor to our economy and supports jobs. But the other aspect that's really important to us and other organizations that are involved in outdoor education is trying to introduce people to the outdoors so that they will know and love these places and then will advocate for them. We think that with a lot of our public lands and our wild places increasingly threatened by development or even big issues like global climate change that the more people we can get connected with the outdoors and loving these places-- those will be the voices that will protect and conserve our lands for the next generation.

White: As CEO of a mountaineering organization, do you still have a lot of time to get outdoors?

Vogl: Not as much time as I would like but I still definitely make time to get out in the outdoors. I'm an avid skier both downhill and Nordic. I still get out and do climbing. Most of my outdoor activities really are centered around my family. For example, this past summer I was able to get my youngest son, and a friend, and his dad up Mt. Baker, which is the third highest peak in the state of Washington and the second most glaciated.

White: Many of your fellow alumni also are avid hikers or climbers. But for those who have never tried to match wits with a mountain, what does that experience feel like?

Vogl: It's a combination of exhilaration and awe of just these amazing places. It's a lot of hard work. Sometimes it's cold, and you have to deal with bad weather. More than anything, it's just this incredible opportunity to push yourself and to accomplish things that when you look at it in total might seem unattainable. When you're standing at the base of a mountain like Mt. Rainier and you literally have 10,000 vertical feet of climbing ahead of you, literally days of climbing and challenging yourself with the cold, and the steepness, and navigation in those things. It's hard to really get your head around that whole challenge.

There's the old expression that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. That's really one of the main things to keep in mind when learning a sport like mountaineering or climbing. We have people every year that join The Mountaineers and they have literally no experience some climbing or sometimes even in the outdoors even backpacking or that kind of thing.

And they go all the way from that point to learning navigation, and first aid, and how to use all the various gear that you need to stay safe. And eventually, they learn rock climbing and they summit the big glaciated volcanoes here in the Northwest. So literally anyone that puts their mind to it can learn this sport, and do it safely, and have just a terrific time. But it just requires resolve and a recognition that it's going to be a journey.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1998, Section J
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