Leader Spotlight: James Pierson

Leader Spotlight is a monthly blog to showcase our incredible volunteer leadership at The Mountaineers. Meet this month's featured leader: James Pierson. He is a 14 year member who started with the Olympia Branch and now helps with the Basic and Intermediate Climbing Courses in Bellingham!
Sara Ramsay Sara Ramsay
Volunteer Development Manager
May 29, 2021
Leader Spotlight: James Pierson

For our Leader Spotlight this month we talked to James Pierson, a volunteer leader with the Bellingham Branch who is also a guide at the American Alpine Institute! He credits the experience and skills he learned from The Mountaineers with landing that job and continues to volunteer with the club as a way to give back to the community.

Name: James Pierson
Branch: Bellingham
How long have you been volunteering? 13 years (member since 2007). I started with the Olympia Branch of The Mountaineers and took the Basic Course in 2007. I started the Intermediate Course and became a Climb Leader the following year. I led my first Basic Rock Climb of Guye Peak on a wet, rainy weekend in September of 2008. Luckily, I had some great mentors on the trip with me as Assistant Leaders to help get everyone through the wet rock and poor conditions (thanks Ron and Doug!).
What activities do you participate in? Primarily, I help with the Basic Climbing Course and the Intermediate Course. I have also been the Bellingham Branch Safety Officer since 2014.

Leadership Questions


Initially, my motivation was that I really enjoyed seeing folks progress and learn how to do new things. By volunteering and instructing, I was helping folks open up new doors that brought them happiness.


There was a core group of about 8-10 of us from our Basic Climbing Course plus a couple of key mentors that climbed a bunch of stuff together over the years. (Long live the MUTINEERS!) The bonds that formed in that crew were really amazing. A couple who met in our Basic course got married a few years later and now have a couple of kids. One of the other guys from the course and I were groomsmen in their wedding. Even though we've moved around a bit now (Bellingham, Olympia, Portland), we still get to see each other once in a while. Some of those friendships will never go away.

How has your leadership style evolved as you've gained experience?

I think a couple of things have changed for me.

  1. When I'm teaching new skills, I allow folks to make mistakes (as long as there isn't any immediate danger). If you let folks have that experience, it can give them a broader perspective and frame of reference, and also allows them to figure out a way to do something right or fix their mistake. I think that better solidifies the skill in their mind and makes it more memorable.
  2. When I'm out in the mountains or on a trail, I am more vocal with my coaching. Little things like, "watch this loose rock" or "be careful on that icy bit there" can help bring someone's attention to a hazard they might be otherwise oblivious to.

What is one thing you do on trips to create positive experience for people of all skills and backgrounds?

Try to do more frequent check-ins with folks and encourage them to speak up if they don't understand what you're trying to teach or if something is wrong on the outing. If someone is having an issue and you don't know about it - and therefore you can't do something to fix it - it is going to cascade through the rest of the experience and, in some extreme circumstances, could end up having very negative consequences.


I am always asking myself, "What's above me? What's below me? What is the likelihood? What are the consequences?" as a way to do a mental evaluation of the hazards when I'm climbing or skiing. Sometimes I add in there, "What's my exposure?" and that kind of means two things - how long am I exposed to this particular hazard, but also how exposed am I in general - as in, how far away from resources am I if something goes wrong?

What advice do you have for aspiring leaders in The Mountaineers community?

Pace yourself with your time. Don't try to volunteer for everything - you'll end up getting burnt out. Find your niche and become a resource. Do what makes you happy and share that happiness with others.

What keeps you volunteering with The Mountaineers?

A few years after I joined The Mountaineers, I was lucky enough to land a job at the American Alpine Institute, initially as a Program Coordinator for Cascade Range programs, and then I as started guiding and field work shortly after that. If it wasn't for the experience and skills that I learned from The Mountaineers, I never would have gotten this job. I continue to volunteer with the club as a way to give back to the community. And the community here is a huge part of why I'm still involved.


If I'm not in the mountains or on a trail, I'm probably in or on the water. I started kiteboarding about 5 years ago and then I picked up freediving and spearfishing last summer.

Lightning Round

What's your go-to place for a post-trip meal? Either the Train Wreck in Burlington, if I'm coming back from the North Cascades, or Coconut Kenny's here in Bellingham.
What's your favorite close-to-home adventure? Kiteboarding in Bellingham bay after work in the summer.
Who is your Mountaineers hero? Two of them: Ron Raff and Doug Souliere. Ron was my mentor for glaciers - he led my first summit of Mt. Baker and went with us on that Shasta trip. Doug was my rock guru and I think I got a lot of my teaching style from him. Both of them were on my first climb as a Rock Leader up Guye Peak.
What 11th Essential do you bring on most trips? Nowadays for overnight trips, it's a little pouch that has a battery bank and headphones.
What's next on your bucket list? Either Ice Cliff Glacier or Stuart Glacier Couloir on Mt. Stuart. Those have both been on my list for a while.

is there Someone that you'd like to see in the spotlight?

Send an email to Sara Ramsay to make a recommendation for one of our upcoming Leader Spotlights!