Starting any new business is expensive and the chance of success is low. Apply that to the mountain guiding industry and double the expenses and half the success rate.
So why would Mike Hamill, already a very successful mountain guide, give up his current job and start his own company in a crowded field?
I caught up with him just before he left for New Zealand for an in-depth look at what it takes to start a guide company these days.
Mike is well known in the guiding world having spent many years working his way up the International Mountain Guide (IMG) guide ladder. When he recently left, Mike was the lead guide for “private” or 1:1 commercial trips on Everest. A role that commanded well above average fees for both him and IMG.
Those who have climbed with Mike have nothing but praise for this young man. Kent Stewart told me:
I’ve had the pleasure of climbing with Mike on several expeditions over the past 12 years from Antarctica to Alaska to Russia to Everest. Not only is he one of the most respected mountain guides in the world, he is as fine a person as you will ever meet. There is no one I would rather have on my team should something go wrong on a big mountain. I was fortunate to be on Mike’s first Climbing the Seven Summits expedition last month on Orizaba and it was flawless. Mike’s professionalism and attention to detail will serve him well with his new company. I have been encouraging Mike to start his own company for years as I have no doubt he will be successful.
And Louis Carstens who just signed up to attempt Lhotse this Spring with Mike adds:
Mike guided me to the summits of Denali, Cho Oyu and Everest. I like his guiding style: he provides clear boundaries but enough freedom for individuality. I have seen him make tough decisions, at times perhaps an unpopular decision, but he makes good decisions. As a guide Mike provides me with flexibility given my own experience, climbing strengths and weaknesses. It is important for me that a guide must be flexible – I have found that with Mike on all my expeditions with him. He is well dialled into his members, understanding individual needs and catering for that as far as what is practically possible.
Now, let’s talk to Mike:
AA: Mike, where did your love of climbing start?
MH: Climbing has long been in my blood. When I was 12 I heard a story of some fellow New Englanders who ran a gear shop to fund their mountaineering addiction, who managed to put together an Everest expedition. I remember being in awe of them climbing hard locally and challenging themselves on the tallest peaks on earth even though it seemed like a really obscure pursuit. For some reason it called to me and I knew early I wanted to be like them.
My young life was probably most defined by competitive nordic ski racing. I think I was attracted to the sport for the endurance – the harder it was, the more I loved it. I saw the discomfort of training and racing as a way to progress and overcome barriers. Climbing is similar in many ways and the physicality of it has always attracted me.
My love for climbing really matured in college, when I got involved in the St. Lawrence Outing Club and Outdoor Program and started rock and ice climbing. Outside of class I devoured all the climbing literature I could get my hands on. I know I spent too many hours perusing pages of books by Messner and Bonington instead of my text books (sorry Mom)! Climbing was like my 5th class in college.
Reading about those escapades everything seemed so exotic. My yearning to experience those places for myself and be like those climbers; tough, brash, unconstrained by society, unconstrained by the rules, completely free, grew stronger and stronger. They were climbing only by the rules that they imposed upon themselves. They were courageous, bold and brave. Climbing is not like in a conventional sport where if you lose, you get a knock to the ego, and another game next weekend. In the mountain playground, the stakes are high and the consequences are dire. Before I knew it, I had signed up for a Semester in Alaska to climb and train for skiing, and started undertaking mountaineering courses with Carl Tobin. The Alaska range changed my perspective entirely.
AA: You moved to the PNW and began guiding on Rainier. Does every American guide start there? 🙂
MH: Rainer is a well-known proving ground and a great starting point for both climbers and mountain guides. Why? It’s a big mountain environment at moderate altitude, in the lower 48 states, an hour and a half from a major metropolitan area.
It’s very accessible and therefore a lot of people want to climb Rainier. Yes it’s a great place to get technical climbing experience but with so much memberele constantly flowing through, it’s also a school to learn good member care. Guiding certainly isn’t all the glory and glamour of lofty summits, it’s also motivating people when they’re tired, cold, frustrated. It’s the tedium of cooking and cleaning and spending hours melting snow into drinking water after a long days of extreme physical undertaking. It’s a constant mental challenge, yes you are leading people up the mountain but more so, you’re helping them navigate through some of their lives biggest successes and failures. I joke that my job is half mountain guide, half psychologist. It’s on the hill that you see people’s true colors; the good, the bad and the ugly. The huge flux of people on Rainier helps you learn to deal with all types simply because of the numbers. It’s a powerful learning curve that shows you that to be a good guide, a successful guide, you have to be more than just a strong athlete.
I cherish my time on Rainier with many fond memories of working with many mentors. I plan to continue climbing the peak each summer leading a fundraising climb for a non-profit I started called Tiger of the Snows Fund which facilitates educational opportuntities for outdoor tourism workers and their families in places like Nepal.
AA: Tell us a bit more about Tiger of the Snows Fund
MH: I have witnessed a lack of access to education throughout many of the local communities I have worked with over the years and feel that this should be a fundamental right. In 2013, a fellow employee, Da Rita Sherpa, died on Mt. Everest. After this tragic event there was an outpouring of financial support for his family, namely his children’s education. The responsibility of paying for the children’s education fell directly on the shoulders of my close friend and grandfather of Da Rita’s kids, Dawa Sonam Sherpa. He was overwhelmed with grief due to the loss of his son-in-law but the financial burden he knew was now his, only made matters worse. The donation effort lacked organization and it seemed as if there were few organized avenues for helping with the burdensome task of paying for his children’s education, a priority for Sherpa parents. I concluded that we could help the children of the Sherpa workers, the workers themselves, and other mountain workers throughout the World by creating a fund. Although the impetus for starting the fund was because of the Sherpa, the scope of this project is much farther reaching. There are many outdoor industry workers who contribute so much to the experiences of those they work with who are sometimes exploited by the industry itself, that are in need of educational opportunities.
In 2013, I founded the Tiger of the Snows Fund to help with the mission of creating educational opportunities. Personally, I have received so much from the people and cultures I work with. I saw this as an opportunity to give something back to those that have given me and so many others so much.
“Tiger of the Snows” is a term that became a title bestowed on only the bravest, most capable Sherpa climbers by British mountaineering expeditions when they worked together in the Himalayas. The British gave medals of honor to a select few Sherpa that fit this description. I now use this term in a general sense to describe all workers in the tourism industry the world over who soldier on at their work to provide opportunities for those they work for. Since the origins of this fund lie with the Sherpa community and educational needs that they have for injured or killed workers, it seemed an appropriate name for a fund that recognizes the strength, bravery, and assistance that these people provide to others.
AA: What were your impressions from your first climb of a big Himalayan peak?
MH: My first big Himalayan climb was Cho Oyu. I remember the first time I saw the “Turquoise Goddess” from the North on the Tibetan Plateau. I’m a pretty stoic guy but even I had a tear of awe come to my eye. It was just such a big mountain and at the time such an overwhelming commitment. It was both intimidating and in the same breathe inspiring. I was in a state of true awe and profound respect having never tackled anything that immense before. Humbled by nature, it totally focused my attention to the task ahead.
Cho Oyu is still one of my favorite mountains and I’ve led 12 expeditions there now I believe. It’s such a literal climb because as you crest over the plateau at the summit you are able to see Everest, which is the next obvious step in the mountaineering progression. You are standing on one mighty peak, looking at your next goal – The highest mountain in the world. I actually have a massive framed photograph of that very view that I took on a memorable expedition in the entrance way of my home because both Cho Oyu and Everest have played such a big role in my life. It’s the only place in the world you can get a such an unencumbered view of Everest like that, from atop of one of her peers.
AA: If you had to choose, would you rather have a gung-ho, aggressive member who wants to get up and down fast or a slightly slow one who needs a bit of TLC?
MH: It depends on the member but personally I’d prefer the slow member, and the more methodical, the better. I think what gung ho members often miss is the benefit of a slow, calculated acclimatization process especially on the big peaks. I’ve found that the climbers who do need a bit more TLC are often those who are a little more in tune with their bodies and their limitations and can resist the urge to race up the mountain and blow themselves out early. Yes they may be a little more cautious and need a little more encouragement, but they also tend to be good listeners and defer to your guidance. A lot of slow climbers do really well on Everest because they acclimatize appropriately and are methodical- speed doesn’t necessarily dictate success but endurance and pain threshold does.
AA: I have your book, Climbing the Seven Summits and think you did a great service to the climbing community. Tells us where you found the time to write it and what you hoped to accomplish.
MH: True to the spirit of the book, I wrote it in my tent, in my down time between acclimatization rotations on Everest and Cho Oyu expeditions. I guide close to 250 days a year so I spend a lot of time on the sides of mountains or at base camp. I’d also fit writing in on the many plane rides, or between unpacking and repacking for the next trip.
Hopefully you can’t tell but writing doesn’t come naturally to me and yet it is a skill I’ve always appreciated in others. I think of all those books I voraciously read in college, I wanted to emulate those people for their writing and much as their climbing so I made a conscious decision to challenge myself to become a proficient writer and write a book. It was akin to setting a big goal like climbing Everest or Cho Oyu, initially it was hard to wrap my head around, but broken down, bite by bite, that huge challenge became a reality.
The subject matter was the easy part since I know the Seven Summits so well having guided them for the last 20 years. Part of the reason I wrote the book stemmed from my own experience. When I was on my first lap around the Seven I found it hard to find information. There wasn’t one easy, central resource to find data on the routes, logistics, expert advice, gear etc especially on some of the more obscure ones like Elbrus, Vinson and Carstensz. Over the years I acquired that information through direct experience and I wanted to pass it along to share the joy I had found exploring the world through mountain climbing, just as others had shared their expertise with me when I was getting started. To this day that is one of my driving forces; to help people find the gift of the mountains.
AA: The next time you go to Kosciusko, take the little known Hannels Spur Track. It offers the highest vertical gain in Australia at almost 5,900 feet!
AA: You guided for International Mountain Guides for years but have now started your own company. Tell us about your thinking here.
MH: Starting Climbing The Seven Summits as a guide service was a natural progression. I have nearly 20 years of guiding under my belt and had amassed a depth of experience that I want to share. Indeed, I’ve always shared it, it’s why I wrote my book, but that had a snowball effect – The more knowledge I passed on, the more people would seek me out as a resource. Before long I was having so many conversations outside my expeditions and through my Climbing the Seven Summits resource website that it was almost a second full time job. It got to a point where the next logical step was for me to grow into the leader that people already saw in me and consolidate those conversations into a formal guide service. From the beginning my passion has been unwavering. I want to help facilitate the gift of the mountains, and running my own expedition company is the clearest way to do that.
Also to be honest, I’m maturing to a different stage of my life where I’m putting down roots and my priorities have changed from tagging big peaks to community and building a legacy. I hope to foster and mentor young guides in the same way that I was mentored but I can only do that under my own banner, by making my own footprint.
AA: At IMG you had become the “private guide” with 1:1 members. Why not continue that gig?
MH: It was a sweet gig to be sure, but as I mentioned above, I needed to rise to the next stage in my life and utilize the broad depth of knowledge I’ve accumulated. Working my way up through the ranks over the years has allowed me to see the bigger picture on expeditions the world over and with my own guide service, I can share and facilitate more climbers than I ever could on a 1:1 guide basis.
AA: I don’t have to tell you how tough it is to start a new guiding company these days. Many try but few succeeded and it takes years and significant investment. What drives this goal?
MH: I’m a sucker for punishment! Remember how much I said I like the pain of endurance sports? Getting CTSS setup, organized, and running smoothly has been one off the hardest challenges of my life- easily as hard as climbing Everest or writing the book- but it’s been uniquely rewarding as well. I guess it’s another big challenge that will allow me to be where I want in life and create a legacy
Like those guys I held on a pedestal when I was 12, who ran that gear store to fund their adventures and live a life true to their passion, I now realize I’ve grown into one of those men. As such I need to hold true to my passion and I’m prepared to put in the hard work and overcome hurdles to enjoy that reward. It would be hypocritical of me to preach the importance of working toward your goals to my members and enable their dreams, without being authentic to my own.
AA: A couple of success stories include Adrian Ballinger who broke from Himalaya Experience and Garrett Madison who left Alpine Ascents. Both have built solid companies now and are your competition in addition to the host of other western companies. We’ll talk about local competition in a moment, but how do you differ from the old guard and these new ones?
MH: I feel truly positive about the market opportunity and appreciative of the pioneers who paved the way. Adventure travel is the fastest growing sector of the travel industry so I believe there is space for us all and we don’t have to step on one another’s toes. There is room for collaboration, not just straight out competition.
The longer running established companies, the ‘old guard’ as such, have really grown to accommodate the huge demand and understandably they don’t have the flexibility to be as nimble in their offerings or as relationship focused as they once were. While yes, they have systems, reputations and access, so do the new players on the block and the personal attention is what I feel separates the “new guard.” I think we are seeing smaller guiding services pop up around those big giants because as the market grows so to does demand for boutique service that focuses on personal relationships and more member attention.
I am already offering the best of all of the above. High end logistics, personal attention, proven success rates, world class guides, and robust safety strategies which I am wrapping neatly into epic trips at consistently lower prices than my competitors because of low overhead. I want my memberele to remember these trips for a lifetime and help grow my company through word of mouth advertising.
AA: I understand your first trip as CTSS was to Orizaba in Mexico. How did that go?
MH: It was a great trip with a tremendous crew. It was kind of the essence of what I love about leading mountain climbs. We had great weather, everyone stood on top despite challenging conditions, and we had a great time. It’s trips like this that are why I’m a guide and have been inspired to start my own guide service.
AA: The competition is exploding for each of the 7 Summits with local guides offering quality trips at value prices. How will you compete?
MH: As I touched on above, the explosion in local competition is a positive marker for the huge growth in demand which equals more opportunity for all of us.
More than ever people are seeking adventure and thankfully in today’s world it is more accessible to the layperson. Different companies are filling different niches that suit different climbers. Since I wrote the book ‘Climbing the Seven Summits’ my niche is, and always has been, standing as the authority on the Seven Summits.
AA: You have partnered with Tendi Sherpa of TAGNepal. Tell us about that relationship.
MH: When I decided to launch CTSS, Tendi Sherpa was the first person I wanted to partner with. He’s been a long time friend and someone I’ve always admired and respected, not only as one of the world’s strongest guides with 12 Everest summits and international certifications but as a savvy business owner, entrepreneur and philanthropist.
Tendi embodies the characteristics we admire in the Sherpa. He’s humble, kind, hard working, driven and sincere.
When I reached out to him, to my delight, he was as equally excited to partner with me as I was to partner with him. We share similar philosophies on guiding, member care, the environments we operate in etc so it makes it a very symbiotic, intuitive fit.
Working with Sagar Puodel, one of Tendi’s partners in TAGNepal has been a joy as well. His role is less glamorous then Tendi’s but he is an incredibly effective an efficient member of our team. I look forward to many more years working with both of them.
AA: Being a business owner, mountain guide and I understand recently married – are all three full time jobs … Um Mike?
MH: It’s hectic to say the least, but I do like a challenge. A full life is a good life right?
I love my three full time jobs (four if you include running the Tiger of the Snows non-profit) Guiding has been my life’s constant so I feel confident in that arena, the business already has lots of momentum and I’m exhilarated by it and constantly learning. My new marriage is a safe harbor that complements it all as my wife and I both enjoy bouncing ideas off one another, brainstorming our challenges and are in full support of each other’s individual careers and ambitions.
I know it is hard to have your significant other gone so much of the year so I’m grateful and respect that my wife is independent enough to manage it. She works as a travel & adventure TV host and producer in Australia so she understands what it is to live life on the road and we juggle our time together around our various travel schedules. We share the same values and interests so we’ve been lucky enough to even line up a few work trips to coincide and shared many happy outdoor adventures together in all corners of the world.
AA: Give us the bottom line for CTSS – what’s the message?
CTSS is the authority on the Seven Summits, it’s true and honest expeditions at the best price, without skimping on the bells and whistles. It sounds cliche but it’s more about passion and relationships than just profit for me, and it always has been.
AA: I have to ask – do you have a favorite of the 7?
My favorite has to be Vinson in Antarctica.
Where we go, into the depths of the continent is the closest you could ever come to being on another planet, bar being actually shot into space! It’s so other worldly, the definition of true wilderness, untouched by modern civilization. That feeling of isolation is rare in our world today so it is a privilege to return year after year and be humbled by the might and beauty of our planet.
Being so remote, it’s incredibly committing, even just the plane ride onto the ice is unique, and it draws a particular type of person. Union Glacier camp is a melting pot of intrepid, motivated people, who hail from all over the world. Whether it’s the members or the staff who spend a season living and working on the ice, they make up a fascinating community and the stories that pour out, over a beer or two are hard to beat.
Best of luck Mike. You have a stellar track record on which to build.
Memories are Everything