If you say “Mountain Madness”, what comes to mind? Many people will say Scott Fisher and others may bring up Everest 1996. And while not wrong, they might be missing one of the quietest comeback stories in expedition guiding.
Now under the leadership of Mark Gunlogson, MM is preparing a return to Everest in 2017 in addition to gearing up for other big mountain expeditions.
Scott Fisher led the ill-fated team on Everest in 1996. While all of his team summited and survived, Fisher died on the way back down from the summit.
Christine and Keith Boskoff bought MM in 1997 and continued to build the company until Chris’s death in Tibet on Genyen Peak in 2006. Keith had passed away in 1999.
These sad events along with Fisher’s independent style created an image of MM that lasts today for some people – bold, a bit out there and unpredictable.
Enter Mark Gunlogson. In 2008, Mark took over leadership of MM and slowly has modeled the company after his personality – thoughtful, diligent and prepared to think out of the box.
They regularly run trips to mountain ranges other guide companies ignore and most climbers have never heard of, but offer challenges and adventures that many seek.
With Everest 2017 around the corner, I reached out to Mark for his thoughts on MM today, the guiding industry and why they are returning to Everest with partner Mountain Trip.
Q: Let’s get to know you first Mark. What drives your passion for climbing?
MG: When I first got into climbing in my teens I was driven by the elevation of a peak; it didn’t matter how I reached the summit, I just wanted to go after the highest. That quickly changed though as my technical abilities evolved and then it became more about the route and climbing along the way than reaching the highest peak.
This is one of the reasons I never ended up on Everest I suppose or on many other big expeditions I was invited on; I was more interested in moving than sitting around in base camp or slogging for two months. I get the attraction of the big peaks, it’s just not for me as much; but, of course I’m happy to help those that have that ambition! These days though I’m driven by it all; going to wild places, the people, the technical challenge, and trying to wrap it all into one experience.
Q: Do you have a favorite style and a favorite route or peak?
MG: Ha, that makes me laugh, mostly because I sometimes feel like I got stuck in a generation that was in between big expedition-style climbing and fast and light. So, my partners and I did a lot of things old school, slow and heavy, but we had fun and maybe that’s the best part of it all. We did Bhagarathi III in India in 11 days up and down, we lost twenty pounds and went home and nobody even knew we did it – I suppose it could be done in two or three days now. My buddy and I did the North American Wall on El Cap 30 years ago or so and took 9 days; complete with coconuts, big wall stereo, wine, and we had to climb through major High Sierra storms, soaking it in as it were as we climbed through the ephemeral falls. Now it’s done in a day or two.., no need to expose yourself to the elements if you can go fast. But, I don’t regret taking our time and enjoying the experience, even if it was more work. El Cap for me was all about the bivis, so I spent way too much time in the Valley looking for the ultimate ledge, but loved it! We knew we were not going to be on the top of the heap of elite climbers so we, the self-proclaimed Tippy Turtle Alpine Grope, went out and suffered and just had fun and never took ourselves too seriously. But now, 40 years of climbing has led me to believe, like everything else these days, compressing experiences into the shortest amount of time isn’t always the best thing to do.
But, I’ll contradict myself here and say for sure, alpine-style, fast and light, is the way to go for so many reasons on climbs like we did on Bhagarathi III. I’m blown away what climbers are doing now. I can say I clearly missed the boat on that one though, so these days I just like keeping my heart rate up; give me a 2,000-foot easy rock climb that I don’t need a rope on and I’m happiest – wish I knew where to find such a climb! Mount Kenya, one of my all-time favorites, comes close though and some things in the Cascades close enough. Ultimately, just getting out is good enough for me while trying to manage a business and family.
Q: You started guiding for Mountain Madness in 1994 when Scott was leading the company. What three words would you use to describe Scott in those days?
MG: Alluring, fun, and wild; I could throw out a lot more words, but suffice it to say, we had a short-lived, good time full of dreams.
Q: In the early 1990s, MM was in stiff competition with Adventure Consultants to establish commercial guiding around the world. What was that competition like?
MG: I was not too involved with the early 90’s part of this, but was around for the preparation of the 96’ expedition and just remember there being a lot of wheeling and dealing, trying to get this, that, and the other involved with the MM trip, all of which was happening on the flip-side with Adventure Consultants – this was to be a launch pad of sorts, so we were all eager to out-do one another. Everyone was trying to position themselves as the best company to go with as it was so new to the guiding industry and there was supposedly money to be made. It was such a different scene than it is now, relatively simple then; we communicated with fax and phones once in a while; sat phones weren’t used except until the later 90s’and then only on expeditions like Everest. It really wasn’t that long ago, but a world of difference! The competition really was more about who would get the most publicity and how, rather than who was getting the most members. But imagine the story if we were tweeting, snapchatting, Facebooking, and so on back then – now that would have been crazy!
Q: Christine’s and Charlie’s deaths in China was a huge blow to everyone in the industry. Was there thought given to closing MM’s doors forever?
MG: Nope. On a personal level, I had 13 years of my time invested into growing the company by then, so I wasn’t about to just throw that out the door. Brand recognition means everything and I think however sad these tragedies were, Chris and Charlie put Mountain Madness on the map on a global scale once again after “Into Thin Air.” All along we’ve been a company that is driven by passion for mountains and I think that this message has been carried on for the more than 30 years we’ve been in business and not just a side note, it drives the company.
I happen to love all things mountain too, so it’s been pretty easy carrying on Scott and Chris’ vision for the company. Ultimately though, it’s what’s behind the brand that matters and I’m very proud of what we have done in providing our guests with often life changing experiences. We don’t have the big guiding concessions on Mount Rainier or Denali that have people knocking down your door to get on a trip years in advance, so Chris and I decided we’d just be better in other ways and focused on customer service, creating a workplace where employees are happy to be, and above all, working toward getting our guests to come back year after year. I’ve been in the business for 30 years now and with the Madness now for 23 years and don’t see the doors closing anytime soon!
Q: Please tell us about Christine.
MG: I feel bad sometimes how she is often hugely overshadowed by Scott. I suppose it can be easily explained why, but she has an amazing legacy of her own, especially for women – she was considered the world’s premier female high altitude climber of the time, with six ascents of 8,000 meter peaks; and notably a female business owner in a male dominated sport and industry. Also notable is that she left a successful career as an engineer to climb, which was a passion for mountains that continued the company ethos that Scott had instilled into the Madness.
I watched Chris move from abandoning a successful career to taking on an endeavor rich in experience, but lacking in any real financial reward, and she took it on with a certain genuine enthusiasm that made me realize that she was either running from something or found her passion. It was of course the latter.
But, in the remote mountains of Tibet, as the Chinese and Tibetan climbers that I was with after we recovered her body listened to the chants of the Buddhist monks that blessed Chris near the monastery beneath Genyen Peak, I knew then that she had taken the path she was destined to, it just ended sooner than we all would have liked.
Q: When you took over MM after Christine’s death in 2008, what were your priorities for the company?
MG: Chris and I operated the company as a team and for ten years we had each other’s back, I was able to pick and choose what trips I wanted to guide and she was able to head out on her big climbs and eventually live in Colorado knowing that the company would carry itself in her absence. So, the transition was relatively smooth considering the circumstances and the priorities remained intact, with one notable exception; we scaled back on guiding 8,000ers after we did several expeditions to Everest and Cho Oyu. This shift in priorities allowed me to focus on more new trips, a movement away from the sort of cookie-cutter trips all the companies were doing, including Everest. This meant getting back to some more authentic adventures; like first ascents in Bolivia, expeditions to the Rwenzori’s in Uganda, the Colombian Andes, walking safaris in the Serengeti, the Ndoto Mountains in Kenya, and more. But, we didn’t stop doing big mountains, we maintained a full menu of 6,000-7,000 meter peaks, many of which our competitors did not offer; like Pik Lenin and Nun. And it doesn’t stop there.
I’m heading into a range in Colombia soon where we just got permission to go where access has been closed off for decades and the local indigenous people are possibly opening their doors. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta has the 5th most prominent peak in the world, as measured from its base, jungle approaches, isolated routes, and places that few outside of the locals have seen recently. It’s like taking a step back to the 50’s when maps barely were accurate, routes uncertain, and a true adventure awaited. If we can reel this one in, it is to me what Mountain Madness is all about – if the local people want trekkers and climbers to become part of their economic livelihood, then we’ll be among the first in and if it helps a community gain some improvement in their economic lives, then it’s a huge satisfaction for all. Everything is so neatly packaged these days, so this is something truly out of the box and an experience less available as the world shrinks from over population and such. So, it’s this sort of cutting edge travel, adventures that I’d like to keep a part of our offerings, however few of these type of adventures exist anymore. Oh, and did I mention we’re doing mountain bike recon trips in Nepal?
Q: MM seemed to step back a bit from guiding the world’s highest peak and focused on Kili, South America and North American climbs over the past 10 years but now you are back on Everest in 2107. What changed?
MG: During Chris’ tenure, she was in charge of the big climbs, the 8,000 meter peaks and I was left to manage the balance. But, we ran a couple of very successful Everest expeditions after Chris died and so it was not that the Madness was not capable of pulling it off again and again. There were however several things that led me to seriously question the reasons why to continue leading such trips, and there became even more reasons in my mind why not to. For starters, today, twenty one years after we led our first Everest expedition, the price remains the same to run fully-supported, high quality trips. With twenty years of inflation, increased costs of goods, higher wages, and on down the line, it does take a financial wizard to figure out the math on this one. Add to that the increased competition, the unsavory elements of “self-guided” low budget trips, and the whole circus atmosphere of ego clashes, misguided motivations, overcrowding, and for me, the whole idea of trying to get away from it all being lost, and the stage was set for a shit show I felt we did not need to be involved with.
We contemplated taking a stance that we did not agree with the direction things were taking on the mountain and that it did not align with our company philosophy, one that views adventure in a different light, a sort of “far away from the maddening crowd”, thing, and in what one can argue is more in keeping with the spirit of mountaineering. That the disasters of the 2014 avalanche and the earthquake occurred seemed to sadly all but cement our position. But, we also know that Mount Everest and Mountain Madness are really inextricable bound to one another in many ways. In the end though, it became a business decision as there was just enough demand to justify jumping back into the game- so, off we go!
Q: MM is partnering with Mountain Trip for Everest 2017. How did this come about?
MG: Part of it is about numbers and lowering operating costs and with small teams it makes sense to combine forces. But, we’ve always fancied the idea of working with other guide services and individual guides to make win-win sort of relationships in a very competitive, low margin industry. With Mountain Trip we’re partnering with a like-minded, similarly sized company to make a strong team and we’ve had a business relationship with MT’s owners Todd Rutledge and Bill Allen in Alaska for years. Jacob Schmitz, their lead guide for Everest, has worked with Mountain Madness as well. We’re not trying to gobble each other up with some sort of corporate takeover (ha!), we’re just working together to make the best use of resources and provide an incredible experience. With Mountain Madness lead guide Oswaldo Freie also on the team, a small group, and two guide services with more than 70 years of experience, we’re going to have a great team on the mountain this year.
Q: What are your thoughts on the progress the Sherpas are making in running their own expeditions?
MG: I think it’s great and while we are not excited about losing business, it was inevitable that this would happen. I also think there may still be some gaps in process for the consumer that we can all bridge. As the Sherpas and other guides across the globe grow their businesses, my hope is that we can create partnerships that build on each other’s strengths. Our international trips are run primarily by in-country guides, so this is not something new for us and I look to these developments as ways to improve our services – local knowledge is often the best way to go and can provide insights no Western guide can ever provide, however experienced they are, but we also have decades of marketing experience and access to a large pool of potential members, something that takes years to develop. So, I hope everybody takes a long view approach to this and not just a short-term view that precludes sustainability. At the end of the day I suppose the market decides, so we’ll see.
Q: You have seen a lot of changes in guiding over the years. What are a couple of the most significant ones in your mind?
MG: Technology, professionalism, and competition come to mind. I’ll keep this one short as there are at least three paragraphs here! But one thing I will say, is that guides these days don’t patch their clothes, they just get new things. I loved my patches back in the day, they came with a certain dignity, sort of a badge of honor.
Q: Mountain Madness not only impacts the lives of people who go on your expeditions, but you’ve taken it a step further to leave a mark on the places and people who call your destinations “home.” Can you share a bit about Mountain Madness’ social and environmental projects?
MG: Mountain Madness has a long history of reaching out to help the people who live in the places we visit and it can often enrich our guests experience beyond measure. This all started in the 1990’s with Scott Fischer led fundraising trips with the relief organization CARE, something we did numerous times afterwards. More recently we’ve been involved with schools and an orphanage in both Nepal and Tanzania, setting up computer labs in local schools, a clothing drive for porters in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, and donating trips, which raise thousands of dollars for various non-profits we support. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a basketball hoop to a school to more complex projects like helping raise tens of thousands of dollars toward building a school in the Himalayas that aims to not only provide a better education, but also promote cultural preservation. Our experience with these projects offers exciting opportunities for our guests that are interested in combining adventure with philanthropy – it’s really a slam dunk for everybody involved!
Q: Let’s wrap up with your thoughts on how you want the public to view Mountain Madness these days?
MG: I think a lot people’s view of MM is all about “Into Thin Air” and Scott. But, at the end of the day we’ve managed to run the business on solid ground for more than 20 years without Scott. I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity come into my life, however inopportune it came into being. But, it’s not been squandered and I think both Chris and Scott would be proud. I think the heart and soul of the Madness continues to beat pretty strong on the path they put the company on.
There has been a lot of hard work since then to build the company that’s embodies their spirit and I’m super proud of that and thankful to everybody that has made that happen. But, I want people to know we’ve made our mark in the industry not just from standing on the shoulders of giants.
Our guides are well-known to be more approachable and fun to be with and at the same time among the most qualified guides out there; not only are many of our U.S. guides certified, but almost all of our guides in South America are IFMGA certified. Combine their own individual brands of passion and our focus on customer experience and you’ve got a recipe for success.
And, I also want people to know we’ve made our mark in the industry by developing new, award winning trips. And I’m not talking about the sort of gimmick driven tactics, like using hyper baric chambers to pre-acclimatize, but trips that are not just mountaineering related; we trek, we raft, we mountain bike, we paraglide, and above all, we have fun! Pretty sure more than a few other guide services have copied us, as we all do of one another I suppose, but I feel very confident in saying that we have set more than a few standards in the industry and I thank all our guides and their care for the guest experience for that, along with some carefully chosen services and decades old relationships with overseas partners. So, yes, Mountain Madness will always mean Scott, “Into Thin Air,” and Chris, but we’re definitely more than just that.
Thanks Mark for your time. Wishing you a safe and positive experience on Everest this year.
If you would like to follow the Mountain Madness Everest Expedition, please go to the company’s facebook page and “like” it and you can then follow the expedition.
Memories are Everything