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The Quiet Comeback

If you say Moun­tain Mad­ness”, what comes to mind? Many peo­ple will say Scott Fis­ch­er and oth­ers may bring up Ever­est 1996. And while not wrong, they might be miss­ing one of the qui­etest come­back sto­ries in expe­di­tion guiding.

Scott Fis­ch­er (left) on Ever­est, 1994. Scott Fis­ch­er photo

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 Fis­ch­er led the ill-fat­ed team on Ever­est in 1996. While all of his team sum­mit­ed and sur­vived, Fis­ch­er 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 Fischer’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.

Moun­tain Mad­ness own­er Mark Gun­log­son in Nepal. MM file photo

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.

Bha­garathi III. SW Pil­lar takes the right-hand rock but­tress. MM file photo

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 clients. 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!

Visu­al his­to­ry at the Moun­tain Mad­ness 30th anniver­sary pary. Mark Gun­log­son and daugh­ter at right. Angela Good­man photo

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.

Chris Boskoff on the sum­mit of Ever­est. MM file photo

I watched Chris aban­don a suc­cess­ful career to take on an endeav­or rich in expe­ri­ence, but lack­ing in any real finan­cial reward. 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.

The Broad Peak Expe­di­tion in Pak­istan, 1996. Scott Fis­ch­er (mid­dle row left), Kei­th Boskoff (mid­dle), and Chris­tine Boskoff (mid­dle row right). MM file photo

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.

Team approach­ing sum­mit on 2008 Ever­est Expe­di­tion. MM file photo

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 clients, 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.

Mark Gun­log­son on Mt. Erie. Dylan Tay­lor photo

Thanks Mark for your time. Wish­ing you a safe and pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence on Ever­est this year.

Climb On!
Alan Arnette, Sum­mit Coach

If you would like to fol­low the Moun­tain Mad­ness Ever­est Expe­di­tion, please go to our face­book page and like” it to get updates. To learn more about Alan Arnette’s climbs, sto­ries, and work he’s done towards improv­ing those fac­ing Alzheimer’s please vis­it his blog at http://​www​.ala​nar​nette​.com/​blog/