Mountain Madness was born from the idea that adventurers—driven by their passion for mountain exploration—yearned for a community to serve as a unifying platform for the sport. In 1984, Mountain Madness founders Scott Fischer and Wes Krause became the world’s second team to stand atop Kilimanjaro’s infamous Breach Icicle. This kickstarted the duo’s desire to seek out wild experiences around the world to quench their adventurous thirst. Once Fischer and Krause realized that there were others like themselves with a love of climbing and trekking, Mountain Madness was formed.
Fischer scaled the world’s highest and most challenging peaks, including K2 and Mount Everest, and he was the first American to summit Lhotse. Sadly, during an intense storm on Mount Everest in 1996, Fischer lost his life and left behind an incomparable legacy that still serves to inspire climbers today. While the company is well-known for its part in the tragic story of Into Thin Air, as well as the recent Hollywood blockbuster film Everest, and Edge of the Map—an upcoming book featuring Christine Boskoff, Mountain Madness’ second owner who perished in the mountains of Tibet in an avalanche—it has moved beyond some of its heartbreaking past. In its over thirty-five-year history, the company has achieved worldwide acclaim for excellence in the guiding industry and continues to provide a diverse selection of trips ranging from the first-time trekker to those striving for an ascent of Mount Everest.
Currently, Mountain Madness is helmed by owner Mark Gunlogson, who has been with the company since 1994. With an extensive climbing and guiding background, a degree in environmental science, and an impressive ability to distill complex adventuring logistics for clients and guides the world over, Mark has proven to uphold Fischer’s original mission. Mountain Madness lives on to share the joy of climbing, trekking, rock climbing, and skiing with people of all skill levels and abilities.
FtC enjoyed chatting with Mark to learn about Mountain Madness’ guided adventures, the transformative power of the mountain, social and environmental projects currently in the works, and much more. As Mountain Madness likes to remind us, the spirit of adventure isn’t something you can find on the mountain—it’s inside our souls, waiting to elevate us to new heights.
Sasha Frate: What you do doesn’t really fit into the typical nine-to-five paradigm. How and why did you get into guiding adventures?
Mark Gunlogson: I started hiking and skiing when I was seven, so mountains became part of me early on. Once I learned to climb—which was at the youthful age of fifteen—I quickly made the connection between doing what I love and making a living at it, and it instantly became a passion for me. What could be better than making a living doing what you love?
SF: What is Mountain Madness about and what all do you offer?
MG: It’s hard to distill this question down to a simple answer, but we are about sharing a passion for climbing, trekking, and exploring the mountains of the world, and meeting amazing people along the way.
Our adventures are as simple as a day of rock climbing for beginners, to something as monumental as climbing Mount Everest, and everything in between. We’re all about creating new adventures outside of the normal formulaic itineraries that other companies offer—I’m talking first ascent climbs in Nepal, multi-sport trips that include paragliding in the Himalayas, and rafting; it’s not all about climbing!
SF: Many hiking and climbing expeditions are associated with a summer climate. Your list of expeditions is well-rounded the entire year long. What are some of the popular winter season trips?
MG: Well, most of the bottom-half of the planet is at your disposal (during our North American winter) as it is their summer season. (Think Mexico, Ecuador, and Argentina, and in late-winter/early-spring, Nepal comes into fine shape.) Of course, Mount Kilimanjaro and safaris are one of the best imaginable escapes between December and March.
SF: Mountain Madness expeditions include the Seven Summits—the continents’ highest peaks. Tell us more!
MG: This is one of the ultimate achievements for climbers with fewer than 500 people having completed it. Because of the logistics, the financial requirements, and the amount of time it takes, the Seven Summits are more of a lifetime goal. It has been done in less than a year, but most people take five years or more to complete it—it’s no small order!
It truly is an adventure, though! It includes exotic experiences like hanging out with Dani tribesmen at the Carstensz Pyramid, being in one of the most remote places on the planet when climbing Vinson, Antarctica’s highest peak, and then of course there is Everest. But, as we tell our customers, it’s not necessarily the exclusive domain of a few highly skilled and intrepid adventurers—if someone is determined, there is a logical progression of climbs, step-by-step, that make this accomplishment doable for even the novice climber coming to join us.
SF: What is the minimum level of fitness that people need to have to go on your trips?
MG: Good question! The answer depends on the trip, but the mindset we try to get climbers in for the bigger trips is that on summit day, they will likely be dehydrated and dealing with the cumulative fatigue of an expedition that has perhaps taken a couple of weeks to achieve. It’s safe to say that most people will need the endurance for a twelve-to-fifteen hour day where you’re on-the-go the entire time.
However, it’s a bit of a different story for the entry-level climbs and treks, as these are the trips that make the whole idea of getting out on an adventure more accessible. For these folks, preparation that includes a regular exercise routine supplemented with some extra activities like biking or hiking will work. However, even on the entry-level adventures, there may be multiple days of activity in a row, so training for endurance is always beneficial.
SF: What is the most unusual item you have witnessed someone carrying with them on a trip?
MG: Oh wow—we have seen some crazy things including a twenty-pound sleep apnea machine, ashes of loved ones, a knife carried everywhere by a Vietnam veteran, a ukulele, adult diapers, and even a pornstar girlfriend!
SF: Do you observe any sort of change in people from the beginning to the end of their expeditions?
MG: Oh yeah! It could be that they start the adventure off with some fear and anxiety, and after some self-discovery and pushing personal boundaries, the personal growth becomes the reward. (This is often greater than reaching a summit!) Of course, some of our seasoned guests come just to partake in a challenge and have fun, already knowing what they are getting into.
SF: Challenging adventures often create a special space for meaningful bonds. Do many of the friendships that develop during trips become long-term?
MG: For sure, and this includes both our guests and guides, too! I have several clients that have become lifelong friends. There is a widely accepted idea that the rope that connects climbers creates a powerful bond of trust and companionship that can’t be found in any other sport. Throw in overcoming some physical and mental challenges and some good times, and yes—lifelong friendships come pretty easily.
SF: What types of courses and education do you offer?
MG: For someone first getting into climbing, we have a multitude of mountaineering and rock-climbing courses to get things rolling. These courses take place in the U.S. and abroad in some incredible places. For our guests that return year after year and progress into more advanced climbs, there is always something to learn (and it often presents on the climb itself). Personally, I think when I stop learning something on climbs–whether it’s a new technical skill or even something about myself—that is when I’m done with this endeavor. However, I don’t see that happening any time soon!
SF: How do custom trips work?
MG: Custom trips work well for people for many different reasons—it could be that specific dates are required, someone wants to slow things down and go at their own pace, or maybe a groups just wants it to be with family or friends. Whatever the case, we can usually accommodate whatever people dream up or need!
SF: Why did you create a women’s program and why is it unique?
MG: When I first started climbing some forty years ago, there was maybe one female climber for every ten males, so it was clearly a male-dominated sport. Things have changed over the years with many women now getting out there, but there is still a leftover underlying element that associates men with climbing. The women’s program addresses that with a more supportive environment and by tamping down the intimidation factor. (I have two daughters, so I get girl power and love it!) By offering a women’s program, we’re able to improve inclusivity by eliminating some of the barriers that have existed in the past.
SF: Adventure often equates to occasional injury. How does your team prepare for this?
MG: An interesting thing about some of our expeditions is that the actual number of days where the most risk is involved is pretty minimal. On an expedition, you may find yourself walking into your objective for a week, acclimatizing once at base camp, and then only climbing on the mountain for a couple of days. A perfect example is a fifteen-day expedition in Ecuador where there are actually only three days of climbing. So, yes, injuries happen, but our guides are well-trained to both manage risk and deal with any injuries should they occur. However, contrary to the perception that these “extreme” treks are only for risk-takers, injuries on these trips are very rare.
SF: Being in such beautiful, untouched nature is extremely beneficial for human wellbeing/state-of-mind, and such an immersive experience can have a profound effect on people—especially those from cities. Can you recall any particularly profound moments that clients have experienced while out in the wild with you?
MG: These moments happen on almost every trip. For some, the time “away from it all”—unplugged—is the most powerful.
I’ve had people cry tears of joy upon reaching a summit. I’ve seen the peace that is instilled by sitting quietly and looking out at the mountains, knowing that these powerful places provide a certain humbled serenity. As much as the physical challenge appeals to people, it’s just as much about this sort of spiritual connection that is provided by these adventures that brings guests back for more every year.
SF: Mountain Madness not only impacts the lives of the people that experience 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. Our passion for this began in the 1990s with Scott Fischer-led fundraising trips with the relief organization, CARE. We’ve more recently been involved with schools and an orphanage in Nepal and Tanzania, setting up computer labs in local schools. We’ve also organized a clothing drive for porters in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a basketball hoop to a school, and other times it’s about more complex projects like helping to raise tens of thousands of dollars toward building a school in the Himalayas that not only provides a better education to its students, but that also promotes 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!