One of Everest’s best guiding companies has found itself at the center of a lawsuit that could have lasting consequences for the mountaineering world. Last week it was revealed that a former client is suing Madison Mountaineering for failing to provide a refund following a failed expedition to the world’s highest peak; if successful, the lawsuit could fundamentally change the client/guide relationship and set a dangerous precedent for future expeditions.
A Cancelled Climb
Last fall, Garrett Madison—the founder of Madison Mountaineering—was leading a team of climbers to Mt. Everest. The plan was to attempt the peak from the Nepali side of the mountain, a route that Madison knows well, having climbed to the summit on multiple occasions over the past decade. Along the way, he has taken over 60 paying clients with him.
In fact, Madison has been so successful that he has only failed to put clients on the summit on three occasions out of ten attempts. In 2014, the spring climbing season was canceled when a serac collapsed, killing 16 porters in the process. A year later, a massive earthquake claimed the lives of another 22 people on the mountain, shutting down that season as well.
Autumn of 2019 would be the third time a Madison-led team would be forced to cancel its expedition. When the group of climbers arrived in Base Camp last fall, they found a large chunk of ice—estimated to weigh more than 27,000 pounds— was hanging precariously above the route they would take up the mountain.
If it came down at the wrong time, it could spell certain death. Knowing that discretion is the better part of valor, Garrett elected to pull the plug and go home.
The Tech CEO
One of the members of Madison’s team last fall was a man named Zachary Bookman. The founder and CEO of a San Francisco start-up called OpenGov. Like many who attempt Everest these days, Bookman has the money and resources to afford an expensive expedition.
In fact, he paid Madison $69,500 to join him on the climb. But when the group failed even to step foot on the mountain, he was unsurprisingly disappointed.
Bookman says that Madison described the climb as a “trip of a lifetime,” with the main goal of taking Mountain Hardwear CEO Joe Vernachio and MH sponsored athlete Tim Emmet to the summit, testing gear capturing amazing photos along the way. Bookman would be allowed to join his exclusive group and get the opportunity to climb Everest at the same time.
Silicon Valley CEO says that when Madison canceled their climb, he promised to pay the team some of their money back. When that didn’t happen, he felt cheated and scammed. He describes the experience as essentially a “five-day hike to Everest Base Camp.”
That is an amazing experience for sure, but such a trek can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of an actual Everest climb.
Now, a year after the failed Everest expedition, Bookman is looking to recoup some of his losses from the trip. He claims that after the trip was over and everyone had gone home, Madison visited him in San Francisco. While there, he says the mountain guide offered to pay back $50,000 with a promise that Bookman wouldn’t discuss the expedition with anyone.
For his part, Madison denies ever offering Bookman a refund of any kind. Such a refund is practically unheard of in big mountaineering, where nothing is ever assured, and most climbers know and accept that going in. On Everest, in particular, there are no guarantees.
When Madison failed to pay Bookman back, the tech CEO filed a lawsuit asking for $100,000 in punitive and compensatory damages. Bookman continues to claim that his guide made an oral agreement to pay him back, while Madison steadfastly disagrees.
He does admit, however, to offering his former client a credit towards a future climb.
Climbing Expedition Contract
Before any Madison client—or the client of just about any other guide service—ever gets on a plane for the Himalayas, they must first sign a contract. The wording of those contracts varies somewhat, but the gist is the same.
The expedition leader has the final say when it comes to safety and the well-being of the team. If he or she decides it is unsafe to go up, the expedition is over.
The contract also makes it clear that there are no refunds either. This is because the funds for the expedition are largely spent covering the costs of permits, food, supplies, oxygen bottles, accommodations, and other things.
Most of those times aren’t refundable to the guide service either, which means there isn’t any cash left over to return to clients when an expedition doesn’t go as planned.
Because of this stipulation, most mountaineering companies will also recommend that their clients buy travel insurance. If the trip is canceled, they can then recoup some of their losses by making a claim. In this case, Bookman didn’t heed that advice and purchase insurance ahead of time.
Impact on the Future of Mountaineering
Recently, a judge in California dismissed the lawsuit in San Francisco, with Madison’s lawyers arguing that the case should be heard in Seattle, where Madison Mountaineering operates. Bookman is moving ahead with refilling there in preparation for a court date, most likely sometime in 2021.
How that case plays out could have a long and lasting impact on the mountaineering community. If Bookman wins, and the guides are held responsible, it opens up a liability level that could easily bankrupt them.
It could mean the end of commercial mountaineering as we know it. It opens up an incredibly dangerous can of worms surrounding a guide’s decisions on their clients’ safety that could prove disastrous not just financially, but in the cost of human lives too.
Personally, I don’t think Bookman has much of a leg to stand on here, as the contracts should clearly spell out the rules of the expedition. But, I’m also not a lawyer or judge, so that anything could happen.
You can bet that other guiding companies will be watching the results of this case very closely, as it could be an issue for them in the future too.
Stay tuned. This is going to be interesting.
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