The autumn climbing window at Everest is short, unpredictable, and dangerous. It’s rarely summited in autumn, the last successful climb was in 2010. But it can offer the chance to climb a much less crowded peak for those willing to gamble.
In late September, 2019, Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering led an expedition that included Zachary Bookman, a Silicon Valley tech exec, and Joe Vernachio, CEO of outdoor gear maker Mountain Hardwear, as well as a Mountain Hardwear-sponsored climber named Tim Emmett. Madison is also sponsored by Mountain Hardwear. The idea was to take photos of Mountain Hardwear athletes in action, and make a push for the summit.
Bookman’s previous alpine experience included climbs of Denali, Ranier (unguided), Mt. Vinson, and Mt. Aconcagua.
After arriving at Pumori Base Camp, and waiting more than a week for conditions to improve, Madison pulled the plug on the expedition citing concerns about a massive serac looming over the climbing route.
Bookman has since filed suit against Madison, demanding a refund of the $70,000 he paid for the expedition, claiming that the serac’s danger was overstated and that once Vernachio decided he wasn’t fit enough to climb, the trip was scuttled.
“This was a Mountain Hardwear expedition arranged by the president of Mountain Hardware to do photo shoots and then try to go to the summit,” Bookman told GeekWire. “Garrett pitched me on a ‘trip of a lifetime,’ a quote ‘hardcore group of dudes’ going to do this expedition.” [Neither party responded to AJ’s request for comment].
“On the first acclimatization walk out of Base Camp, the president of Mountain Hardwear fell seriously behind and was obviously struggling,” Bookman said. “He was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’
“I’m not going to begrudge him, you know, it’s hard, it’s really high, but he was obviously not well or not fit or just having trouble,” Bookman added. “The very next morning, [Vernachio] announces the Mountain Hardwear expedition is canceled. I walk in bleary eyed and I’m like, ‘What?! It hasn’t even started.’ The very next day he flies out.”
After Vernachio departed, Bookman waited a few days before departing himself. On October 6, Madison became convinced that the serac would be falling anytime soon, and that winter weather would soon set in. Madison told Bookman the expedition was over.
In 2014, a serac had collapsed at the Khumbu Icefall while Madison was guiding. 16 Sherpa were killed, three of which worked for Madison. It was likely an experience he didn’t want to replicate.
Madison says the danger of the serac was the sole reason the expedition was canceled. As does Vernachio, counter to Bookman’s claims that Vernachio was ill-equipped to make the climb. Madison also brushed away concerns about Vernachio’s fitness, telling GeekWire that the Mountain Hardwear CEO was in excellent shape and clearly communicated his concern about the serac and the danger it posed.
“We chose safety over ego,” Vernachio said.
With the Mountain Hardwear team gone, Madison waited for a week to see what the serac would do. Bookman flew home, with Madison telling him he could fly back to try for the summit if the serac fell. Two Polish climbing teams were also there, as was ultra runner and fast climber Kilian Jornet. Neither the Polish team, nor Jornet made a summit bid, with Jornet pushing through the Icefall, but abandoning his climb higher up the mountain due to sketchy conditions at the elevated altitude.
Bookman claims that while on the mountain and with a summit push looking unlikely, Madison offered roughly half of the $69,500 fee Bookman paid as a refund. Madison denies that claim. Bookman, like all guided clients signed a waiver that included language making it clear no refunds would be given if the trip was canceled because Madison judged it unsafe.
In January, Bookman’s attorney sent Madison a letter demanding $50,000 as refund. When Madison refused, Bookman filed suit in California for $100,000. Last month a judge dismissed the suit because Madison is based in Washington, saying that Bookman can file suit there if he would like. The suit itself can be accessed, here.
It’s unclear whether or not Bookman will move ahead with the suit.
There is concern among the guiding community that if Bookman proceeds and prevails, it may spur guides to take unnecessary risks on expeditions, to avoid spurning paying clients who can demand refunds for failed summit bids. That’s the entire reason refunds aren’t given for safety or weather related concerns.
“I hope that I win this suit and it sets a precedent for the mountain guiding industry overall, that guides and expedition leaders should feel confident that they can make the right decision and not fear that if their team doesn’t summit, they might have some legal or financial repercussions from a client on their team,” Madison said. “I feel like this is a very important precedent.”
Bookman is at far left wearing red jacket with dark beard; Madison is at far right in blue beanie.
Top photo, Garret Madison, CC