Friday, March 19, 2010

Successful Innovative Companies: Volume 20

The Successful Innovative Company of the week is: Adventure Consultants.
What they do right: The world of high altitude mountaineering is a small one. There are only several thousand people around the world that do it on a regular basis. Also, 30-60% of those people are your average people that only ever hit up the standard routes on the standard mountains. That is to say that Everest is the most popular 8000 meter peak. A friend of mine that was at Everest North side base camp a few years ago said that there were around 1500 people total there. Compared to Broad Peak or K2 last year when there was probably 100 people at each base camp. To make things even smaller, there are only a handful of guiding companies or commercial expedition providers. These are companies that specialize in setting up expeditions for climbers that are inexperienced enough to get invited on private expeditions or set up their own. This is a great way for a few hundred people around the world to make a living. Most climbing guides do not guide high altitude mountains like Everest but it is a major aspect of the guiding industry. How small is this guiding world? I have only been on one expedition but the connections I made through that trip are enough that I could probably get the personal phone number of Russell Brice (from the Everest: Beyond the Limit Discovery Channel series), Ed Vestiurs, or Steve House with one phone call to people I know. Not that I have anything to ask any of those people that hasn't already been published.

The small industry forces every company to scrape out their own niche. Due to bad weather, difficult mountains, and terrorists Pakistan has only a few companies that guide there on a regular basis. It is similar with other nonstandard mountains like Mt. Logan (second highest in North America).

I still haven't answered what they do right. I'm not quite done explaining the situation yet, bear with me. Now mountain guiding started in the 1800s in Europe. In fact several first ascents of mountains were done by guides and clients during the 1800s. The history of guiding thus dates as far back as the history of modern alpine climbing. What separates Adventure Consultants is that they took guiding to a new level. In 1992 they led their first Everest expedition. It was not the first commercial expedition to Everest, but they organized it and advertised it in a way that no one else did at that time. They brought a level of support to Everest that no other company had brought for their clients at that time.

People want to climb Mt. Everest because it is the tallest. Adventure Consultants started at the right time and offered the right services to carve out a niche as the premier guiding company on Everest. Of all the niches, within the niche of high altitude mountaineering, to "own" I estimate that it is the most stable and probably most lucrative.

They have been copied by many companies now but they still remain the standard for an Everest guiding company. They were one of the companies dramatically involved in the 1996 Everest disaster. However, high altitude climbers are a somewhat risky group of people and the resulting publicity only fueled the "go climb Everest" band wagon.

What they could improve: Adventure Consultants has garnered a reputation as a sort of pay-your-ticket-and-get-pulled-to-the-top sort of company. They have a reputation for wearing matching bright down suits and attracting mid life crisis climbers. This is definitely an exaggeration of the reality, but like most rumors it has roots in the truth. In general, the more you pay on an expedition the more support you can expect. At the highest level, the high altitude porters (Sherpas, generally in Nepal) carry your sleeping bag to every camp and hand you soup at the high camp at 7900 meters. My experience in Pakistan was somewhat different. I carried cooking equipment, fuel, all of my personal gear, and helped chop tent platforms. At high camp at 7000 meters I also manned the stove to make my own water and cook my own food. That was the experience I wanted, to do some of the work.

For many people the entire goal is the top of the mountain. That is fine, that's a worthy goal. My goal is more about the experience. The challenge of seeing how much I can do. I think the premier challenge of high altitude mountaineering would be to climb a new route, solo (or at least with a small 2-3 person team), in winter, alpine style, on the west face of Gasherbrum IV. The problem is, that would be very hard. Nobody has even attempted that.

So what they could improve in my eyes would make the climb more challenging. However, the niche they fill requests as much support as possible. That is to say I do not see myself going on an Adventure Consultants trip anytime soon. However, for many people Adventure Consultants is the best option.

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