Seattle mountaineering guide in legal battle with tech CEO seeking refund for failed Everest climb

Members of the Mount Everest expedition from fall 2019, including Madison Mountaineering guide Garrett Madison, far left in red, and climber client Zachary Bookman, third from right in orange. (Photo Courtesy of Francois Lebeau)

Seattle mountaineering guide Garrett Madison and Silicon Valley tech CEO Zachary Bookman were set to take on the world’s tallest mountain peak together. Instead, they’re mounting arguments against each other in court.

The ongoing dispute, which has generated two lawsuits so far, stems from a trip to Mount Everest in which Madison, founder of Madison Mountaineering, contends that he was relying on his skills as an expedition leader when he cancelled any attempt to climb due to hazardous conditions.

Bookman, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco cloud computing startup OpenGov, argues that the $69,500 trip he signed up for amounted to a scam, that he was essentially charged for a five-day walk to Base Camp, and that Madison promised to pay back some of his costs.

“I honestly never imagined when I started my own business six and a half years ago that this was something I might have to deal with,” Madison told GeekWire. “It’s been a complete surprise.”

“I’m not an unreasonable person,” Bookman said in a separate interview. “It’s just … wow, you’re going to take $69,500 from somebody for a five-day walk to Everest Base Camp? It doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

‘Trip of a lifetime’

Seattle mountaineering guide Garrett Madison during an expedition on Mount Everest. (Photo courtesy of Garrett Madison)

Madison’s company bio calls him “America’s premier Everest guide and climber.” A Pacific Northwest native, he began guiding professionally in 1999 on Mount Rainier. He holds multiple high-altitude mountaineering world records, has led more than 60 clients to the summit of Everest since 2009 and is the only American to climb K2 twice.

Zachary Bookman, co-founder and CEO of OpenGov. (Photo via OpenGov.com)

Bookman is a Yale and Harvard educated lawyer who was once a clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He co-founded OpenGov in 2012, and the startup raised $51 million last fall in a Series D round. Bookman sits on the company’s board along with a host of tech heavy hitters, including Chairman Joe Lonsdale, founding partner of 8VC and co-founder of Palantir; Katherine August-deWilde, co-founder and vice-chair of First Republic Bank; John Chambers, founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures and former chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems; and Marc Andreessen, co-founder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz.

Of Madison’s 13 Everest expeditions, 10 have reached the summit. He failed in the spring of 2014 when an ice avalanche killed 16 Sherpas in the mountain’s Khumbu Icefall. The following year, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal, killing 9,000 people, including 22 at Everest Base Camp. Madison’s third miss came last October, on the trip with Bookman, when a towering serac, or tower of ice, was hanging over the climbing route and he called off the expedition.

Autumn is a challenging time to attempt Everest. There hasn’t been a successful summit of the mountain in the fall season since 2010, and before that, 2006, Madison said.

Bookman said he was invited by Madison to join a small team that included Kristin Bennett, president and CEO of a tech and science consulting firm in Boston, who had climbed with Madison previously, as well as Joe Vernachio, CEO of outdoor gear maker Mountain Hardware, and Tim Emmett, an extreme athlete who is sponsored by Mountain Hardware.

“This was a Mountain Hardware expedition arranged by the president of Mountain Hardware to do photo shoots and then try to go to the summit,” Bookman said. “Garrett pitched me on a ‘trip of a lifetime,’ a quote ‘hardcore group of dudes’ going to do this expedition.”

Madison is also sponsored by Mountain Hardware and endorses the company’s gear.

Posts on social media, shared by Emmett, Madison Mountaineering and Mountain Hardware, show the team at various stages of the trek to Everest Base Camp as well as in and around the camp. Professional images of the expedition by photographer Francois Lebeau are here.

On Sept. 25, 2019, Madison tweeted a link to a blog post in which he shared an image of himself with Bookman and Bennett and said they’d had a great day on a hike to Pumori Base Camp. “We’re hoping the serac comes down tonight,” he wrote.

By Oct. 3, Madison was still watching and waiting for the cliff of ice to fall and clear the way for a summit attempt. Located high above the Khumbu Icefall, it was midway between Base Camp and Camp 1 and estimated to weigh some 27,000 tons by another team that was there.

Three days later, Madison tweeted and blogged again that the Everest expedition had come to an end.

The decision to cancel caught Bookman by surprise, and in legal documents and an interview with GeekWire, he disputed the reason for why the trip was called off, questioning the mountain readiness of Vernachio as well as Madison’s commitment to the expedition beyond the Mountain Hardware element of it all.

“On the first acclimatization walk out of Base Camp, the president of Mountain Hardware 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 Hardware expedition is cancelled. I walk in bleary eyed and I’m like, ‘What?! It hasn’t even started.’ The very next day he flies out.”

Bookman said the day after that, Madison said the trip was over unless the serac came down.

“There’s hundreds of seracs on the western wall of Everest,” Bookman said. “It’s like walking through a forest, pick a tree and say, ‘The tree needs to fall.’ Literally eight days after Kristin and I wired [Madison] a large sum of money for high-altitude mountaineering, the trip’s over. We didn’t spend a single night out of Base Camp.”

There were three other teams on the mountain, including one with Kilian Jornet, a Spanish athlete regarded as the world’s premiere “sky runner” who is known for how fast he moves on mountains. Bookman said Jornet went up to 28,000 feet on Everest and passed under the serac in question “multiple times” with his climbing partners.

“I don’t want to trivialize it, the place is dangerous. There’s avalanches everywhere. It’s f—ing Mount Everest,” Bookman said. “The serac never came into play until [Vernachio] cancelled the trip.”

Madison disputed Bookman’s claims about Vernachio, saying that the Mountain Hardware exec was in “excellent physical shape going into this expedition” and did not pull out because of physical fatigue. He said Vernachio “clearly stated to everyone his concerns” about the serac and the safety hazard that it posed. GeekWire has reached out to Vernachio for his version of events.

“I think Mr. Bookman wanted to continue climbing. And he was not afraid of the risk,” Madison said. “If he were on a personal expedition, he could pursue climbing the mountain on his own. The reason people hire me is, I believe, not only for logistical support, but also as the decision maker on the mountain. Because of all of my experience and my safety record.”

Dispute over a refund

Base Camp at Mount Everest ion October 2019. (Photo via Madison Mountaineering)

After the Mountain Hardware team left Everest, Bookman waited with Madison at Base Camp, hoping for the chance to climb.

“I waited a week and was just in disbelief,” Bookman said. “I was like, ‘Am I being scammed here? It doesn’t make any sense, I don’t understand.’”

He says he eventually left when Madison promised a refund of about 3/4 of what he paid to be there. Bookman claims the offer was made again, back in the U.S. at his San Francisco home when Madison visited to return Bookman’s gear. Bookman claims Madison offered him $50,000 as a refund and asked him not to discuss what happened at Everest.

“[Madison] came to San Francisco and sat in my living room,” Bookman said. “He said, ‘I’ll give you money, let’s just not talk about it.’ I said, ‘That’s fine.’ And then he ghosts. The whole thing is kind of sad and disappointing and I just wonder how many other climbers he’s done this type of thing to.”

Asked whether he had ever promised Bookman a refund, on the mountain or during the San Francisco visit, Madison replied, “No, I did not.”

Bookman signed a contract to make the trip with Madison Mountaineering in which he assumed the risk that weather and safety issues could cause problems with the expedition. The company’s no-refund policy is explicit in those documents. The same contract also recommended participants get trip-cancellation insurance, which Bookman declined to do.

Whether insurance would have helped in this case is in doubt, as Bookman said that fellow climber Bennett was denied on a claim she filed for her trip insurance. Madison said in an email to GeekWire that he helped Bennett with some information for her claim, and that he wasn’t aware of all the details between Bennett and her insurer. GeekWire has reached out to Bennett.

Madison received a letter from Bookman’s attorney on Jan. 21 demanding payment of $50,000 based on the oral agreement Bookman says he had. The letter called into question Madison’s preparation for the climb, saying that his team of Sherpas and icefall doctors were “clearly lazy and inefficient” and did nothing to prepare the climbing route for teams before their arrival.

Madison did not submit to the demand in the letter, and on March 27 Bookman filed suit in San Francisco County Superior Court (see PDF at bottom) seeking $100,000 in punitive and compensatory damages, claiming that Madison breached an oral agreement for partial refund of the failed summit attempt.

“The contracts they sign to go on the trip are pretty explicit that there are no refunds,” Madison told GeekWire. “If they don’t understand why I can always explain why. Once the trip has begun we’ve spent the money on permits, the logistics, the accommodations, the equipment, the Sherpas, the oxygen, the food, the guide service, etc. There’s no guarantee of reaching the summit or even a specific high point on the peak. I would say everybody understands this.”

Madison did say he offered Bookman a credit for a future Everest expedition, and that Bookman turned it down.

“I lost a great deal of trust in this individual and would prefer not to return to the mountains with someone who I don’t trust,” Bookman said. “So the credit is not going to suffice in order to have this go away or whatever he thought.”

Fear of bankruptcy

Garrett Madison in the High Sierras this summer. (Photo courtesy of Garrett Madison)

In an attempt to protect himself against the costly litigation filed in California, Madison filed his own suit (see PDF at bottom) in King County Superior Court in Seattle on Aug. 4. seeking a declaratory judgment that would cut off Bookman’s path to a refund. Madison’s suit alleges that Bookman “knows it would be much cheaper” for Madison to pay him off rather than go to trial.

The suit calls Bookman the CEO of a “technology company valued at $290 million” who is performing a “shakedown” that puts a mountain guide like Madison, and future guides, in the position of “take me to the summit or die trying, or I will sue.”

Madison is being represented by Doug Grady, a partner in the Seattle offices of the nationwide law firm BakerHostetler. Grady spent nearly a decade as a mountain guide prior to and while studying law — and the firm took on the case pro bono.

In a statement issued by the firm, Grady said that he remains close to the guide and Sherpa community.

“Lawsuits (and threats of lawsuits) of the sort brought by Mr. Bookman are very disheartening for guiding companies, both financially and otherwise. On behalf of Garrett and Madison Mountaineering, we look forward to trial,” the statement read.

Bookman chuckled at the fact that his company’s valuation was raised in the suit and the notion that his wealth should preclude his desire to seek a refund through litigation.

“I don’t mind if they think I’m some titan of industry, but they act like I own the entirety of the company,” Bookman said. “He wants a narrative that I’m trying to pick on this mountain guide who’s earning a humble living, and that’s not accurate. It strikes me as odd because this business is based on taking people who have jobs and professions, other than mountaineering, into extreme environments. So I don’t know why you’d want to insult your clientele.”

Last week, a judge granted Madison’s motion to dismiss the suit filed by Bookman in California (see PDF at bottom) on the grounds that any legal argument should be filed and fought in Washington state, because it’s the home of Madison Mountaineering, with whom Bookman had entered a contractual agreement.

Bookman can now refile the suit in Washington if he chooses. Madison said losing would be devastating and would bankrupt his company. COVID shutdowns have already impacted his busy guide service and reduced revenue to zero, and he paid 42 Nepalese staff members a third of their salary despite there being no expeditions.

“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.”

Calling himself a “reasonable, kitchen-table kind of guy,” Bookman said the whole thing could have been resolved in two seconds and that it’s unconscionable to charge somebody $70,000 just to camp. The ordeal has soured his thoughts on Everest and any desire to put the energy and money into a return trip.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains,” Bookman said. “I’m not as accomplished as Garrett or people who have devoted their lives to it. I know inherent hazards, risks and chances around mountaineering. I also know basic right and wrong. We obviously have a different view of the world.”

Lawsuit filed by Bookman in California:

califsuit.pdf by GeekWire

Lawsuit filed by Madison in King County:

kingcosuit.pdf by GeekWire

Motion to grant dismissal of California lawsuit:

califdismiss.pdf by GeekWire

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