Winner: RMI Expeditions
There are a lot of competent mountaineering companies, but only one was founded by the first family of American alpinism. Washington-based RMI has been the gold standard since 1969, when it was started by climbers Jerry Lynch and Lou Whittaker—twin brother of Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest. Forty-five years later, Lou’s son Peter, who began guiding at 16, runs the company, employing a roster of more than 100 elite guides, including Dave Hahn (Everest summits: 15), Melissa Arnot (Everest summits: 5), and Brent Okita (Denali summits: 21).
“The first question we ask when we’re hiring guides is, ‘Do you like to climb?’ ” says Whittaker. “The second question is, ‘Do you like people?’ And the third is, ‘Do you like people enough to be tied to them in dangerous places where you could both die?’ ” RMI has safely led 90,000 clients on more than 240 trips around the world, from four-day climbs of Mount Rainier to decades-long pursuits of the Seven Summits. Its secret? Guides work extensively with clients pre-trip. “For some, we’re their first-time mountaineering experience,” says Whittaker. “They don’t know what glacier glasses or gaiters are, and they don’t have a 700-fill down jacket with a hood.” Guides send out weekly training e-mails and a gear rundown outlining clothing and equipment for each trip (which clients can rent or buy from Whittaker Mountaineering, next door to RMI). In the past 26 years, the company has also raised $4.4 million for the American Lung Association in its Climb for Clean Air fundraising campaign and, since 2009, when it launched its Responsible Climbing Initiative, has donated $50,000 to local environmental and outreach initiatives.
Another reason RMI tops our list, though, is that it’s always coming up with epic new trips, like 2014’s 11-day Alaska Mountaineering Seminar in the Alaska Range. With a two-to-one climber-to-guide ratio, the team will fly into the Pika Glacier to hone skills in Little Switzerland, an area with some of the most classic yet approachable terrain in the state ($3,850; rmiguides.com).
Runner-Up: Sacred Rides
A ten-day, 11,500-foot descent on Peruvian singletrack on the old Incan Trail network. Eight days of yoga, surfing, and mountain biking on the Pacific coast of Mexico. A weekend skills camp in Fernie, British Columbia. This is just a sampling of the itineraries Toronto-based mountain-biking specialists Sacred Rides has been crafting for the past 18 years. Founder Mike Brcic frequently embarks on virtual “listening tours,” polling past clients for feedback. Results have included adding yoga, hiking, and rafting for non-riding partners, as well as gentler itineraries—like the brand-new 11-day tour along the Royal Road of Brazil, which follows colonial-era roads along a 125-mile tropical stretch from Ouro Preto to Paraty ($2,701; sacredrides.com). Sacred Rides also hopped on the social-networking wagon early, and clients can now customize their trips by creating a personality profile on its site, adding options to an existing itinerary, then making the profile public to attract like-minded riders. The continual innovation works: the company has seen 80 percent revenue growth every year for the past four years. Brcic also puts in the legwork to ensure his trips are culturally and environmentally sensitive. But the real reason they’re exploding? Says Brcic: “People are realizing how incredible it is to see another country on a mountain bike.”