An interview with 37 North Expeditions founder and mountaineer, Danny Collins
Interview by Jeremy Lux, article written by Eric Z. Gasa
Danny Collins of 37 North Expeditions is no astronaut but he’s been closer to outer space than most people. I’m not talking about some ride on an aircraft to the edge of the atmosphere, but something much more grueling; this guy has climbed the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. As if that weren’t enough of a feat, he also has Mount Cotopaxi and Chimborazo in the Andes under his belt as well. For Collins, mountaineering is more than just the spectacular view, but a test of mental strength and physical endurance.
A regular guest on the Life in Motion podcast, Collins returns to discuss his expedition company, the thrill of climbing, and of course, his adventure on some of the highest peaks in the world.
Before Collins was conquering active volcanoes, he was stuck in the hustle and bustle of New York’s corporate infrastructure. With a masters in architecture, Collins found a job in the city but found the 9 to 5 grind too soul-crushing. Hungry for change he took an offer as a trail guide, getting to travel all over the world. Compared to the skyscrapers and office complexes of NYC, Collins fell in love and made a major career change.
Long story short, those adventures out on the trails inspired Collins to start his own company, 37 North Expeditions. Collins’ company is dedicated to breaking down the barriers of hiking for females, minorities, and inner-city folks alike, where the great outdoors may seem like a far off place. 37 North offers a wide variety of activities from horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and plenty of backpacking and bike packing trips as well.
It’s with this same spirit of adventure that Collins tackled his latest trip to Ecuador.
“Ecuador is a country that’s just surrounded by these incredible mountains,” Collins says, “The Andes are all around you and you see snow-capped peaks everywhere you go.”
Having previously lived in the country for some time, Collins said the sights of the 20,000 feet tall Cotopaxi and Chimborazo peaks filled him with an insatiable urge.
“There is absolutely zero doubt that sparked something in me,” Collins says.
With his wife expecting their first child in about a month, he realized that this would be his last hurrah for a while. Determined, Collins and a friend took on the challenge.
He reminisces to the time he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, starting at around 6,000 feet in elevation then summiting to 20,000; “You really are hiking over 14,000 feet so you truly have to acclimate your body to breathing less oxygen.”
But if the lack of oxygen wasn’t risky enough, this mount was also an active volcano. Collins says he remembers smelling sulfur the entire hike and seeing steam pouring out of the mount like some kind of monster.
After their first day, Collins and his crew hit the sack around 6 pm then woke up at midnight to reach the top by sunrise. Traversing the steep paths, the crew bound each other with rope in case anybody slipped.
“I have a hiking pole in one hand and an ice ax in the other,” he says. “You’re just so out of breath and it’s so steep that you have to push yourself physically and mentally.”
Collins and his crew fought blizzard-like conditions and whipping winds all the way up. Everyone on the expedition even wore facemasks, not for Covid concerns but because of the constant flow of ash. It was a serene yet tense trip up the peak but the magnificent and otherworldly sight of Cotopaxi made it worth it.
“It’s the closest place to outer space on Earth,” he explains about Chimborazo
Unfortunately, the cloudy conditions were not optimum for Collins and his crew; on a clear day you can see Cotopaxi from the peak of Chimborazo 100 miles away. Despite not getting the iconic sight that he planned, Collins appreciates the great challenge and experience of mountaineering.
“I would absolutely make the argument that doing this is more mental than physical,” he says, “Before doing anything just test yourself. You’re not going to shower for seven days, you’re going to hike seven days in a row. You’re going to sweat, sleep in a tent every night, and eat weird food for a week.”
It’s a grueling test of will where your mind must talk your body into pushing itself. For those who want to get into mountaineering, Collins recommends taking baby steps. To prepare for summit climbs he uses the Stairmaster at the gym and other endurance exercises to better prepare his body for the long hikes and lower oxygen levels. But the most important part of your body to train is certainly your brain. If there is one thing about summit climbing, it’s that you must get comfortable with being in uncomfortable positions.
“I believe all of us have a line in the sand where we think we can push our body and mind,” Collins says, “But I think that 99% of us set that bar a little too low. I’ve always liked pushing myself to find that line and see where things go.”
The moment you pass that line is when things start to get interesting. It’s during times like these, when Collins thrives the most. Legs tired, short of breath, but still ever determined to reach that peak.
For more tips and stories on summit climbing listen to Danny Collins’ full interview with Jeremy Lux on the Life in Motion podcast available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you’re hungry for adventure also be sure to check out Danny’s company, 37 North Expeditions for unique trips and guides.