Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I had any advice for someone going on their first expedition, which in his case was to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Although it feels like I’ve not been away for a hundred years at the moment, I still have a few thoughts - big and small - that are worth considering.
Is it an expedition?
I always joke that an expedition is just a holiday you don’t pay for because, in reality, most trips are just that: a holiday no different than heading off to the Canary Islands. Although a joke, it’s worth not mistaking the difference between a trip and an expedition, as doing so might undermine your climbing adventure.
Lightweight or heavyweight?
Some trips are lightweight and can be undertaken by two people with just a minimum of gear, such as one big pack and a big holdall. I suppose you could define this as a trolly expedition, as everything you need will fit on an airport trolly or can be dragged by one person through some fly-blown town while you look for a taxi.
On such a lightweight trip, you can leave your house and transport all your kit via planes, trains and automobiles, and maybe the odd horse or donkey, and make it to your base camp in some remote spot. On such a trip, you will ideally not need to deal with porters or shipping or fees of any kind, and stay clear of all the classic expedition hassle.
Such a lightweight approach, although very heavy, is best kept that way, by maintaining an alpine-style mentality, with a “make do” attitude being critical, so zero luxuries.
An excellent book to read for this style of trip is Rob Collister’s Lightweight Expeditions (1989).
The opposite is full-on expedition style, and here you’re dealing with all the big stuff, the porters, planes, shipping, forms, customs, and a hundred little details that can mess your trip up, like shipping all your gear to the end of the earth six months in advance, but forgetting the tent poles, or having the wrong pumps for your stoves. Here you’re not carrying out a surgical strike style trip; just in and out, you’re planning for war, a long, drawn-out one. Like any campaign, the key to success comes down to planning and spreadsheets and hours of looking at them, thinking about them, dreaming about them for months before you need to action them.
The best guide for the ideal approach is to study some of the classic expeditions books, like Everest the Hard Way, or Everest the Cruel way, or Annapurna South Face.
My point here is to make sure you know what kind of trip you’re planning and plan accordingly. Make a lightweight trip heavyweight - or an expedition - or a heavyweight expedition lightweight, cutting all the corners, and you’re going to reduce your chances.
Time Waits for No-one
One of the most significant risks with a long trip is time, in that you can be fooled into thinking its limitless when it’s not. It’s very easy to take a lot of rest days, easy days, faff around packing and unpacking, cutting the labels out of your jocks, making lists and plans, sat drinking tea, or just being lazy for acclimatising.
Factor in a retreat or ten, some sickness, some bad weather, broken, lost or stolen gear, goof old Murphy’s law, and suddenly you will find all that time you thought you had has run out.
This realisation can often come even when you thought you had weeks left, once you work out the time it will take to do your climb, pack up, and get to the airport. Such a realisation will often come when everything else lines up, the weather, your fitness, acclimatisation, and yet you end up having to leave.
Remember that you can throw money or superhuman effort at almost any problem, but time is finite. Once it’s gone off the clock, it’s not coming back.
For this reason, you need to arrive at your destination ready to go, fit, motivated, and with a plan. At the same time, you must not rush, as rushing is not the same as careful, considered action. If you’re going to make mistakes, or find out the hard way that things are not in your favour, find it out early, and so you have some sea room to manoeuvre because each day that passes will make any manoeuvring more and more constricted.
The above does not mean everyone should be manic and running themselves into the ground, but more about staying in a low gear, keeping the trip moving in the right direction, and creating a culture that’s about getting shit done.
The money hose
The late Roger Payne once told me that the best way to deal with problems is by hosing it down with cash, an approach that works equally well both on and off the mountain. Anyone who’s grown up being adjacent to poverty knows, the less money you have, the less you’re able to deal with problems, the more problems you’ll have. Without a way to spend your way out of a minor problem will immediately make it a big problem, while a big problem will end your trip.
For this reason, you should always budget for some form of money hosing and have the ability to have cash at hand, including debit cards, credit cards and cash.
Hell is other People
A big trip can be both the best experience of your life, or the worst, or both, but what determines this is most likely who you’re with.
Ideally, it will help if you have undertaken a little stress testing with the people you’re going away with, because although it’s not that hard climbing with someone you hate, it’s not as easy to live with them in a tent for six weeks. Here you should adopt the expedition food principle, which is “if you don’t like it down here, you won’t like it up there”. This means it’s more important that you can sit and have a drink with someone, rather than you can climb with them. Make this mistake, and it’ll be like the worst kind of blind date you could go on.
Even if you do get on well with the person or people you’re with, try and give each other some space, as it can be pretty intense living and climbing together for extended periods. Having your own tent can be a good idea, as is allowing people just to go off and get away from you all for an hour or two.
As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, any kind of trip requires some solid planning and admin. Get yourself a folder and keep all your notes and numbers and forms together, especially when dealing with officials.
If you’re taking any kind of technology on a trip, make sure it 100% works before you go. Test, test and test again. This will mean you don’t get dropped off in some remote spot only to find your sat phone has no credit, or that USB is a USB 2, not a USB 3, and you can’t charge all your stuff. If you’re using satcoms, then start sending messages a few weeks before you go, the same with uploading data to websites.
Also, prioritise what you’re there to do, which is climb a mountain, not be the administrator to an expedition website, spending all their time fighting to upload a single shitting jpeg via a phone that drops satellites after 20 seconds. Don’t over-promise what technology can deliver, and keep it simple, just texting via a Garmin InReach Mini generally being the best bet.
Out of reach
Along these lines, it’s best not to promise to stay in touch with people back in the world, as failing to do so will be like a form of living hell for them and can even lead to rescues or searches being instigated. If you can send a message, then do so, but try and be where you are and stick to the objective. The sooner you can get the objective done, the sooner you can go home.
If you’re shipping equipment, make sure you have lists of everything and check it all off when you retrieve your kit because stuff can go missing, or failed to be packed, or even get lost or broken. Try and come up with some form of backup plan B, such as locate people where you’re going who might be able to help you replace kit, or lone or hire you replacements. As with time, the less time you give yourself for gear to be shipped from A to B, the higher the risk of a spanner ending up in the works. Along those lines, make sure you’re 100% sure about customs charges, things like bank holidays, or items that you cannot ship (a lot of foodstuffs cannot be shipped, for example).
Setting your sights
It’s easy to allow your ambition to get the better of your judgement and start with an easy objective, but inflate it onto a crazy one. One minute you’re planning on climbing Island Peak; the next, it’s the South Face Nuptse. It’s generally best to give yourself several objectives, big and small, hard and easy, and not bet the house on just one. You should also be realistic about your chances and understand the expedition game is not a game of low risk and easy wins, but a game in which you risk it all but nine times out of ten, you’ll come home broken, skint and summit-less.
On any big trip, it’s best to do a shakeup climb before you begin your main objective, which in high altitude climbing, which is generally an acclimatisation peak. Such a trip will get your head back in the game after all the travelling, help stretch your legs, get an idea of the lay of the land, temperatures, partners, and just get your shit together. Should a trip is not wasting time or squandering the time you should be using on your main objective, but rather creating the foundation you’ll need to take the next step.
Very often, even if you do everything right, the summit is a matter of timing. It’s about getting the right people to the right place at the right time. Get just one of those wrong, and you won’t do it, or strike too early, and you won’t be given another chance if you miss. Sometimes these things come down to being able to wait and wait and wait and then go, will other times you’ll have to make your own windows of opportunity, you just grind it out, you make your own opportunities.
The biggest lesson I can impart about expeditions or trips is that the final adjudication of the success of a trip is one that aligns with the late Rodger Baxter Jones credo, that one should “Come back alive, come back friends and get to the top. In that order of importance”. Or Mo Anthoine’s, which was “no mountain is worth a mate”. When you’re on your first expedition, you will feel compelled to give it your all, and you should, but don’t give the mountain everything because it won’t be your last unless you make it so. Expeditions, well, the ones worth going on, will be more about failure than success. So you just need to understand that’s the game you’re in and see your climbing life, not in individual peaks and troughs, but more as a waveform, that both are nothing without each other.