THE EXPEDITION CLIMBER: PREPARING FOR BEYOND THE TOPO

true expeditions – trips where you aren’t certain what to expect – need a wide spectrum of preparation. only having a general idea of what you will encounter means having a higher degree of applied capacity than is needed when you know what every step will demand. perhaps the primary thing to prepare for is hybridized ability – the ability to mix things up as seamlessly as possible. the objective here is to produce a climber who can approach an objective and be as little fettered by their knowledge and ability as possible.

when even the locals dont know about the peaks youve got a lot to be responsible for: unnamed and certainly unclimbed peaks near the NE Tibet border. photo lifted from Google

in an age of focused specialization, over specializing in one form of climbing having ignored others is the antithesis of real expedition climbing. its simply not always possible to find a realistic route that fits a narrow band of ability. retreat or diversion simply because a few pitches cannot be aided, climbed delicately or drytooled is a failing on a trip to a truly unexplored area. the ability to shift between climbing styles and blend it all into a single ‘climbingness’ is the mark of an expedition alpinist. moving from steep snow, across bleak rock, onto tech mixed and sections of ice – in every combination – streamlines route choice and the climbing timeline.

not every team member needs to be a specialist in every style of climbing – but a functional understanding by all members that allows easy ground to be covered and the demands understood is a given. indeed generations of Soviet and Eastern European climbers demonstrate well the way cross-trained teams can function.

basic standards to attain make the climber a known quantity, meaning they know whats going on and can swap leads on less difficult stuff so the more specialized members can rest. these standards too mean theres a functional body of knowledge amongst the group which is vital for contingency.

all these standards are assumed to be done with expedition accoutrements such as a large pack, gloves, big boots and full rack. standards apply to both the physical ability and technical ability

  • solo ice to WI3 & simu long sections to WI3

  • free climb to 5.9

  • mixed climb/drytool to M4

  • solo/simu Scottish grade IV

  • aid climb to A2/C2 (including a working knowledge of basic nailing and hooking)

  • jug full, overhanging rope lengths

  • pendulums

  • mixing the whole lot up happily

developing these standards doesn’t happen randomly. covering such a broad skill set means getting out and developing the skills intentionally. first ascents of unexplored objectives is not the place to try aiding on micro-cams or cleaning on jugs for the first time. or even second and third time.

youve just got to get out there and do it: expedition skills dont happen by accident, they are acquired thru dedicated effort and intention that require time and experimentation. energy spent on the little stuff pays off at the sharp end

this means days on less-glamorous walls working thru methods and trying them on increasingly more demanding test pieces. time trials on the same routes is a good way of indicating improvement, as is multiple reclimbs of the same routes with different racks of gear and/or in different styles, which includes different boots and the weight on your back. like triathlons, the transitions are as important as the defined sections. shifting between free, aided and tooled disciplines as the routes demands change is where good exped climbers differ from average ones.

it’s a symptom of inefficiency having to switch leads and rebelay two short pitches when a single pitch that covers both ice and a hair-line fissure up an otherwise blank wall could be combined. likewise its time-wasting and potentially dangerous having to stop and reboot (literally) to free climb a section that could well be aided or drytooled.

genuine expedition climbing is all about hyper-efficiency; being able to look at a peak and not discount sections of it simply due to acquirable skills. as opposed to ‘safari’ and commercial climbing, the beta on unclimbed peaks is obviously minimal, usually being a handful of general photos and maps that are not specific – that’s the whole idea. add to this the logistics that wont be refined and the approach that will itself be an adventure in unknown-ness, and the further you go into the process the more potent a climbers ability becomes. you can for granted the same factors that mean a peak is unclimbed also mean you will be climbing without a net.