‘the journey of a thousand li begins in your living room’ – lao zi (except the last bit)
after 15 years of trips to obscure parts of china, central asia and the subcontinent weve noticed theres a primary factor that makes the difference but is often misjudged: the lead up. between confirming your place and getting on the plane is a phase that determines a lot of what happens out at the sharp end when you wont have internet, specialty shops and ATMs to solve the problem. its amazing what people let slip thru, setting up a domino effect of issues that can result in problems where they are appreciated the least.
real expedition climbing is accessible. you don’t have to be sponsored, or have 6 month windows, or invest tens of thousands in huge logistics – you just need the motivation and a head for planning.
you can do this. expeditions come out of careful planning and applied intention, not bravado and super hero acts. the actuality of going on expedition is more possible than many people think simply because most climbers talk themselves out of it. knowing the world wont stop turning if you head off for a few weeks is the first step achieving big goals. not being overwhelmed by the list of things needing doing is the next.
ideas about failure, risk, loss and confusion are normal when setting off on trips – the key is in waiting until things are in front of you before you worry about them. usually they are so outweighed by the cool, unique, unmissable stuff they get dealt with and resolved. being confident in confronting the insecurities of trips to obscure places to do committed things is a matter of preparation; research, training and planning.
it takes at least six months to get real results for expedition climbing. thats the minimum needed to change your body over from whatever its doing now to being exped-ready. if youre already climbing fit, youre part of the way there. if youre not – 9 months is more realistic.
training has lots of superficial elements to tweak to the specifics of your trip, but behind that is the big, general exped base all climbing needs. whether its walls or alpine ascents or multiple routes, everything is about 75% the same; huge amounts of slow burn cardio capacity, a big reserve of functional strength and focused ability to redline when you have to. the actual applications of each capacity can be tweaked towards specific trips (jugging big walls, high powered mixed routes or technical steep slogging), but whatever the objective the accumulated physical condition takes a long period of consistant effort to acheive. weekends at the indoor wall wont do it.
work it out by scouring a calender to see what time you have to work with. be realistic. how many hours a week? how many hours all up? how can you best use them? saturday mornings bouldering in the gym may not be the best way of getting in shape if you cant run up 25 floors of stairs.
most western climbers are put to shame linguistically in the places they go to climb in. impoverished local kids can all say ‘one pen’ or ‘hello Joe’ in English but more often than not most visitors know not a single world of their language. this may be understandable when their language is Burushaski or Pamiri Tajik, but when its Hindi, Russian or Mandarin – the languages of millions – it’s a point of shame.
the basic greetings and pleasantries will be welcome to locals who see us as aliens and learning to count will save you money in otherwise lop-sided haggling. being able to recognize the names of places your trip is planned around is a basic function, as is knowing the names of common food. without the safari bubble a real expedition takes place without the industry safety net, on local terms and with outcomes dependent on local relations. we are the ones with the excess time and resources, the education and global connectivity, its up to us to bridge from this side.
there are no observers: take away the commercial bubble and the realities of going to obscure places take getting used to.
as this article isn’t concerned with industrially organized safari trips we wont consider that you will be met at the airport and your hand held all the way to BC. in this case you will be outside the fishbowl and in with the locals, and theres no excuse for not making the effort to adapt to a degree.
white people stumbling belligerently into another culture isn’t cool any more so learn whats what and how its done and pay attention to the locals. every culture has social rituals that cluster around food, entering homes, meeting people for the first time, displays of gender and basic hygiene. if Burton could work this all out in 1852 you can make the effort with todays technology. in some cultures that surround high mountains there isn’t a second chance, with unfriendly ejection from peoples backyards still going on. in other places it just helps to reinforce preconceptions of foreigners and in some other places the outcomes are even less savoury. even if you don’t learn the exact social specifics, at least have a broad knowledge of where to expect them and sharpen your senses to see where they arise.
you will probably have spent hours on google earth, scouring topographic maps and dreaming up topos of routes and access, but what do you know about the roads going in and the cities you will stay in? getting lost downtown in the search for ziplock bags is unnecessary and a waste of time, and in places like Islamabad these days, a risk.
like guessing where theres water on the route, it makes sense to know where the department stores are in town, what ATMs are about and the general direction to the airport.
cut corners elsewhere: the right things on your feet is a major chunk of the equation resolved.
make this the priority and try, order and get used to them as long before you need them as possible. research the route and conditions, see whats available and make the most informed choice. its stupid to skimp on boots when you’ve spent a lot elsewhere. a common mistake is a last minute splurge on sexy looking boots after a sudden panic that yours need replacing. worse still is when they need to be ordered in a time frame that’s cutting it thin. no ones ever gone down for wearing boots warmer than needed, but examples of boots being insufficient are a mainstay of mess tent conversation. think about the expected conditions and go with the boots that cover the worst, not the easiest (or cheapest). it sounds obvious, but to save $200 its amazing what you see trying to be justified.
don’t plan for doing an ultra a week before you go. likewise don’t crash your chances with a big binge or period of extended lethargy. in the last month or so before a trip eat well, exercise moderately, minimize risk and get us much good sleep as possible. whatever your training has been, there wont be any great leaps made in a month so aim to debug any niggles and stabilize your weight so you go in as a known quantity. perhaps the worst choice is booking a skiing trip in the lead up – easy package ski holidays ‘just at a resort’ are amongst the top factors for late minute cancellations and insurance woes.
despite being the bane of the developing world, decent bags for organizing gear and prepacking food are hard to find away from modern cities – freezer bags after all, tend to require a freezer to put them in.
when trips get long they need careful food planning and the quality of the bags its in determines what it will be like to eat in 4 weeks time. the damper the conditions the more it matters and when your carrying oil, muesli, coffee and other things you cant afford to spill or leak, decent ziplock bags rate with decent weatherproof clothing. good bags not only store your food but by eating out of them (dropped first into your cup) minimize washing up and optimize with sanitation.
even short trips take a lot of stuff
the stereotypical expedition image is a stack of duffle bags getting hitched onto mules, loaded into light aircraft and hoisted onto the backs of brown people in sandals. regardless of the karabiners you use, all your gear needs to make it from your living room floor to a little tent somewhere via baggage handlers, taxis, hotel rooms, camels, Cessna’s, rope bridges and the hands of other climbers.
regular big hypalon duffels work well but are limited in their durability and weatherproofness. they are fairly easy to handle and ok for organization, but inside a tent they are terrible. barrels are great for longer trips and trips with a lot of gear (walls etc) as they can stay outside your tent, and the contents are less damaged by pack animals. they are a must for any trip that involves a lot of water crossings and/or where you need to cache stuff as they are rodent proof. with a bit of DIY they become the most securely lockable choice.
roller duffles are creeping into the market now. once embarrassing symbols of yuppiedom they are now being made rugged enough to cope with expedition use including being loaded onto pack animals, and they are the easiest thing to get thru the 50% of your journey that isn’t over mountain terrain by yak.
haul bags are another option that have the ruggedness of a barrel but also the drawbacks. easiest of all to manhandle (porters can come to blows over who gets to carry a haul bag) and possible to be stored outside a tent (throw a tarp over them) they are also a pain in the ass to get stuff from the bottom of, but you cant have everything.
and don’t just think about transport – how will you use it at BC? a 3 person tent feels like a bivy bag when you’ve got a months worth of climbing gear inside it, so consider your luggage from a storage perspective and think about a system for keeping it all in lofts and clipped high in the tent when youre out there.
anyone seen the handle for the coffee grinder? even a basic degree of organization helps
half the gear misplaced on expeditions is down simply to not having a coherent packing system to begin with. dropped on a mountain is one thing – left next to the shower in a hotel room is different. you wont need your glamorous climbing gear immediately, so pack it at the bottom of the pile. everything will be resorted at BC, so rather than a huge knot of ropes, slings and aiders think about mesh laundry bags (that have lots of uses up high as well). it’s a good idea to keep a token amount of gear at the top in case of approaches that need river crossings. likewise a pair of flip flops and dry trousers at the top.
for the days ahead to BC have a day pack ready with what you will need enroute, including stuff for the hotel room like good coffee and a washing line. always have a headtorch for power failures and early starts. have your passport handy if expecting checkpoints and for hotel check-ins.
get some good marker pens and mark up whats needed. checking off lists is easier when you know what number of how many something is and things like gas cannisters need marking, plus any emergency gear including medication, especially if in another language. for trips like bigwalls or when using barrels, when everyone has Black Diamond haulbags or the same blue chem barrels, scrawling names and details on the outside is an obvious thing to do.
expeditions are exercises in logistics, not climbing. for the 15% that is climbing theres 85% below the water that is preparation and execution that requires the right pieces to interact at the right time. relying on a memory affected by fatigue, cultural reorientation and chaos is a bit optimistic, especially when a pencil and paper negate having to. make lists and use them. know what you need and when and the order in which things need to happen. carry a little notebook to keep on top of details and keep the details refreshed.
theres a lot of discussions about health and bowel conditions on expeditions, most of which can be easily negated by two things; money and pills.
an extra $100 spent on good food is perhaps the #1 bargain on a long trip. nothing else will you pine for more and feel the effects of more dramatically. lots of climbers spend big on bling then scrounge on food, eating either spartan local fare or junk. and many will agonize over the length of their slings when the addition of some multivitamins and fish oil will have a far greater impact on their on-mountain performance.
expecting first world urban nutrition in an isolated third world basecamp is simply misinformed. when snacks are less, food isn’t as fresh, youre working harder from altitude, sleep is disturbed and its constantly cold it simply isn’t realistic. even at home youd find it a strain and need to boost things a bit. eating more chocolate and drinking more tang isn’t the answer to improved condition.
so plan for it as it will happen (the indicator is seeing how long before people start fantasizing about what they will eat when they get back to the city. what they choose is often a sign of what theyre missing…). bringing your own supplements is easy and lightweight, but the real solution is everyone paying an extra $50 for more food at BC. $50 x each member will go a long way in a cheap country, and so long as its earmarked for quality produce (not more beer and chocolate) it boosts the entire experience profoundly. people don’t remember great snacks but they do remember great BC meals.
beware of he-man style protein supplements tho as they don’t always digest well at the best of times, let alone at altitude. amino acids are usually a better bet. more importantly – avoid taking more sweet junk as your day food and snacks in the first place. sugary crap can be found the world over whilst dense, fatty, complex carb, neutral snacks cant, and that’s what you will crave long after your teeth sting from all the Haribo and Snickers bars.
the magic of the internet puts any relevant data before you. collect and collate it and get in the picture, be informed. even the most pedestrian image or facebook mention can house some iota of beta that seems minor at the time but becomes clear when youre out there struggling to make decisions.
a lot of what appears as great voyages into the unknown is only that way to the outsider. once on the ground its normal to find that lots of information exists from a local perspective, its just never been homogenized into a format climbers are aware of. try searching from other perspectives; somewhere unknown to climbers may be ordinary to ornithologists, fishermen or geologists.
Most expeditions don’t happen without warning. Look at the time you have and put things in order so visas, flights, gear orders and daily life can all be slotted together. sit down, scrawl it out, figure it out and put it into a timeline.
After a couple of trips you get to recognize your own ‘expedition pipeline’. the process of getting better organized is a sign of growing up as a climber. the more mature the objective the less room there is for teenage haphazardness and the greater the risks from messing it up. forgetting the ziplock bags on a weeks cragging is a pain in the ass, but on a 6 week trip at high altitude it has very real consequences.