not all ‘expeditions’ are actually expeditions. going somewhere well known, following a standardized timeline, to do something thats been refined into a process and to have a contingent of anonymous locals do the heavy lifting from points A – Z does not an expedition make. by default real expeditions are concerned with the unknown. that’s the whole point. when the objective isnt completely known then other factors like resources, timelines, risks, preparation and logistics juggle the unknown too. the nature of an expedition is to render a series of unknowns knowable. if almost every element is already known it needs to be called something else.
real expeditions are about doing things together in places they havent been done before
for an ‘expedition’ you prepare by reading books from the ‘Adventure’ section of the bookshop, following a 6 week fitness plan from FHM and once a month visit a gear shop with your list. you buy folding cups, titanium spoons, $400 sunglasses and anything with a stuff sack. along with your new boots and down pants, everything goes into a huge TNF duffel bag.
for an expedition you prepare by search obscure Russian sources for maps in cyrillic, patching your sleeping mat, running up hills with rocks in a pack and trying to order small-production gear from companies that answer their email once a month. even with light weight gear it becomes obvious you will be wearing your boots on the plane and smuggling on a 35kg pack cinched to breaking point as hand luggage.
on an ‘expedition’ you arrive at an airport and are met by a rep from the booking company and a few minor employees who shuffle your load to a company van and whisk you to a 3 star hotel where others dressed in expensive boots with huge duffel bags are shunting about the lobby.
on an expedition you arrive at an airport, everyone stares as you roll your own stack of bags out to a taxi, you hand over the name of the only hotel in town that accepts foreigners and assume you will be taken the long route. after 20 minutes of sign language and charades at reception you are shown to a room with no cable tv, and after the 3rd try on the phone get thru to ‘your guy in town’ an meet him in the lobby.
on an ‘expedition’ you spend the next day signing disclaimers, doing a tour of town then bond over dinner at a famous restaurant ‘where all the climbers go’.
on an expedition you spend the next day trying to find peanut butter, ziplok bags, snickers bars and instant coffee all over town. dinner is from the street stall across the road and you are up repacking and sorting muesli into bags until 2am
with no local industry catering to climbing the process of procuring expedition supplies is a matter of doing the best you can
on an ‘expedition’ the company van drives you to a village where the company bosses ‘cousin’ has a hostel. you eat a dumbed down version of local food and try the local hooch. there are stickers from previous eastern european and iranian groups on the windows and sit down toilets that still just empty into a hole. your room has hot water even tho the locals dont. everyone in town knows why you are there, where you will go tomorrow and when to expect you back. you talk mostly with other foreigners and marvel at the exotic places they come from whilst viewing the locals as entertaining.
on an expedition you drive in an overloaded 4wd until dark, then stay the night somewhere with no heating, electricity or food. the owners are uneasy about having foreigners around and their kids get sent down the road so you can have their beds. the police stop by and are polite but ask a lot of questions. that night you can hear dogs fighting in the streets. you piss in a bottle as the process of finding a toilet is the less-good option. almost no one in town sees you arrive or depart and those that do dont understand nor care what you are doing. having never seen foreigners before you have no common language to explain even if they did.
on an ‘expedition’ your gear all leaves town hours before you do and you start the approach along a well defined trail where kids ask for money, girls sell trinkets and signs from NGO’s adorn the trail side. you walk with the head guide who seems to know everyone they pass, and by midday has told you his life story. lunch is at another ‘cousins’ home. after a total 5 hours on foot you arrive at a small hotel / row of big yellow tents to be greeted with the local tea, a jar of Tang and popcorn. repeat 6 or 7 times.
on an expedition you are left on a lonely roadside with a promise of return in a specified time. your pack ways a lot more than you want it to, even tho you are aware it contains far less food than it really should. with a map printed off Google Earth you start down a valley before anyone sees you are out there, following goat trails. lunch what you can eat as you ferry gear across a stream. the day is done after 2 hours looking for somewhere flat for the tent. you eat rehydrated food, drink boiled water and sleep in your clothes. repeat for as many days as it takes to get to somewhere to use a basecamp.
keeping the psyche when plans waver is considered normal on expeditions
on an ‘expedition’ you follow an obvious path up scree, eventually coming to a fixed line that leads past the remains of Korean tents, rusted Italian cans and sun bleached prayer flags. further up the fixed lines are some other people, a mix of barely equipped locals with large packs, massively over dressed foreigners with tiny packs and the occasional european athlete-climber with huge boots and lots of logos. camps are on large ledges and set out according to company. your guide is already there, having arrived hours before where hed left his gear from his last trip up there a week ago. everybody is talking about ‘Dex’, recharging batteries, sat phone reception and Alpinist magazine. repeat until ready to summit.
on an expedition you take the wrong gully twice before getting the one you can see on the print out. after realizing most of your rack is the wrong size you run out full rope length pitches on just a few blades and the good ol’ yellow alien, trying to get height so you see above the colouir walls and try and locate yourself on the map. the first night is a bivy where you spend 3hrs melting ice and lay awake worrying about having enough gear to go either up or down. every gust of wind you worry is an impending storm. rather than repeat you decide the next day to drop back to base, get your shit together then try again.
when nothing is guaranteed simply getting thru the night is success
on an ‘expedition’ your problems consist of hygiene in a series of camps with dubious sanitary issues, charging batteries, rationing coffee filters, staying ahead of the guy you met last year who was fitter, finding new books to read and whiling away the boring excess hours before and after each days climbing. you play 200 games of connect four, watch 17 films with Jude Law in them, rearrange the rocks around your tent and twice visit the cooking tent to see how the locals do things.
on an expedition you spend as much time drying and coiling ropes, drying sleeping bags and patching tarps as you do climbing. you draw and redraw a dozen topos, dig out gravel to try and collect snow melt and reread the same out of date copy of the Economist.
‘sleep’ in a fragile bivy is the stage between stressing about tomorrow and exhaustion
on an ‘expedition’ nights are spent drinking tea and eating salami whilst discussing property prices and visa procedures in large orange tents. sleep is disrupted by flatulence, the sound of your tent mate typing emails and a snoring Slovenian in the next tent.
on an expedition nights seen as necessary evils, spent balancing a stove, melting snow, keeping gas, gloves, waterbottles and boot liners from freezing and eating whatever you can in the dark as you conserve batteries. thru the gaps in the tarp you watch the clouds move below you and only relax enough to sleep when you see the first light of day. the mornings are either depressing scrambles to stuff gear into a pack, or the best moments of your life as you watch the world from a place no human ever has.
expedition climbing is a series of successes, where every pitch demands working out and every high point is to new terrain.
on an ‘expedition’ summit day is a buzz of agitation. everyone has their camera batteries charged. the summit itself is amazing and a great group atmosphere. coming down you give tips to those going up and hug your guide as you exclaim how you dont believe you actually did it. with the job done its now just a matter of getting home, tho people still coming up the fixed lines slow you down. basecamp is beer, emails and giving away Clif bars.
on an expedition the summit doesnt come. you get close, but what you see on the print out and what is actually there is not the same. several days of stressful effort and nights of bad sleep, plus the dehydration, dont leave enough gas in the tank to take the risk of pushing further. as it is you may not have enough gear to rap all the way, so you down climb the easy bits. at the high point where you turn around you see dozens of other peaks. way below you can see the valley you need to follow to get back to the road. a near-miss on the way down convinces you to stop and bivy rather than push into the 23rd hour without sleep. basecamp is covered in a layer of snow and your food is all frozen. the next day is spent laying in the sun, the tiny trail of an airplane overhead is the first sign of other humans since leaving the road.
on an ‘expedition’ it’s a race back to town. the exotic local culture now gets in the way and a sense of familiarity and having summitted sets you apart from the newcomers you pass going in. you cant wait for cheeseburgers, sushi and real beer. the internet feels slower than on the way in as you search amongst your stack of emails for people to tell your news.
on an expedition theres the inevitable concern about when the 4wd will appear. as you wait you cook slices of salami to use up the remaining gas. all talk has been of how it could have been done better. the weight of the gear you left as anchors and the food you ate is replaced by the grime and damp that infuses everything. only 2 pairs of socks over the entire time has left your feet shriveled and a strange colour. when the 4wd arrives you simply force your full packs in and settle in amongst it. on the way out you stop to check other aspects of the peak, deciding you should have come from the north. you wake up as the headlights illuminate the front of some unopen-looking hotel as you pull in. a sleepy owner points up some stairs to a room with no tv or curtains. for a bed with no suspension its better than a sleeping bag.
the game’s not over till that vehicle returns to that lonely road and everything fits inside.