WHAT MAKES THE EXPEDITION CLIMBER ?

contrary to what the climbing media will show you, expedition climbers are not usually the coiffed, logo-laden, high tech, well spoken ambassadors they are made out to be. after 20 years going on prolonged trips to places barely on the map, weve come across enough of the real thing to recognize it when we see it.

superficially, expedition climbers fit a Jungian archetype somewhat different from ‘trip’ climbers, tho of course theres a lot of overlap and its natural to be both. for this blurb we will define ‘expedition’ as being an undertaking in an area removed by degrees of magnitude from any form of climbing industry. basically its climbing somewhere outside of where climbing usually happens and the industry that provides to it has no sway. by example the Khumbu, Charakusa, Fitzroy or the Alps usually dont qualify, whereas the North side of the Karakorum, Baffin, the Altun Shan and many of the sub-ranges of the Himalaya, Andes, Pamir, Tien Shan, Hindu Kush do. if Global Rescue has an off-the-shelf plan and youre not packing your own toilet paper and paramedic supplies its not an expedition.

what makes the expedition climber is the expedition. the omega point of the expedition objective throws into context all other activity and pulls together the pieces to make it happen. people dont end up on expedition by accident, via haphazardness or wishing and dreaming. expeditions are the result of intent and hardwork and theres a certain character that fits that.

if eating unidentified food from a bag excites you, you are one big step towards expedition climbing

expedition climbers dont come from nowhere. they are not born as such and no one hands it to them. to climb in expedition style requires developing the physical capacity, motivation, technical ability and thought process – and making the sacrifices – to be the type of person who does that sort of thing. it doesnt suit everybody. the commitment over large loops of time to many is not realistic. many simply dont believe in their ideas enough to let it happen. to some the idea of being that off the grid is frightening.

expedition climbers see a process. that its a large loop of feedback is understood and that all the steps on the way are not always glamorous is accepted. expedition objectives are rarely the result of fairweather preparation – if you cant cope with a weekend in the rain its unlikely you be solid on a ledge in a storm.

expedition climbers have the guile to channel valuable resources towards a grand objective. $1000 airfares, $800 boots, expensive permits and destroying ropes is accepted as the entry fee. long periods in obscure areas never has been a cheap undertaking and thats simply that. actually work it all out and it maybe comes to $100 a week over a year, making it cheaper than its ever been, but the value has to be there to start with. some people think $100 a week on beer or weed is justified.

if you like hanging out with a crowd in a big warm mess tent with a crew cooking regular meals then real expeditions might not be for you

expedition climbers live in the tunnel of expedition thinking. this is a general way of living where excitement, curiosity, a work ethic and an objective process applies to everything. the ideas of new places, thoughts of new activity, a penchant for logistics, acceptance of a level of base knowledge area paradigm to view life thru that means the actuality of going on expedition scratches all the little itches of day to day living. more than one climber on expedition has announced a sense of being where they know they should be, at least for part of the time.

expedition climbers know its not about the gear. of course gear is part of the equation, but at a similar level to how craftmen use tools. specialist expedition gear is seen as a series of gateways that let certain things be done. the fetishes for nylon, aluminium, carbon fiber, dyneema and plastic dont last long over function. expedition climbers are the only climbers who find sponsorship a hindrance rather than an accolade.

expedition climbers dont demand a set course of actions. if anything expedition climbing can be defined as the opposite – to go where no prefabricated set of rules exists. if your life revolves around morning emails, dependable weather reports, known approach times and detailed topos, adaption to expedition living may be hard. if any paradigm is central to expedition climbing it is that at any moment it all can change to something totally unexpected. entire sides of mountains can prove unapproachable, complete weather patterns can be found to not apply, unforeseen bureaucracy can scuttle whole schedules, accidents and coincidences can open up bizarre outcomes.

expeditions tend not to include the concept of a nice warm hotel room at the end of each day

expedition climbers are discontent with having followed. the shock of the new is fundamental to the expedition mentality, at near-addictive proportions. the buzz of climbing new terrain supersedes any emotion of standing at a high point and its shadow – the act of following established ground – is seen as a form of failure. by definition its a neuroses, but one that drives a grander vision rather than one that backs into a corner. the association with unknowns and unexplored areas is integral to planning, objectives are decided equally by avoiding known factors as by attraction to unknown ones.

expedition climbers have a solid ability to research. from nutrition to training to languages to geography. by their nature expeditions take place without an industry to fill in the gaps. basic factors like sourcing food, navigating towns, negotiating with locals and making decisions are profound enough to get bogged down in without a large degree of pre-knowledge. obscure places are obscure for a reason and often once there an ability to communicate with the greater world diminishes, meaning information from a bigger scale is not apparent. locals can have entirely alternative ways of determining weather, gaining access, perceiving risks. their perspectives and demands are unlikely to have much in common with a team of foreign climbers, more so when communication is alien.

the basis of expedition climbing is making uninhabitable places habitable, even if just for a short space of time.

expedition climbers understand allocating money. expeditions cost hard cash, and that cash translates into unique experiences. for those experiences to be real the money needs to reflect that. cheap boots save $100 but compromise the $1000’s spent on other aspects. expensive gadgetry can introduce complexities and problems analogue solutions can avoid. dollars spent on preparation can reduce dollars spent on wasted time, other factors cant be changed no matter what amount is thrown at it. take away an industry of guides, porters and liaisons and you cant pay your way to the top of a mountain – let alone home again.

expedition climbers train. you cant get good at expeditions by going to the wall, gym or trail 3 times a week and calling that enough. the basic demands of expedition climbing covers a spectrum of effort far broader than climbing alone that a base of general capacity for suffering accounts for maybe 75% of it, with the remaining 25% being the specific machinations of climbing. you are just as likely to be battered, tested and exhausted by days on bad roads, sleeping in cramped places, hauling big loads and belaying from nasty positions as you are from hard edge climbing, and you dont proof yourself from all that by doing 4x4s and crossfit. expedition training is pure blue-collar grunt work of which the only thing that sucks more is not doing it. a large element is in digging out existing weaknesses and chronic problems so they can be managed, as well as incrementally developing the capacity to push against gravity and the weather for weeks on end.

expedition climbers get the cultural aspects – not necessarily the host cultures, but the process of being out of their own. its ignorant to expect the locals in a barely known place to understand, accept, align to or care about your visiting values. minus a climbing industry it fast becomes apparent just how pointless expedition climbing is. in places that see few travelers provisions for them are not default, and often are viewed as decadent or a novelty. if you cant be bothered to decipher your presence in a culture with minimal place for you then you may need to look at your motives. despite a media telling us otherwise, expedition climbers are guests in foreign lands, interacting with landscapes in alien ways that can range from uninteresting to sacrilegious to those whos backyards it happens in. combined with the subtleties of communication between vastly different cultures and its not difficult to see why so many great alpine objectives are off limits.

when weather reports dont exist you have to roll with the consequences

expedition climbers engage the process of problem solving well beyond the climbing. expeditions deconstructed are a matrix of problems requiring solutions. these problems are a continuum that exist long before the actual climbing phase and continue long after, to edit your perspective to just the romantic stuff is to miss the implications throughout. skip a problem early on and it both snowballs the matter and decreases the contingency to fix it. a snapped boot lace is tiny out on the weekend, but on a huge frozen wall the odds are dramatically changed.

expedition climbers are attached to a broad range of goals. standing on top of an unclimbed feature is a feat that takes hundreds of small goals to get to. to place gear properly, to be precise with navigation, to buy the right food, to be fit enough, to pack properly, to make a good tent ledge – to nail the foundation of subsidiary goals is to set up the primary goals, making them possible. looking back at any failed climb, the failed sub-goals are often the cause of greater failures. wrong boots, lack of ability, lack of clarity, lazy choices….when these goals are not made the vectors that allow big objectives to occur are not present.

expedition climbers get hard work. all of the above covers aspets of character that define an archetype that puts into action the process of going far away to do something pointlessly risky for the sake of a unique experience. its the stuff of life and heroic in its own little navel-gazing, Campbellian way, but without the connective element of elbow grease still comes to nought. in the end its grimy blue collar work that makes it happen; carrying loads thru rivers, lugging boxes of groceries up stairs, decanting kilos of oats into little ziploks, suffering bad roads and delays, weeks without washing, ropes that need coiling, ground that needs covering, snow that needs melting, boots that need drying, weather that needs recording, decisions that need making.

now these things all seem obvious, and most people have degrees of these qualities already  – the difference with expedition climbing is that defining and clarifying these characteristics extends very realistically to the sharp end. you dont come home from an expedition by chance, so all of these attributes need to be clearly cultivated.