it is if you’re doing it right!!!

a recent spate of discussion, including comments on the iceclimbingjapan trip to Gangga VII and reactions to the blog post on Andy Kirkpatricks site, have raised the issue of climbers drinking coffee. and fair enough. tho the discussion usually centers on supplemental oxygen and then dexamethasone, Diamox, nifidipine etc coffee always gets roped in as an example of the grey area. yes, the effects are recognized by the highest authorities, but no, it aint banned except in specific circumstances, and indeed in most circles its celebrated.

drug? definitely. unacceptable advantage? not really. bottled oxygen is because its too high, Dex is because youre dying and Diamox is because youre going too fast. coffee is because its 4:00am and theres things to get done.

where coffee warps the envelope with alpine climbing is it has no effects specific to altitude. its well researched that it has distinct effects for endurance activities in general, but above 3500m (or whatever altitude ‘altitude’ begins at…) the effects are nothing special, indeed some references suggest stopping drinking it if its already being regularly consumed to be a problem.

in other endurance sports coffee is only looked down upon within the regulations of Olympic grade events like triathlons where immediate ‘race doses’ that require pharmaceutical dosing (and therefore leave whats meant by ‘coffee’ and enter whats considered doping). ultramarathons, adventure races and stage races have no restrictions on coffee.

an element that clouds the matter is alpine climbings definition as a ‘sport’, which defines then what is ‘fair’ or not. is an ascent done with regular espressos having an unfair advantage the same as an ascent done dexed up or using bottled oxygen? should ascents done by coffee addicts be defined as such? are there ascents being done with coffee that couldn’t be done otherwise?

the thing with coffee is its only performance enhancing when you drink enough – disqualifying dabblers, coffee-wankers and drip. to get the endurance effects requires about 5 cups, which is no big deal over a day but in order to peak a few hours after takes effort (youre looking at espresso for that). according to some literature its main enhancing potential is in training, as to get enough right before a maximal effort would require tablets or suppositories, which stretches the definition of ‘coffee’. enough to blow the idea that Eckenstein insisting on afternoon tea on K2 was getting any enhancing benefit from it (tho who can say what Crowley may have added to the mix…)

coffee paraphenalia. no syringes, no pills, no prescriptions, no sherpas to carry it all.

unlike most drugs used in climbing coffee doesn’t do what your body cannot do itself nor alter the environment you climb in. coffee doesn’t keep you alive or extend your abilities like a true amphetamine or steroid, its simply not invasive enough. its hard to imagine anyones directly been saved by the stuff (tho indirectly thanks to its properties to temporarily sharpen a mind clouded by exhaustion). in this respect coffee is more like beet juice or throat lozenges in that it enhances the scope of a set of functions. it doesn’t initiate them, nor does coffee make up for a genetic disposition like Diamox does. asprin is of greater pharmacological effect than caffeine at altitude, as is ibuprofen. sub-‘altitude’ both are considered standards for the basics of endurance injury.

just what coffee does do to enhance endurance performance is not really clear. apparently it stretches fat metabolization so its broken down over a longer period, starting earlier thus ‘saving’ glycogen so it can be broken down over longer. but how it does this is undecided. compare this to the invasive actions that ‘real’ performance enhancing substances used by climbers have and tho it’s a drug for sure, its pretty low key, certainly lower than many effects of regular diet have, ie taking amino acids, drinking coconut oil or energy gels.

where it is banned is is not because its harmful or has side effects that are nasty, nor that it imparts a risky unfair advantage to some like blood doping – which can kill you – other than I suppose people that may have an allergy reaction, its safe for everyone competing to use without risk of someone going too far.

is it unethical? im not sure how. procuring it certainly isn’t (unless we get into bird friendly, picked by disabled women in impoverished countries stuff) so theres no dodgy doctors or communist conspiracies involved. it doesn’t exclude anyone normal from its use due to cost, metabolism, risk or method of ingestion.

yes, coffee helps at altitude in a way that non-coffee drinkers wont be getting but it also does that on Sunday morning in a beachside café with a copy of the Economist. the divide between coffee drinkers and non-drinkers isn’t what exists between dopers and non-dopers or ‘O’ users and non-‘O’ users. coffee doesn’t open up otherwise unclimbable peaks, nor does it create high-altitude scandals and controversies. people don’t die because they ran out of coffee and sherpas don’t risk their lives for meagre wages to carry it.

do we strip alex lowe and ueli steck – both renowned for their coffee habits – of their achievements because they drink coffee on the mountain? rather than hide it and/or lie about it like Armstrong et al these guys chose to celebrate it. holy heck, Kyle Dempster even owns a cafe! the early morning smell of BCs and highcamps the world over suggest its hardly a clandestine affair, and tho popular use doesn’t justify anything, comparing the numbers of coffee drinkers to summits and O users (or Dexamethasone or Diamox users) and summits suggests the performance enhancing effects are pretty minimal – unless you consider the ambiance of highcamp at 4:00am and ‘enhanced effect’.

in the end im not sure anyone’s stood on top of a mountain, route or boulder directly because of it, but im damned sure they’ve been happier at 3:00am when they decided it was game on.

be aware this rant is about coffee. it isn’t an attempt to change anybody’s mind, disqualify anybody’s achievements or justify anything that’s been done. nor is it about posturing a pro-PED stance for supplemental oxygen, ‘dexing up’ or prophylactic use of pharmaceuticals for the effects of altitude.


a few months ago, after playing with this at a tradeshow, the thought was WOW! now, after using on expedition, the thought is %&$#@+ WOW!

its a gear off!! two impressive helmets in an impressive place. the Dynafit Daymaker at 5320m on Gangga VII

perhaps because of the serious price tag Dynafit’s Daymaker ‘head system’ has seen little exposure. this review aims to change that. closer to something the PJ’s would wear, the Daymaker system is a big step all round; for helmets, for lighting and for wearable integrated climbing gear.

whats striking about this set is the spec of the elements both standalone and combine. they havent churned out the basest version of whats possible, they have nailed the current upper end. its not like Dynafit have combined superfluous gimmicky bits of junk with this – both a helmet and a headlight are fundamental climbing gear. both elements have also seen a lot of recent innovation and both showcase new technology that has a broad base of users – which makes you wonder why more companies arent putting out integrated systems.

minimal and comfortable

the helmet: alone its one of the lightest helmets out there – and its no minimalist foam dome. full spec, its shelled foam with a full plastic cradle, headlight lugs, a webbing harness (with a funky little magnetic clasp) and the rear battery housing. its fully CE and UIAA rated for mountaineering

thats a serious lighting set up

the headlight: ‘headlight’ is the correct term here. produced by BMW the lighting functions and operates in every way like the lights of a car. the beams are set, with left and right beams set at 2 angles (ie 4 individual lights, a narrower power spread and a wider ambient spread), each set ramps up and down like close, regular and high beam, and its simple one-touch operating. just like a car, with very little in common with every other light out there. build-wise its stunning – BMW havent let the side down at all. attachment is with soft silicone arms onto the helmet lugs with small locator holes in the helmet to fix it fully. the cable threads thru a vent opening then runs along the inside behind the cradle (and via a charger connection) to the battery pack.

the silicone arms & cable

the power is impressive at 1000 lumens, but its not exactly as it seems. the focal power beam feels like its about 300, with the remaining 700 going into the ambient spread. rather than a beam that could be seen on the moon you get a spread that illuminates a basketball court right back into your peripheral vision. it has to be remembered that this is a system designed foremost for backcountry skiing, where the eye demands as wide a spread of illumination as it does a powerful direct beam. the extra lumens dont feel like 1000 at first, until you compare with the ambient spread on a regular headtorch and you realize its not for reading in a tent its for illuminating mountain sides

the battery pack alone is an impressive bit of design

the battery pack (USB rechargable & insulated) has a life of about 4hrs on full juice, which is impressive. at less than that it scales down to about 12hrs on what could be called ‘normal output’.

combined: together it weighs less than most helmets! also its so finely balanced and jiggle/vibration free it feels seamless with nothing that could work loose. its specifically glove friendly (WOO-HOO!! finally a headlight that is!) with a single large rubberized button that glows red (reflects onto your hand so you can see where it is)

in reality: its as good as youd hoped. for normal stuff it functions like a regular light minus the problems associated with strap on use, then you have a serious degree of upscaling that is impressive. when needed you can light up a large area to allow a whole group to utilize the light, useful for things like belay stances, setting up tents and organizing gear at 4:00am.

4:00am, 4600m, -10c, normal headlight on full beam spread

4:01am, 4600m, -10c, Dynafit Daymaker on full beam spread…

issues: the light doesnt articulate so its slightly less good for map reading. theres no red beam – a serious failing. the light isnt really useable as a standalone so in tents you need to mess about. whilst the rear battery is elegantly integrated it seems they could do a bit more with the front cable, making it hidden from rock impacts. a spare battery is no doubt a pain in the ass/expensive to procure, meaning you need access to a charger which ok but not great on long trips.

in a way this is star trek stuff – a big leap in so many ways that a few minor elements need to catch up. plus being a ski helmet its a bit unfair to place the demands of exped climbing on it, but then again Dynafit is now owned by Salewa so perhaps time to listen up.


anyone saying the era of real exploration is over is simply wrong

gangga VII, 5425m, north east tibetan plateau. south east coulouir, 5.7 M4 VI, 85degrees ice, 40 – 60 degrees snow, +/-500m, 9 pitches to 5340m. no summit…this time

over a month from September to October iceclimbingjapan lead another trip to the Sichuan/Tibet plateau to find & climb new peaks – new as in totally unclimbed.

based on 15 years of trips to remote parts of China ICJ teamed up with the master of Tibetan exploration, Tomatsu Nakamura, to get the inside knowledge on whats out there to do. from his vast base of data we settled on an objective that suited ICJs model of small footprint, highly mobile trips that shed many of the problems associated with the big, dinosaur industry ‘expeditions’ found elsewhere. the Gangga Massifs were chosen with their +/-5500m mixed peaks and relative easy access, which made for a streamlined ascent profile that fitted our window.

aside from that almost nothing was known. first we had to find the base of the mountain before thinking about climbing it – a big matter considering only half a dozen photos of the Gangga peaks existed, all of them from the same side. it didn’t help too that the area was known as a center for civil unrest, with access restrictions forming a large element in the planning…


even several months of speculation didn’t touch on the amount of climbing out there. what turned out to be extremely complex topography uncovered decades worth of routes in just the one part of the Gangga we recced (approx. 10% of the range). characterized by a series of high cirques (+4500m) ringed with rock peaks theres climbing everywhere. from ideal boulders to 1200m big walls, ski routes, hard alpine, moderate ridges and huge ice lines theres endless possibilities.

basecamps mostly sit above 4000m, on grass yak pasture (nomads use the Gangga valleys connecting the Yalong river to the higher grasslands), with pristine spring water (ie very comfortable). high camps tend to be up the steep scree slopes that lead into the cirques thru openings in the walls (ie not so comfortable).

 Gangga VII highcamp (4500m)

another common feature of the Gangga massifs geology are the formations of spires and pillars that form maze-like networks of couloirs between faces and snow fields, making for complex route choices requiring a broad spectrum of climbing ability. theres lots of steep snow plodding to be had – but it takes solid mixed alpine to get to.


Gangga VII SE face:  SE couloir starts from the top of the visible snow/scree and emerges at the ice/snow that disappears round to the north side at the obvious notch on the right skyline. (note: the peak appearing to the left is a sub-peak foreshortened, +/- 5050m)

our permits were for the most distinct peak in the Gangga’s central massif, unnamed despite being so prominent, marked simply as 5425m in Nakamura’s images and sometimes referred to as Gangga VII. after looking into options from the accessible eastern side and balancing a large team of varied ability, we eventually settled on an ‘easy looking’ mixed couloir that twisted from the SE side thru pillars and faces around to the NE headwall – via several blind spots. other options included direct and variant routes on the SE face, a wandering mostly-rock line on the south face, linking pulpits of snow on the NE side and taking the SSW ridge from a notch in the west side of the cirque. all elegant choices that one by one got crossed off due to time, safety, logistics and ability. in the harsh light of reality – when theres been no one to go before – of all the gear used for climbing Occam’s razor is the right tool for the job.

top of Pitch 1

so the SE couloir it became and 2 attempts under very different conditions got us to within 4 or 5 pitches of the summit after 500m of steep final approach from highcamp and 9 pitches of mixed alpine up to WI4+ of ice and M4+. things ground down as they got steeper, difficult routes choices turned against us, the ice proved thin and an underestimation of the gear needed (twice as much thin gear next time…) meant we pulled out just before the transition to the (unknown) north side, at about 5340m.

mention must be made of Rob’s outstanding lead on pitch 8; run out above minimal gear and a stressful belay and the hardest moves capped with the last short screw left.

as a first attempt on an unattempted peak in an unexplored massif in an unknown range in a restricted corner of the Tibetan plateau things went exceedingly well. all members of the climbing team and support staff came home with the fingers and toes they left with as was the defined goal. the seamless efforts of the logistics staff maintained a perfect platform for the climbing, supplying excellent food, a comfortable BC, happy living atmosphere and unobtrusive local liaison. its no exaggeration that BCs in China are arguably the best anywhere – an even bigger deal considering theres no mass industry running to format with dollar-a-day locals.

imposing: Gangga VII as seen from the approach


as always, further, cooler and more efficiently. back in Chengdu we met up with Tomatsu Nakamura and started laying down the next trips ideas and organizing the next lot of logistics. the team has been solidified, access and BC locations have been mapped and equipment is being arranged. initial interest is centering around a healthy blend of walls, mixed lines and high altitude ice, with short recce trips further into other parts of the Gangga range (including the whole undocumented western side).

fresh food, good coffee, clean water and variation: BCs in China are healthy, happy and relaxing, meaning good recovery and sustainability in remote places

this years trip established the groundwork for pulling the climate data, access, bureaucracy, supply and resources into line with the demands of climbing, creating a ‘light & fast’ model that functions extremely well. yes, climbing in China has its idiosyncrasies, but beyond that is a level of function that can open up serious expedition climbing like its never been done before. when you have the inspiration and know how to do it of course.

as always, interest & inquiries for 2015 are welcome from both independant teams and individuals. numbers will be limited but several trips can run  and several teams can climb from a shared BC


interest for the 2015 China expedition season is already pouring in, with several objectives lined up as things take shape. the right questions are being asked at the right time – with 9 months to confirm and put the wheels of preparation into motion – so a distilled version is offered here.

unclimbed +/-5500m peaks. there for those who have the motivation. photo Tom Nakamura

why China?

its been decades since significant new expedition climbing destinations have opened up. as expedition ability has evolved in the cauldrons of Alaska, Baffin and elsewhere, true exploratory climbing to unexplored ranges has been a little thin. many climbers have glanced over China (with exceptions of course) but dismissed it as too hard to organize – which has been a good thing, leaving vast areas untouched.

the tightening up of protocols for climbing in China deterred many, but in effect has done exactly what was intended – preserving the high peaks of China from a rush of crass commercialism. now the high peaks of China are there only for those with the motivation to approach them as true expeditions. theres no ‘sign-and-climb’ safaris here.

China realistically has several hundred >5000m peaks that are unnamed, unexplored and more often than not, unseen. climbing here reignites the same ideas about furthering the greater body of climbing knowledge as climbing in Nepal and Pakistan did half a century ago. these opportunities come often….

what a trip to China involves

trips start by landing in Chengdu – a large modern city totally unlike most entry points to high altitude climbing areas. consistantly in the top 5 chinese cities to live in, Chengdu is a major player with international flights, a subway, an easy layout, international hospitals & supermarkets and embassies. hotels are comfortable, and being the capital of Sichuan the food is world reknowned. along with 3000 years of heritage theres a large Tibetan quarter and as the self-proclaimed center of Chinas outdoor industry theres even a gear district. Unlike Kathmandu & Islamabad, things like gas canisters and energy bars are not hard to find in Chengdu, so we stock up here.

Chinas roads go to above 4500m so we do the trip up onto the plateau over two days. after leaving the Sichuan basin the roads go thru alpine forest and huge gorges as we ascend, eventually coming above the treeline then crossing over high, barren passed strafed with prayer flags and following the rivers where settlements are. usually we stay another day in medium sized Tibetan towns sorting redtape before heading out into the blank areas around the peaks. depending on the objective this may involve horses and yaks to get stuff to BC.

Chinese basecamps are comfortable and well supplied. at around 4000m we are low enough to acclimate to quickly, with the added advantages of theres no dhal baat and anything edible is permitted. the cooks that oversee the BC logistics take food very seriously and resupply of fresh food for longer trips is regular, meaning the level of recovery is greater. far from the uninhabites moodscapes of southern tibet or Baltoro, most BCs are on grassland and sometimes take advantage of existing rock structures left by the semi-nomadic tribes that cross the area between the lower forests and the upper reaches of the Yangzi and Yellow rivers.

the climbing itself is unique to the objective. the general area is the extreme fringes of the monsoonal pattern so rain helps carve up the geology as much as the movement of snow and ice. above 4000m freeze level starts hitting from around late September as the weather gets drier and clearer. day/night temps can vary as much as 20c. unlike further south towards Yunnan, snow doesnt build year round, making for more exposed rock including huge alpine walls. some peaks have glacial approaches whilst others have alpine grassland right to the base of the scree.

with so many objectives and such civilized access its easy to spend weeks and weeks looking into potential routes – only the dropping temperatures and ever-present redtape limit what can be done in a season. for long trips occasional forays into town to keep things sane are possible, with hotsprings, massage, restaurants and internet cafes to keep life on track.

returning to Chengdu is easy and can involve alternative routes thru other areas hiding new climbing potential. the descent from the high plateau is usually comfortable and the luxuries and sophistication of Chengdu a welcome distraction before flying out.

trips to 5000 – 6000m peaks requires equipment somewhere between regular winter and big wall gear

who are these trips for?

first ascents in unheard of places are not for everyone. if the safari-like process of summiting is all that matters and you want a contingency of support staff to make things as comfortable as possible then the obscure ranges of the Tibetan plateau will be a disappointment. there will be almost no climbing scene to fraternize with at basecamp, no well trodden trails and no mass-industry to answer every matter that arises.

these trips are for climbers who enjoy the process of working it all out; the route finding, the organization, the on-mountain processes and the bigger picture of going into undocumented places. unlike commercial ‘pay to climb’ trips that are guided along well-established schedules, iceclimbingjapan trips are real expeditions and require every climber to be part of the process.

the profile of a climber who ends up on an unclimbed peak somewhere near Tibet includes;

  • having a head for organization

  • a high degree of team awareness

  • a functional ability to self-schedule

  • an applied ability to use the right resources for the job

  • a clear perspective of undertaking complex activities in alien cultures

  • a comprehension of their contributing to the tradition of mountaineering


iceclimbingjapan specializes in unclimbed peaks. direct consultation with Tomatsu Nakamura, explorer of the Tibetan Plateau and Alpinist correspondent, provides a huge resource for peaks that are almost unknown. options exist for alpine ascents, big walls and technical routes, on peaks ranging from c.5500m to 6500m.

whatever your objective is, it will involve all the elements of exploration. despite iceclimbingjapan pulling together all the logistics, the lack of comprehensive cartography and local information pertaining to climbing still leaves inevitable gaps that need to be considered; in this part of the world simply getting to the base of a route is a significant objective, and all that is acheived – summit or not – furthers the greater data base of international climbing.

what you need

TIME: climbing in unexplored areas takes time – time to do it and time to prepare. whilst some peaks can be attempted with a 3 week schedule, most require about a month, especially if they have glaciated approaches. ground logistics in China are usually very good, with good roads going to high altitudes – but beyond the roadhead things things change; the absence of a developed ‘sherpa industry’ and the obscure nature of unexplored regions means approaches are hard to quantify exactly. but thats the nature of true expeditions.

MOTIVATION: these are not ‘sign up and climb’ trips. all members need a high degree of motivation and independant ability, integrated with a perspective that caters to the exploratory nature of these trips. unlike trips to well trodden areas, not all of the process is known. a climbers motivation but be as much to explore as to climb, and must cope with the uncertainties that entails.

RESOURCES: whilst nowhere near the outlay of an 8000m trip, expeditions to unclimbed areas still entail ‘exped level’ costs and equipment. costs depend on team size, location, duration and specific logistics. iceclimbingjapan’s logistics covers everything to the mountain then a lot of whats needed on the mountain itself, but individual climbers need to have the right gear and make the right food choices for themselves.

what you get

iceclimbingjapans in-country logistics partner makes the perceived impossible happen. permits, accomodation, food, transport, liason, redtape and consultation are all arranged to support the on-mountain process. iceclimbingjapans unique and extensive background in the region pulls together a range of styles and possibilities that adapts to each trip, far removed from the normal commercial climbing experience.

the basics for planning include;

  • 3 week to 9 week schedules

  • multiple peak & route possibilities

  • costs cover all logistics from Chengdu and back again, except personal on-mountain equipment & food*

  • all team climbing equipment supplied**

  • all permits, chinese insurance & chinese taxes included

  • liaison staff, logistics staff & translators provided

  • all accommodation pre-booked

  • visa support letters provided

  • basecamp-only & on-mountain options

*some personal climbing hardware can be supplied at additional cost

**additional costs for specialized big wall equipment and objectives with glacial approaches requiring fixed ropes

China has unique logistics that once demystified opens up unprecedented possibilities

the expedition process

the basic schedule needs to be confirmed by the end of June and full payments in 90 days before departure. by this time the objective needs to be nailed down, the daily itinerary decided and the team consolidated around the expedition process. with this done we can arrange the paperwork that results in visas and logistical consolidation. China is not like Nepal, with a stack of pre-applied permits just needing the names on them, instead each permit is individually evaluated according to its specifics in a process as opaque as it is thorough.

long before this tho every climber needs to prepare for a style of climbing thats very open – no one can tell you whats exactly needed. covering this skill base means getting fluent in several branches of alpinism, and whilst mastery is not needed in all of them a solid base in general alpine climbing with a functional knowledge of technical rock, ice, big wall and descent is expected, as is being equipped to apply it all.

on a first ascent trip to China there wont be a contingency of in-situ locals to pick up any slack – the expedition is under its own steam to get to and climb. this means no miles of fixed ropes, pre-placed high camps, shuttled supplies or morning cups of tea handed thru the door. what you use on the mountain you carry on the mountain and that requires a degree of team dynamic often absent from industrial climbing trips.

the region

west of Chengdu is a huge area that begins at the edge of the Yangzi basin and extends far up to the high altitude rainshadow of the Tibetan plateau. encompassing forest, grassland and high alpine, to the south lays the jungled ravines of Himalayan Yunnan and to the north the deserts and steppe of Qinghai then the southern Gobi. collectively known as Kham and Amdo, the region buffered Tibet from China, acting as a cultural conduit thru its narrow ravines and high passes.

all down the length of the region are +5000m peaks, with most being unclimbed. previous attention has focused around Minya Konka and Siguniangshan, but beyond these focal points little has been climbed, mostly due to travel restrictions and a process with the authorities too difficult for most climbers. whilst the rest of the worlds big mountains are congested and perhaps over-travelled, Tibetan Sichuan is virtually unknown, with large villages still taken speechless at the sight of foreign faces and the idea of climbing mountains completely alien.

totally off limits till the 90s, most roads lead into eastern Tibet and the areas that are open today are controlled and limited – perhaps not a bad thing after seeing the crush of tourism in less regulated places. nomads still cross thru the valleys connecting the lowlands and high plateau, Khampa cowboys still ride thru town, monasteries are not tourist attractions and the approaches to mountains are along herders trails not trekkers highways. after leaving Chengdu its unlikely to see another foreigner.


Its no secret that western Sichuan has occasional flares up between the Chinese authorities and locals after centuries of facing off that span raiding armies from Lhasa, CIA-trained guerillas, gun fights well into the 90s and ongoing tensions centered on the monastic community, but China in general is a safe destination and unlike Pakistan and Nepal, foreigners are not seen as elements of leverage for upset locals.

historically the Khampa areas have been regarded as bandit-ridden and conduits for smugglers but aside from petty concerns like pick-pocketing in markets this doesnt seriously affect passing groups of climbers so long as precautions are taken. all climbing trips to peaks require a liason officer and a translator/camp co-ordinator to keep things on track.

beyond Sichuan…?

it doesnt end here. in the bigger picture of whats possible in China, Sichuan is really the start point – further west into deep Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang lay peaks and ranges that are mostly unseen, leading eventually to the northern side of the Karakorum. like Sichuan these areas are slowly becoming accessible, more a process of demand rather than supply. having spent 15 years in these parts of China, talking to the right people and being in the right places iceclimbingjapan has the wheels in motion for objectives rarely realized in the last half-century.

got what it takes and interested? inquiries and ideas via the bookings & contact tab


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.


expeditions don’t follow strict formats. theres a general set of requirements, but how they fit together is unique – its what makes them different to the ‘alpine safaris’ that commonly get passed off as expeditions these days.

the Da Xue Shan range in western Sichuan; want to shrug off that the feel of being a tourist?

for a true trip off the grid theres dozens of matters that the standard commercial formula wont cover and that test the mettle of unseen climbing skills, ie the logistician. take away the heavily industrialized process that connect the alpine fantasy to the actual climbing and theres a world of matters that would be mundane in any other context. suspend the basic formula that in places like Nepal answer all the questions about supplies, access, route and organization and the true soul of an expedition comes out. simply suspending the English language is often enough.

when the mountains unclimbed, the area unexplored, the maps are hazy and the locals have no comprehension of what its all about you start confronting what it means to be a climber. things take on a different gravity when you have to do all the logistics as well. success is not about how well you climb, but how well you build the pyramid of logistics that get you to the base of the route.

some of the things that need answers are;

  • porterage; without a localized industry of locals to carry stuff how do you get everything to where you want it?

  • culture; where climbers have never existed how do locals and their infrastructure relate to it?

  • scheduling; when the route, approach, logistics and resources are all big unknowns how do you construct a timeline?

  • equipment; take away the certainties of porterage and access, then add the uncertainties of an objective with almost zero beta and what do you take?

  • team; unknown routes in unexplored places take a wide spectrum of applied skills, focus and sustained motivation amongst a cohesive group.

pull all this together to form a basic idea and you’ve got enough to work with.

theres plenty of places the climbing industry hasnt entered yet. even with recent interest western Sichuan still has decades worth of new ascents

genuine expeditions take a lot of effort and expense so the elements need to be dialed in before theres any questions about the climbing. can you even get there? forget what colour your baselayer is or how many pull ups you can do until you’ve answered the basics on the place you want to go – something that safari ‘expeditions’ to heavily touristed areas have made format.

the key to true expeditions is patience, adaptability and cash. you need to be able to apply all three in vary degree to every element. your gear needs to cover a wide range of possibilities, your scheduling needs to be snafu-proofed, your group needs to be dynamic, you need a creative attitude to everything from the authorities to the local food, you need the fitness levels to fill the logistical gaps, you need the money to keep the stress levels manageable.

do you want fries with that? the details like food are part of what sets climbing ‘safaris’ apart from real expeditions

for those who dwell upon the established formulas of climbing it appears that the age of expeditions is long over. to many only the splitting of sports industry hairs is left to pursue. but for those who look into the wider aspects of climbing – the greater applications of putting inspired people into unexplored places – theres still lifetimes worth of climbing to be done. it just takes a perspective reeled back in from the pedantic formulas that pop-climbing is broadcast as. theres plenty left to do if your perspective can cover it, and when it does happen – whether it’s a FA on a Japanese icefall or a high altitude FA somewhere like Tibet – its touching on the archetype of climbing that its all about.


Vidéo : China on Ice © Guillaume Vallot

sichuan ice: great little doco that really shows how things are in the Shuangqiao valley. photo lifted from the Petzl page

finally, a decent film about ice climbing in the Shuangqiao valley, sichuan, china.

after half a dozen trips along the Sichuan-Tibet border to climb ice – including 4 to the Shuangqiao valley – its great to see quality documentation of what its really like in there. things have changed over the decade weve been going there; the quake, ethnic unrest, tourist development, upscaled regulation and interest from the growing number of chinese climbers – so its good to see things still have an air of the fronteir about them.

from the early days (and Petzls first big trip that featured Guy Lacelle and Craig Luebben) it was obvious that Shuangqiao had a generations worth of ice to be discovered, and as things have grown exploration of the sichuan-tibet escarpment further north and south of Shuangqiao is showing just how extensive the ice really is.

if this sort of thing excites you, get in touch. trips for the 2014/15 ice season are being arranged now. details on the CHINA and EXPEDITION tabs