somewhere up a huge granite face, a long way from home, with no topo to point the way, in the cold, is NOT the place to find out how your stove works. or your bivy bag. or your aiders. or your tent. or your partner. likewise, a day at a crag or a night in your backyard isnt realistic either.
unexplored objectives, unique mix of gear, early efforts up high, lots of factors unknown: with enough to focus on already, it pays to hammer out any details you can well before
when youre spending good money and energy and have pinned your expectations on a result, its unrealistic to not fortify your ability with functional practice. climbing trips to serious objectives are not the place for cutting corners, and worse than cutting corners on gear is cutting them on capability. especially things easily rectified once dragged thru the mill of experience. its amazing to see what climbers let slip thru with no preparation, even obvious stuff. common bug-ridden elements include:
- cooking, melting and eating: these things need to become automated second nature as 9 times out of 10 they happen in cramped, stressful, time-dependant conditions. you need the right tools and to know how to make it all work. there’s a reason manfacturers say not to cook in a tent and circumventing this warning is skill, not luck.
- packing to climb: messing about in the dark with a hundred stuff sacks is dangerous, annoying and time-wasting. you need to know what you have, where it is and how to get to it. beyond minimizing rummaging when youd rather be sleeping, access to important gear can save your life.
- setting up bivvys: alpine tents, tarps, chopping ledges, securing gear, being safe and maybe even comfortable are important skills that need trailling to understand.
- sorting racks: the less known the route the more unique and complex the gear. weekends cragging – especially sport or in the gym – negate the frontline skills of forseeing, racking and using the array of gear a leader needs
- exped-belays: unaccustomed climbers dont realize how different an expedition-belay is. the time, the jobs to do, the conditions, the environment, the safety are lightyears away from guidebook stuff
- seconding: along with the belays, seconding is a real job as part of a real team. you have shit to do. as the leader is busy at the sharp end the second has the tail-end responsibilities
- descent: you usually dont just walk off an expedition objective. getting off unknown mountains with your gear, on ‘exped’ anchors, as a team, is a VITAL skill.
EVERY ONE of these things is fundamental to staying on mountains. NONE of these things are hypothetical. ALL of these things are trainable. not having these skills refined and functional wastes energy when you need it most and compromises your position as a team member – if you cant get it right someone else is affected.
pre-exped ‘debugging’ trips are as much about assessing your condition as they are about nailing down the general ‘house keeping’ skill set and test running the equipment you plan to use. a debugging trip needs to take place close enough to an expeds schedule to apply the foundations you have built for the trip, but also with enough time left to fix as much as possible. debugging trips are where you get to try things out and make (some) mistakes with a safety net. its also where you find out where you fit into a team, and get to self-assess whilst others observe you.
there’s right and wrong ways to setting up bivvys and exposed mountainsides is the worst place to find out
the best preparation trips mimic as many of the stressors of the real, planned trip as possible – minus the things that can kill you if your mistakes are too big, ie altitude, conditions, expense, travel factors and overall time. as much as you want to emulate the technical factors you also dont want to burn so deep as to compromise your condition for the real thing. Steve House & Scott Johnston recommend prepartory trips prior to focal expeditions, over-compensating some factors like height gain and loads carried in environments that allow it, and assumedly to refine their clothing, nutrition and technical systems as well. factors to prioritze debugging for include;
- nights out: as many as possible, in a row. its usually the 3rd night that shows how good you are at it
- load bearing: both approaches and on the vertical. can you actually move the stuff you need to?
- nutrition: over several days. again – it takes a few days to realize the weaknesses in your intake
- access skills: getting a months worth of supplies into BC is as much a team event as it is a necessary chore. not the best place to see a rope bridge, cable hoist or zip line for the first time
- seconding: everyone needs ample time jugging, cleaning, belaying, organizing and suffering on the blunt end
- systems: practice with your exped gear be it different ropes, chest racks, climbing in big boots, hauling, traversing, simu-climbing etc
- organization: planning ahead and executing efficiency leads to better rest, time management and safety
- communication: talking is the least useful form of communication. get as good as possible at reading signs so when you have to talk its only for important stuff.
- descent: if nothing needs practise more its this, both as an individual and as a team. with gloves, by headtorch. even regular alpine descents are confusing.
- being a team member: its easy to think its all about YOU. observe the ways your behaviour and abilities impact others so you can interact healthily.
spread over multiple weekends these elements can be accumulated, but combined in a short trip specific for the intention of up-skilling is far more effective. its not just the individual skills that matter, its the interplay and random throwing together that makes preparation realistic and not just simulated exercise.
ideally too, preparation trips should be fun. there will be enough genuine suffering on the real trip, preparation should be a time to immerse yourself in the enjoyable aspects of climbing, to whet your psyche as much as your skills. like avoiding burning out before you even start, dont crash your motivation or espirit de corps either. remember this is still a step on the up and up, not the final crux. realistically 100% of the final objective cannot be pre-empted, so the aim is to sharpen the bits that need it most.
when its cold, you’re tired, the ropes are frozen and theres a lot of rappels ahead, you wont be thinking about pointless details: its now when you need to be well prepared
dollar-for-dollar, preparation trips are the best money spend towards you goals as its here not that you get to play with your expensive toys, but that you get to refine what you dont need. gimmicky folding bowls, esoteric hardware, over-sized sleeping bags, silly clothes, flimsy electronics and bad food choices can get pin pointed and eliminated, freeing up cash for other things and simplifying what happens on the mountain.
in the end your capacity to acheive your objectives and return is at most 50% about you pulling 5.12 moves – the other 50% is how well you can sustain yourself in the place when its all occurring, including amongst your team mates. half that again is how well you perform, the remaining (25% in total) is how well you know yourself and your abilities so you can make the call.