How to plan an expedition

Posted by Jon Bracey on 02/05/2003

Cheap flights, abundant information, and healthy grant funding means expedition climbing in the UK is thriving. But how do you get started? Jon Bracey suggests some ways.

Making the leap from Scottish winter and alpine climbing to venturing into the greater ranges seems a daunting task. However people like Ian Parnell have shown that even with little alpine experience it’s possible to get straight into the thick of the action. With a healthy dose of ambition, some experienced friends, and a little Dutch courage it seems that anything is possible.

These tortuous ‘holidays’ often start in the library, laboriously trawling through dozens of mind-numbing journals trying to find a suitable objective. But if that doesn’t take your fancy, try and get invited onto a trip and let someone else do the legwork.

In deciding where and when to go there are several things to consider. If you don’t like Dhal Bhat, then forget India and Pakistan for a start. The Himalayas obviously have a huge attraction with the biggest and wildest faces, but have some equally huge drawbacks. The monsoon limits you to spring and autumn, and often the weather is very unstable even during the accepted climbing months. Expensive peak fees, liaison officers, and endless red tape can be too much for some. A day spent in the Delhi Customs Shed trying to release freight for example, will put most people off for life.

In recent years many people have been concentrating on the more accessible ranges of Alaska, South America, and Greenland. Attractions include lesser altitudes, short approaches, stable weather, and no frustrating bureaucracy. Plus, without the constraints of peak permits there is no pressure to risk yourself on an out of condition route.

Sometimes all you start with is a dull, out of focus photo and the name of a mountain. Then you have to find and persuade others to join you. Spots like the infamous Broadfield Pub in Sheffield are perfect and it always helps if they’ve had a few beers before you start your sales pitch. A good well-balanced team is crucial and can either make or break a trip - spending weeks in cramped tents with the same couple of mates can test even the best friendships.

With everything set and flights booked the excitement builds with every day as the departure date looms. This is the time when some people are out pounding the streets morning and night, perfecting their already Olympian like fitness levels. At this stage others are busy gorging themselves stupid in an attempt to pile on extra pounds to keep them going on those long, lonely nights in bivouacs. This strategy is essential for Arctic adventures and seems sensible given that on a recent trip to the Arwa Spires, Pakistan, Al Powell and Co. lost about 10kg each. People like Andy Parkin on the other hand never seem to each much at all, so find adjusting to starvation suffer-fests no problem. But tales of living off handfulls of dandelions in Patagonia and comments "that no routes in the Alps are long enough to warrant taking food on", suggest that maybe Andy is of another species altogether.

Many seasoned expedition climbers often scoff at the ridiculous idea of training and prefer to spend evenings down the boozer rather than the gym. This is seen by some as the best preparation possible. A training regime along this line of thinking was put forward by Andy MacNae, ex-BMC National Officer to ready oneself for the worst that even the Himalayas can throw at you. A good skinful of ale and the inevitable hangover will condition you to the unavoidable dehydration and pounding altitude headaches. Even better still, add smoking to simulate the oxygen deficient air and a dodgy curry to prime the stomach for ‘Delhi Belly’.

The more conventional like Matt Dickinson stick to relentless laps on Win Hill or similar steep hillsides with heavy rucksacks. Since, despite what some may say, it is essential to be fit whatever your form of training. Another key attribute of a successful expedition climber, that can be overlooked, is mental toughness. The mountains are no place for the faint hearted and when things start to go wrong a cool head is required. After several days on a climb, fatigue predictably sets in and a depth of will power is required to keep going. There are times on big routes when retreat is not an option so you need to know that your partner is fully committed. Experience is the key here and after their first expedition most people know whether or not they are up to it.

At times, it will all seem like far too much work, especially when all your friends are just jetting off for some relaxed Thailand sport climbing. But, even if your first trip doesn’t go to plan, stick with it. Because when it’s bad, OK it’s very bad. But when it’s good, it’s unbeatable.

Jon Bracey is a devoted expedition climber. His highlights so far include the first ascent of the north face of Tupilak, East Greenland, in winter.


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