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Expeditions

 

These notes are intended to assist the climber who has already gained considerable knowledge of rock climbing, Scottish winter mountaineering and Alpine climbing, and is fully aware of its risks but still wishes to progress into Greater Ranges Expeditions. They are brief and not designed to be comprehensive in any way. Ultimately climbing is a dangerous sport and claims many casualties each year. One of the guiding principals of British climbing and mountaineering is that it is the individual climber is responsible for his or her own safety. If you cannot accept this then this site and probably climbing in general is unlikely to suit you. May we refer you to this very interesting site instead!

 

Cartoon © Tami Knight

 
 
 
Photo: Looking south from the summit of Dansketinde (2930m) over the Staunings Alps, East Greenland - 6000km2 of glaciated granite peaks, many of them still unclimbed, and most having had only one ascent.

 
Preparation: or "He who hesitates is lost!", but "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread!"
The term "expedition" still has an aura of adventure about it that merely "going to the alps" does not. In general, if we are honest, both involve climbers going on their holidays, but the former is perceived to be more serious - and rightly so. Also, unlike the alps, one cannot simply just turn up, certain preparations must be made. These include:

Finding a Suitable Objective: In some ways this can be the hardest part of the whole trip. However the initial idea may come from something as simple as a photo in a magazine, a program on television, or a chance remark from a friend or visiting lecturer. Having seen a picture or obtained a description of what seems to be a suitable objective in an area that you are interested in, it is then necessary to try and find out as much as possible about the history of climbing in the area, and the suitability of the peak or route vis-a-vis your abilities, before you proceed further. Useful sources include:
1) the Alpine Club Library which is situated in London, and is open to non-members for a small fee. It contains numerous expedition reports, alpine journals and the most extensive collection of mountaineering books in the world.
2) the Himalayan Index, a searchable database of himalayan peaks above 6000m.
3) the Alpine Journal, available at the the AC Library.
4) the American Alpine Journal, available at the the AC Library. The AAC has produced a comprehensive index for the AAJ, which allow individuals to locate reports of climbs based on region, country, climber, and peak name.
5) in terms of magazines, Lindsay Griffin's Mountain Info section in Climb (used to be High) is particularly useful. The articles are now available on the internet at the Climb Archive.
6) finally, check that the area is safe from war, civil unrest, pestilence and disease, on the Foreign Office's Travel Advice pages.
 
Photo: Ultar (ca7300m), Hunza Valley, Karakorum. A few years ago this was the highest unclimbed peak in the world open to expeditions - a serious undertaking that saw over 15 attempts before it was finally climbed in 1996. The face in this photo has been attempted twice by British Expeditions and is still unclimbed. It is the sort of target that would make a good objective for a technically competent team.

Finding a team:
This is probably the second most difficult part of an expedition. Your team needs to be suited to both the objective and each other. Whilst a certain amount of "fire in the belly" is usually essential for success, team members ideally need to be fairly laid back, sociable and easy going. They also need to be committed to the project - a large financial deposit is the most suitable means of ensuring this and it should be made clear from the start that this deposit is refundable only at the end of the expedition, and then only if no financial loss to other members would ensue. Whilst with a large team there may be a certain safety in numbers if things go wrong, it will probably fragment into several small teams once basecamp is established. A small team can often respond more quickly to changes in circumstances and will be easier to form. If you are chartering an aeroplane or helicopter in the course of your expedition then the size of the team may be decided by the payload of the aircraft - if you are attempting to keep costs to the minimum that is.

You will need to select a Leader. This is not an honorary post. Generally all permit granting bodies will demand to deal via a leader. Also the leader's role will be as far as possible to ensure the objectives of the expedition are met, and in order to do this he or she may have to exert their authority over the other members of the expedition. The leader will inevitably end up doing a large part of the organisation of the expedition, however much they try and palm off on other team members. In fact, the golden rule of of leading expeditions is don't - try and get some other mug to do it.
 

It is also important that the team has a Medical Officer whose job is mainly to gather together an impressive collection of drugs and first aid kit and somehow get them through various customs checkpoints without getting arrested. It helps if this person is a doctor or medical worker of some sort, but in any case it is essential to take a basic book on mountaineering medicine. Medical advice for expeditions is available from MASTA and the UIAA Mountain Medicine Centre.

Photo: A typical basecamp in Greenland.


Insurance:
It is essential to have adequate insurance in case a mountain rescue is required. Meeting the cost of a full helicopter search for a missing person in Nepal, Alaska or Greenland etc. doesn't really bear thinking about. The BMC offers a very good insurance service to expeditions.

Getting Permission:
This may not be necessary, but for many areas of the world some sort of permit will be required. It is up to you to find this out and apply in good time (often up to a year in advance). Some idea of which areas currently need permits and how to apply for them can be gained from the list below. For many areas, a permit will necessitate paying a Peak Fee or National Park Fee and you may also need to take a Liasion Officer who you will have to feed and clothe.
Country/Area Permit Required Useful Websites
Nepal Yes Nepalese Mountaineering Association, Nepalese Embassy
India Yes Indian Mountaineering Federation
Pakistan Yes Pakistan High Commission
Afghanistan Yes Afghan Embassy
Bhutan Yes Bhutan.gov.bt
China Yes/Maybe/No Chinese Embassy, China Outdoors
Mountaineering Organizations in China
Tibet Yes as for China (unfortunately).
Russia Yes Mountainguides.ru
Kazahkstan Yes Kazakhstan Mountaineering Foundation, Kan Tegri
Kyrgyzstan Yes

Kyrgyz Alpine Club, Dostuck

Greenland Yes in North-East Danish Polar Centre, Tangent
Baffin Island No (maybe) Baffin Island
Alaska Yes GORP, Travel Alaska
South America No mostly, but yes for parts of Peru

South American Explorers Club, Andes

Patagonia Yes As for South America

Other Requirements:
There may be many other requirements besides a permit. You may need to take a satellite rescue beacon or radio. You may need a rifle and ammunition (plus relevant firearms licences for each country you pass through).


You may have restrictions placed on the type of food you can import and rules regarding the disposal of waste. There may also be specific rules regarding the employment of porters and in any case it may be easier to employ them via an agency - the permit issuing authority should be able to help you here. You will almost certainly have to provide adequate clothing and footwear for any porters you employ even though most of them won't use any of the kit you supply, prefering to sell it asap.

Photo: A porter crossing a rickety footbridge in the Karakorum - you may be responsible for their safety.

 


Grants:
Whilst it is true to say that the days of expeditions being sponsored to the hilt by industry and climbing gear manufacturers are long gone, there is still the chance of some money/gear/food free or cheap for your expedition if it is either cutting edge or exploratory, or both. Major sources of funding for UK expeditions include the British Mountaineering Council (more concerned with technicality than exploration) and the Mount Everest Foundation (more concerned with exploration than technicality). The application for for both grants is the same and must be made in the year before the expedition takes place. You can download it from the MEF site. There are extensive lists of other grants available on the BMC, and RGS sites. As far as gear, equipment and food goes, best of luck!

Further Info: For more help, the BMC, UIAA, MEF and the RGS have very useful information pages on expeditions, such as Mountain travelling, How to plan an Expedition - part 1, How to plan an Expedition - part 2 and How to plan an Expedition.

Commercial Expeditions: There is of course a short cut to all this, and that is to pay some-one else to do it for you, ie go on a commercial organised expedition. These are highly suitable for the better heeled mountaineer with limited time of their hands. However, it is one of life's truisms that you get out of any venture just as much as you put into it and this is just as likely to be the case with organising your own expedition. Moreover, many commercial expedition organisers show little imagination when it comes to selecting objectives, returning time and time again to the same peaks such as Meru and Island Peaks, Aconcagua and Everest. Others are more adventurous: Martin Moran regularly features unclimbed peaks in his brochure, as do John Biggar and Paul Walker.

We would be pleased to advise on and quote for any expedition kit list.


Equipment:
Much of what you need will no doubt already have, but if you are going to high altitude or operating in especially cold environments (it is essential when doing your expedition planning to work out the minimum and maximum daytime and nightime temperatures that you are likely to encounter), Needle Sports stock and/or can obtain many items of specialist equipment not easily available else where. These include:

Down Clothing

We stock a large range of Rab down and other clothing, including one piece down suits, windsuits and Latok one piece waterproof suits.

Down Sleeping Bag

A top quality down sleeping bag is essential.


Buffalo

For winter-type conditions, take the full Buffalo Double-P System is ideal for long-term use as it will not build up condensation.

Boots

We stock specialist boots like the Scarpa Vega and Phantom 8000.

Down Air Mattress

Well worth having - you'll sleep better. But take a Closed Cell Foam Mat as well in case you puncture your mattress.

Bivi Boots

Very useful for basecamp and bivis and well worth their weight.
Expedition Barrels
We don't stock these tough blue barrels (see photo of porter on bridge above), but try
D & V Fuels of North Wales.
Very useful. Make sure it's clearly labelled, and large enough (1litre)!

Stove

What stove to take can often be a dilemma on expeditions as one cannot transport fuel by air without making special (and expensive) arrangements. In the few countries where gas canisters can be purchased, certain gas stoves will work at altitude and the Karrimor Gogas Powerpak can be used to convert screw threaded stoves to adapt to piercable cylinders. Otherwise, pressurised multi-fuel stoves, such as the MSR XGK, are the stove of choice, as they will burn most fuels, including parafin (kerosene) which is generally widely available. It is always worth taking a pricker (even with self-pricking jet) and plenty of spares, including spare jets. Remember to take fuel, or empty containers to put it in. Also take a piece of plywood about 5mm thick and about 300mm x 300mm. Put your stove on this and it wont melt into the snow.
Essential unless you want to go snowblind.
Equally essential and needs to be a high factor.
Suunto make a range of excellent altimeter watches. These can be a great aid to navigation as well as giving advance warning of changes in the weather.
Global Positioning Systems have transformed navigation in the greater ranges and elsewhere and should be considered an essential safety tool. They are no substitute for a map though - if there is one that is.
Satelite Phone, Personal Locator Beacon, Pulk, Rifle etc, etc
While Satellite phones remain expensive, they can be hired, along with solar battery chargers, from Explorer's Web. Another good source of expedition equipment hire is Paul Walker who runs a commercial expedition service specialising in Greeland - Tangent Expeditions.
Most of the above you will have to take with you but, with baggage restrictions of around a total of 30kg per person on most airlines, you will need to buy much of you kit when you arrive. Fortunately the basics are generally cheap if you look in the markets and bazaars and can generally be disposed of at the end of a trip as a welcome gift to the porters along with any surplus food.
Base Camp Cook Tent
If you can't find a tent, improvise with fabric, poles and string. It is really a wind break that you need more than anything, but it needs to be big enough for all of you if possible.
Steel Bladed Shovel
Essential for digging latrines etc.
Third World "Primus" Stove
Available in just about all poorer countries. Take spare washers, prickers, burner unit, and spanner.
Fuel and Water Carriers
Plastic Jerrycans for Kerosene, White Gas and Water. They will leak, but a plastic bag makes a reasonable wasger. Label each clearly. Being in the cook tent when some-one inadvertantly fills up the kettle with Benzino Blanco is not funny!
Matches
Ten times as many as you think. Don't rely on lighters.
Pots and Pans
A large cooking pot or two, non-stick frying pan and kettle, big enough for cooking for the whole team, plus a spatuala and wooden spoon. An extra mug and plate per member and a chopping board and sharp knife are also useful.
Plastic Washbowl
For washing up and washing vegetables etc.
Fresh Food
Potatoes, oinions, garlic, carrots etc will all keep for several weeks in cold conditions, as will eggs if you can get them there in on piece. Cheese keeps well if vacuum packed and oranges and similar fruits should last at least a week. All of these are a lot better than dried food.
Loo Roll
Take more than you think you need as it gets used for all sorts of cleaning duties.
Antibactirial Hand Cleaning Gel
This will really cut down the amount of illness at base camp if everyone is studious about using it after they've pooed.


The Trip Itself:

If you have got this far, the expedition itself should be a doddle, and, assuming you avoid illness, accident, arrest, theft of equipment, passports or money, riots and acts of terrorism, you should have a great time. You may even climb your peak.

That more or less covers it, but feel free to ask or email for further advice.

 

Photos left to right:
1. Crag Jones climbing VS in big boots and carrying 8 days worth of food plus bivi kit at 6000m in the Karakorum.
2. John Bickerdike making the first ascent of Annsketinde (2460m) in the Staunings Alps, East Greenland.
3. Colwyn Jones high on the South West Ridge of Dansketinde (2933m) during the first ascent. In the distance is the Greenland Icecap.

 

And finally:

"Double check, double check and double check again."

 

and

 

"Remember, your expedition objectives are:
   
Come back alive,
Come back friends,
Climb the route,
 
  In that order."
 
 
 
Photo: Colin Read and snowsled approaching Crescent Col on the fourth day of a week's trek to the coast after two weeks spent making first ascents, Staunings Alps, East Greenland
 
 

 

The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, "What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?" and my answer must at once be, "It is no use." There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It's no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.

 

 
 
George Leigh Mallory, 1922