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How to mount an expedition

Whether your team is large or small,

Whether you’re bound for Mount Everest or Mount Whitney 

Climbing: Expedition Planning (Mountaineers Outdoor Expert Series)

Many climbers have a vague notion that they’d like to go on an expedition. But the logistics appear overwhelming and the idea never comes to fruition. CLIMBING: Expedition Planning by Clyde Soles and Phil Powers (The Mountaineers Books, July 2003, $19.95 trade paperback original) will help you break the barriers to your dreams. Although this comprehensive reference for planning, organizing, and leading adventure expeditions is centered upon mountaineering in the great ranges, the most complex of expeditions, it fully applies to backcountry climbs of any duration—it’s just a matter of scale. Soles, a former senior editor for Rock & Ice magazine and Powers, a veteran expedition leader who taught expedition planning for the National Outdoor Leadership School, leave nothing out. They cover everything from defining your goal, to how to build a team by considering strengths, personalities, leadership skills, risk tolerance, motivation, and commitment. They provide comprehensive information on all the elements you need to consider including gear, medicine, food, permits, visas, insurance, length and timing of expedition, transportation, rescue options, porters and guides, and expedition styles.  

Useful features include a time planning chart (p. 87) to schedule pre-expedition logistics from applying for permits (in this example, 48-38 weeks prior to expedition departure) to getting the necessary immunizations (10-6 weeks out) to final packing (2-0 weeks out). There are gear checklists (pp. 210-13) and there are forms (Expedition Application, Medical Questionnaire, Diet Questionnaire, pp. 200-205) to copy and give to prospective team members to fill out. This way, you’ll have the important stats on team members at your fingertips. Some questions are intended to provoke conversation that might head off future problems. They could be uncomfortable to answer now but may be even more so halfway through the trip (for example, the medical questionnaire asks about preferred method of body disposal).

Issues covered include: 

Selecting the team. Personality conflicts have probably ruined more expeditions than either bad weather or accidents. The “job interview” needs to be far ranging and revealing. Find out now whether potential teammates can laugh when the food is terrible, the weather is bad, and they have diarrhea—not when it actually happens, suggest Soles and Powers. Discovering that two climbers are sports fanatics who are rabid fans of opposing teams might cause a rethinking of rope teams.  

Leadership styles. In general, most conflicts stem from misunderstandings about a group’s structure, and controversy continues until a system is developed for guidance. Decide on leadership style and determine responsibilities in advance. Styles include leaderless (best for small groups of four or less; all decisions made by “majority rules” or, preferably, consensus); leader by consensus; dictator (rare these days except for guided expeditions which need this type of command structure to ensure the safety of less experienced participants); or dual leaders (particularly for large expeditions to major peaks, it may be wise to designate both an expedition leader, who handles logistics, and a climbing leader).       

Money matters. No matter what the size of your expedition, one person should be designated as the treasurer. This is an important role that often gets treated too lightly. The treasurer keeps a notebook detailing all expedition income and expenses and keeps all receipts for a final accounting.

Insurance. For insurance purposes, take photos of your gear before you leave. Make a list of camera or computer equipment and include serial numbers. If the gear is very expensive, bring a notarized copy of the list to avoid hassles with customs agents.

Menu planning. It is well worth having a tasting party at one of the expedition meetings or pretrip excursions to try out some of the mountain foods under consideration. Test everything on the menu that may be dubious. If it’s only barely edible at sea level, it will be downright revolting at 23,000 feet.

Expedition equipment. Although used oxygen systems can be rented in Kathmandu, considering that you’ve already spent a year getting ready and a small fortune to reach high camp, it makes sense to purchase a new system and sell it afterward.  

Travel in foreign lands. Pick up some postcards of your hometown to show people who may never have the opportunity to visit. Bring some photos of your parents, spouse, and children; these will be of great interest in many cultures.  

Porters. Smaller expeditions operating without a trekking agency may have to negotiate porter or animal handler wages. Try not to pay more than the local rate. Though the porters’ pay may seem too little by your standards, overpaying leads to regional inflation. However, be certain the women receive equal pay. 

Base camp setup. The longer you’ll be in base camp, the more the luxuries become necessities. While toting them along does add to the cost, it’s generally a minor blip in the overall budget. For example, the portable shower: a solar shower sitting on a rock can heat up in a couple of hours on a sunny day. Bring some biodegradable soap and an absorbent camp towel.

The Expedition Application

If you don’t already know the potential expedition candidates well, the Expedition Application is a good starting point for learning about them. In addition to requesting basic information that will be needed if they join the team, the form includes questions that are often overlooked in casual conversation.  Questions include:

·         What rating can you comfortably lead?

·         What unique qualifications would you bring to this expedition?

·         Why do you want to join this expedition?

·         What is the longest you’ve been cooped up in a tent or snow cave and how was the experience?

·         Will your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend join the expedition as a member or trekker? If so, are you certain you have a strong relationship?

·         What three words best describe your personality?

·         What are your current interests and pursuits?

·         How important is returning to your job on a specific date? Is there any flexibility?

·         What languages do you speak? 

·         Can you make a deposit on expenses now?

·         How much time each week can you offer for preparation? 

About the Authors:Clyde Soles served as a senior editor at Rock & Ice magazine. His adventures have taken him around the world and to the top of an 8,000 meter peak. He is the author of Climbing: Training for Peak Performance and Rock & Ice Gear: Equipment for the Vertical World. Phil Powers has participated in 30 personal expeditions to Alaska, South America, and Asia, including an ascent of K2 and new routes on Denali and in the Karakoram. As Chief Mountaineering Instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, he taught expedition planning. 
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