More of a how-to guide than a story, this article gives an overview of the key stages in planning your first expedition. The information presented here is a result of everything I learnt on an expedition to Pakistan last summer where we attempted to make a first ascent of a difficult new route on Tahu Ratum (6651m).
The first thing to consider is who you will go with. You might be lucky enough to have a regular climbing partner with similar abilities, ambitions and availability; unfortunately for many people this isn’t the case. So where to look? Start by asking around, you might find a friend of a friend shares the same dream of mounting an expedition. If unsuccessful then you can always try climbing forums such as UKC, just make sure you meet them before committing to a six week expedition the other side of the world. Consider the abilities and ambitions of all those in your team; are they compatible? Consider who will climb with who to avoid later upsets and read up on the benefits of different team sizes on different types of route.
Your choice of destination and ultimately your objective/s will depend on your preferred type of climbing; are you looking for rocky routes, snow plods or ice/mixed routes? Do you want to try a new route/grab a first ascent or would you prefer climbing an established route? Does the best climbing season for your destination coincide with your availability to go on an expedition? You should consider the average cost of an expedition to a region. It is worth noting that expeditions to South America or Alaska tend to be a lot cheaper than the Himalayas. Porterage cost is proportional to the length of approach and could be the single biggest cost of your expedition, so think carefully about planning for a six day walk in. Websites such as summitpost and past expedition reports found on the BMC, MEF and Nick Estcourt Award websites are extremely helpful when choosing an objective. Ryan Air no longer looks such a bad option!
How are you going to get to base camp? In some places this will be a very long-drawn-out process and potentially very expensive so it’s a good idea to plan in advance. Put together an itinerary and work out rough departure/return dates. Although you will have probably already had a quick look at the cost of flights by this point, you should read up on baggage allowances and if necessary the cost of extra baggage. You may even need to consider sending equipment out by freight. It is worth checking your passport expiry dates at this point. The services of a trekking agent are invaluable for expeditions to the Himalayas and will allow you to get a good idea of the cost of hotels, transport, porters, food and fuel during the planning stage.
Budgeting and grants
Haggle, haggle, haggle is the best piece of advice for keeping an expedition within budget. Cut costs by getting a barebones package off your trekking agent, travelling by public transport and carrying fewer luxuries. Include a contingency in your budget, keep track of group money and ensure there is consultation within the team before any significant group purchases. Organisations which give out expedition grants usually require you to do something new in a remote area. Some grants such as the Nick Estcourt Award also require the route to be technical. There are many grants available and if you tick all the boxes there is a huge amount of support available. Grants can significantly reduce the cost of your expedition but you will be expected to give something back; usually no more than a well written expedition report.
Free gear is hard to get. Borrowing gear or getting a good discount is significantly easier. When writing to manufacturers don’t forget to explain what you will do for them in return and make sure you keep good on promises. Create a 2 page expedition proposal covering the key points about your expedition (the team, the objective, the itinerary, the budget etc) and attach this to any emails you send out. Make a list of gear you really need and stick to it since it is easy to get carried away when buying gear at a lower price than usual. Consider what equipment you can buy/hire in-country such as a mess tent, base camp cooking equipment or snow stakes.
Packing and departure
Check your kit list again and again many weeks before departure to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything vital. Put everything in one place one week before departure and do a preliminary pack to make sure it all fits in your duffle bags! This will also give you enough time to go out and buy any smaller items you have forgotten. If possible meet the rest of the team the day before departure to divide up group gear and check each bag is within the weight limit allowed by the airline. Finally, arrive at the airport 3 hours before departure to give you plenty of time in case of problems such as overweight bags.