AN EXPEDITION IS A JOURNEY, an adventure, and the dream of a lifetime. A lengthy excursion to one of the globe’s great mountain ranges can make for lasting memories. At best, an expedition is like a long, exotic vacation—close friends, colorful travel, world-class terrain, and jubilant summit selfies. At worst it’s a seemingly endless bad trip, beset by Acute Mountain Sickness, chronic angst, and zero climbing—all topped off by a crushing credit card bill. Ideally, you’ll want to land somewhere between those two extremes. Combine thorough planning and preparation with successful execution, then throw in the inevitable mishaps, and you’re guaranteed a successful climbing expedition.
When it comes to exploring the far corners of the Earth, there’s no better teacher than experience. From Alaska to Patagonia to the Himalaya, Garrett Madison and Luke Smithwick know a thing or two about climbing big objectives in far-flung mountain ranges. Below are their top 10 tips for maximizing your own trip.
As the founder of Madison Mountaineering, a boutique mountain guide service, Madison specializes in climbing expeditions to the world’s most famous and formidable mountains: Mount Everest, K2, Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, the “Seven Summits,” as well as unclimbed peaks in extremely remote regions.
- Owner of Madison Mountaineering.
- Led more than 60 clients to the summit of Everest since 2009.
- Led a team that linked Everest and Lhotse, summiting both 8,000-meter peaks in less than 24 hours.
- Led first Everest ascent by an American with a prosthetic leg (his proudest accomplishment).
- 100% safety record for clients.
- Successfully guided K2 twice.
As a notable climber and skier, Smithwick ascending and descending peaks in the untrodden corners of the world’s great mountain ranges.
- 70-plus expeditions to his credit.
- 64 ascents over 6,000 meters.
- Founder of Himalaya Alpine Guides, working in Tibet, India, and Nepal.
- Expedition locations include Patagonia, the Antarctic, the Alaska Range, the Andes, and the Alps.
1 START SMALL
Every long journey begins with a single step. An expedition takes a massive effort and plays out over a long spell. Take baby steps and keep your eye on the prize. Starting out can be as simple as doing what you already do. “Planning a weekend mission is a great way to start a career as an expedition leader,” Madison says. “Go on some local expeditions and when you’re feeling ready, start going international.”
Smithwick suggests a similar approach. “I’d say you can start building skills just being in the mountains. It starts with weekends getting out and getting up to 4,000 meters or 14,000 feet.”
- Climb outside the comfort zone of the local crag.
- Do overnight trips with backcountry camping or bivouacs.
- Climb at higher altitudes.
- Climb in regions with snowy mountains and alpine terrain, or climb at your local crag in winter conditions.
2 DO THE RESEARCH
Every expedition starts with picking an objective. Break down the genre. Do you want to climb a snowy Himalayan peak? A high-altitude big wall? A technical alpine route? There are two types of expeditions, peaks that have been climbed before, and unclimbed peaks. Regardless, get a general picture of the region—Google Earth is a great starting point—and study online resources about the area. Getting an overview, whether the Peruvian Andes, Garhwal Himalaya, or Kilimanjaro, will build an understanding and appreciation of the culture and history. Rough Guides and Lonely Planet offer trekking guides to mountain regions around the world. These are jam-packed with helpful information.
Get up-to-date info. Madison says, “For any peak that has been climbed and recorded somewhere, generally you can find good route info to use.”
Get info from the source especially if you are attempting an unclimbed objective. Find pictures of the peak and try to get on-the-ground info. Smithwick says, “The simplest way to research is to contact a guide in the area. I’ll try to figure out what’s going on in a specific area. Be willing to pay for their time if need be. I’ll call local friends, or even talk to a farmer out there or someone stationed at a military post.”
- Join the American Alpine Club (https://americanalpineclub.org/) to gain access to their library and research resources. As a member, you can solicit (limited) research time from a library specialist. You also qualify for expedition insurance.
- The American Alpine Journal and Himalayan Journal are great for finding info on any established route.
- Study historic images in journals to learn how seasons affect the peak from year to year.
- Use Google Earth. You can build a record of your trip and share it by inviting others.
3 PLAN AHEAD
Expeditions are like long sea voyages with no shortage of adventure and unknowns. Planning can make for a smoother journey. Plan as far ahead as possible. Starting the process six months to a year in advance is recommended, considering the time it takes to acquire permits, visas, inoculations, and ship gear. For Madison, “Strategy is key for success. An expedition team with good leadership, ample resources, and competent climbers will have the highest level of success.”
- Google Docs—Shareable with teammates and free.
- Google Maps/Google Earth—maps provide context and sense of place.
- Paper maps—these provide portable and detailed information that do not require batteries.
- Budget—Build a spreadsheet and start projecting what the costs will be. Categories include travel, food, equipment, permits, in-country logistics (local guide, food, cooking gas, etc.).
THINGS TO PLAN FOR
- Transport—Airfare, busses, taxis. Book in advance to save money.
- Visas—Is your objective in a country that requires visas? Do this well in advance, as some visas require weeks/months to process.
- Insurance—Seriously consider trip insurance to supplement your existing health insurance. The American Alpine Club provides links to cost-effective plans.
- Training, Fitness, and Diet—Start training six months prior to your departure. See more in Training for a Climbing Expedition
- Equipment—Acquire the necessary clothing, tents, sleeping bags as early as possible. Use them in the field to familiarize yourself with your gear and make adjustments before departure.
- Communication—Will your host country have WiFi or mobile service? Will you need a satellite phone in basecamp, and will your host country allow it?
4 PICK THE RIGHT PEOPLE
People are everything; who you have with you on such a long, involved climbing trip can make or break your experience. Cultivate partnerships with people who have matching and complementary skill sets. Be aligned on exactly what you want to climb. If you can, go with a regular climbing partner, but it will be hard to find members whose timing, finances, and motivations coincide. If you can’t find a partner, hire a guide. Personality is key. The temperament of your gym partner might not withstand the rigors of ascent nor the psychological stress of sitting out a seven-day storm.
People—not the weather, travel nor food—are the most intangible element of any expedition. Sickness, long travel, the rigors of being dirty and smelly, all demand patience and an even keel. While patience and perseverance are good, an upbeat partner is even better. Says Madison, “I find the best way for me to accomplish getting out on expeditions is to surround myself with people that give me energy, people who are inspired by the outdoors, who I share similar desires with. When we get together and start talking about things we’d love to do someday, we sometimes make plans and commitments to actually go do those things. I thrive when I’m around other enthusiastic mountain people.”
5 MAKE LISTS
There’s nothing like forgetting a key piece of gear amidst an unsorted sea of expedition equipment the night before a trip. Start making lists early. Pen and paper, iPad, and Excel all work. A comprehensive list and inventory go a long way, especially on your first expedition. Madison says, “By making a list of everything the expedition will need and ordering these items in advance, I can source all of the equipment generally without worry. It’s never fun to be stressed when trying to get the expedition kit together at the 11th hour, although occasionally that does happen.”
6 PICK THE BEST GEAR
The style of your expedition will dictate specific gear for technical climbing. On some trips versatility is important. You might want to choose a crampon that sacrifices a little steep ice performance but handles endless snow slopes with ease. Smithwick says, “I have different gear lists for each type of climbing I do and each type of skiing I do. It’s a balance dictated by the terrain I’ll be facing.”
While equipment function is key—whether an ice axe, carabiner, or pack—get the right tool for the job. For soft goods, weight, warmth, and compatibility all come into play. But remember, expeditions provide a severe beating over a long period. “I go with the best gear available. I’m a big fan of ‘overbuilt’ equipment. Inevitably Mother Nature will take its toll on our expedition gear: the sun’s harmful UV rays, strong winds, sharp rocks, big temperature fluctuations, etc. If a big storm destroys my tents, that could be ‘game over’ for an expedition,” Madison says.
7 TRAIN FOR YOUR GOAL
Be prepared for the undertaking. Mountaineering involves a specialized combination of good cardio, overall strength, technical skills, and coordination. It’s a tall order to train for all those aspects, but a smart approach and good work ethic will carry you far. While inclement weather, avalanches, collapsing seracs, and thin air can’t be controlled, one thing you can control is your physical preparation and fitness. Madison says, “Climbing Everest demands that we have a high level of cardio and strength to carry a heavy pack on uneven terrain, for hours at a time, day after day. I think the best training is to replicate the activity as closely as possible.”
Start training months in advance. The timing of this is determined by your relative level of fitness, lifestyle, available time, etc. [See “Training”] Technical skills are important, but expedition climbing also requires a blue-collar fitness that, as a famous alpinist once said, “comes from big days in the mountains.” Smithwick says, “Training for rock is so much easier and definitely less time-consuming than doing big cardio stuff. I put 20 to 30 hours in a week on cardio, mountain running, skiing, and so on.” That said, many of us don’t have the free time it takes to commit to such volume. Madison says, “If you can get outside on hills, hike stairs, or even get on the stair-mill at the gym with a weighted pack, that is good training for the mountains.”
8 PACK BIG
Nothing beats humongous duffels. You can err on the side of too big, but you can only stuff so much into a smaller bag. Most airlines allow two bags (weight limit varies by service class/status), before hitting you with excess baggage fees. A huge duffel accommodates sleeping bags, down parkas, and bulky clothes without tipping the scales beyond the 50- to 70-pound limit. Sometimes a smaller bag works for heavy items like climbing hardware, tents and ropes, but bigger is better. Weigh it out beforehand using a bathroom scale: weigh yourself, then weight yourself holding the duffle and figure out the difference.
You’ll have a carry-on for travel kit, toiletries, lithium batteries (banned from checked luggage), and duty-free scotch. If your checked bags are over the weight limits, consider moving the heavy items (climbing rack, rope) into your carryon, which often doesn’t have a weight limit. Smithwick says, “I always carry my electronics, like laptop, cameras, my drone, and critical equipment I can’t replace, like ski boots. Everything else can be replaced in whatever location I’m heading to.”
For other electronics in checked luggage, “Use bubble wrap for the fragile items. Pack the sensitive stuff in the center of the duffel, then pack softer and more durable items around it,” Madison suggests. A note on fuel: For stoves, the two choices are liquid or canister fuel. Most towns near major mountain ranges have canister fuel. Canisters are banned by airlines. If you choose liquid fuel, beware of corrosive additives in gas and low-quality kerosene in remote regions.
9 PLAN FOR ENOUGH TIME
You got inspired and decided to climb a big peak in India’s Garhwal Himalayas. You have a month off. You hop on a plane in mid-September, lose a week in Delhi to lost luggage and red tape, while that fine-tuned fitness slowly diminishes. On the dust-choked three-day drive the bus breaks down, the road washes out, and that nagging stomach bug costs you an extra day on the hike in. Now it’s October. You finally reach the bucolic basecamp meadow where you spend four days acclimatizing and scoping the climb, followed by two rest days. A brief storm moves in and boom—it’s mid-October. The temps are dropping, you still haven’t climbed anything, and the porters are coming back in a week. This is a common scenario.
“You might spend a significant portion of time just figuring out where a basecamp goes,” Smithwick says. “Every expedition has a certain amount of time, and we get to basecamps and in position for attempts as quickly as possible. That is the one thing I’ve learned thus far: When the weather is there, go. Himalayan ascents rarely run according to a schedule.”
10 STAY INSPIRED
There will be times when you question your commitment during the long hours of work, time away from family and friends, and late nights reviewing your finances. In those moments, think about why you started climbing and how the dream of an expedition first came to you. Nurture this psych when you start incorporating technical skills into your training. This should be the fun part of your program! Take those days out in the mountains or at the crag as a celebration of your progress.
Though the satisfaction in achieving a goal is proportional to the effort, be gentle with yourself. When you have a low-energy day or miss a workout, it’s okay. It might be your body telling you to rest. It might be your mind telling you to ease up before burning out. This is one of the great takeaways of the expedition process. Making it fun is more sustainable than punishing yourself.
Write your goal on a piece of paper and post it on your computer monitor. Meditate on your goal before falling asleep. The rewards are bigger than even a summit. “There is a saying, ‘If it feels easy you’re not pushing hard enough.’ When we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, that’s when we experience real growth learning about ourselves and the world we inhabit,” Madison says. “We can feel very much alive. There is just so much out there to explore and experience.”