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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”