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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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 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 by inviting others.
- 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.).
- 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 [tk-link to training]
- 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?
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.”