Our tips for expedition success and be boiled down to three things:
- Control what you can control.
- Take the long view.
- Work to be in the right place at the right time.
We have many years of experience on dozens of expeditions in every major mountain range in the earth. Amongst the Uphill Athlete coaching staff we have over 45 successful Denali ascents, twenty-plus expeditions to 8000m peaks, and many more trips to peaks 7000m and below. This gives us the perspective to be able to offer some tips for expedition success that help you make the most of the all the hard work you’ve done in preparation for your climb. Expedition climbing is a multifarious endeavor, involving many different factors and challenges. It’s important to remain humble and receptive to learning in these environments. Do not approach the objective with over-confidence in your abilities. Even the strongest climbers have experienced the mountain chewing them up and spitting them back to base camp.
If you are reading this article you likely have invested a significant amount of time to your physical preparation for your climb: Congratulations! While we strongly emphasize a robust aerobic base and durability as the greatest contributors to success on a big climb, we also want to provide a note of caution. Fitness falls mostly into the category of controlling what you can, but we want to call out a few key points since it’s our particular area of expertise.
- Make sure you’ve internalized the information on our Training for Mountaineering Page.
- At the very least use a well-crafted training plan like our 24-week Expeditionary Mountaineering Plan. If so then you’ve taken care of the biggest determinant for success that is within your control: FITNESS.
- During the last two weeks leading up to the trip understand that you are as fit as you are going to get before this climb – the training is over, the money is in the bank! Do not try to squeeze in extra workouts while traveling. No need to try to run in Kathmandu or sprint up hills in Talkeetna. Stay active, walk around. Do some yoga, stretch, get lots and lots of sleep. Your body is used to a daily dose of exercise but don’t try to build fitness during once you leave home, especially at altitude.
- During training spend as much of your training time as possible on steep rough ground, off trail, even scrambling. While difficult to implement for many mountain athletes, time in these places will pay dividends in efficiency later on.
Control What You Can
This idea feels familiar, but what does it actually mean on an expedition? Moderating your effort levels and taking good care of yourself.
- Keep the intensity and effort level low early in the trip. If you are putting in all-out efforts low on the mountain you are probably hurting and possibly eliminating your chances of making the summit.
- We often hear about folks who’ve used one of our plans or coaching who feel very fit and want to demonstrate that fitness to themselves or others. This is a REALLY BAD IDEA; until it is the summit day. Nothing outside of sickness or poor weather will have a better chance to derail your climb.
- Drink often. The air will be dryer than you are used to and dehydration can be a problem. Include electrolyte replacement if you are a heavy sweater.
- As soon as you pull into a camp get some water and food in your belly. It will only take a few minutes to do this and then you can pitch in to help with group responsibilities. Our personal favorite: Dry roasted, un-salted cashews.
- Let your guide know how you are doing. Don’t whine but if you are having a problem it is better that the guide knows earlier than later.
Know Your Gear and Know How to Use It
Not to state the obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing how knowing your gear well can truly contribute to your success.
- Climbing skills! While most of the normal mountaineering routes on major peaks demand only moderate technical climbing skills. The ability to move comfortably and efficiently on rough alpine terrain will mean that you’ll use much less energy throughout each day, so recover faster overnight.
- Be good on your crampons. Do not let the first time you put on crampons be day one of your climb above base camp.
- Follow the gear recommendations of your guide service or your own acquired knowledge if you’ve been on several expeditions. By the time you start climbing really big mountains on your own you should have worn through many sets of crampons, boots, and climbing clothing which will give you enough experience to know what works.
- Wear broken-in foot wear on both the approach and climb. Never bring brand new, un-worn mountaineering boots to base camp. You won’t know the right sock combo that works and won’t give you blisters. You won’t have a feel of how tight to lace your boots to balance fit, performance, and adequate blood circulation. Brand new boots on a big climb is simply a recipe for big foot problems.
- Have a tested glove system. We like to climb with 3 pair almost all the time; light medium and mittens. Lose your hands, and you’ll lose your life. Gloves are very, very important.
- Know every bit of gear you have and how to use it. A minimalist mentality is a good thing when you have to carry all your personal property plus your share of group gear. Don’t bring the kitchen sink. A good rule of thumb is that every piece of gear has multiple functions.
The Long View
- Our biggest single tip? Cut the cord if you can. It’s our observation that those that are constantly staying in contact with friends, family, and work while on an expedition are the least likely to be successful. You need to get your head in the mountain-climbing game and keep it there. This is very hard to do if your texting and calling all the time. Explain this to those who feel like they need more communication during your trip and tell them (truthfully) that you are much safer if you can clear your mind of other things and concentrate on the risks and tasks at hand. If you need to communicate with someone, communicate with your climbing and expedition partners. They’re super vital to your success so having the best possible relationship and communication with them has an immediate impact on your trip.
- Keep in mind that the hardest and most challenging days of most expeditions come toward the end of your trip!
- Orient all of your decision making towards long term thinking. This means focusing on pacing and recovery throughout the trip.
- Pacing: Don’t red-line it (unless needed for safety or emergency situations).
- Go prepared to eat well every day.
- Go prepared to sleep well in base camp every night.
- Go prepared to stave off boredom. Catch up on your reading list.
- Don’t make plans to leave early. If you do, you’ll use them. Make plans to stay the entire duration of the trip; you’re most able, and most likely to summit on the last days of the trip. Leaving early because a weather forecast isn’t great is not a good strategy for success. Mountain weather forecasting is poor, at best.
Our last tip? Never forget that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Work hard to give yourself every opportunity to be in the right place at the right time. We’ve often seen the climbers head up to high camp with a less than stellar weather forecast be successful because they took the chance and did everything they could to be in high camp for a short weather window. And if the weather window does not materialize, you’ll have the life-long satisfaction of knowing you did everything in your power to succeed.
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