Alex MetcalfeMountain sports photographer, writer and climber based in the Highlands of Scotland, Alex specialises in capturing images of athletes pushing their limits in extreme conditions.
Embarking on your first fully-fledged expedition is a huge undertaking. There’s inherent risk and uncertainty – you’ll face unfamiliar territory, challenging conditions and perhaps an ambitious step up from what you’re used to.
There’s a huge amount of reward on offer, but, as is the case with almost anything in the outdoors, preparation is key.
Chris Lewis and Sarah Wysling looking towards a potential objective in the Pamir mountains.
With two climbing seasons in the Alps under his belt and having recently relocated to Scotland for his first winter season in the Highlands, Alex Metcalfe was after a bigger challenge, in bigger mountains. So when he stumbled upon an advert in the Alpine Club newsletter requesting team members for a ‘small but challenging expedition to Central Asia’, he spared no time in joining and, with the support of Montane, was soon on his way to Tajikistan to embark on new unclimbed routes in the Pamir. With all the makings of an epic foray into bigger mountain environments, the expedition team were the first to climb a 5300m peak and, due to heavy snowfall, were forced to turn around close to the summit on another just shy of 6000m.
Below, Alex shares ten tips to help you make your first climbing expedition a successful one.
Local drovers check their animals in preparation for leaving basecamp.
#1 Build The Right Team
Your choice of partner can make or break a trip, so it will pay to be selective in choosing your team and to ensure your climbing styles and abilities are compatible.
National organisations like the Alpine Club are a great place to find budding expedition partners and was where the team came together for this summer’s expedition. But it’s important to make sure you have enough time before the expedition to get to know each other well.
#2 Pick Suitable Objectives
Stepping into bigger mountains, it can be easy to get carried away, so while it’s important to pick objectives that get you stoked, it’s important too that they remain within your ability. Speak to your team and be honest with each other about your abilities and also your expectations for the trip. Logistics, altitude and relationships will all make it tougher to climb as hard as you do back home.
For me, Central Asia was a great place to start with opportunities to access new routes and first ascents on mountains starting as low as 3000m. For me I always make sure accessibility by foot is an option when choosing my objectives.
#3 FIND A FIXER
A local contact is invaluable when planning any expedition. They can help to handle logistics such as travel and permits, and help you navigate the complicated and time consuming in-country bureaucracy that expeditions inevitably throw at you.
Ask around among other climbers who have been to the country, and they’ll usually be able to recommend someone. We were introduced to our fixer in Tajikistan by a contact we met in Kyrgyzstan the year before.
#4 DOUBLE CHECK YOUR INSURANCE
Check your insurance carefully and ensure you’re covered for the worst case scenario. Keep your documents and funds accessible, even at advanced basecamp. Some in-country rescue services may demand payment before pick up.
A few providers to check out first would be the BMC, Austrian Alpine Club (UK) and Global Rescue. Remember though, policies differ massively depending on the type of climbing you are planning, height and the country you are visiting.
Check your insurance carefully and ensure you’re covered for the worst case scenario
A young local boy fetches water in the Qal’ai Khumb river, Tajikistan.
#5 GET A GRANT
Expeditions can be expensive, but thankfully there is help at hand.
In the UK, there are three main grants to consider; the British Mountaineering Council (BMC), Montane Alpine Climbing Club Fund (MACCF) and Mount Everest Foundation (MEF). Each comes with their own criteria so ensure you meet the requirements before applying.
If you can write and shoot content, brand sponsorship is another area worth considering. Have a think about what you can offer before contacting the brand in question and limit your sponsors to stop things getting complicated – meeting climbing commitments and sponsorship obligations can be demanding.
#6 LEARN THE LOCAL WEATHER
What time of year offers the greatest window of success? What is the prevailing wind direction? Are there any idiosyncratic weather patterns in the area? Getting a handle on the local weather will infinitely increase your chances of a successful expedition and help keep you safe.
Sometimes though, regardless of how much research and planning you put in, you’ll just need to accept bad weather and get the book out. Don’t beat yourself up if circumstances are out of your control. That’s what rest days are for.
Expeditions require as much mental as they do physical.
Checking the radios before the evening’s summit attempt.
#7 GET MENTALLY AND PHYSICALLY FIT
Expeditions require as much mental as they do physical. So, how do you physically prepare for an expedition? It’s of course important to build solid fitness and competency. Being fit and healthy will help fend off injury or illness while you’re away and the better, more confidently you climb, the more you’ll get out of the expedition. But it is important to shape your training to match the terrain and objectives you’ll be facing as much as possible.
Mentally, you’ll need resilience for tough days facing challenging weather conditions as well as the potential of extended periods stuck at basecamp. Envision the realities of what that will feel like and try to replicate similar situations as much as possible. Run through any problems you foresee arising and make note of solutions to them.
#8 SPREAD YOUR GEAR
Distribute gear evenly among your bags. Keep any vital items in your hand luggage, and wear your mountaineering boots during travel. If the airline loses a bag make sure you can still proceed as planned. The same thing applies if you use porters or pack animals.
Chris Lewis taking some time to recover at advanced basecamp on a rest day.
#9 RESPECT THE ENVIRONMENT
Consider your impact at basecamp. Think carefully about where you’ll be cooking, washing up and going to the toilet. If possible, keep all activities 50m away from water sources and avoid putting any contaminants like soap and food scraps into rivers and lakes. As the old adage goes, ‘take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’.
#10 GEN UP ON CULTURE
Before you head off, inform yourself about the country’s laws and cultural customs. Even if you disagree with them it’s important to respect these whilst in-country. This can ease awkward misunderstandings and endear you to people you meet.
Years from now you probably won’t remember much about the climbing, but you will remember the people, so remember to embrace these interactions.
Be prepared for the unexpected. It’s rare for an expedition to go to plan and stay on schedule. Be adaptable, and be aware that situations can and do change suddenly. Even the most unexpected things can catch you off guard, like waking up to find a herd of yaks eating your supplies. Nevertheless, you’ll certainly have fun and learn a lot in the process. As an old friend once told me: ‘Go for an adventure, any climbing is a bonus.’