My climbing life began probably 8 years ago now, at the tender age of 15 and since then it has largely influenced my entire life. I chose my university based partly on it having an active mountaineering club, I moved to Newcastle due to its proximity to good quality climbing in Yorkshire, Northumberland and the Lake District and most significantly it influenced my career path into becoming an Apparel Developer. I’ve now worked for Berghaus for just over a year as Extrem Junior Developer and I think it was largely my experience as an outdoor enthusiast, specifically climbing, that landed me that role. Now although my job doesn’t look set to change anytime soon, in a few weeks I embark upon what is very much a new chapter of my life in the vertical which is my first expedition.
I’ve climbed a fair bit throughout Europe and North America however I have never ventured into the altitude and the unknown which I will shortly be facing. In less than two weeks’ time, I will be travelling to the fairly ambiguous country of Kyrgyzstan. As an ex-Soviet state, Kyrgyzstan sits between Russia and China and although it lacks the altitude or the obvious majesty of the Himalaya, around 90% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous terrain and a good deal of that is unclimbed. The range that dominates this country’s borders is the Tien Shan range which in terms of geographical area is the largest mountain range in the world. However, due to maybe being slightly over shadowed by the more famous ranges in the world, this range offers probably some of the best access to virgin, exploratory mountaineering in Asia. I have a total of 3 and a half weeks booked off work, and with about 16 days of that spent directly at base camp we have a good deal of time in which to tick our objectives; and the objectives are quite numerous! The valley we are targeting as our base camp is at the head of two glaciers and above rise about 12 to 14 peaks of around 4,500m – 5,000m and with no recorded ascents. Within our time at base camp we aim to tick as many of the peaks as possible and put our names in the history books for mountaineering in this range.
(More images of the mountain range I am heading to at the bottom of this blog.)
Despite being increasingly excited, the first step into expedition mountaineering can definitely be a daunting one and I’d be lying if I said here weren’t a few nerves. However, if you’re thinking about committing to a similar trip then here are some pointers that have helped me get myself sorted and will hopefully put you in the right direction!
Tips for expedition first timers
1. Find your way into a good team
The people you go with are going to be hugely important as a rookie. They need to be experienced and confident so you know you can trust them but most importantly they need to be patient and open minded because even if you’re an experienced climber, you’re not going to be as fast or efficient in the mountains as they might be.
2. Back your own ability
While the former is true, that you can rely on the rest of your team, it’s also true that they need to rely on you. So feel confident in the experience you have, stay calm, and of course, enjoy yourself!
Don’t be fooled by the arrogance of youth cliché even if, like me, you’re going to be the junior by about 20 years. This might be true and your overall fitness might be good but when you add heavy packs and altitude into the mix, the older members experience is going to pay dividends. So get out into Scotland or the Lakes, pack a decent size rucksack and get some multiple day walks or trail runs in before you go to give yourself the best chance of being fit.
4. Don’t overpack
It seems obvious but this is an easy one to fall into. Remember that you’re going to be lugging a lot of this about for around 2/3 weeks so don’t pack too much stuff that isn’t super necessary.
5. Don’t skimp on the key bits of kit
As climbers we’re all a little conscious of the purse strings but there will undoubtedly be bits of your kit list where it just isn’t worth penny pinching. In my opinion, one of the biggest ones is your sleeping bag and roll mat because if you’re not getting a good nights’ sleep then you’re not going to be psyched about getting up at 3am to make your summit push.
6. Get familiar with where you’re going
As I said, Kyrgyzstan is not exactly a hot tourist location and if you’re going somewhere similar you’d be forgiven for being a bit ignorant about the culture there. However a little time spent learning the local etiquette and customs will stand you in good stead. For example, it’s seen as rude to turn down a vodka in Kyrgyzstan regardless of time of day… Light headedness due to altitude is probably the least of my worries!
7. Rope techniques
If, like me, you’re going somewhere that is not going to have abundant technical ground the chances are, a lot of your time is going to be spent roped together on glaciers or ridges. A super important tip is to get your rope work dialled so you don’t even have to think about it when you’re out there. The same goes for techniques for glacier rescue, you most likely won’t need it but you wouldn’t want to be unsure of yourself in the event that you do!
8. Portable Electricity
This is going to be the trip of a lifetime and so the last thing you want is to not take any photos for the second half of the trip cause you ran out of batteries. There are stacks of bits of tech for recharging on the go but my personal recommendation is the Brunton Revolt 9000 which is good for approx. 6 full camera charges and sits in the palm of your hand.
Double check your jabs before you. Most places will only need covering for the standard Hep A, Hep B, Typhoid, Rabies etc but it’s always worth checking to make sure you’re up to date!
10. Plan some down time
Finally, try and work in at least a couple of days at the end of the trip to see a bit of the country you’re visiting. At the start of the trip you’ve got too much to think about getting to base camp and then you’re in the mountains and you’re there for a reason. However, the chances are your first expedition is going to be a rich and rewarding cultural experience and an opportunity to learn about a part of the world you’ve not been to before so soak it up!
BONUS. Plan a post trip race/event – If you’re so inclined, you could sort out to do a running or fitness event about a week after you get back. Having spent two weeks doing almost constant exercise at altitude, it could be interesting to see how your fitness has improved and it could be a cheat way to get a new PB! For me I’ll be at the Hardmoors 60km trail run in the North York Moors about a week after I get back!
Hope some of those points are useful and please stay tuned to the Berghaus Community Blog for my post trip report. See you in the mountains!