How to find an unclimbed mountain for your next expedition

In the following article one of the world’s leading mountaineers – Mick Fowler – shares how he finds unclimbed mountains for future expedition objectives.

I keep getting asked how to go about finding a suitable objective.

It’s understandable. Getting it wrong can be expensive and demoralising. There’s nothing worse than spending months saving up, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, flying half way round the world, driving for many hours, trekking for several days… and then finding out that the long anticipated objective is rubbish.

Having gone through the process almost every year for the last 35 years or so I offer a few tips based on my successes and failures.

My tips for finding an unclimbed Himalayan peak

1. Keep an eye open at all times

Follow up interesting photographs wherever you spot them. Contact the photographer if need be – maybe they have better photographs and additional information. Then speak to people who have been to the area before. I find most people are keen to help.

unclimbed-mountain
Neil Warren’s distant shot of something special on the horizon (L) was the starting point that led to Paul Ramsden and me going to Gave Ding in West Nepal (R).

2. Google Earth

Endless hours can be wasted ‘flying’ around the mountain ranges of the world. I find it best to identify a possible objective first and then check it out using Google Earth.

The vantage angle can be adjusted to view faces and the ‘time of day’ feature used to accentuate shadows (get the angle and time of day right and you can judge the which peak is highest due to the size of the shadow).

Of course, it is not perfect. Definition varies and generally the steeper the face the less useful Google Earth is for picking out detail.

google-earth-gave-ding
Google Earth. The shadows have it. By setting time at midday the north face of Gave Ding (just north of the waymark) stands out as something special.

3. Electronic research can be misleading.

Once a possible objective has been identified search out every piece of information you can.

Remember that the internet is not the only source of information. Not all old books are scanned and libraries such as that at the Alpine Club still play an important role in information gathering.

Check reports of any previous expeditions to the area. Remember if you find lots of information on the internet you will not be the only team eyeing up that particular objective.

shiva
Electronic research is not always the answer. Prow of Shiva on Google Earth (left) and in real life (right)

4. Has it been done before?

If you follow my adventures you will know I love to climb unclimbed peaks.

My first port of call is always the Himalayan Index freely accessible via the Alpine Club’s website. The index lists most peaks that have been climbed (and many that haven’t) and includes cross references to reports of attempts and successes.

Beyond that the internet is an increasingly useful source of information on what has been done.

5. Bureaucratic Accessibility

The rules and regulations of Himalayan countries can be challenging and are often appear designed to catch the unwary.

Make sure you are familiar with those affecting the objective you have in mind. Discuss possibilities with an agent in the host country and be ready to speak with clarity, confidence and documentation if challenged by officials.

6. Physical Accessibility.

It’s all very nice finding an interesting objective but getting to Himalayan peaks can be challenging in its own right.

If others have been to the area check their reports. How did they get there? What are the chances of delays? – landslides, weather dependent light planes etc. Do you realistically have enough time?

7. Objective Dangers.

There’s nothing worse than overcoming every obstacle known to man only to arrive below your intended objective and conclude that it is too dangerous even to set foot on.

Try and choose a ridge or at least a line that stands proud from a face. When reading previous reports remember that conditions have often changed hugely in the last 25 years.

8. Fall back objectives

Exploratory mountaineering is fraught with uncertainties. Consider in advance a fall back objective (or two) for what you are going to do if your main objective is inaccessible for some reason.

Hopefully these tips will assist in finding a great objective. Be aware that many people underestimate the array of challenges facing the Himalayan mountaineer and fail dismally on their first trip. I certainly fell into that category. But fear not. Persevere and rewards will come.

And once the pleasure of alpine style new routing in the Himalaya has been experienced you may well find that an obsession has been born.