Whether your training preparations are setting you up for Everest, Kangchenjunga, K2, Hagshu or any other Himalayan mountain, you’ll need to be prepared for what challenges lie ahead. So here’s some fantastic tips from Mick Fowler to help you get ready for your expedition!
Alpine style climbers tackling technical Himalayan mountaineering objectives frequently fail. Even amongst experienced mountaineers the success rate hovers around 50%. Sometimes the weather is to blame but frequently it’s factors that we have a degree of control over that dictate success or failure.
After 30 years of greater range trips, ranging from dismal failure to exhilarating success, I offer the following as top tips that have served me well.
What you need is someone whose attitude to risk and commitment is the same as yours. Technical ability plays its part but the critical thing is to find someone who is trustworthy and likely to react the same way as you in given circumstances. Willpower, determination and a realistic approach are key. You don’t want to end up with someone who wants to go down for no good reason or conversely tries to insist that you should continue when your judgement is that you should go down.
(Below – Micks long term climbing partner Paul Ramsden)
Choose your objective carefully
Do as much research as you possibly can. Choose an objective that you have a realistic chance of success on. Think about things such as the time you have available, the altitude, which direction the slopes face, how far the start of the climb is from base camp and what the approach ground is likely to be like. As far as you can assess the likely objective dangers beforehand.
Sounds an obvious one but for those on a short timescale there is a temptation to cut corners and get onto the main objective as soon as possible. Us humans vary quite a lot and there’s no prescribed right or wrong approach. For me spending a minimum of three nights at an altitude within 1,000m of the summit, followed by a day at base camp, gets me in a condition where I stand a good chance of success. But that assumes a climb where progress is likely to be slow and a certain amount of acclimatising on the route is possible.
The Himalayan sun is strong and south facing snow slopes and glaciers can be unbearably hot. Take that into account in your choice of route. Be ready to stop early on glaciers and use sleeping bags over the tent to keep the heat out. On south facing slopes, below about 6,000m, be prepared to climb through the night if necessary.
Don’t rush. Start early, finish early
Getting going from a typical bivouac on a technical climb takes time. Allow two hours from the alarm going off to starting to climb and start searching for bivouac sites a couple of hours before dark. Allow plenty of time to prepare the site. Being comfortable, fed and ready to sleep before dark makes for the best possible night’s rest and the best possible start to the following day. Stopping early is no crime. Don’t rush. Enjoy being in the mountains. That’s why you are there
Don’t be tempted to rely on a bivouac sack. A small lightweight tent is worth it’s weight in gold. If you can get the poles in then it provides a weatherproof space that you can cook in. And if you can’t then the fabric makes an ideal double bivouac sack for sitting bivouacs. Ensure that you sew slings through the corners or have some other arrangement that allows you to belay separately as necessary.
Be prepared to sit out bad weather
A typical alpine style Himalayan ascent might take up to 10 days or so. Some bad weather over this time is to be expected. Don’t think about going down at the first sign of bad weather. Instead be prepared to sit it out. Take an extra gas cylinder and a book to while away the time. Relax until it’s ok to start climbing again.
Drink lots and take some food that doesn’t have to be cooked
Even with a shielded, hanging stove it is likely that you will not be able to cook if the weather is wild and you are unable to pitch the tent. Take something that doesn’t need cooking so that you don’t go completely hungry on these occasions. Melting a little snow to drink is often possible when cooking isn’t but always keep some water in your water bottle so you don’t end up having none at all. If it freezes you can always melt it deep within your clothing. If you can pitch a tent melt water before going to sleep and keep the water bottle in your sleeping bag. It will act as a hot water bottle and give a ready supply of water in the morning.
Don’t go light for the summit
It can be tempting to leave everything at the top bivouac and go light for the summit. That’s all very nice if everything works out well but so often the summit turns out to be farther way than expected and you end up being faced with the prospect of an unplanned bivouac with no kit. And that so often leads to a retreat and a team that is too tired to try again the next day. Within reason I always keep all my kit with me at all times.
Take the right kit – look after it and don’t skimp.
It seems obvious but good kit keeps you alive. Take the minimum you can get away with but make sure what you take is the best available and ensure you know its limitations. Everything has it’s limits. Do whatever is necessary to keep snow out of your sleeping bag. Even be prepared to leave it packed away if you think it’s impossible to keep snow out of it. Continuing after a cold night is possible but success is unlikely with a sleeping bag that has got damp and turned into a ball of ice.
Over the years I have made all the above mistakes. Hopefully this piece will help you avoid some of them and experience the joys of Himalayan success.