Expedition Hurdles – Mick Fowler

You have decided on a great unclimbed Himalayan objective. What could possibly go wrong?

Choosing a Himalayan objective can be challenging but for many it is the hurdles between deciding on what you want to climb and actually getting to the mountain that bring the trip of a lifetime to a grinding halt.

Ok. There it is. You have found the mountain you want to climb. What could possibly stop you getting there?

So what are these hurdles and how best to overcome them?

1. Rules and Regulations. Permits.

Rules and regulations form a fiercely protective barrier around many of the most exciting Himalayan objectives and it is essential that your paperwork is in order. If you are aiming for an ‘open’ peak there is generally no problem. Simply contact the relevant authorities and go through the process. Where it gets tricky is if you are after something off the beaten track. And, let’s be honest, that’s where the exciting and adventurous objectives tend to lie. Many of these areas are politically sensitive, access is restricted and being able to work well with sometimes incredibly unreasonable bureaucrats is an essential skill to master.

My first tip would be to try and get an overview by consulting the British Mountaineering Council and any Expedition Reports from teams that have recently been to the area in which your chosen peak lies. Remember though that the situation in sensitive areas tends to be very fluid and can change at short notice. Some areas, East Tibet for example, are effectively off limits at present and it is good to know this upfront. No-one wants to spend time banging their head against a brick wall.

If your initial research reveals no insurmountable hurdles the next step is to think about who to contact to try and secure the necessary permits. Those who oversee the permit systems in Himalayan countries are often clueless as to exactly what the rules are, where the peaks are and why some are on permitted lists and others are not.

The nine permits necessary to visit the Nyainkentaghla East Range (East Tibet) in 2007.

It is important not to give superfluous detail which could cause your application to be delayed by unnecessarily close scrutiny. My general advice is to be as economical but straightforward with information as possible.

You will read of ascents being made without permits but check points are found in the most remote and unexpected spots and a team without permits risks being turned back or worse. It depends on the country as to whether I employ an agent or handle permit issues myself. Persistence does pay and my experience is that, at least in Nepal, Pakistan and India it is usually possible to influence the decisions takers and secure a permit unless there is a very good reason for the authorities not to issue one. China is more challenging. ‘Beijing’ either says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and I have never managed to make direct contact with the decision taker(s).

A recurring difficulty is that officials are often reluctant to issue permits until the very last minute. With such a volatile security situation in many of the areas where the best objectives lie this is understandable but it does make life difficult. Last minute changes in either direction can happen and I would recommend having a back-up objective if at all possible.

So – my permit advice is along the lines of, ask around, decide on your approach, be persistent and flattering to anyone you deal with …. and always have a reserve objective in hand. It might come as a surprise but in my 35 years of leading expeditions to rarely visited spots I have never directly had to pay a bribe.

2. Visas

Some countries, Nepal for example, are straightforward and visas can be purchased on entry but others are frighteningly complex and require much advance preparation.

Special visas are often required to enter restricted areas and a letter of invitation is usually required. Often these letters are only issued after military clearance and come at the very last minute. In fact I find last minute stress is a recurring feature of restricted area visa applications.

On our trip to Xinjiang for example visas would not be issued until we had shown evidence that we had booked flights and reserved accommodation for every night we intended to spend in the country. It took six visits to the visa processing centre in London before visas were finally issued just days before departure.

These last minute rushes frequently happen and time must be set aside to handle them. As advice I can but recommend familiarising yourself with the exact requirements well in advance and employing an in-country agent to cover any odd requirements like superfluous hotel bookings. Just keep remembering that the more challenging the bureaucracy the more interesting the area you are visiting is likely to be.

Finally on this subject I should warn against celebrating early clearance and applying too early. Last year, despite the fact that our flight dates were clearly shown on our visa applications, the Indian Embassy issued visas that expired one day before our return flight. We were so intimidated by the thought of trying to change the visa date that we changed our return flight date instead.

3 International Flights

The key issues here are cost, baggage allowance and flexibility.

The 46Kg allowance on the London – Delhi route saves a lot of hassle.

I used to always book the cheapest but adventurous trips frequently finish early and changing return flights is not at all unusual. With this in mind I have increasingly booked with an airline that flies daily and doesn’t charge a fortune to change flight dates.

My experience is that it is easier to change flights and arrange any refunds if you book direct with the airline rather than through a third party website.

Many trips go via Delhi and it is worth noting that competition on the London – Delhi route has pushed down prices and resulted in economy tickets coming with a 46Kg baggage allowance which means there’s no need to battle through security wearing as much of your heavy kit as you can.

4 Liaison Officer (LO)

For an exploratory expedition you will usually have to be accompanied by a Liaison Officer (LO).

Conflict with your LO risks bringing your expedition to a premature halt. Team on R, LO on L.

The service I have had from LOs varies from them being a real asset to a downright hindrance. You can try and influence the choice of LO by employing an agent and asking them to intervene but usually you are left with no alternative but to try and get on with whoever is allocated to you.

Falling out with your LO is a bad idea so whether he tries to stop you taking photographs of peaks or refuses to come with you but expects to be paid (both have happened to me) just remember to keep smiling. Venting your fury after an expedition is allowed!

5 Gas Cylinders for mountain stove

I strongly prefer the simplicity of a gas stove in the mountains but that does beg the question of how to get the cylinders to base camp. On my early trips we carried them in our hold luggage and when that was banned we freighted them out from the UK. But now it is possible to buy cylinders in, as far as I am aware, all Himalayan countries.

A few things to watch out for though … Firstly stock can be limited so use an agent to obtain as many cylinders as you need before you arrive. Secondly remember that many are refilled. Check that they work and take a few extras along on a sale or return basis to make up for half filled ones. Thirdly remember that cylinders cannot be taken on internal flights so you might well need to ask the whoever sources your cylinders to get them transported to where your walk-in will start.

6 Getting yourself and your kit to Base Camp

Now this should be straightforward but can be a major risk in the more remote areas with no established trekking culture or fixed stages. The pitfalls are numerous and many a well known mountaineer has has had to give up on their trip because of problems at this stage. I have failed to reach the intended base camp site but have never failed to get close enough to try the intended objective.

The list of possible problems is long. Finding pack animals and porters can be difficult, landslides plague post monsoon walk-ins, pack animals cannot cross tricky ground, porters have a habit of going on strike, unexpected snowfall can bring progress to a grinding halt…… The list of possible expedition ending problems can go on and on.

So what to do? Historically I preferred self organising but with more and more agents prepared to sign up to a ‘get you to base camp’ deal I have moved towards the less stressful approach of paying to hand the responsibility over to someone else. Price wise I have found the agent will be able to negotiate better deals than a climbing team and this more or less cancels out the agent’s fee.

Obviously no-one can give a cast iron guarantee that you will actually get to base camp but by employing an agent the stress and hassle is at least someone else’s concern – up to a certain point at least!

Landslides can be impossible for loaded pack animals to cross and require loads to be ferried. Too many delays like this and failing to get to base camp becomes a real possibility.

7 Above base camp

Rules, regulations, difficult individuals and travel challenges are behind you. No problem. It’s just you and the mountain now. Bliss!

Bureaucracy hurdles ticked, walk-in hurdles ticked. Just the climbing to be done. 🙂

Mick Fowler