The best laid plans...
Graeme Kates (1998)

This story is actually about "Expedition Planning". After choosing this topic to write about the more I realised just how difficult I like to make life for myself, it certainly would have been easier to ramble on endlessly about mountains I have visited and attempted to fall off, rather than actually describe what it takes to get there. Also note these are the ranting of a guy who has probably consumed a few too many burbons...

"The best laid plans..." is very misleading, as I'm more qualified to write on the wrong way to go about Planning an Expedition, as I'm yet to discover a method of avoiding the incredibly odd situations that appear to arise on many of my trips. When I were young and stupid (not so long ago) we called these epics and indeed went out of our way to nuture them.

Large Expeditions
I don't like large expeditions! They tend to be cumbersome, extremely tunnel visioned (ie. only one goal, one hill), totally inflexible, environmentally dubious, and because of their personnel size tend to have a constant ebb and flow of personal conflicts. Over the last 15 years I have been involved in several large expeditions, mostly in South America, and all the planning in the world doesn't prevent them coming unstuck at the seams through personal conflict and incompatibility. Many large expeditions fail or are unsuccessful because of this, not because of the torment the mountain dishes out.

Small Expeditions
I like small expeditions. You won't be able to scale an 8000 metre monster (or at least afford one), but by setting an altitude limit you actually expand your options, lighten your expedition overheads, gives you the opportunity to make a first ascent (still) or put up a new mountain route, you reduce your team size to a manageable 2 - 6 persons (all of which can be people / friends of your choosing), allows you to focus on the culture and people alongside your own self-centred ideals. It also allows you to deal to quite remote goals, or highly technical ones, without the cumbersome weight and inertia of a full blown expedition with all its trimmings.

Mountaineering is inherently an unsafe activity at any rate, irrespective of the expedition style.

Learning the ropes
I moved to Arthur's Pass about 4 years ago, prior to that I had been visiting the Pass for 10 years. In that time I've managed to bumble my way onto all it's summits, fall off a few, and also discover that climbing about Arthur's Pass is incredibly useful when it comes to overseas expedition planning.

Firstly you actually have to walk in, laden with all your kit into the hills, no private aircraft landings are permitted in the park (and may it remain so), unlike the southern area of Mt Cook where a chopper can set you down virtually at your hut door. In Arthur's Pass you find yourself crossing numerous unbridged rivers, belting up & over topless scree-slopes, and having mother nature deal to you as severely as only she knows how.

You actually need to do a tad of planning to climb any of the remote peaks in Arthur's Pass National Park. This probably explains its unpopularity amongst the greater climbing fraternity (I can hear those heckles being raised now), and why solitude can still be found on most of its summits. Arthur's Pass does have enough facilities to shore up the learning curve, huts are provided in spectacular mountaineering locations in the park, if you meet with a misfortune there is a fair chance you'll live to tell the tale, though not always. Sadly some climbers do seem to underestimate the severity of its moods and landscapes, they confuse mild climbing grades with a safe climbing environment, to discover that a 50 metre fall is not unlike a 50 metre fall anywhere else in the world - you still go splat!

In the high mountainous regions of the world, you are just plain on your own, you need to cover all contingencies, totally self reliant...

The Destination
Some might argue this is the easy bit, but there's a lot of factors that come into play...
the season ... are you going to be shovelling snow for the trips duration, or are you likely to die of thirst or severe frost-bite?
the cost & rules ... there are a good deal of hidden costs involved with expeditions into the world's highest areas, park entrance fees, peak fees, possible use of porters, "tourist prices", rules that change on a daily basis (Pakistan), and of course the "bribe money".

It doesn't pay to just arrive at your destination expecting to start your travels at page uno of your Lonely Planet. Your Lonely Planet will be used as a fire starter in the first week anyway, you can save weight by leaving it at home.

It really pays to look very deep into the culture and language (or 17 languages if you're visiting Pakistan). Offending someone in a high mountain village will usually spell an untimely end to your expedition, or your life if you choose to offend the local terrorist organisation.

The old saying "of when in Rome" is very true of visiting the high mountaineering capitals of the world, to blend in saves many, many hassles.

And remember Rule No.2: DON'T PLAN ANYTHING as it will come unstuck in the first instance anyway!

Rule No.1 is always Murphys'.

The Money
Invariably some of the world's best climbing areas are on the opposite side of the globe to Australasia, and wouldn't it be nice to get someone else to pay the airfare, yes it would, but forget it buddy...

Unfortunately these days you have got to be doing something extremely bizarre, and possibly suicidal to get any sponsor interested in your exploits, though getting ancillary supplies could still be a possibilty. I've found chocolate companies are always worth a try (though Clearasil never seems to be interested), as are sunglass companies as long as you're prepared to have their logo emblazon on every covered inch of your body, alternatively go to a cheaper destination, or marry into the airline industry.

What you will need is directly proportional to your climbing asperations, or if you are a gear freak you'll need twice as much. You do have the opportunity on arrival to purchase some "hardly used" gear in the markets, though it pays not to look too closely at its quality or authenticity, or enquire what ill-fated expedition it was recovered from...

Now where did we pack those ropes?

If you are visiting South America or Nepal, it would pay to guard your equipment with your life, otherwise it may be re-purchasable as "never used" gear at the local market (at twice the western price).

More Money
So you've arrived, and the man at customs is eyeing you, your gear, you, your gear, you...

(An alternative scenario to this is your gear is not there with you, it is chilling out in Zambia)

He wants his piece of green, as will the cretin of a taxi driver who ambushes you outside the airport, certain border guards, policeman in general, the local terrorist organisation, your transport driver who refuses to budge from his parking lot in the Gobi desert, and of course the pickpockets & theives (but they normally don't ask).

Occassionally in Peru or Bolivia you find someone who only wants for bananas, though these are rare, and its much rarer to have 20kg of bananas on call (sometimes).

Once you arrive
This is generally when any planning you've done comes completely unstuck, hence Rule No.2 enacted by Rule No.1.

The tropical heat is so intense you dare not leave your lodging for fear of melting, or more typical you can't leave your lodging for this strange attachment you've acquired to your toilet bowl or crappee since breakfast.

Once on the road, all will be well, with your knees around your shoulders for that 18 hour bus ride up the Karakoram Highway, 38 checkpoints, 6 flat tyres, removal of a mudslide and avalanche, oh and the radiator. Pity that cyclist got in the way of the bus, 25 hours later you arrive in Gilgit, being met by a curfew.

The range of mountains you were going to scale has been inundated by rebel forces, all bridges have been destroyed, or the "open area" was yesterday declared "closed" and now requires pots of gold to visit.

When the shit hits the fan
The shit can choose to hit the fan in the most colourful of ways...

like your local bus diving off the a ravine into the Indus River (Pakistan), or your jeep catching fire on a lesser scale, or just simply losing its wheel on that terrorfying hairpin bend, or your climbing partner decides to surcome to severe heat stroke, go delirious whilst you're alone with him 32km up the worst moraine glacier in the Hindu Kush, barely scraping out of this one, enshala, he then picks up a tad of malaria that drives him into complete unconsciousness, exit one climbing partner.

Your next climbing partner is a Brit, he's suffering high altitude sickness, but he's in good company - you are as well. Both of you have managed to force your way that 1500 metres vertically through flooded ravine and crevassed snowfield to this too high of camps. All will be well though - a thunderstorm with 120kmph winds has nestled in to keep you company distracting you from your headache and racing heartbeat.

or maybe your lift into the Andes turns out to be a kidnapping by the Shining Path, this really does ruin your day, and how was any amount of planning going to avoid it.

what might have been avoidable was your traverse of the Hindu Kush dropping into Afganistan, then simply walking back into Pakistan to be arrested by a policeman intent on torturing your already tortured soul & body.

or possibly or most simply your climbing partner goes out on a mission to buy bread, not having a syllables grip on the language, and achieves bargaining a 100 fold increase in its price, this is not so bad until a French climbing expedition hunts you down to embrace you for your partners initiative.

The freedom of the hills
Amazing as it might seem, a mountainside that pends falling on your head is much less intimidating than buying expedition supplies in the local village market. Maybe outright doom is just accepted as an integral or acceptable part of mountaineering.

You've already sat in base camp for a week, but the avalanche interval has at least subsided to 43 minutes, that Puma that has terrorised your camp all week has decided to feast on the llama that sort protection there, this does of course take your mind off those pesky scorpions that seem to migrate to your bedding each night.

You have finally moved camp up the hill, it is -30ºC, the air is so dry that static electricity is bolting from anything and everything, you've run out of petrol for your stove and need to change the cylinder...

A) do you release the pressure in the bottle, causing a massive fireball to envelop the tent hence warming it?
B) tell your climbing partner to change it, while you evaculate the tent of your own gear to that "emergency" snowcave back down at Camp III?
C) have frozen sardines for dinner, again?

The mountains really do offer solice to your soul, though there comes a time when you do run out of food and you must descend to the hell of the mud-flats.

Escaping from Paradise
Now this should be the easy bit, except of course if you're flying AeroPeru or Royal Nepal, they've so enjoyed your stay they have cancelled or overbooked all outbound flights on your behalf.

Once you do get home, it really pays to visit a tropical deseases clinic for a full overhaul, to avoid further complications and symptoms that are not socially acceptable in the western world.

Now you can relax and sit back to plan your next expedition...

Disclaimer: all incidents raised in the above story are unfortunately true, but they have made me a better person - truely!