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Your first overseas climbing expedition

The scale of the world's high mountain ranges makes New Zealand's peaks look small by comparison.
Ever thought about heading overseas on a climbing expedition to one of the world’s great mountain ranges? Paul Hersey highlights some considerations.

I’ve been on a number of expeditions to some of the world’s great mountain ranges, including the Himalaya, the Hindu Kush and the Pamir Alai. And on each trip, I’ve learnt so much about the culture of the country I visited as well as how to approach trying to climb high altitude mountains. If this is something that could interest you, here are a few tips to get you started.

Why go

Expeditions can be expensive and time-consuming. What outcome is most important to you? Is reaching the peak your only goal, or is the experience itself enough regardless of whether you get to the top. Choosing a mountain that allows you a decent challenge without being beyond your ability is often the difference between success and failure. I try to go to a different area or country on each new expedition – that way I still get to experience something different regardless of how the actual climbing eventuates.

How to go about it

The easiest way to go on your first expedition is with a commercial guiding company. There are a number of New Zealand operators that offer a range of expeditions. All experience levels are catered for and there is the added security of having a professional looking out for you.

But commercial expeditions are usually expensive and they often focus on popular mountains.

Local sections of the New Zealand Alpine Club occasionally organise overseas trips and they are a good place to find others with similar goals and who might be interested in sharing costs.

Where to go

Do you want to climb a Himalayan peak where you get the full expedition experience, yet have the added costs of peak fees, bureaucracy, long uncomfortable road trips and other endless complications? Or would you rather go somewhere like Alaska or South America, where bureaucracy, logistics and the effects of altitude are less? Added to this are security threats, with Pakistan a much more dangerous option for a westerner than Nepal.

And then, within each country, you need to consider the location of the mountain you are interested in: What is access like? What is the ratio of travel to climbing? What cultural experiences are on offer? How stable is the weather?

When to go

This will be determined by work and family obligations, budget and the particular climbing conditions. Two main weather considerations can be pre or post monsoon, and the pros and cons of each differ from area to area. Ideally, you need one or two months for an expedition, although it’s possible to have a successful expedition from New Zealand in around 24 days to a mountain that is less than 6000m.

How much will it cost

This depends on where you want to climb, how high the mountain you want to climb is and how many people are in your team. I budget between $5000–$10,000 for an expedition targeting an unclimbed mountain between 5500-7000m.

If you are on a tight budget then look for a mountain where the peak fee is low or non-existent, travel is easy, not much-specialised equipment or technical support is required and the peak isn’t too high.

There are various grants available if the peak you are trying hasn’t been climbed before (try The North Face Adventure Grant, Mount Everest Foundation and the New Zealand Alpine Club).

When booking flights through an airline, check their baggage allowance and costs for excess baggage. You could be travelling with more than 40kg of equipment and it may be cheaper to send some of that beforehand.

Selecting a peak

Researching a mountain on the other side of the world can be both interesting and frustrating. Maps of the area may be poor. It may be difficult to find out if it has been climbed before. Try to have more than one back-up plan in case your main objective is not possible. It’ll be a long way to go to not even try something.

What is your skill, experience and fitness level?

Be honest with yourself about where you’re at and try and equate your skill level with a target.

The biggest factor is the altitude. Some people cope better with it than others, and you won’t be able to comprehend its debilitating effect until you get there.

You also need to understand the strength and fitness of your team members. For me, it is far more important who I climb with than what I climb. You need to rely on your teammates through all the mental and physical challenges that arise during an expedition. Having a bust-up mid-trip could be disastrous.

What style of climbing are you going to employ?

If you are going to be climbing at altitude, your ascent will likely take a number of days. Will you make an attempt in ‘alpine-style’, or the more traditional ‘expedition-style’?

Which you choose dictates the kind of equipment you will need, the amount of time you will be on the mountain, the logistical support you will need and the level of risk you are exposing yourself to.

Alpine-style is fast and light and refers to mountaineering in a self-sufficient manner, climbing from the bottom to the summit without sherpas or oxygen, and carrying all your food and equipment.

Expedition-style requires a fixed line of stocked camps and sherpas helping with logistics.

Consider your rescue options

Make sure you have comprehensive insurance. Taking a satellite phone allows for instant communication, but be aware that weather and altitude can still inhibit any rescue from taking place. A personal locator beacon may or may not be of help depending on where you are and what other form of communication is available. An insurance company may not okay a costly rescue to a remote location solely on a PLB signal.