In January this year, the Alpine Club, in partnership with the Mount Everest Foundation, the BMC and Montane, hosted ‘Expedition Essentials for Women Explorers’. This first-of-its-kind event, located at Plas y Brenin, was attended by 45 delegates alongside 20 speakers, organisers and sponsor representatives.
All of the obvious expedition information and skills were covered; with advice on destination selection, maps and communication devices, what to eat before and on the trip and greener travel options. Perhaps less obvious were the discussions on how to manage periods and personal hygiene and understanding how to deal with the effects of menopause. There were a series of workshops on how to manage the psychological aspects of being on an expedition, staying safe in remote areas, what to do in an emergency and how to plan a ski expedition.
One of the highlights of the weekend was Paul Ramsden’s session in which he shared his top tips for a hardcore (or not so hardcore) Himalayan expedition. In his talk, Paul managed to perfectly distill the key elements that help lead to happy and successful expeditions. These principles will be useful to anyone planning an expedition, regardless of gender, and are summarised below:
1. Make it about the journey.
You won’t always come away from an expedition with exactly what you planned, but you’ll come away much happier if you’ve spent time somewhere you wanted to visit and kept yourself open to options beyond your primary objective.
2. It’s as tough as you want to make it.
You don’t have to be pushing the limits of the possible to have an enjoyable and worthwhile expedition.
3. If you want to be ‘looked after’, then do so.
It’s about what you want to get out of an expedition and, if the harder elements of basecamp life aren’t something you’re excited for, go to the places where you can employ someone to take them off your hands, such as India or Nepal.
Paul on the way to the Summit of Nyainqentanglha South-East, Photo: Nick Bullock
4. If you can climb VDiff in the rain, navigate in bad weather and understand the basics of crevasse rescue, that is a better test of your capability on an expedition than climbing an E5.
Those bad weather days out in the UK hills often prove to be invaluable experiences, not just traumatic ones. Being able to climb hard in perfect conditions often proves less valuable than being able to get by in bad ones.
5. Choose your partner(s) carefully – trusting them, having a similar sense of humor and shared goals are all more important than being the best mountaineer.
Don’t ignore the personal/human elements. After all, you’ll be sharing a tent with your partner(s) for weeks at a time. Be aware of how situations of stress can affect yourself and your companions and know how to manage them.
6. Research well - Read expedition reports, find out what other people did, (and what they failed on), look at maps.
Journals, the Himalayan Index and report archives like the MEF’s have a wealth of information just waiting to be discovered. Often report writers go above and beyond, drawing their own maps and spotlighting areas where there are potential new routes. For less well-documented areas, Google Earth is brilliant!
Location Finding, Photo: Nick Bullock
7. Allow enough time. 3-4 weeks minimum - maybe more if your objective is over 6,000m.
Weather windows are fickle things. By going for longer, you increase your chances of finding one and you also build slack into the system in case of unexpected problems. Taking a few extra days to acclimatise is a lot less stressful if you have a week to spare and it will get you into better condition for a successful attempt.
8. Put the date in the diary 12-18 months ahead - get others to prepare for you being away.
A month away is a long time. The further in advance you can get things rolling, the less stressful things will be in the period immediately before you depart. Childcare, work and family responsibilities may all need to be handed over to others. This can be mentally and physically prepared for well ahead of departure.
9. Careful what you eat and drink on the way in.
No one wants to abandon an ascent because of an upset stomach, but it happens. Even if you don’t have to bail, sickness will still make the experience less enjoyable overall. Enjoy the local culinary experience on your way home.
10. Acclimatise carefully.
Take your time and you’ll be in better shape higher up. Paul thought ascending slowly and sleeping high, worked best.
Paul descending from Jugal Spire, Photo: Tim Miller
11. Plan your route.
Draw a topo for your intended line, mark on suitable camp or bivouac locations. Consider your descent. Pick objectively safe routes, always remembering that gullies & snow slopes are prone to avalanches and serac fall. Buttress routes are safest.
12. Take a small, lightweight tent.
The difference in weight is more than made up for by the added comfort you get compared to a bivvy bag.
13. If you’re planning a technical route, wear boots warmer than you think you might need. Your toes will thank you!
14. Don’t climb into the dark - stop at 3PM.
You need at least two hours of daylight to set up a camp, melt snow and cook your dinner. Not only does this help to avoid epics and accidents, but it gives you time to rest and recuperate properly in the evening, setting you up far better for the next day.
The vital hanging stove set up, Photo: Paul Ramsden
15. Buy and know how to use a hanging stove.
The weather may preclude cooking outside the tent, so a hanging stove is essential. Practice ahead of time! Pans are very easy to drop and you don’t want to get it wrong at 6,000m!
16. Think about taking a snow hammock if doing a long, steep route.
The many and varied benefits of a comfortable night’s sleep should not be underestimated! A snow hammock is a reliable way of making a decent sleeping platform where otherwise you’d be looking at a cold night sat on a bum-sized ledge.
A Freshly Stamped Snow Hammock Ledge, Photo: Tim Miller
17. Things will break.
Take repair tape with you and use it as needed. Green Betrafol / Rissan tape is a good choice.
Summary by Adéle Long
This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 Alpine Club Newsletter. The Newsletter is published three times a year and, alongside regular trip reports, cultural highlights and news about the Alpine Club, it also features articles on mountain medicine, environmental issues and mountaineering skills. Members receive print copies as part of their membership, but digital copies are also made available to the public via our website with a delay of one issue.