How an Expedition Works
I’ve written this to help people understand how big mountains are climbed in the 21st century. Of course there are exceptions to these rules, but this will cover a vast majority of all expeditions. I’ll assume we’re traveling outside of the USA, Canada, and Europe.
Planning the Expedition
Any expedition can be broken down into three segments:
(1) travel from home to the country you’re visiting and back,
(2) travel from your arrival city to Base Camp, and
(3) travel between Base Camp and the summit.
The first segment is planned by simply buying your plane ticket.
Travel from your arrival city to Base Camp is usually organized by a trekking agent or trekking agency. This agency is based in the country you’re visiting and is staffed by locals. Most agencies will pick you up at the airport when you arrive and take care of all of your food, lodging, and transportation up to Base Camp. Even if you’re on a trip guided by a western leader and organized by a western company, they will use a local trekking agency to handle the logistics.
In Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet, and some other countries, the government requires that climbers get a permit to climb the mountain. in the old days, a group of climbers would get organized, apply for a permit, and then climb as a team. Today, these groups might be guided or unguided, organized privately as a team or organized as a commercial, money-making proposition. Climbers on the same permit might be climbing together, or may be just sharing the permit and other logistical costs up to Base Camp and then climbing the mountain independently.
So when you hear, “I’m on the Blue Trekking permit,” that climber is buying into another group’s permit and may be climbing independently on the mountain.
In some countries the government may attach a military or government official to your expedition as its official representative. This Liaison Officer (LO) can be a great friend of the expedition or a hinderance. This requirement is a holdover from the old colonial days.
In the Olden Days, all of this in-country organization was quite difficult and may have taken up to three years to complete. Today, you can take care of it with a couple of emails to the trekking agency and a credit card number.
By the way, western climbers (or trekkers) are called members by local staff.
Travel from Arrival in the Country to Base Camp
The trekking agency will handle all of the details.
Travel to the Trailhead. This may involve airplane, helicopter, bus, car, or jeep transport. On the north side of Everest, you can drive to Base Camp, so there’s no trek.
From the Trailhead to Base Camp. This hiking approach is called trekking and involves non-motorized transport. All of your gear (and there may be hundreds or thousands of pounds of it) must be carried either by people or animals (donkeys, yaks, llamas). The human load carriers are porters, more specifically low-altitude porters. These are local people who have no mountaineering training. A different group of porters will carry gear on the mountain itself. These guys are commonly called Sherpas, but are better called high-altitude porters (HAPs).
The trekking agency will employ a local leader who is responsible for the day-to-day logistics on the trek. He is called a guide or sirdar. The guide will have local knowledge of the route and campsites. He will pay the staff, deal with local permits and officials, and generally run the show. The LO will deal with any military contacts (which are common in Pakistan).
During the trek members will either camp in tents or stay in lodges (called teahouses in Nepal). If you camp, you have your own kitchen to prepare meals. Food is usually bought in the teahouses if you trek in that style.
At Base Camp
What is Base Camp? It's a permanent camp that is usually placed at the highest point that the low-altitude porters or pack animals can safely reach. The altitude will vary depending on the peak and terrain, but the base camps for the highest peaks are usually sited at around 4500-5300m (say 15,000 to 17,000 feet). It's important not to site the camp above that as your body can't tolerate living above 5400m for long periods of time.
At Base Camp, members on the same permit generally share the same kitchen tent and staff. At Base Camp you’ll set up a large kitchen tent and dining tent. Members generally have their own private sleeping tent. The cooks will provide meals, hot water, and some snacks. The dining tents have tables and chairs and are generally quite civilized if not especially warm.
The cooks are of varying skill levels; getting a good cook is a key to success on the expedition. The better cooks can bake bread, make pancakes, and generally cater to westerners. The best cooks are excellent managers and are able to get things done.
The kitchen is constantly supplied by porters bringing up food and fuel. As a result, it's possible to have fresh mangos at Base Camp!
All Base Camps will have a toilet tent, which is about four feet by four feet square. A small pit is excavated in the dirt or glacier, and you squat just like the locals. A similar small tent is used for showers, using hot water provided by the kitchen. Clothes are washed with hot water as well. However, since the water is heated by kerosene hauled up on the backs of man or beast, it’s important not to over use hot water.
Climbing the Mountain
There are many different styles of climbing big mountains. Rather than explaining all of the possibilities, here are a series of questions you can ask.
- Is there a guide?
- Are high-altitude porters used to carry group or personal equipment?
- Is bottled oxygen used?
- Is the route prepared with fixed ropes by high-altitude porters?
In the more expensive Everest expeditions, the answer to all of these question is “yes.” Without getting into style issues here, this is the easiest approach to climbing a big mountain. Climbing without guides, without HAPs, oxygen, and fixed ropes is much more difficult. Remember that the term 'Sherpa' is generally used to mean high-altitude porter, but not all HAPs are ethnic Sherpas.
Your body takes several weeks to acclimatize before it can withstand the low levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. This is true even if you are using bottled oxygen. In addition, the big peaks can’t be climbed in a single day. So on a standard expedition, a series of camps will be established along the route to the summit. By moving up and down between Base Camp and these mountain camps, climbers can both acclimatize and carry the equipment and supplies needed higher on the mountain.
A camp is nothing more than one or more tents. These are stocked with food, fuel, oxygen, and other equipment. If you think about it, anything that needs to be carried to Camp 4 must first be carried to Camps 1, 2, and 3. If we have a total of 50 pounds of supplies to be carried to each of four camps, that means that you must carry 200 pounds to Camp 1, 150 pounds to Camp 2, 100 pounds to Camp 3, and 50 pounds to Camp 4. But it gets worse. Since you consume supplies every day so spend in a camp, more supplies need to be delivered to the lower camps. On Everest, each typical guided client needs nearly 40 lbs. of oxygen bottles carried up high.
Since the climbing route must be ascended and descended many times, fixed ropes are installed to aid the climbers. These are just ropes that are anchored into snow, ice, or rock. Using a mechanical ascender (generically called a jumar) which slides up the rope but grips it when you pull down, climbers are secured in case of a fall and can pull on the rope in very steep spots. Similarly, a friction device allows you to make a controlled slide down the rope (rappel) on descent. Fixed ropes and ladders can be used to bridge crevasses in the glacier. As a result of these ropes, it isn’t necessary to travel roped up to other climbers for safety.
Cooking at camps is usually done with canister stoves. These are small cartridges filled with propane and butane. They aren’t very efficient, but are easy to use and not messy. Water is usually obtained from snow or ice, and this takes a lot of fuel. You can eat whatever you are willing to carry (or have your porters carry).
Communications are quite straightforward these days. We carry satellite phones which are now about the size of an older, larger cell phone. With these we connect to one of two major systems, Thuraya or Iridium (there are others). Most of us use Thuraya these days. Calling home is not cheap, though; 85 cents to 1.50 per minute!
The computer can be connected to a satellite phone, or a DSL satellite modem. These are better for data transfer (pictures, etc). The DSL modems are usually left at Base Camp, and the sat phones can be used as high as you wish. Power for all of this stuff (and cameras, radios etc with rechargeable batteries) is supplied by solar panels, or some folks like generators (I think they should be prohibited in most circumstances).