Picture above: Miles Smart, Americas youngest AMGA and UIAGM certified mountain Guide
The Light Philosophy
by Mark Newcomb (Courtesy Marmot)
“To travel light, think light”. There is an approach towards the mountains that lends itself to overkill, to a venture into the mountains as a military exercise with legions of porters and support personnel and stacks of gear and equipment and food as if you’re invading the mountains rather than visiting them. Then there’s the other approach, diametrically opposed to this one. This is the light approach. It involves nothing more than what you carry on your back.
A good many of us, it seems, have been duped by various forces and powers of authority into thinking that the towering peaks of the Greater Himalayas are accessible only by invasion, by large expeditions on a grand scale that provide most if not all of the sybaritic luxuries of civilization. Indeed this approach brings with it gobs of the very claustrophobia we seek to escape by our alpine sojourn. On such expeditions one is restricted, free only to go where the terrain will allow one’s massively laden entourage to follow. At the same time, gear manufacturers struggle to create light, functional gear that would allow us the freedom to pursue suprisingly serious and substantial mountaineering objectives unhindered by porter loads of gear and unburdened by needless accoutrements. But first, we must free our mind. And we must believe in our gear.
What’s the most you’ve ever paid for overweight baggage? If you haven’t been to Antarctica, where the cost of a standard expedition’s overweight baggage would generally purchase a fairly nice SUV, then the next worse country for raiding expeditioners pockets for overweight charges would be China. On a recent expedition, five of us spent close to $2,500 to get us and our heaps of gear across China to the hinterlands of Chinese Turkestan. It was money we might as well have thrown in a pile and torched, since it doesn’t seem to require any skin off the backs of the airline to heave a few extra bags onto a flight.
Even worse, turns out we used hardly half of the gear we schlepped through several airports in order to get it all halfway round the world. That particular trip had three distinct segments, each of which can easily be categorized according to its scale. The trip in general fell under the generic topping of “mountain exploration”, of which the famous British mountaineer and explorer Eric Shipton once wrote, “Mountain exploration is like cooking eggs. Quite often you set out to make an omelet and end up with scrambled eggs.” In the end, however, it matters little how much gear you take. It’s possible to make an omelet even with a minimum of gear.
Segment one was an effort to find, measure and climb an amazing natural rock arch visited by Shipton himself in the 1940’s. Our invasion on this leg required 24 porter loads of food, gear and equipment, massive yardage of fixed rope, anchors of all sorts, a private tent each, etc. etc. We got the job done, but at what cost?
Segment two was a quasi-exploratory trek, supported by five camels, two camel drivers, a cook and a guide. All we really accomplished was a good, long hike, but along the way, we sure lived large. Nice if you’re the type who enjoys six or seven different kinds of freshly stir-fried meat and vegetables nightly for dinner. Not so nice if you’re the type that enjoys actually getting somewhere in the mountains rather than travelling at the pace of a camel and only where a camel can safely travel.
Finally came segment three, which unexpectedly turned out to be me, myself and I, supported by no one else, with a backpack full of six days of food (dried fruit and nuts, some freeze-dried dinners, gruel for breakfast and instant coffee), a tent, a sleeping bag, a warm coat, an ice axe and some crampons. Period. Thus equipped, I ambled off into terrain officially closed to foreign visitation, heading towards a peak officially not open for climbing without an expensive permit and supported by the typical array of staff and equipment. The peak pushed 21,000 ft. in elevation. I had no map. I had no beta. Just head for that drainage, follow the glacier, attain the ridge, and meander along the ridge to the summit. Seemed like there should be water along the way. Maybe, maybe not.
For six glorious days I wandered about the area, following local herders’ goat paths at first, then, up in the alpine terrain, picking my route as I went, following no paths because there weren’t any. I attained the ridge, and the persistent snow showers that had dogged me to that point magically evaporated for a day allowing me to summit. Going out I crossed a high pass into an entirely separate glacier basin. I had no idea whether I could get out of the narrow gorge at its lower end or not. Turns out I could, and I made it to my rendezvous with my pick-up car six days after being dropped off right on time.
Indeed, with the right gear and the right attitude, I had taken the simplest of ingredients and turned out a totally worthy omelet. It’s the light philosophy, and it’s one more of us should take to heart.”