Why Your Next Expedition Should Be Guided

20060921_everest_2_0058There is an undeniably romantic quality about being alone in nature. Reality shows like “Survivor Man” and “Man vs Wild” have elevated the solo outdoorsman to rock star status; climbers like Alex Honnold demonstrate the breathtaking beauty and present-ness that is free climbing massive rock faces; a solo swimmer crosses the English Channel and a solo sailer circumnavigates the globe in a bathtub boat. We glorify those who take up the quest without support or guidance and only their training and wits to keep them alive.

The cost of all this is a sense of “cheating” when it comes to hiring an outfitter or company to assist in an expedition. I don’t know if this is more of an American thing — I tend to hear it less from Europeans, for example — but there are so many benefits to engaging a local expert that it’s something you may want to consider seriously for your next big expedition.

Here’s what you’ll be getting:

Logistics & Travel

There are companies that will do everything from handling your international flight, securing your visa and permits and getting you from the airport to your accommodations to the trailhead, etc. It does not lessen your achievement to get a ride to your hotel.

Access

For some expeditions, guides are almost the only way in. For some trips, working with a guide is the best way to obtain necessary permits without months (or years) of wrangling with the local bureaucracy. And let’s be honest, a local who spends 365 days a year climbing, trekking or skiing in a mountain range has an infinitely better idea of what aspects, elevation or areas are in good condition on any given day. If you only have a week, sometimes its better to spend it getting the goods than trying to figure out how to navigate the region.

Three Needs

With the prospect of tackling a 8,000 meter peak renting space in your mind, it’s a huge relief to know that your food and shelter is taken care of. A “full service” base camp package will handle the following details for you:

  • Tent
  • Food (which can include mid-day snacks)
  • Bathroom Facilities (yes, hot showers at base camps do exist)
  • Support

    High output adventures like mountain climbing require a good deal of experience and a great deal of energy expenditure. A quality outfitter can stop the gap in the former and address the latter by handling things like rope fixing, porterage of gear and supplying oxygen for high altitude ascents.

    Safety & Communications

    This, in my opinion, is the biggie. I’ve brought up safety steps in a past post, and I know first-hand some of the dangers that can strike even the most prepared traveler and adventurer. When you hire a guide or expedition company, you’re not just getting a hot meal and a dry bag. With the right group, you’re getting a med kit, emergency kit, plus a line of communication (and the equipment) to the outside world. If they’re really good, they’ll also know how to handle an emergency situation, like altitude sickness or a dealing with a broken bone on the side of a mountain.

    Yes, all this comes at a cost. A real, monetary cost. But better to have achieved the goal — and come home alive and intact — than the alternative.

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    5 Responses to “Why Your Next Expedition Should Be Guided”

    1. Damien Gildea Says:

      Hi Jimmy,

      I think it might be more helpful to make a distinction between ‘guided’, as being guided on the mountain by a paid guide, and just having the logistics up to BC taken care of by a local company - which is what most people do in the Himalaya/Karakoram anyway. There is a big difference between the two and lumping them all in under ‘guided’ is misleading.

      I’d be interested to know what expeditions you feel are only possible with guides? I can think of some rmote areas where local guides are certainly needed, or at least helpful, to reach the mountain but I can’t think of anywhere that requires an actual guide as part of a ‘full service’ expedition package as the only way to attempt the mountain.

      I would certainly recommend a local guide for things like heliskiing or mountain ski-touring where snow conditions are variable and local knowledge of recent / seasonal changes is good - e.g. the Haute Route, Rockies ice, etc - but those are not expeditions.

      I’ve seen plenty of guided groups exercising poor decisions and behaviour on mountains because, for example:
      - guided trips are crammed into client-friendly timeframes which are rarely mountain/weather-friendly
      - guided groups tend to follow each other and do what others do, which can be dangerous
      - guided groups put together strangers of vastly differing experience and ability
      - guided groups go to popular mountains where the presence of so many other groups of varying ability adds an additional human element that can endanger or hinder your own group
      - maybe the guides are no good, even if the company has a good reputation

      I can think of lots of reasons why someone’s next expedition should not be guided ;-)

      cheers,
      Damien

    2. Andrew Skurka Says:

      You brought it up a few times, but never outright — a guide can be a very good investment, as a way to both avoid unnecessary costs and to save clients time, which is important for those who find it easier to make money than to find free time. In my line of work, beginner backpackers typically spend hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars on stuff they think they need, and then waste a few years of trips by making a bunch of rookie mistakes. Unlike mountaineers, thankfully backpackers aren’t likely to die as a result. Long term, it’d be more economical for them to pay a pro for their insights.

    3. Kerry Says:

      I’ve seen you in films at Banff/ EOFT and have really enjoyed them, just happened across this article today while looking for interesting talk on adventure travel and expeditions in remote places like those we run at Secret Compass. Great stuff, it is so important to match the skill levels with the task in hand too, the whole notion/ package itself can often be ‘made easier’ by the experts, but at the end of the day the person/ group needs to have the skills themselves to ultimately succeed…Thanks for this insight Jimmy, Kerry.

    4. Clay Hulsizer Says:

      hehe fav’d. Keeping this for future reference thanks heaps man.

    5. Garrett Madison Says:

      Great blog post Jimmy! I especially appreciate your line:

      “Yes, all this comes at a cost. A real, monetary cost. But better to have achieved the goal — and come home alive and intact — than the alternative.”

      I see the “alternative” every year, and it saddens me to know that it is often preventable.

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