The American Alpine Club has over 9,000 members worldwide and each of those members approaches climbing and time in the outdoors differently. For some it’s a career, for some a diversion, for others, an obsession. The Club’s membership spans boulderers, sport-climbers, hikers, skiers, trad-rats, scientists, big-wall aficionados, adventurers, ice-climbers, peak-baggers, explorers, and alpinists. It’s a big tent, but there are a lot of people in love with the mountains excited to fill that tent.
Telling the stories of our members is important to us because it helps the community understand who makes up that community. Member Ryan Minton wrote to us recently about a trip that he took to Mongolia.
We’ve all seen the photos—some tanned, buff mountaineer skillfully ascending a sharp ridgeline on a remote peak in some isolated part of the world, the name of which you likely had trouble pronouncing. His clothes are tattered, his rack dwindling, his rope frayed—but man, is he psyched! The allure of international expeditions is undeniable. Who wouldn’t love getting away from everything familiar and perhaps scoring a new route in one of many remote ranges around the world? Last year at this time I was anxiously drifting through the final days of the ski season in southwest Montana, anticipating my impending departure for the other side of the world and, predictably, a whole lotta culture shock. The destination was Western Mongolia, and our goal was to climb and ski as much unexplored terrain as we could. Sounds simple, right?
• Dirtbagging is cool and all, but don’t expect a trip to the other side of the world to flow as smoothly as bumming from crag to crag in the Western US. There are often permits, fees, language barriers, and travel restrictions. You might be a pro at bumming in America, but don’t expect the same welcome in the middle of China as you’d get from that friendly midwestern family hauling your ass across Colorado. If you’re heading to a relatively non-touristy destination (i.e. anything other than sport climbing in Thailand), do your homework before you go and line up a liaison or travel arrangements prior to departing. In our case, we paid a nominal fee and had an in-country contact set up permits and most of our travel. Our permits were waiting for us when we arrived, and travel was slick. In contrast, some friends in the country at the same time spent an exorbitant amount of money on cabs and waited weeks for their permits.
• Local custom is the name of the game whenever and wherever you are traveling. Unless it might come as a direct threat to your life (you’re more likely to get whacked by rockfall or an avalanche), jump right in and enjoy the experience of place. Sure, you might come as close as ever to having a heart attack after eating half a pound of sheep fat, but that local herder sitting next to you will admire your effort and will subsequently try to kill you with more vodka than you’ve ever consumed. He might even put you up for the night, which should have you feeling great about your dirtbagging skills. All in all, a win-win.
• Despite what I said about having your ducks in a row, at times you’re forced to leave some of it to chance. After months of planning, it still came down to finding a ride across the northern Gobi no more than 24 hours before we planned to depart Ulaanbaater. In the end, we waved our liaison goodbye and settled in for an unforgettable 100 hour journey across some of the most remote terrain on earth. Piled in a van with twelve other people, we sat three deep on the smallest backseat I’ve ever seen. Halfway across the desert, when our driver gave up on getting us to the mountains (citing vehicular issues), he pawned us off on a caravan of Kazakhs and there we were, tired with sore butts. At least the road conditions worsened. By the time we reached Olgii (our final destination before launching for the mountains) we were so tired we could hardly think straight. But, by chance, there we were.
• Keep on open mind regarding your proposed objectives. I foolishly thought we would be skiing steep corn off the summit of every peak in sight as we came closer and closer to the mountains. The reality? Lots of glacial melting and a low snow year combined to provide us with plenty of ice and little snow. We would have been better served bringing an ice rack and more than one rope. In the end, a few successful climbs and one good descent, and a solid reminder that expedition skiing (or climbing) isn’t really about the skiing.
I could go on, but you get the picture. After flailing my way through my first international expedition, I have grown wiser, stronger, and a little more adverse to goat milk and sheep meat. With that, I best of luck to future adventurers—may your travels be safe, fun, and kinda weird.
Part of Ryan’s team was funded by the AAC’s Mountaineering Fellowship Grant. Started in 1966, Mountaineering Fellowship Grants have long encouraged American climbers age 25 years and younger to go into remote areas and seek out climbs more difficult than they might ordinarily be able to do.
Dreaming of a trip? Check out the aforementioned Mountaineering Fellowship Grants or the brand-new-for-2012 Live Your Dream Grants, locally administered grants that support everyday climbers’ climbing ambitions—no professionals allowed!