Choosing an expedition - some guidelines

After I was back from the Gobi, I had one of my closest friends come over to meet me. He is a veteran of high altitude expeditions, an A grader from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. If there was anyone I'd always listened to it was him. I was all excited about what I had just completed and was already moving on to my next. We got talking about long duration expeditions in general and I asked him about typical expeditions - the planning, leading, logistics, support. On popular request, captured below are snippets from our conversation. 

Hear about people leaving managers and not the company? Well, don't be surprised if it is the same for expeditions. Besides choosing an expedition, it is choosing who is leading it. Here are some guideline that my friend suggested to follow when you come down to the final choice between a couple of expeditions you like. Before you pick one, apply these criteria and choose wisely.

If the expedition leader considers team safety paramount, then by the time the expedition is underway, all the team members should have been through a briefing of possible scenarios they will be a part of, the safety response to those and demonstration of first aid procedures specific to the terrain they are travelling through. It cannot be left to the leader alone to manage the crisis. What if s/he is the affected party? A safety plan looks great on paper with phone numbers of people and standby services, hospitals, doctors—but none of these are within range of immediate help. The team HAS to have an idea of ‘what to do if’ kind of procedures. And demonstrating a mock up of these in the very environment has the maximum impact.

This can only happen if the team is being led by someone who has the experience to lead a team in the first place and who has the vision to foresee the difficulties that the team might encounter. Over ambitions statements have a tendency to fall flat on its face at the first sight of a malady. This, apart from being a sign of immaturity, also shows that safety is being taken very lightly by the leadership.

Promises made and expectations set before the expedition begins, have to be adhered to under all circumstances. If not, they have to be accompanied by plausible explanations and alternatives. This is the second most important action item for the expedition organizer.

The third most important the team leader can do during the expedition is continually show the team the bigger picture and encourage them. Every individual can make daily goals for themselves and try to achieve those. The idea of how these daily goals put together will look as a whole has to come from the person in charge. Not only is this motivating, because there is a sense of purpose, a journey to the goal, but the enormity of everyone’s individual achievement is understood.

A lot of people who claim to lead expeditions often are victims of their own insecurities and web of lies built up to maintain a certain reputation. They cannot defend the claims they have made when questioned and fall prey to prejudices, play favorites and love sycophants. This damages their reputation in the eyes of the team and the world at large. Then come the lies to protect previous lies, or telling opposite things to different parties to confuse them.  Eventually, the team realizes the leader’s worth and shows him/her their place. The team, through an individual with stronger will power or each member by themselves, begins to manage the expedition, takes decisions and decides the general strategy. One such expedition he knows about is the story of exactly this—the end of the team’s patience to bear with amateur planning, lies and false expectation setting. The team managed to enjoy their time with the natives and take in other sights, managed themselves and their wellbeing better and worked together to get to the end. All because they took things into their own hands from incapable hands.

Great and true expeditions steer clear of claims to ‘exploration’ of certain areas of the world and working for sustainability or being carbon neutral. If they do indeed make the claims, there is indisputable evidence to support it. There are now very few areas on the land mass that remain to be explored in the true sense. It is downright fancy to call oneself explorer, and then claim to ‘explore’ areas which are less popular just be virtue of seeing no or very little tourist activity or not being written about much. Using jet fuel to get to the locations, having gas guzzling support vehicles escort you as you go cannot make an expedition carbon neutral. My friend tells me that the world is filled with expeditions making fancy claims of “studying” the complex indigenous ecosystems, of cultural immersion, of low carbon footprint and responsible tourism. Another very popular expedition aim that goes unsubstantiated by far is to bridge the cultural divides between the natives and the exploring team. He feels that documenting the indigenous lives is another such frivolous and loosely worded aim, besides the now beaten-to-death topic of climate change and how we can learn to be responsible about it. Only if one of the expeditions that claims to have these among its raison d'etre, can prove it, it’ll be such a relief to the adventure community. If you see any of these claims being made for an expedition, make sure there is irrefutable evidence to back it up, else just have the expedition for the sake of the adventure. Nothing wrong with that. Read my friend, Al Humphreys' blog about his golden rules and you'll know what I mean.

One thing my friend swears by is to always plan ahead. Always, always. A true leader does not let day to day setbacks distract him from looking ahead. Nor does he ignore the small matters to not account for them in the larger scheme of things. A happy team is the one which knows exactly what they are doing, how they are doing, what is to be expected and what to do during the unexpected. Constant and universal communication, a point whose importance cannot be overstressed, is key— as much before the expedition as during. A poor leader reacts on the go and an even poorer one depends on others to take charge and sort out a solution. 

Not being in synch about decisions with the support staff and the team can prove costly in terms of loss of trust and harm the well being of some team members. Plan, visualize, communicate, improvise and repeat the cycle. Such leadership can be expected from individuals who have led team expeditions, have marked leadership traits or have been in decision making roles in their professional lives. It can hardly be expected of someone who, for instance, may have studied human sciences or has very briefly been a part of the armed forces. It is one thing altogether to take survival, or first aid courses and something else entirely to lead an expedition successfully. My friend has met several people who by virtue of being in rescue, emergency medicine, or bring a life guard think that they are prepared to lead. Such folks are highly mistaken. These courses teach those particular skills maybe, but not decision making or leadership. 

He further advises that, always check out who is leading your expedition by researching all you can about the person. If you find that the web is littered with pages after pages of varied claims about the same person, stir amply clear. If people have pasted vastly varied facts about themselves and equally assorted expedition statistics, it is time to ditch them. And finally, if records of past achievements suddenly go missing, you know what you need to do.

There, of course, will be other criteria as well, but these are the crucial few.

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