“We’re a couple of high-altitude junkies.” Pete Boardman
This is a follow up to last week’s post about choosing an 8000 metre peak expedition operator. In that post I offered up some pointers to help you make the right choice and listed some companies to climb with, but I didn’t recommend any particular operator. This is because we’re all different, and all the companies who operate on the 8000ers have their own ways of running an expedition. What’s right for one person may not be right for another.
In this week’s post, using the list of services I described last week as a template, I’m going to tell you who *my* preference is, and why I’ve done three out of four of my 8000m peak expeditions with the same company, Altitude Junkies. Bear in mind that what’s right for me may not necessarily be right for you, but by telling you my reasons for using them it will hopefully help you to make the right choice too.
Who are they?
Altitude Junkies is owned and founded by Phil Crampton, a former 8000m peak expedition leader with SummitClimb and Mountain Madness. With Jon Otto he helped to set up the Tibet Mountaineering Guide School in Lhasa to train native Tibetans in the skills they need to become Tibet’s equivalent of Sherpas, and he taught there for many years. Altitude Junkies aims to attract climbers “addicted to climbing the world’s highest mountains”, and usually runs expeditions to two or three 8000m peaks every year, including Everest.
I first heard about them from my friend and climbing partner Mark Dickson, who had been led by Phil on previous expeditions to Gasherbrum II in 2007 and Everest in 2008. The two of them convinced me to join the Junkies 2009 expedition to Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II after a drinking session at a bar called Delima’s in Kathmandu the previous year. Mark and I were leaving to climb Chulu Far East in the Annapurnas the following day. Phil was with Valerie Parkinson, who had just become the first British woman to reach the true summit of Manaslu with Altitude Junkies (for clarification of this claim see my post Spirit Mountain: my attempt on Manaslu), and was on his way to climb a nearby peak called Kangguru. By happy chance our expedition coincided with his for four days on the Annapurna Circuit trail.
Why did I join up for Gasherbrum? Well, reason number one was that I had a good reference from someone I trusted. I was also looking for a full service operator. Previous experience indicated that I climbed better having taken things as easy as possible prior to summit day, and that I would not be strong enough to climb an 8000er if I had to carry all my own kit up there and set up camp. I’m a cautious climber and with my limited experience to that date I also felt I needed back up to support me in the event of anything going wrong. Finally, I had spent time with Phil in Kathmandu and on the trail and he seemed like a decent chap. Although we didn’t get up either of the Gasherbrums it was a decision I wasn’t to regret, and I later summited both Manaslu and Everest with Altitude Junkies.
So there’s the preamble, and why I climbed with Altitude Junkies in the first place. But why are they my choice for the 8000ers, and why do I use them again and again? In last week’s post I provided a checklist of services to look for when choosing an 8000m peak operator. Not all of these services are appropriate for all people, and some are only appropriate for a few people, but the list should help you decide which are best for you. I’m going to use this list as a template to explain why Altitude Junkies are the best operator for me.
Logistics to and from the mountain
In Pakistan Altitude Junkies use the services of local operator Adventure Tours Pakistan (ATP) to provide the logistics into base camp, and therefore aren’t much different to other operators for this part of the expedition. Likewise in Tibet all teams have to use the services provided by the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA). In Nepal Altitude Junkies provide their own logistics, which I found to be reliable and comfortable for the trek into Manaslu.
In Kathmandu climbers stay in the Courtyard Hotel, conveniently located in the heart of Thamel. It’s a very small and comfortable family run hotel where you always feel like you’re among friends.
Base camp services
This is definitely an area where the Junkies excel, providing services at the luxury end of the market and far in excess of other operators in their price range. Clients have individual tents at Base Camp, and at Advanced Base Camp on Everest. Food is high quality with plenty of fresh produce, even on Manaslu where fresh meat is difficult to get hold of locally. The Nepali cooks perhaps don’t vary the food as much as operators who use western chefs, but if you’re happy with meal after meal of yak steak and chicken sizzler like I was, then you will eat well.
On both Manaslu and Everest we had two bathroom tents with hot shower, changing area, toilet cubicle and sink with hot running water. As I like to blog from base camp, good internet facilities are something I look for when booking an expedition. The comms tent has three laptops with BGAN/Inmarsat satellite internet connection at cost price (about $7 per MB on Manaslu). Unfortunately this didn’t work reliably at Base Camp on Everest’s north side due to the topography but there is 3G connectivity there and Phil is hoping to find a solution using China Telecom for 2013, which did work reliably on our team mate Grant’s personal laptop. There’s a base camp storage tent for storing kit, which we also used as a drying room. All the tents at base camp are carpeted, including the individual sleeping tents, which is a nice touch.
The highlight of base camp for me on a Junkies expedition is definitely Happy Hour. At 4pm every day we gather in the dining tent for red wine, cheese and Pringles. Even with my two hard-drinking climbing buddies Mark and Ian in the team there was enough beer and wine to last the expedition, though the team did get labelled as the “Drunkies”.
Support on the mountain
Having been on three expeditions with Altitude Junkies over a period of four years, I would say the support provided for the actual climbing has been improving every year. You’re expected to carry personal kit, a radio and a small medical kit, but there is a team of superstar Sherpas to do pretty much everything else. There are usually larger teams than the Junkies to do the rope fixing on the more commercial peaks, but they always have the capacity to fix ropes if they need to. On the Gasherbrums we were the only team with Sherpa support and ended up taking the lead with rope fixing.
Clients have six bottles of oxygen each on Everest, which is enough to use from around 7200m upwards, including to sleep on and two full bottles for summit day. On other 8000ers oxygen is an optional extra. I had two bottles for use on summit day on Manaslu.
A professional weather forecast is provided every day by Michael Fagin of West Coast Weather.
A major selling point of Altitude Junkies for me is leadership – to date Phil has led all their expeditions himself. There are higher profile expedition leaders in the world of high altitude mountaineering who are much better at marketing themselves, but he is one of its quiet unsung heroes. As strong as a Sherpa, he has led over 30 expeditions to 8000m peaks, but on many of them he didn’t summit because he was helping clients who were struggling further down the mountain. Unlike many high altitude leaders and guides he seems to be unconcerned with extending his own personal tally of summits, and a successful expedition for him is one where his clients and Sherpas reach the top and everyone gets down safely.
An incident on Manaslu illustrates this very well. At 7000m between Camps 3 and 4, my friend Mark realised his fingers had become frozen and he needed to descend. Rather than asking one of his Sherpas to escort him back to base camp Phil decided to descend with Mark himself to enable as many of his Sherpas as possible, many of whom had never climbed Manaslu before, to reach the summit the following day. He has summited twice himself and he knew how much it meant to his Sherpas to have Manaslu on their climbing CV. Having carried out this selfless act he then received some stick about it at a base camp party a couple of days later from a guide from another expedition team, who knew Phil could have summited easily and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t asked one of his Sherpas to descend with Mark instead. This incident speaks volumes about the mentality of many professional mountaineers, and is one of the reasons Phil is a breath of fresh air.
He has a very affable nature which makes him extremely client focused. There was an incident in the run up to my Everest expedition this year when I posted a blog about some problems I had with my oxygen apparatus on Manaslu. Within hours of publishing the post I received a detailed reply by email from Phil explaining what he thought must have happened, and what I could do to prevent it happening on Everest. I can’t think of another leader I’ve met anywhere who would show such meticulous attention to the individual needs of his clients.
Junkies expeditions are unguided, and clients are expected to climb on their own most of the time (ie. without a guide or Sherpas). On Gasherbrum this meant passing through an icefall which did not have fixed ropes, and we were therefore expected to know crevasse rescue techniques. However, while this means climbers should be highly experienced and already have the necessary skills for climbing the mountain – Phil will tell you he’s a facilitator and not a guide – the small-group, quite personal nature of Junkies expeditions means there is more time to help clients when they need advice. I feel I’ve learned more on Junkies expeditions than on ones where skills training has been provided (which is usually rudimentary and intended for clients with much less experience than I have). On Everest this year Phil taught me a technique for hand wrapping down a fixed rope which I’d not learned anywhere else and came in very useful later on.
On summit day all clients using oxygen have a personal Sherpa, who will carry the spare bottle for them and change it when the first bottle is running low.
The Altitude Junkies Manaslu itinerary has a big selling point by including a six day trek up the beautiful Budhi Gandaki valley at the start of the expedition. Most teams skip this by flying straight into Samagaon by helicopter and resting there for several days while they acclimatise, a missed opportunity if ever there was one. Likewise I was attracted by the Junkies itinerary for Gasherbrum in 2009 because it included permits for both Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II (although I soon realised G1 was a little out of my comfort zone).
Because Altitude Junkies expeditions are unguided they are more fastidious than most when it comes to client selection, and climbers without much experience at high altitude are likely to be rejected. There are also examples of clients who have proved to be high maintenance being rejected subsequently. This results in experienced, easygoing teams, many of whom are repeat bookers. On Everest this year four out of six of us had climbed Manaslu with the Junkies the previous year, and a fifth was on her fourth Junkies expedition.
I’m not a fan of big expedition teams, as they tend to be less friendly and stretch the facilities at base camp to an extent that means you end up not using some of the luxuries you’ve paid for. Group size on Junkies expeditions is usually kept to a maximum of eight clients. Having said that, their Manaslu expedition is now becoming extremely popular. There were ten of us last year, and this year they have so many they will be providing two expedition leaders for the first time. I selfishly lament this, as in some respects it means the Junkies have become a victim of their own success, and part of their philosophy as a small-group, friendly operator will inevitably become eroded. But you can’t keep great service a secret for long, and Phil certainly deserves all the custom he can get.
Accidents can happen to any operator, but Altitude Junkies can be proud of their safety record – they’ve never had a single fatality, client or staff, on any of their expeditions. When things go wrong you can be sure the team will move heaven and earth to ensure everybody gets down from the mountain safely. In 2010 one of their clients developed HACE at 8700m on Everest’s south side. Their sirdar Dorje brought him down to the Balcony at 8400m, where he collapsed and could go no further. Although Dorje could do nothing to get him moving again, he stayed with him until Phil arrived on his way down from the summit and gave him a dexamethasone injection. This brought him round, but the client then became belligerent, attacking them and throwing oxygen cylinders down the mountain. Because of his refusal to be assisted it took many people and help from other teams to get him down, but they eventually reached Camp 2 from where he was evacuated by helicopter. At the time it was one of the highest helicopter evacuations ever. In 2009 a client who was climbing unsupported and using Altitude Junkies for base camp only services, became disorientated on descent. Another epic rescue operation took place from just below the summit involving many Sherpas. Although the client required several amputations due to frostbite, he survived. Partly as a result of this episode Altitude Junkies no longer provide base camp only services.
Sherpas for Altitude Junkies seem to be among the happiest of any expedition operator. Phil doesn’t mind them having the odd drink during downtime because they always perform when they’re needed to. They are well paid, and tips and summit bonuses are included in the price of the trip. On the way down from Camp 2 on Everest this year one Sherpa from another team even tried to give Phil his business card, so keen was he to work for him!
All waste is packed up and carried out at the end of the expedition, the exception being human waste at the higher camps (I’m not aware of any operator who asks their clients to use poo bags during the climb, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t any). The toilets at base camp involve crapping into a drum, so this waste does get carried out. I’ve found there’s generally a strong ethic of environmental responsibility among Junkies teams, and I even remember an incident on Gasherbrum when two team members climbed down a crevasse to retrieve trash they’d seen another team dumping there.
What are their faults?
I’m conscious I’ve done a reasonable job of selling Altitude Junkies to you and that some of the above is starting to sound like a sales pitch. Of course, it’s not in my interests for too many people to start booking onto Junkies expeditions, as part of their attraction is the small team size and the fact that Phil leads all the expeditions himself.
So what can I do to convince you *not* to climb with them and use another operator instead? Many operators take pride in the fact they’re able to get relatively inexperienced clients to the summit of big mountains. Altitude Junkies is definitely not one of these operators, as their expeditions are unguided and they therefore expect clients to be relatively experienced and self-sufficient. I find their summit success ratios tend to be slightly lower than other operators because climbers have more autonomy to make their own decisions. Cautious clients are therefore left to their own devices and able to descend unsupported. Guided expeditions are more likely to encourage cautious clients to keep going because they prefer to keep the group together. If you are the sort of person who needs a lot of assistance and advice during a climb then you are best advised to use another operator.
Phil can sometimes be abrupt with clients he perceives to be high maintenance, but for me his biggest fault is that he sometimes expects clients to be as strong as he is (which is ridiculous – the only people as quick as Phil up a mountain are Sherpas!). This means his estimations of timing between camps can be wildly innaccurate (or perfectly accurate for him, just not for anyone else). I remember one of the most exhausting days I’ve ever had on a mountain was on Gasherbrum I, when Phil encouraged everyone to push on from Base Camp to Camp 2 in a single day, in my case against my better judgement. I arrived exhausted at 8pm in the evening and needed a rest day the following day to recover.
I’ve gone on far too long. I’ve written this partly as a thank you to Phil and the rest of the Altitude Junkies crew for three very happy expeditions, many great memories and two successful summits. I’m sure you get the idea, and by now will have made your own mind up whether they’re right for you.
Good luck whoever you climb with, and above all enjoy yourself and get down safely!