How many pizzas (plus emails, tissues & plans A-Z) does it take to plan an expedition?

When we embarked on this project to blog about our expedition we all promised ourselves that we would try to be as honest as possible about the experience. This is largely because of a critique I feel is quite fairly levelled at social media, that it’s very useful to showcase successes but is rarely a fair representation ( perhaps inevitably so given that much social media use is for self- promotion). However, giving a more honest insight into our experiences throughout the planning & execution of this expedition is important to us, so here goes.

I’m writing this blog as current President of CUEX, and as such I’m clearly in favour of self-organised expeditions. I’m turning 20 in a few weeks’ time, so although I’ve been trying hard to gather experience in this field I’m certainly no seasoned old timer & I’m learning all the time. (Updating this article throughout this expedition is very possible!)

Another coffee driven meeting!

Another coffee driven meeting!

In terms of planning an expedition, from a cynical outsider perspective it might be easy to see it as a glorified jolly, and from the perspective of a potential participant as an unnecessary effort in the pursuit of a ‘simple’ adventure! Neither of these are the case: while I’ve found organising an expedition is an extremely time consuming activity, it’s more than worth the effort. The knowledge that everything you have accomplished on an expedition is down to the hard work of you & your team mates is pretty exceptional.  Perhaps bizarrely though, planning expeditions is best thought of as a logistical & HR challenge, and it can seem like there are real parallels with running a small business, especially when attempting to fundraise. I really enjoy these elements of the planning, though it’s quite ironic given that student expeditions are often perceived as some simplistic hippy-escapism.

My top piece of advice to people considering organising their own expeditions is to come up with an excellent concept. The project as a whole will eat up lots of personal time, and will be something you have to be able to ‘sell’ convincingly to potential sponsors, supporters and also to friends and family members who think you’ve gone crazy. It has to be an idea that is original, unique, interesting and something you can be truly passionate about. This is perhaps the most important part: when you start off organising an expedition, it will be just that, an ‘idea’, something that feels very intangible and pretty mad. Turning it into a lived reality is the fundamental difficulty in organising an expedition, and this is why the idea itself is particularly important.

The second most important part of expedition planning is also quite general, but it’s to bite the bullet, be gutsy and be ready to make mistakes or for things to go wrong. (This is where the pizzas, tissues & Plans A-Z come in). Committing to an adventurous project is inherently risky so it’s likely that lots will go wrong, whether or not it is avoidable or resolvable. All controllable factors can be planned for or rapidly adapted, hence the Plans A-Z, and being able to adapt constantly is as important in the planning phase as in the field. In terms of actually committing to such a project the most practical way to make the project a reality is to book your flights – since there’s nothing like a several hundred pound deposit to focus the mind. In our case, such knocks have been logistical, in the case of an FCO travel advice debacle, which was mistaken (on their part!) but resulted in some very sleepless nights and a bizarre episode of Twitter action. Financial problems have also cropped up, mainly in grant rejections, which are a kick in the teeth, especially when critique is levelled at the project itself. This has been the biggest hurdle for the team so far and resulted in the pictured pizza session. We continue to work through this and we’re convinced the project will come out stronger for it.

The third most important factor in organising an expedition is research.  All expeditions have to be adventurous, and to be adventurous there has to be an element of the unknown, be it destined for a far-flung place or doing a new or risky activity there. This being the case, there’ll always be a lot you can’t know, but doing your research is absolutely crucial and will make or break the trip – and it feeds into both coming up with a good concept & being able to adapt. Researching for an expedition is quite a lengthy process – Tripadvisor is probably going to be less useful here! In our case, we’ve received support & advice from individuals up and down the country and out to the US and India. Internet based research & reading is essential, but contacting knowledgeable individuals for specific advice is an unbeatable source of information. Spending hours firing off emails asking for help and support can feel a bit depressing, but we’ve regularly been surprised by the extremely helpful responses from individuals, and we’re really grateful for this. In most niche fields there are a small number of knowledgeable people involved and once we had reached the point when contacts were advising us to speak with people we were already in touch with, we knew we were on the right track. Getting local, in country advice is also an absolute necessity and our adviser and overall organiser Tanzin Norbu of Mountain Tribal Vision has helped us immeasurably.

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THE pizza planning session

Whilst these are my top three pieces of advice, the process of planning an expedition is a really tough one, and very much an endurance event. This year I’d tried hard to document the high and low points better, because I’d found in my previous expedition the trials and tribulations during the organising stage blended into one slightly stressful, confusing but exciting blur. This year the expedition has seen many much more tangible high points as well as some more notable blows, which is probably just a function of its greater scale. We’re really pleased with our progress though and are really excited about the steady steps we’ve made in turning our original idea into a reality this summer.

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