A day in the life of Northabout 4


Of Sailors and Climbers            27/08/01          Frank Nugent

In the course of this expedition many comparisons and differences have been discussed regarding aspects of climbing and sailing expeditions.  I think they are worth capturing and perhaps sharing with those who climb and sail, and as an exploration of the nature of both activities.  Issues that arise are the level of athleticism required, the extent that individual needs can be met, teamwork, leadership and organisational issues, food limitations and scope, levels of comfort, skill and knowledge levels required to participate, technology, responsibility and risk management for each individual, cost of involvement in activity, commitment required, the effects of altitude, remoteness, and last but not least the opportunities for socialising. 

So as an experienced expedition mountaineer on my second polar voyage, I will stick my neck out and share my observations.  The nature of sailing and climbing are different, largely due to a single capital item, the boat.  A boat like Northabout and its equipment could cost up to 300, 000.  This immediately poses the question, who? owns the boat and indeed who owns the expedition ?  A mountaineering expedition also needs equipment, and specialist clothing, all of which are re-saleable afterwards, and few in any single item costing more than 1,000.  A major mountaineering objective can be climbed by a small number of people without a major resource such as a motor Yacht, the peak fee can be the most expensive item perhaps needing a subsidy of sponsorship to fund.  Sailing expeditions on the other hand, require this major resource, the boat, which needs to be got in to shape and maintained before and after the expedition.   

Any group of climbers can organise a climbing expedition without the need for major group resource.  Tents usually constitute the most expensive resources, limiting gear and baggage also reduces travel costs so most climbers over time accumulate good lightweight gear, purchasing consumables as far as possible, closer to the climbing location.  Expedition climbing is expensive, but is within the range of a committed individual to participate, by purchasing most of their requirement over a number of seasons.  Climbers are by nature mostly anarchistic, most are waged, whereas sailors need to associate with a craft owner, who owns and covers the cost of maintaining a boat at a mooring or marina or become part of a group prepared to jointly purchase or build a boat for an expedition or to share the above costs (this was the Northabout approach).   They tend to be salaried or self employed or professional people.  The person/s who control the boat, become de-facto leader of an expedition, unless they delegate the role to another.  Mountaineering expeditions are usually organised by peer groups of climbers, leadership models vary; the leaders are usually prime movers with the necessary organisational skills to plan and execute a climb. 

Mountaineering is an athletic activity, which is physically very demanding, requiring strength and stamina, and also a range of skills and knowledge.  Each participating climber must be capable of being self-sufficient, on a high altitude trip, on steep rock, ice or mixed ground.  Sailors also need to be competent, particularly in relation to navigation and sailing theory and practice.  Whereas climbers work hard all day on a route, sometimes very sustained, sailing activities come in short frantic bursts.  Sail up or sail down, reefing, trimming sails, rope handling, responding to the effects of weather, wind and course.  At the end of a long days climbing one usually got to secure a safe place for a tent or bivvy, cook your meal and prepare sufficient drinks from snow usually from freeze dried preparations.  I have lost considerable body weight from sustained activity on two expeditions.  On Northabout, I am getting fat, its great, for this is one of the main advantages of sailing over climbing expeditions.  Everything, a climber eats on the mountain, must be carried up by him/her, food, fuel, stove and utensils.  Navigation and route finding are important skills for a mountaineer for their own safety, it involves map and compass and interpreting route descriptions.  In sailing, navigational aids are now high tech, with a much more complex and technical array of technology and equipment used such as GPS, radar, depth finders and auto-pilots, and of course the radio used in the day to day operation of an expedition boat.  In a sustained storm, of course the stamina of sailors are tested, and the quality of the leadership and teamwork is tested.  Because there is a responsibility and the safety of your own boat and the crew to consider, and to other shipping, this level of organisation and equipment is not only desirable but essential to cope with factors such as fog, tides, currents, being blown on to a lee shore; shallows and rocks can also have serious consequences. 

Sailing a vessel needs a formal leadership structure and it is here I think that contemporary climbing and sailing differ in approach.  Most climbing trips are peer based with route decisions being made by the lead climber of a particular rope, but a ship always has to have a skipper, and on long voyages each watches will include competent navigators and helmsman to navigate the agreed passage route.  Socialisation is also very different, climbers after eight to ten weeks in the mountains will dream and talk about food and drink and a shower.  Sailors are looking to the next port, no more than 4 or five weeks for example for an Atlantic crossing.  They can bring nice jeans and sweaters.  Climbers are usually wearing their boots and mountain clothes as the rucsac limits the scope. 

In conclusion, a sailors life is more organised, they have more scope for food and socialisation, and higher comfort levels.  The buzz and excitement comes in short sharp blasts where one has to be decisive, and effective with responsibility not only for self, but for your whole crew.  High altitude climbing, is hard, physically demanding over a long period and requires patience, stamina and an often frugal lifestyle.  The buzz and excitement comes in overcoming technical and physical problems over longer periods usually in the company of one other person.  Responsibility is mostly personal, with the individual capable of deciding the level of risk to be taken commensurate to their ability.   

This discourse, I hope will be responded to by others who have climbed or sailed who may agree or disagree with my presentation.  I lastly, would like to make it clear that I enjoy both activities, which both offer challenges to the human spirit and bring us to wild, wonderful places with the best and worst of people.  It is the journey, not the destination, which is ever the most important.  FN

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