The Economics of Adventure Travel

Trekking in Nepal

When people ask about our next adventure, I know the real question they have is…how much does all this cost? I’ve been thinking about answering it for a long time, but perhaps it’s less awkward to do so in a blog post.

The internet is filled with blogs from twenty-somethings who grab their backpacks, buy rail passes, stay at youth hostels, and make their way around the world before embarking on a more sedate life to come, all apparently on the proverbial shoestring.

Backpacks are required – on the Speyside Way

But suppose that you’re well beyond your twenty-somethings, are well established on that more sedate life to come, and are now ready to do all the things that you didn’t do way back then. And while you may have more resources than you did years ago, you don’t want to spend every last bit of your savings on the possibility of making it up a 20,000 foot mountain somewhere — that is, unless you’re planning to retire on top of one.

So here are a few hints as to how we’ve managed over the last eight years to climb Kilimanjaro and go on a safari in Tanzania, climb Mt. Elbrus and visit Moscow, hike the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands, trek the Inca Trail in Peru and the Everest Base Camp Trail in Nepal, climb the Ecuadorian and Mexican Volcanoes (ok, we didn’t summit the Mexican one!), and make it to the top of Stok Kangri in India. And how we’re planning to trek through Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo, and Albania with family and friends this summer.

  • Consider using a U.K. based company. While we have had fantastic experiences with some well-known U.S. companies, the reality is they are more expensive. You’re typically paying for a U.S. guide to be with you at all times, and I’m sure they would argue that there are higher standards of accommodation, safety, etc etc. And while on our beginning climbs we certainly wanted that, as we became marginally more experienced, we felt a lot more confident.
  • Our last few trips have been with three different U.K. companies that utilize English-speaking guides local to the area. They have been great. In Nepal our guide was the son of a gurkha. And in India our guide was a native of Ladakh, the site of Stok Kangri. Nothing could beat making a special trip to Upper Pangboche to celebrate Buddha’s birthday at an ancient monastery with our Nepalese guide.
Monasteries on Buddha Day in Nepal
  • Be flexible about accommodations. You really don’t need a five star hotel everywhere you stay. With the less expensive companies, we’ve typically had a very nice hotel in whatever major city we’ve been in, followed by a mixture of small guesthouses, tea houses (well, that’s all there is on the Everest Base Camp Trail), and this summer’s trip to the Balkans promises whatever are called “home stays.” I think one’s on a farm.
Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu
Our accommodations in Ladakh
  • Don’t worry about the food. It’s fine. Quite frankly, I haven’t noticed any difference between the food on the more expensive trips than the less expensive. It’s really more a function of what the food is like in that location to begin with. On Mt. Elbrus, you’re stuck with whatever the cook decides to serve to the barrel dwellers that day regardless of who you’re traveling with. Some of the best food we ever had was in India, provided by a head cook and his two sons.
Barrel dining
  • Be willing to fly economy! I’ve travelled for 24 plus straight hours in economy class. On international flights there are free drinks. There are plenty of movies. It’s going to be miserable anyway, so you might as well wallow in misery in economy rather than spend thousands of extra dollars. (Ok, for those of you who are adept at frequent flyer points I do acknowledge there’s probably a better way, but I’ve never been able to make it work.
  • Gear is a one time cost. Admittedly, there’s a certain outlay to begin with, but the more you use it, the cheaper it is! HOWEVER, do not skimp on the cost of 1. hiking boots, 2. backpacks, and 3. hiking poles. You will be sorry if you do.

So how much money are we really talking about? Let’s get down to dollars and cents. Exclusive of international airfare, we paid less than $2500 each for a 12 day trip to India, inclusive of three nights at a hotel in Delhi, four plus nights at a hotel in Leh, domestic flights to and from Delhi, and trekking/camping with a team of 20 horses to lug our stuff around, not to mention a host of guides and cooks. As for Nepal, we paid less than $2500 per person for two weeks, inclusive of all lodging, food, and domestic flights (the famous flight into Lukla on the world’s shortest runway at 11,000 or so feet) for a private trip with J, M, and S, one main guide and two porters, arranged at dates of our convenience. And this summer? Eight days in the Balkans for $1,240 each.

It’s doable, both financially and practically. Don’t let the idea you can’t take two straight weeks off daunt you. I’m a lawyer and I connect via email for all but a few days on these trips, as I find that determining the world hasn’t ended without me actually reduces my stress. In the immortal words of Nike, just do it.

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The “What Nexts”

I’ve puzzled greatly what the next post topics should be post Elbrus. And as I am on what seems to be my never ending quest to climb stairs during the hamster wheel of my work day, I have come up with numerous topics, all of which are duly recorded on the notes section of my phone.

But I have resisted the urge for an in-depth examination of my sunburned lips (although an expose of the sunscreen industry may be forthcoming) – and I similarly am not going in the direction of laundry, dogs and calling the kids. Instead, I finally settled for some thoughts on what’s next.

The “what’s nexts” can come up any time – I’ve had it happen after a big case is finally over, after any milestone reached. But there’s something particularly difficult – yet exciting – about the what nexts after a climb.

For one thing, at age 53, there simply is no such thing as stopping the training. So that’s not a what next. Maybe I’m not lugging 23 pounds around on my back while climbing stairs at the moment, but if I stop climbing stairs altogether, I don’t think there’s any amount of time that could get me back to where I am. It’s like the Woody Allen line from Annie Hall – if a shark doesn’t keep moving forward it dies. OK, he was talking about relationships but you get the point.

But more than just that – there is a world of infinite possibility out there – tempered only by some reality of space, time, and physical ability. Time and space – I truly don’t see how, until I actually retire, I can take three weeks off work to climb Mt. Vinson in the Antarctic, for example. Two weeks is hard enough. As for physical ability – I have to recognize it probably is not within my being to carry 65 pounds and drag a 100 pound sled. Unless I quit my job, do Cross Fit everyday and invent some other form of training that presently doesn’t exist – that’s just out – which means Denali is too.

So – what next? There is Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Maybe trekking in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco? And I am still determined to summit Mt. Hood one of these days. Mt. Adams? And we are seriously discussing a trip with friends to Iceland in March. There has to be some fine climbing there.

I just want to use my ice axe again. Right now the most likely near term possibility may be a winter ascent of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. And maybe I can even convince the daughters to come along.

I’ll throw it open for comments – from the north, south, east or west. Which summit next?

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Looking Down the Barrel

Our multiple methods of transportation continued as our team moved camp from a nice hotel with electricity, toilets and running water to a compound consisting of six oil barrels converted to lodgings, several similarly converted cargo containers, and exactly three outhouses, one of which didn’t have a door. But it was more than made up for by the view from the outhouses (and the entire area) of mountain peaks and green valleys.

The Outhouse:

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The View From the Outhouse

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To get to the Barrels, we loaded our luggage, ourselves and food and water into a taxi to the starting point of a gondola that took us over the valley and up to the first level of ski runs. Then we unloaded and reloaded and did exactly the same thing for yet another gondola ride higher up. And finally, for a grand finale, we loaded one piece of luggage onto each chair of a single person chair lift – whose only safety feature was a metal bar that loosely swung in front of the rider as he or she soared hundreds of feet over the snow covered ground. The bar actually created more danger because it gave an illusion of slight security, encouraging the rider to lean forward to see the sights below.

Our team was assigned Barrel #3, altitude 3900 meters (12,795 ft.). My husband and I had the first two “beds,” which were cots on each side of the barrel with a bedspread and pillow. There was a half wall (no door) dividing this area from the remainder, in which there were four more cots, two on each side, where our teammates and guide slept. Cozy quarters, to say the least. Prior residents had stuck all sorts of things on the walls, ranging from guiding company stickers to car ads (a high-end Mercedes). Each day, at some unexpected moment, electricity would suddenly be turned on for a couple of hours.

Home sweet home: in the top picture our backs are to the entry way to the barrel. We are facing the other cots.

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Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all served in a converted cargo container a few feet from our barrel, although it was still treacherous to navigate the icy snow and broken concrete slabs between the barrel and container. Breakfast – oatmeal (and lots of it), unspecified sausage, cheese, bread, fruit, yoghurt. Lunch – soup, sausage, cheese, bread, and the ubiquitous cucumber and tomato salad. Dinner – more soup, entree of different stews and potatoes or pasta, and salad. Our cook’s name was Olga. At each meal, including breakfast, there was a bowl of chocolates.

The first day in the barrels we hiked with our Russian guide Alec – who seemed to know everyone on the mountain – up to the Diesel Hut for acclimatization. It’s a complex of three or four “buildings” and one stone hut that campers can rent. It was built on the site of the old Priut 11 hut that burned in 1998. Renters or not, everyone is allowed to go in. It took us 2 hours to reach that spot the first day. We had cut that down to 45 minutes by day 3. Tells you something about the body making more red blood cells at altitude.

The second day we hiked one level further, up to the Pastukhov Rocks, at about 4700 meters (15,420 ft.). By now we were feeling much more adept with our crampons, plastic boots, and poles. The two members of our team who were going to ski down Elbrus, in the meantime, were practicing skiing and “skinning” up the mountain.

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All was going smoothly until the dread zipper problem reared its ugly head again. To understand this paragraph fully, you must read the earlier entry, Gear Check #2 or How to Break Your Equipment Before You Start. Just as we were about to leave for the Pastukhov Rocks, the side zipper pull on my oh so expensive hard shell, full side zippered pants separated itself from the zipper yet again. Our resourceful guide safety pinned the offending area together, but it wasn’t enough to survive a crash and burn slip and fall on the snow. There’s a wonderful photo of me (that shall not be posted here) having a Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction moment on the mountain. Fortunately I was wearing long underwear. Later that night our guide was able to fix the zipper – which required the use of pliers from his ski repair kit – but I was under strict instructions not to touch those side zippers again.

Day 3 in the barrels was supposed to be a rest day with some skills training. We spent an hour or so in the morning just below the Diesel Hut working on self arrest, footwork, what it’s like to be roped, and how to use an ice axe. Finally getting to use all the gear, the acquisition of which had consumed so much time, money and soul (at least in the part of my husband). I found I actually remembered some of the lessons from our unsuccessful Mt. Hood attempt. We spent a leisurely rest of the day trying to sleep, reading, etc. By now the barrel was starting to feel like home.

Although theoretically the two days for the summit attempts were days 4 and 5, everything in the mountains is about change. Because the weather looked good for Monday night into Tuesday morning, our guide made the decision we should attempt the summit a day early, and have an extra day in the Valley.

Monday night we had a huge 5 pm dinner of chicken and pasta. Although I was pretty well acclimatized by then I had lost my appetite and had to force myself to eat. We had spent much of the day packing our packs for summit day, no easy feat, and were supposed to be ready for a 1:15 am wake up call to have breakfast and get on yet another mode of transportation – a snowcat – that would take us to the Pastukhov at 3 am. By 7 pm we were all in bed, headlamps turned off, trying to sleep.

Life in the Baksan Valley

After planes, trains and automobiles – or rather, van, Aeroflot jet, van – and 12 hours of traveling we made it to the small village of Cheget. The three hour drive from Mineralye Vody to Cheget was fascinating: transitioning from pastures and fields to the rugged Caucasus Mountains. As we neared the mountains, the villages became much more middle eastern in appearance – wide gates fronting compounds of small houses. The van driver spent a lot of time dodging the many cattle who preferred standing in the road to the fields.

In sharp contrast to these villages, which appeared not to have changed in any significant way for hundreds of year, we drove through a very small town that catapulted us forward to the Soviet era. Despite the vast surrounding land, its main street was lined with five story communal apartment buildings in varying states of poor repair. Lots of empty factory buildings with the profile of the mountains in the background. Common green areas apparently designed to reduce the wild landscape into safe homogenized parks to fit the needs of generic human beings. The attempt to force uniformity onto this wild landscape wholly unsuccessful. I managed to upload a photo below – but it was taken out of the van window and doesn’t quite capture it.

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We then came to some sort of border, which we drove straight through, but one car had been detained and the driver was being questioned. Just on the other side of the border was a tank.

We are staying at the very nice Hotel Povorot. It’s at the edge of Cheget, and about 10 minutes from Terskol. Both are small villages that cater to skiers, climbers and hikers. It’s not ski season right now, and I suspect the villages are more lively then.

Our team consists of five climbers: one lawyer, two professors, and two investment bankers. We have one US guide and a Russian guide, an older gentleman who is said to have climbed Elbrus 200 times. As I suspected, I am the only woman. Fortunately everyone in our group has a good sense of humor!

On day one we climbed Mt. Cheget, about 11,000 feet, as our first acclimatization hike. There was a fair degree of scrambling and it was steep in places. There’s a fast group and a slow group and my husband and I are squarely in the middle of the slow group (except for downhill where I should be in a middle group). Scenery is spectacular – craggy, snow capped mountains, waterfalls. At one point we heard a roar and it wasn’t a tornado as we Floridians would assume – it was an avalanche on a mountain across the valley. It looked like a train of snow plummeting down the side of the mountain.

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Today was another acclimatization hike up to the observatory, about 10,000 feet. Instead of snow and glacier, this trail took us by fields of wildflowers – pinks, purples, blues, yellows and a white flower made of multiple small petals like lace, whose buds look like broccoli. I tried to post more photos but the ones above are all the wifi here can apparently handle, so they will have to wait.

Tomorrow we leave for the barrel huts at 12000 feet up Mt. Elbrus to prepare for our summit attempt. Probably no more posts until we are back down some time early next week.

Now I must go and pack/repack yet again. I feel I have been packing and repacking for weeks, but I guess that’s the essence of steps to stairs to summits!