High-altitude mountaineering is expensive. Heading on an expedition to one of the world’s highest peaks requires months of training, planning and packing.
As a result, no one can blame the people willing to invest their time and money into the adventure of a lifetime for wanting to know precisely where that money goes.
While almost every reputable guide provides a comprehensive list of what is and is not included in the price tag of their expedition (and if they don’t, be sure to ask in writing before putting down a deposit), very few break down exactly what this money is used for.
While China was enduring the most strict moments of its lockdown, Ed ‘Iggy’ Hannam, a Himalayan and Karakoram guide at Feeding the Rat Expeditions, was thinking about how his expeditions work and why they cost what they do.
“One of the few good things to come from the Covid-19 pandemic is the chance to sit down and really analyze the way trips work,” he said. “As a business running trips on the fringe of an established industry, we are always looking at more relevant models for what we do.”
“And part of this process has been a comparative cost analysis of how we sit with our peers and how the costs we have to pay sit in relation to other countries and industries,” Hannam added.
Hannam compared the cost of FTRE’s trips to the north side of K2 with the average of some of his competitors for trips to K2, Makalu and Kangchenjunga, etc., breaking down expeditions costs into six categories: transit, portage, permits and fees, staff, on-mountain equipment and accommodation and food.
To get the most accurate analysis, Hannam looked at standard expeditions to more remote destinations with minimal luxury and small groups of climbers paying into combined logistics, including portage and fixed lines together.
He excluded multi-peak and express expeditions and noted that competitor costs include supplemental oxygen while FTREs do not. Conversely, FTRE trip costs included mandatory translators, while competitor expeditions to destinations in Nepal did not.
He also kept the following variables constant:
- Cost: $45,000 to $55,000;
- Duration: 55 to 65 days;
- Guide: Western-led or qualified local-led;
- Group size: 4 to 6;
- Start and end point: Local city listed on the itinerary;
- Meals: To the start of climbing only.
“These are the raw costs every trip to an 8000-metre peak has to cover however it runs, almost all elements set by government and industry, the exception being on-mountain food,” Hannam said.
“They are arranged into the same basic expenditure categories all providers use for the sake of allocating budgets and working with the smaller businesses and individuals that provide the nuts and bolts like vehicles, hotels, portage, etc.,” he added.
Cost breakdown in brief
For expeditions to the north side of the Karakoram, transit takes up about 3 percent of the overall budget, compared to 1 percent for other Himalayan and Karakoram expeditions.
Transit includes the costs for all the flights and road travel from the starting point of the expeditions to the trailhead. The cost also includes luggage fees (where applicable) and driver wages.
“The north side of the Karakoram has the only access that doesn’t use flights,” Hannam said. “We find it interesting that for a small difference in cost in Xinjiang, the distance is either the same or much more than in other places yet requires no flights.”
“In Xinjiang, transport costs mean good vehicles on well-maintained toll roads with reliable schedules – both more efficient and probably the most world-friendly factor of the entire trip,” he added.
Hannam also points out that driving means there are no delays, as is sometimes the case when flying from Kathmandu to the nearest local airport for expeditions in Nepal.
Accommodation and food
The price for accommodation and food for expeditions in Xinjiang and Tibet represents 2 percent of the expedition cost compared to 3 percent for other Himalayan and Karakoram expeditions.
Hannam attributed the slightly lower costs in Xinjiang to less time spent in hotels and the FTRE policy of avoiding expensive hotel restaurants at the start and end of the trip.
“Despite still staying in good hotels with long histories among climbers (in some cases back to around 1900), the bulk of this cost category going into team food is easily where it is felt the most… simply because international variety is available at a better cost in China than elsewhere,” Hannam said.
The first significant discrepancy in where your money goes on a high-altitude expedition comes with portage costs. On the north side of the Karakoram, these comprise about 12 percent of an expedition cost compared to just 2 percent in Nepal, Pakistan and India.
“This category covers personal porters and a share in the general porters a company employs to get team equipment to basecamp,” Hannam said. “It includes regulated amounts for porters' equipment and meals but doesn’t cover the obligatory tips they rely on for their actual living, so actual costs are higher.”
He added that the reason for the fairly large disparity in prices comes down to far more stringent laws and a more regulated labour market in China.
“On the Chinese side of K2, camels and their herders are two to three-times more efficient for moving loads and are paid government set wages,” Hannam said.
“Not only do they receive a fair income for their work, this work helps to keep the culture around camel husbandry and caravanning alive that supports entire villages,” he added. “Like everywhere in Xinjiang, there is no tipping.”
Permits and fees
Permits and fees is the next expenditure category where there is a significant difference, representing 19 percent of costs on a northern Karakoram expedition and 33 percent for other Karokoram and Himlayan expeditions.
Hannam attributed this to lower fees charged by the Chinese government to climb the country’s highest peaks compared to neighbouring Nepal and India.
“As system-heavy as China’s authorities can be they are far behind other places when it comes to taking your dollar to climb high mountains – and what you get for that dollar is usually a lot more considering just how bespoke a trip to K2 and the north side of the Karakoram is,” he said.
“All trips include peak royalties and restricted area access, plus fees for things like the environment, sanitation, infrastructure and facility maintenance,” Hannam added.
Equipment costs on the peak comprise the second-largest expenditure on mountaineering expeditions to both the north side of the Karakoram and the south side of the range as well as the Himalayas, comprising 11 percent and 25 percent of total expedition costs, respectively.
Hannam said the main difference in costs comes down to supplemental oxygen, used by the vast majority of commercial guides in the Himalayas and Karakoram but not used by FTRE.
“This is the mountain-specific stuff with which you make your way up the slopes of the peak,” he said. “Supplementary oxygen and the obligatory system for managing it is a primary cost on trips that use it, and a big chunk also goes on contributing to all the tents, ropes, fuel and facilities you will use.”
“The actual gear used is effectively the same on both trips, the difference is that on other peaks, you pay contributions that cover both the hardware and the cost for rigging it all, whilst on the Chinese side of K2, teams do that themselves,” he added.
On almost every high-altitude expedition, the plurality (majority, in the case of FTRE) of an expedition costs goes to staff fees.
On the north side of the Karakoram, this figure is as high as 54 percent, compared to 25 percent for other Himalayan and south-side Karakoram expeditions.
“For Feeding the Rat Expeditions, this is the biggest chunk by far, and so it should be, like any good business model,” Hannam said. “This includes the wages and costs for the liaisons, the trip leaders, the translators [mandatory for Chinese expeditions] and the kitchen crew – the people who spend the season out there with you, weeks either side preparing and unpacking trips and who turn all the dials and tighten all the bolts to make literally everything happen.”
“We keep small teams so we can keep wages high because everybody is an expert in their field,” he added. “That the team receives well over double what the admin costs we feel is a healthy ratio.”
“That ratio elsewhere, we have reservations about because it shows an immensely top-heavy system that has little to show for improving efficiency, choosing to run on low wages and high bureaucracy instead,” Hannam continued.
Heading out on a high-altitude mountaineering expedition is an investment that hopefully pays dividends in terms of meeting new people, having a once-in-a-lifetime experience and learning something new about yourself.
“We think it’s important to view the balance of these costs out when choosing a trip because it shows how credible an industry is from a perspective of fairness, sustainability and resources,” Hannam said.
“The take away here is that in most places a lot of the money you pay is going to parts of the process that don’t do the climbing whilst the parts that do contribute to the climbing are getting disproportionately less,” he concluded.
Keep in mind that every expedition is run differently and the above comparison is an average of many trips from various sources and is not representative of any single guide or company.
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