Sociology of Adventure Teams: We try to investigate the roles played by the different members in mountaineering expeditions.

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Though the scope of this study is well defined by the topic, the researcher must further clarify the scope. The researcher intends to solely analyse the sociology of mountaineering expeditions, although the term 'small, temporary and isolated societies' could include several other ventures such as voyages, trips to the moon, exploratory missions to remote regions and even 'treks' , which is an activity which can introduce a novice to the world of mountaineering. This is because the inclusion of various other forms of TSIS's will lead to false generalizations. Further, due to the diverse nature of TSIS's, some comparisons just cannot be made, because it will be akin to comparing apples and oranges.

We begin by asking, what is a mountaineering expedition? A mountaineering expedition is an attempt, by an individual or a group of individuals, to reach a certain point in a mountainous region (most often the peak of a particular mountain), using a set of informal rules regarding the techniques to be applied.

It is very important to note that there are certain informal rules to address the method in which the objective is to be met because, per se, trying to reach the summit of a mountain can be done in many different ways of varying difficulty but very often the challenge is to reach the summit by increasing the amount of difficulty by either reducing the amount equipment that is used, changing the style of climbing or going 'solo'. Another important aspect of mountaineering expeditions are that they cannot be done in a day. They involve a slow and steady movement up onto mountains, taking some days, before the summit can be reached. They necessarily involve the gradual setting up of camps on the mountain, and, almost always, the setting up of a 'base camp' at the foot of the mountain, which is the headquarters of the entire effort. Loads, including food and equipment, are then 'ferried' from the lower camps to the higher camps, after which an attempt onto the summit is made from the highest camp.

Why climb? This is one of the questions that have been asked very often, not only by people who do not climb, but also by people who do. George Mallory, one of the first mountaineers to come very close to conquering Everest in the 1930s , was asked why he wanted to climb Everest. His reply: "Because it's there." However, the question has been answered in a much more comprehensive manner by several mountaineers over the years. Mountaineering is certainly, at one level, a way of gratifying the ego. It is the sort of gratification that men over the ages have got by 'conquering nature'. However, it does not end there. Somewhere in the mountains, one realises the minuteness of oneself in the grand scale of things. One realises the importance of being one with nature, the importance of being in harmony, of self-actualisation. Very often, almost always, there is no real incentive to reach a peak. Reaching the summit does not yield any tangible returns whatsoever apart from the satisfaction of the ego, which is anyway rendered useless after some days in the mountains. Thus, climbing becomes an example of work for the sake of working, and nothing else. This is what gives the kick in mountaineering. Therefore, after the ego has become void, mountaineering is a very holistic activity. Another explanation to the joy of mountaineering has been found in the inherently dangerous nature of the activity. This is similar to the explanations for the enjoyment of other extreme sports such as racing, bull-fighting, etc.

Nature and Scope

This paper shall examine the various processes, functions and characteristics of the teams formed for the purpose of a mountaineering expedition, as well as the formation of the team itself, because the team cannot be analysed until its source is analysed.

The paper is totally isolated from the question of whether and why these teams achieve their objective.


This paper will deal with the following research questions:

* What are the characteristics of the groups from which the idea and the team for an expedition evolve?

* What are the functions played by the different members of these societies, either consciously or sub-consciously?

* What are the circumstances that lead to bitter divisions, if any, in these teams?

Resources and Research Methodology

To the best of the researcher's knowledge, there is almost no literature available on the subject. However, several books on mountaineering address issues tangential to the scope of this paper.

It must be noted that several leading mountaineers have by transferring the insights that they have gained on expeditions and become consultants for firms, especially in the field of human resource development. The researcher has interviewed several persons who have been in the field. Many of them now work as consultants on human resource development. One of them has been associated with teaching the ideas that he has got to school children in order to help them improve their marks as well as their lives.

The researcher has himself been a part of the world of mountaineering for a considerable period of time and has observed at first hand the groups that he has now analysed.



A person is introduced always, at first, to the outdoors in general and not to mountaineering specifically. It is through some friends or the family that a person gets introduced to the world of the outdoors. A person's first experience in the outdoors is something as simple as a trek or a picnic. This is when he discovers that there are people who do the things that he sees at the movies and on TV. If he gains interest in the things that these people are doing, he tries it under the supervision of these persons. Slowly, he becomes a part of their group. This is rather typical of the way in which a person gets introduced to several hobby groups.

The question which arises is, what does a mountaineering or climbing community do when it is not in the mountains on an expedition? The members of a mountaineering community have all joined these specific interests after first joining a group that goes into the outdoors every once in a while. This is exactly what a mountaineering community does. The members of this community, when not on an expedition, keep venturing into the outdoors for durations such as a day or two in order to have a nice time. This is where they meet each other and talk of their dreams, hopes and aspirations, apart from having a good time. Thus, in the normal course of time, the mountaineering community is fused with the larger outdoor community as such. This is not to say that they are not a separate community. Generally, the outdoor community is stratified on the basis of the degree of involvement in the outdoors and the skill level. Mountaineers therefore form the crème de la crème of this community, while the people who go for a weekend trek once in a year are on the margins. The two can rarely meet and remain comfortable with each other in the outdoors, and there is a tendency for people of a certain degree of commitment to the outdoors to stay together. Further, several mountaineers are actively involved in training to keep themselves fit for expeditions, which means that the sort of recreation that they indulge in is not feasible for many others. What also must be realised is that mountaineers live a very complicated life because they cannot always be in the mountains for doing what they dream of, but they spend a lot of time training for the real thing. It is a life that requires a lot of commitment.

Thus, in the mind of a mountaineer, there are distinct circles in which the members of the community fall. One is the very close circle, with whom he will go on expeditions some day and the other is the outer circle comprising of the other members of the community.

At one point of time, some mountaineer finds a suitable goal to achieve. He finds a particular peak and a particular route which will be a suitable challenge for him and his friends given their abilities and their resources. After finding this challenge, he conveys the idea to his inner circle. The response is gauged and several ideas fail at this point. However, if the idea catches on, then the process begins. Further research is conducted on the possible target, which is the next step. If the idea is still held viable, then things become more formal. The core group, which has been examining the idea for so long, starts to now formally discuss the matter in order to decide and ascertain several things such as the members that will go into the operation, the exact steps that must be taken, etc. The idea is the mooted to a larger group, in order to get more members if required. A 'leader' is agreed upon. This is a very important part because the leader has a lot of responsibility on the field and also on paper. The regulations governing mountaineering in several countries (including India) always recognise the leader and confer on him specific responsibilities. The leader is either consensually agreed upon, by choosing a person who is very experienced as well as informed about the various aspects of mountaineering, or the self- appointed (and mutually agreed upon) leader is the person who mooted the idea in the first place.

The group thus formed now starts going out together for small trips in the outdoors in order to improve their co-ordination. The team members must understand each other rather well in order to become a cohesive unit. This is simply essential in mountaineering, because what is at stake is the life of every member. Further, concrete steps are taken in order to go on the expedition. Very often, fund raising is a major job. We will not, however, go into those details. Further, permission has to be sought very often from the authorities concerned. At this point, it is very important that the expectations of every team member and their tasks are more or less cut out to them. Some novices are also taken onboard. This chapter more or less sums up the process of the formation of an expedition team.



The researcher shall briefly summarise the hierarchical structure of an expedition team before proceeding to explain it.


(Experienced as well as technically competent)


(All rather experienced and skilled)


(Ordinary, may be aspiring to senior membership, rather skilled, might be very skilled but not experienced)


1) The leader: The leader plays a very important role in the entire expedition. The leader has to be a hands-on administrator and makes almost every decision on the expedition, however minor it may be. One of the reasons is that because the expedition team is rather small, giving the leader several responsibilities does not overtly increase his workload. The other reason is that the leader is overwhelmingly the biggest authority in most expeditions: his level of experience is generally unparalleled. The leader is an integral part of the decision making process right from the origination of the expedition and even jobs such as the buying of rations and equipment, the arrangement of transport and the procurement of permits is done by some team member with explicit sanction from the leader or by his order. On the expedition, such a control continues and everything from the decisions regarding the progress onto the peak to the problem of what to cook for dinner is referred to the leader. However, it must be mentioned that the leader almost always takes into account the opinion of the team members, especially the senior team members. All the same, the say of the leader in any decision is final and binding. This is well understood by each and every team member. It is essential because the decisions taken can have an impact on the life of every team member. Further, if the leader is disobeyed in small matters, it dilutes his perceived authority and causes more problems in other decisions. Such a feature makes it important that every team member fully accepts the leadership of a particular individual before embarking on an expedition itself. The specific functions that a leader does perform are the management of formalities and interaction with the authorities concerned, the management of rations and equipment and the making of decisions as to which member of the expedition will be in what position on the mountain at a given point of time . The leader also has the important task of maintaining the confidence of the team members. As the leader is highly experienced, everyone's confidence rests on the leader.

2) Senior members: The senior members of an expedition are the members who most probably reach the summit. These senior members are the very core of an expedition. Most often, they are the members, if not the leader, who got the idea of an expedition in the first place and they are the ones most committed to the success of the expedition. These members have very good technical and physical abilities and are rather experienced. These are the members who do most of the tasks of the expedition, such as moving up the mountain, setting up camps on the mountain and laying down the entire logistical base for the final attempt to reach the summit of the mountain. They are the heart and soul of the expedition and for the climbing community; they are the ones who really make the difference. The senior members are also responsible for decision making when the leader is not around. They also advice the leader on several decisions. There is a possibility of power struggles arising amongst the senior members in an expedition, if they are not handled properly by the leader.

This category will also include 'deputy leaders', who are seldom found. Deputy leaders are some experienced senior members who do not do the real work of the expedition, but come along with the expedition to render moral support and are involved in helping the leader with his administrative functions.

3) Members: The members of an expedition that the researcher has referred to are the persons on an expedition who are equally involved in the climbing, but are junior to the senior members because of a lack of experience and /or technical ability. They work as hard as the senior members in order to ensure the success of the expedition and are involved in similar operations such as moving up the mountain, setting up camps, etc but their lack of ability restricts them from proceeding up the mountain and reaching the summit. In this category also rest 'wannabe' senior members, who would aspire to reach the summit and think of the expedition as a method of challenging and asserting their abilities. The members are also entrusted with jobs such as the cleaning up of tents, vessels, etc, cooking, and generally assisting the leader. These jobs are entrusted to these members because they cannot do some jobs that the senior members do, such as setting up of routes on risky sections of the mountains, making difficult progress, especially at high altitudes, etc.

4) Porters and Apprentice Members: The porters are paid labour on an expedition. They are mostly locals hired to carry loads up to the base camp. The members referred to as 'apprentices' are the nouveaux who have minimal amounts of experience and skill. They are generally very new to the field of mountaineering and the entire objective of bringing them along is to give them more experience. They are also the members entrusted with a lot of small but important tasks, such as cleaning and maintenance of equipment, helping with the cooking, etc. These members often come only to enjoy the walk up to the base camp and be in nature with their friends.



The author would like to briefly lay down the distinct reasons that might lead to conflicts on expeditions and then elaborate on each one of them.

The nature of expeditions.

Individual ambition.

Petty politics.



The nature of expeditions: Generally, on an expedition, the number of team members can vary from 1 to around 50. However, the average team includes at least 10 members. It is very rare to find each and every team member reaching the summit. That is achieved by a much smaller number, varying upon the conditions in that time and space. Thus, though the entire team is equally responsible for the success of the venture, only some actually get the tangible distinction of being a 'summiteer'. This is what the researcher calls the conflict arising due to the 'inherent' nature of expeditions. The conflict arises out of two reasons: firstly because only some reach the summit and secondly because the people who reach the summit get most of the credit. Let us consider the case of one of the most famous expeditions in the world, the attempt on Everest under the leadership of John Hunt. Most readers, even at this point, would not recognise the expedition that the researcher writes of. However, if it was told that this was the expedition which included Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, it would be recognised immediately. How many of us know any other member of this expedition? The records suggest that everyone on the expedition worked equally hard, but for the two summiteers, it was about being in the right place at the right time.

Individual Ambition: This issue is closely linked to the earlier issue. Every senior member on the expedition (and even the members) would like to be one of the summiteers. However, all of them cannot be one. While they are competing to be one of the people on the summit, for the success of the expedition, it is important that everyone works with each other so that at least one person can make it all the way. Ideally, if individual ambition was totally absent, then everyone would work together and leave it to fate to decide the person who makes it to the summit. If this is not the case the competition that arises is very complex and can lead to open conflict among team members.

Petty Politics: The researcher would like to use the term 'petty politics' to refer to the conflicts that occur between team members on the same rung of the power ladder in order to assert their authority over each other. This can be avoided by the leader by giving each and every member very distinct and specific tasks. However, this is not always possible, because the tasks are more or less similar. Such power play is detrimental to the expedition and arises out of nothing but the inherent faults of he team members themselves.

Insubordination: Insubordination is a very serious issue. It occurs due to two factors, individual ambition and safety concerns. Individual ambition has already been dealt with and an extreme case of individual ambition is when a member does not obey the orders of the leader for his personal benefit. This is a rare issue and is totally a matter of indiscipline. Safety concerns can also cause insubordination. Often, in a dangerous situation, a junior member who is actually at the spot might trust his own judgment better than the judgment of his seniors who are not at the spot themselves. This prompts the junior member, in the interest of safety, to disobey a senior member. This is a matter of trusting one's seniors, but it is also a matter of who is fit to take a decision: is it the senior who has more experience but is not on the spot or is it the junior who does not have the experience but has better knowledge of the situation? This is difficult to decide and the junior takes a different decision in good faith but the question that always arises is that why did he not trust his senior? Insubordination of this sort also occurs when the junior is compelled to disobey a general ground rule set by the senior, something like, "Whatever the case, you shall not be on one rope only", in the interest of safety.

Miscommunications: As explained by the researcher earlier, the members of an expedition are spread across different camps along the mountain. Co-ordinating the movements of members along these camps is not easy, both in terms of communicating as well as in deciding who moves where. There are many factors to account for, such as the question of the condition of the food supplies at the camps, the condition of the members at the camps, etc. Especially on a high peak, it is important to not allow members to stay at high altitudes for a long period of time and they must be brought back to the base camp to rest. These members, after resting, return to the higher camps to continue working. This co-ordination is very important, but it is very difficult to even communicate on short distances in the mountains. Thus, miscommunication is easily possible and can give rise to disputes. This was highlighted during the first ever ascent of K2, the second highest mountain in the world, by an Italian expedition in 1954. One of the finest climbers of the day, Walter Bonnati, was denied the chance to be on the summit of his dreams because of a miscommunication. It lead to a bitter dispute after the expedition and Bonnati went on to climb several very challenging routes alone later in his life.


Mountaineering expeditions represent an attempt to push the boundaries of the intensity and honesty of human existence by pushing the limits of human ability. These limits are pushed not only by individual effort but by sacrifice for the better good. We see surrender to higher authority and the willingness to work without tangible reward only to pursue a higher good. Thus, we see the emergence of an unbelievably well-bonded team of individuals, who have been bonded, more than anything, by the danger of the venture. One can compare it to working on a merchant vessel in the sixteenth century, but what is different here is that there is no tangible reward.

The immediate question that arises once again is, why do people do this? Why do people risk their lives and work so hard for no reason? The answer must be found by making comparisons to the pursuit of knowledge in the time of the renaissance. The answer must be found in understanding the joy of doing work for the sake of work. As Robert Frost has written, only when

' is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future's sakes.'

The idea of the structure of expeditions, the characteristics of the societies that they evolve from and the sociological analysis of these groups and societies is mostly irrelevant to mountaineers because they live in a world of different paradigms and perceptions. The researcher would like to end by backing up this idea with a quote by a French sailor, Moitesssier, who decided to not return to France after sailing around the world, but continue sailing even though he would have been bestowed with several honours in France. This, in the opinion of the researcher, is applicable even to mountaineering:

"You have to understand that when one is alone, one evolves; some people say, go nuts. I went crazy in my own fashion. For four months I didn't hear a single unnatural sound. A purity grows out of that kind of solitude.... I told myself I'd be crazy to go back to France." [Bonnington (1981) ; 76]


Bonnington, Chris, 1981, Quest for Adventure, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

Huber, Alex and Thomas Huber, 2001, The Wall: A New Dimension in Climbing, David and Charles Publishers.

Krakauer, John, 1998, Into Thin Air, Anchor Publishers.