Rumiñahui 4,630m – In the Shadow of Cotopaxi

19 March 2019: I summited the central peak of Rumiñahui at 12:30 yesterday with expedition partner Mahua. Unlike her big sister Cotopaxi next door, the mountain is a dormant, heavily eroded stratovolcano with jagged peaks and fewer of the typical conical features of a volcano.

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The climb was a moderate hike for the first 500 vertical meters from the gorgeous Laguna de Limpiopungu bird reserve (3,900m), and a decent scree and talus (I always forget which is which!) scramble for the final 200m – all in heavy fog and driving rain. Visibility at the precarious summit was about 15 meters, so no glamour shots of Cotopaxi in this post, I’m afraid!
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Tomorrow morning Wednesday we attempt Ilinizas Norte (5,100m) from the Refugio Nuevos Horizontes (4,800m), an appropriate name for an expedition like this in new territory!

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Cotopaxi 5,897m – Third highest active volcano in the World

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March/2019: Surpassed only by two mountains on the Argentina/Chile border, Cotopaxi is the third highest active volcano in the world, with sulfur fumaroles a constant reminder near the northern rim of the 480m crater.

Cotopaxi Pic Crater

With climbing partner Mahua, we will make our summit attempt in the early hours of 22/March guided by Gustavo Cevallos (ASEGUIM), after acclimatizing at the breath-taking altitude of 4,800m for two nights.

Cotopaxi erupted regularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, with significant loss of life in the areas south of the volcano. The most recent activity was in 2015-16, which led to a closure of the mountain until 2017, after which it has remained open to climbers.

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Cotopaxi (March) and Pik Lenin (August) – Expedition Updates & Call for Participants

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30/January/2019: The planning is now finalized for the Cotopaxi, Ecuador (5,897m) expedition 16-23/March. There are two of us committed to the expedition so far, and the ideal number would be a group of four, with a similar enthusiasm for adventure and giving back to our respective communities. Do contact me if you are interested in seeing a brief outline of the expedition, including schedule, accommodation, guiding and costs. The climb should be achievable for someone in good physical condition, experience above 4,000m, and a week to spare in March!

mickemorn@gmail.com

+41793880409

Similarly, the planning for the Pik Lenin (7,134m) expedition 4-18/August is proceeding well, including firming up the tour operator (Kyrgyz Alpine Club), the guide and the estimated costs. This expedition requires some more experience due to the altitude, extreme weather and remoteness & exposure. However, the technical aspect is limited for a mountain of this height, and with some preparation (such as Cotopaxi), it should be quite achievable. Again the ideal expedition size would be four.

Pik Lenin

Avalanche Rescue Training by the Foremost Authority

30/January/2019: With 18 of my closest fellow Swiss Alpine Club, Carouge Chapter members, I completed a very practical avalanche rescue and ski-touring safety course in La Fouly, Valais 19-20/January. As one of two non-native French speakers, I had to remind the rapid-fire younger instructor Laurent from time to time to slow his delivery to a more digestible pace. However, in combination with the comprehensive course materials, much of it hand-prepared by the mature gentleman Michel, the oral and physical presentations were highly instructive and directly relevant to assuming leadership and responsibility in mountaineering expeditions such as Cotopaxi and Pik Lenin this year.img_e6487[1]

Instructor Laurent above

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Fellow course member preparing to apply mouth-to-mouth to similarly blond victim (mannequin).

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La Fouly is up there among the most scenic Swiss Romande villages.

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My “avalanche victim”, a wooden box buried about 50cm under the snow, probably would have survived the simulated avalanche after being found 3:28 minutes after the avalanche alarm. Statistics show a high survival probability for victims rescued within 15 minutes of submersion, so the combination of the identification and extraction time in this case would have been successful.

American course attendee Jeff took the gold in the search with about 2:30 minutes. The group was remarkably diverse in age range (25-75), and equally represented by men and women, a ratio which is consistent with the mountaineering communities, though less so among guides.

2019 is off to an icy start

9/January/2019: Last weekend I completed the first of several mountaineering courses and certifications run by the Swiss Alpine Club (at the central level or at my local Carouge, GE section), founded in 1863 and boasting 110,000 members. This means roughly every one out of 80 persons in Switzerland is a member, which is a remarkable number. Recent statistics indicate a persistent slight annual decline in person nights in the mountain huts and overall activity, the reasons for which can probably be debated at length!

The Escalade sur Glace Raide two day course was conducted near Arolla, a 2,100m high altitude ski resort in the Valais Alps, roughly halfway between Verbier and Zermatt. Waterfalls and a steep canyon make for consistently good ice climbing conditions. The seven attendees included an exceptionally talented and well-traveled photographer Jean-Francois Delhom and a 57-year old Swiss-German school director (my roomie). I certainly felt like a laggard in this group.

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Ice climbing requires specialized equipment, including stiff-soled winter boots, ice climbing crampons (more advanced than regular glacier crampons) and lightweight ice axes. My 1990s and 2000s equipment was not quite up to the latest technological standards, so I suffered a bit on the steepest pitches led by the capable Swiss instructor. Nonetheless, a weekend of tremendous learning and advancement in the knowledge base to continue to go higher in 2019!

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Mid-December – Heavy Snow, Coursework and a Sobering Reminder

12/December/2018: The western Alps received between 30 and 120cm of snow at higher elevations in the second week of December. Conditions for snowboard free-riding in Verbier (Switzerland’s largest resort) were exceptional on my two visits in the past week, and the early season solitude meant first tracks on several pitches.

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There were repeated booms from avalanche management with remote explosives while the highest lifts remained closed.

Last Saturday 8/December a mountaineer with whom my son and I happened to share dinner in November in the Abbey at the Simplon Pass (2,000m) died in an avalanche in Cervinia, Italy while ski-touring with a very experienced skiing partner.

Avalanche accident

It’s a devastating reminder of the forces of nature in the high mountains and the need for robust education and preparation. I’ve recently received my package of study materials for the 5-6/January Ice Climbing Course, which is the first in a series of courses to achieve Swiss Alpine Club mountain guide certification by the middle of 2019.

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This package gives me plenty of reading materials over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Until the next update,

Preparation Notes – Fall 2018

30/November/2018: While the travel planning for the two principal expeditions (Cotopaxi March; Pik Lenin August) in 2019 continues apace, I have been trying to make the most of the ‘shoulder season’ here in the Alps. Depending on the weather and snowfall, September-November can offer terrific access to high altitude one day, and stop all activity the next.

Some brief notes from the fall ventures so far:

  1. Early October ascent of Haute Cime (3,257m), the highest peak in the imposing Dents du Midi range overlooking the upper Rhone valley in ValaisIMG_3405[1]

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2. Late October ascent of Pointe Percee (2,752m) and overnight wilderness camping on its slopes with the family. It’s a favourite annual climb, with a decent technical challenge and the ‘Alpine light’ elements of terrain, wildlife and rockfall risks.

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3. Late October adventure atop Mont Saleve (1,300m), Geneva’s backyard playground, where a surprising early snowfall and cold blast made for some great photos.

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4. Scenic hikes and mountain-bike rides in and above the gorgeous Cirque de Sixt-Fer-A-Cheval valley (1,000m), ringed by waterfalls and steep cliffs.

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5. Mid-November winter hike to and under the Aletschgletscher, the longest glacier in Europe, with a view of both Mönch (4,107m) and Matterhorn (4,478m) from the middle of the glacier. The complete solitude and recent snowfall covering the crevasses made me a bit apprehensive to continue with the original two-day plan, so I returned home after snapping some amazing photos.

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6. Late November winter season premiere in La Clusaz and first time ever on a ‘Splitboard‘, the radically millenial child of a snowboard and touring skis (ski randonnee). With experienced Norwegian mountaineer Bjørn, we completed a 750m vertical ascent (1,500-2,250m) on relatively benign grade in about 90 minutes, followed by a 9 minute descent.

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Reaching Higher – New Expeditions in 2019

6/November/2018 – Three Peak Challenge predictably inspired additional thoughts of climbing mountains in other parts of the world and with higher altitude. The absence of any serious discomfort during that expedition makes me think that I can, ideally in the company of other outdoor enthusiasts and mountaineers, take on peaks in the range of 6-7,500m in the coming year.

The preliminary plans are today as follows:

16-23 March 2019: Cotopaxi, Ecuador 5,897m

Vn. Cotopaxi

First half August 2019: Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan 7,134m

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Both peaks are reachable without any significant travel or technical climbing difficulties, while posing similar challenges with respect to altitude and cold & unpredictable weather as Mount Elbrus did in early September 2018. I expect to finalize trip details for Cotopaxi by the end of 2018 and for Pik Lenin by March 2019.

If you are interested to join one (or both) of these trips, please contact me at mickemorn@gmail.com or +41793880409

Mikael

Three Peak Challenge – expedition wrap-up and next steps

14/September: Today one week ago I summited Mount Elbrus (5,642m), the highest mountain in the Caucasus, Russia and Europe, and one of the tallest volcanoes on the planet. I anticipated that it would be the biggest challenge as the conclusion of the expedition covering three high peaks in the region (Damavand, Demirkazik and Elbrus). The combination of the 4am 1,800m vertical ascent, strong wind and sudden fog and clouds made the final hour to the summit one of the most memorable of my mountaineering life.

IMG_E4647I set out on this expedition as a personal challenge and with a commitment to my school United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) https://www.uwcsea.edu.sg/about, in equal parts. I wanted to challenge myself to reach greater heights in the big mountains of the world, and inspire awareness of and support for the incredible scholarship programme at UWCSEA https://perspectives.uwcsea.edu.sg/node/17184, which brings motivated students from all over the world to Singapore to learn and contribute to the ideals and spirit of the UWC movement https://www.uwc.org/about.

I was extraordinarily fortunate to attend UWCSEA for seven years, including graduation from the International Baccalaureate (IB) two-year programme. My experience was and remains central to my world view, ambition, values and continuing happiness. Through this fundraising initiative I aim to bring a scholar from an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) region to UWCSEA, with a strong conviction that he or she will benefit in similar ways.

One of the direct advantages of a UWCSEA education is an improved ability to understand and move among people and cultures different from one’s own. The combination of travel to remote locations in Iran, Turkey and Russia certainly took significant planning and preparation, and (probably with a bit of good fortune) the movements and logistics on the ground unfolded without a single issue of significance. I met enough colourful characters along the way to write a 400-page mystery novel, including:

  • The chief of an Iranian horticultural research station near the Iraqi border
  • Anna, a Russian divorce lawyer turned high mountain guide
  • Farhad and Sayeed, two beefy Tehran Martial Arts experts pursuing their doctorates in electrical engineering at age 36
  • Mohammed (center, below), aspiring Turkish photographer and herder of 260 sheep in the barren Aladaglar mountains

IMG_E4493I have already assigned each of them a role in the novel, and penciled in some famous actors (Ben Kingsley, Reese Witherspoon, Dwayne Johnson & Vin Diesel, and Benedict Cumberbatch) in the event a movie version follows.

While the interactions and conversations with people along the way were rewarding, the culinary experience was also very positive, bringing some common elements together in the region – grilled lamb and chicken, eggplant, peppers, and the ubiquitous tea. Conventional wisdom states that you should drink as much tea as you want at altitude, and I followed this advice which seemed to work very well for maintaining hydration, alertness and warmth.

IMG_E4628.JPG(Mutton soup and dumplings with climbing partner Walid Fawaz, Elbrus 3,850m)

With each country’s currency under pressure in 2018, the pricing of both the travel arrangements made in advance and the costs on the ground were attractive. Relying on local, independent operators as much as possible worked without a hitch, and Istanbul Sabiha Gökcen (SAW) airport as the four-stop hub was a revelation in cost and convenience.

My sincere thanks for the expedition arrangements, integrity and attention to safety and detail go out to the following:

A few lessons I will bring with me to the next adventure:

  • Bring foldable “camp sandals/shoes” – the pair of rubber sandals I bought in a Turkish village were compromised by a mischievous juvenile shepherd dog at 3,000m camp, and I had to either borrow flip flops or wear my heavy mountaineering boots at all times
  • Bring a good book, with some relevance to the ongoing travel/adventure. The ratio of active climbing to “travel & downtime” is about 1:8, so there is an abundance of time to read and think. While I enjoyed my “Le Petit Nicolas” book for the first few days, I misplaced it on one of the eight flights and experienced some boredom thereafter.
  • Talk to as many people as possible, and take photos. It is rare that people refuse a photo, and I feel like I did not take enough.

Final thanks to Monica, Joe, Alexandra and Dave of the UWCSEA foundation team for managing an excellent fundraising campaign, which we will now move towards the practical task of electing a country/region of origin of the scholar and the scholarship selection process.

This page will remain my expedition blog, so please continue to follow and share it as I already have ideas for 2019!

Until then,
Mikael Mörn

Geneve

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