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.
I 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
I 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.
(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!