The Matterhorn in quiet times

I was pleased as ever to have another chance for a tough summit with Walid Fawaz. As the world seemed to grind to a halt in the spring of 2020, he raised the idea of climbing the Matterhorn as the culminating experience of his time in Geneva, Switzerland, before heading off to an MBA program near Paris. I knew instinctively that we would make an excellent climbing pair again, based on our successful 1,800m one day ascent of Russia’s Mount Elbrus 5,642m from the Barrel Huts in August 2019.

Our planning was helped by Walid’s personal contact in the professional guide circuit. His friend Hubert is an ‘aspirant guide’, meaning he is completing certain requirements, including hours guiding, to become a fully certified Swiss mountain guide. He in turn recommended his supervising mentor Mederic, so that we each had a guide confirmed. This is the mandated pairing ratio on the technical Hörnli ridge route of the Matterhorn.

Walid Fawaz, Distelhorn, Grächen

We spent a day hiking, scrambling and acclimatizing at an altitude of around 2,000m above Grächen on day T-2. The Bouquetins (Alpine Ibex), a large mountain goat with horns that can reach one meter in length, greeted us in numbers at a few cols and ridges. We tried to find routes to simulate the steep ascent of the Matterhorn, and on one short three meter drop, Walid needed to give his older climbing partner a little boost to calm the latter’s nerves. Although we are very compatible climbers, our capabilities differ ever so slightly in some respects!

Bouquetin, Wannehorn, Grächen

I had a poor night’s sleep in Grächen due to pain in my right knee, and perhaps staying up a little too late in good company. Even with painkillers, the meniscal and surrounding tissue damage from a rugby injury 25 years ago makes itself a nuisance from time to time, and I was concerned about being ready for the summit push less than 24 hours later. After meeting Hubert and Mederic at the train station and making the relatively uneventful hike up to the Hörnlihütte at 3,200m, I squeezed in a one hour nap before dinner, which did reassure me. It was a bit eerie to find the dinner settings limited to four tables in a hut that would normally be fully booked on this early July weekend. We had read the latest announcements with respect to travel, social distancing and so on, and rightly made the travel arrangements in full observance at a time when the rest of the world was still reeling from confinement and uncertainty about movement and personal choice.

Hörnli ridge from below the Hörnlihütte

The Hörnligrat (ridge) is clearly visible from Zermatt and the surrounding areas, and is one of the most famous mountain routes in the world. Rated AD (assez difficile) in the French rating system, the many hours of sustained climbing at level II and some level III- require constant concentration and a level of full-body personal fitness and determination that I had not experienced to the same degree on previous difficult climbs. We set off at 04:15 as the second group from the hut in moderately cold temperatures, and, crucially, almost no wind.

Fixed ropes greet the climber only minutes from the hut. In the darkness the 10-12m pitch was a stark wake-up, and I listened intently to the instructions of my guide. If the climber has to be alert for every step and handhold, the guide has twice the responsibility, as they will spend ten hours or more preparing to parry a fall by their client. They loop and remove the rope which joins the two bodies around every possible corner and crevice on the way up and down, repeating the procedure hundres of times. We did not ask our biped life preservers for any disaster stories from the mountain, but each confirmed a 100% record without any serious incidents. For Hubert, that was an easy ask for Matterhorn specifically, as it was his first ascent there as a guide!

The Solvay Hut around 4,000m is a handy stop to drink some hot tea and look east towards Dufourspitze 4,632 (climbed Sep 2016) and the glimmer of a new day.

Solvay Hut, 05:30

The temperature remained just below freezing for the remainder of the scramble up to the snow fields just below the summit. There the steepness finally tapers to a moderate 20-30 degrees and we donned our crampons with a sense of elation that we could walk on two feet for a short while in the morning sun.

The summit of the Matterhorn is tiny, barely affording room for the four of us to claim it as the first ascent on the 4th of July at 09:15. It is a truly binational peak between Switzerland and Italy, where it is called Il Cervino. The Italian south-facing side looked almost completely free of snow and ice, in contrast to the northern side we had just climbed.

Walid Fawaz and guide Hubert on the summit of Matterhorn 4,478m
The author on the summit of Matterhorn 4,478m

The descent to the Hörnli hut went without incident, although Mederic and I got ahead of our fellow pair at one point, and celebrated with a beer around 15:30. Walid seems to do better on the ascents, relatively speaking, and his aspirant guide’s lack of detailed route knowledge added some critical minutes to their itinerary. In the end, the two did not make it in time for the 17:15 gondola down from the 2,600m Schwarzsee stop, and had to do the grueling hike all the way to Zermatt in the fading daylight. This meant a 2,900m descent from almost 4,500m to 1,600m! All is well that ends well, though, and they were back to the world of the living the following day.

On my solo hike down to the Schwarzsee gondola I had a blunt reminder of the importance of staying alert and not making any mistakes until the very end of a big mountain challenge. As I raised my gaze to study some hikers coming up the path in the distance, I slipped on some hidden ice. Attempting to break my fall, I put down my un-gloved left hand on the snow, and slid to a stop after a couple of meters. A little embarrassed, I quickly resumed my descent, and only a few minutes later looked at my hand to find it a dark and glistening red. The web of tissue between my little and ring fingers was severed, probably from a sharp rock edge, and pulsing with blood. After cleaning the wound the best I could in cold water in a bathroom next to the gondola stop, I managed to stop the flow with bathroom tissue on the solo ride down to Zermatt.

Descent injury, Schwarzsee

The orthopedic surgeon who happened to be on duty at the University Hospital of Geneva emergency room the following morning was no stranger to this mountaineer’s foolish injuries. A few months earlier he sutured a gaping wound on the latter’s shin, a result of a box jump onto a metal platform in the gym gone wrong. He found my joke that I would ‘bring him something more challenging next time’ only moderately funny.

From Snow to Sand – Cycling the Rhône River from Headwaters to the Mediterranean (Part 1)

25 March 2020: The Swiss leg of the 1,100 kilometer bicycle route which follows the Rhône river from its source at the Rhônegletscher base high in central Switzerland to Plage Napoléon where it empties into the Mediterranean came to an abrupt halt about 1km from the actual border with France in Chancy in southwestern Geneve Canton.

The Swiss authorities have erected robust roadblocks at the hundreds of small, unmanned border crossings which sprinkle the 1,850km border with Germany, Austria, Italy and France since 17 March. This move seemed peculiarly late to many, as Italy struggled under a rapidly accelerating COVID-19 infection rate in early March and many other countries had enacted strict prohibitions and border controls to slow the transmission. Movement within Switzerland remains technically unrestricted at the time of writing for individuals and families, although there are abundant ‘rester chez toi‘ reminders in all media and on posters in the city of Geneva. My quest to knock off the Swiss part of the Rhône trail in sections relied significantly on the superb Swiss rail network. I was fortunate to be able to benefit from the pricing, reliability and frequent departures even in these extraordinary times.


Almost two weeks earlier on 15 March, the 4.5 hour train journey from my home city of Geneva to Oberwald*, a riverside village and cartrain station 1,400 meters above sea level in easternmost Valais canton went surprisingly quickly in the company of absolutely no one (not even the conductors made an appearance in my railcar) save the monotone Aussie narrator of some escapist episodes from the Casefile podcast series. Only for the last half hour of the journey did a few cross-country skiing enthusiasts jump on the mountain train to enjoy the gorgeous late winter sunshine on the finely groomed tracks in the upper Rhône valley, or the Rottental as it is known in the local German.

Eastern Switzerland received more snow this past winter than the western Alps nearer Geneve. For much of the stretch between Oberwald and Brig at an altitude of 750 meters, I cycled between snow fields more than 1 meter thick on national road 19. I had chosen my trusty 20+ year old Klein mountain bike over a road bike for this section, anticipating at least some off-road sections to be open. Ultimately the wide handlebars and strong brakes proved useful for the 5-10 degree paved descents.


Averaging 30km/h for long stretches of this 650 meter drop over 45km, and even edging past the descending mountain train at over 50km/h at one point, I arrived in Brig in just over one hour. The human contact element which normally is a focus of my adventure travel writing was predictably limited, and the main excitement of the flat riverside trail between Brig and my end-of-day destination Leuk was a Switzerdeutsch verbal lashing from a horse rider whose definition of ‘langsam‘ must have been different from my own. I can’t claim to have misunderstood, since the word is virtually identical in Swedish!


Three days later on 18 March, the last day on which the trains continued to run on a regular schedule, I arrived in Leuk alarmed to find that the rear tire of my wife Empi’s Scattante road bike was unexpectedly and irreparably deflated. Since shops selling non-essential goods were closed by government decree, I feared that I would be taking the train back to Geneve, tail between legs. However, the teenage apprentice in the workshop of a motorcycle vendor a mile away proved adept at locating the correct size of inner tube and installing it – all within 20 minutes of my arrival.


The Rhône river throughout its 800+ kilometer course to the sea produces over 5MW of electricity in Switzerland and 3.5MW in France to surrounding communities through its dozens of hydroelectric plants. Many are located in narrow gorges such as this one in Leuk, and Switzerland’s 60% power from hydroelectricity places it near the top alongside countries such as Norway.


With a decent tailwind to add to the 200 meters of vertical descent, this 60km section to Martigny went relatively quickly and uneventfully in two and a half hours, with some gorgeous solitude on the way.


The 45km Martigny to Montreux leg on 24 March unfortunately passed without photographic documentation as my iPhone 7 was unexpectedly refusing to save images. The average speed was reduced to 17.5km/h due to a strong headwind tearing up the valley from Lac Léman, and it was with relief that I arrived at the renowned Chillon castle, inspiration for Lord Byron’s 392 line poem The Prisoner of Chillon. It’s a moving work loosely based on the life of the imprisoned monk and nobleman Francois Bonivard, while also paying homage to the picturesque setting of the castle and Byron’s personal dislike of tyranny and religious discrimination.

Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls:
A thousand feet in depth below
Its massy waters meet and flow;

We were seven—who now are one,
Six in youth, and one in age,
Finish’d as they had begun,
Proud of Persecution’s rage;
One in fire, and two in field,
Their belief with blood have seal’d,
Dying as their father died,
For the God their foes denied;
The Prisoner of Chillon, 1816. 
Lord Byron



I had cycled the 90km from Geneva to Montreux in a punishing October 2018 3:45h ride, which left the final 22.5km section from Geneve to Chancy on 25 March. The French section of 760km to the sea will follow as soon as conditions allow.

There is a long list of reasons to wish for a normalization of the current situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on public and private life. One’s ability to make choices and decisions in the near term is reduced to the comically mundane, such as which supermarket to shop in when carefully venturing outside. Some of these inhibitions will naturally be reduced in the medium term. However, I am profoundly worried about the freedom of movement for adventure travel and association with interesting people from all over the world in the long term – core elements to happiness and sense of purpose.

* In the spirit of full disclosure, I did not achieve the goal of starting from the uppermost point of the headwaters, as the road is closed during the winter and trains do not stop at the nearest station to the glacier. I aim to complete this short but challenging 10-12 kilometer leg in late June or early July 2020.

In the Footsteps of Field Marshal Mannerheim – 1,500km in a Lada – Of Yurts and Lamb

19/August/2019: We woke up early and a little apprehensive in Karakol at an altitude of 1,800 meters at the eastern end of the huge brackish mountain lake Issyk-Kul. For me, the third week of adventure was starting in Kyrgyzstan, and for my wife Empi, the third day. We had been promised a musical performance by schoolchildren in the village of Kerege-Tash by our host couple Raziya and Damir. We were both a little overwhelmed by the grand welcome extended to a couple of amateur musicians like us, and at the same time were curious about the stringed instrument Komuz, which is considered the country’s national instrument.

After a comfortable night and excellent breakfast in the modern hotel Green Yard in Karakol, (where, as in the Nordic countries and Japan, outdoor shoes are left at the entrance) we drove east along the northern slopes of the Pamir Mountains, which rose steeply to 5,000 meters peaks only 30 kilometers from the road to the border with China. It felt perfectly fitting to drive around the country in our four-wheel-drive Russian Lada Niva rental car, which we had chosen as the cheaper alternative in the capital Bishkek two days earlier.

It was the last week of the summer holidays for the approximately 1,000 students in Kerege Tash’s only school, but there was an impressive crowd of Komuz musicians on site. A Komuz is slightly larger than a Ukulele, is made of a solid piece of wood (usually juniper or apricot) and has three strings that can be tuned depending on the piece of music. At Kerege Tash’s school, the principal told us that as many as 250 students play the instrument, and about 100 are serious practitioners and perform regularly. The technique includes so many ways to strum, pluck and slap the strings and the wood that a guitarist becomes quite enthralled, especially considering the age of the musicians. A 16-year-old boy played a really excellent solo piece after a few pieces by an elite group under the strict teacher Tolon Kasabolotov.


Komuz musician, Kerege-Tash school

After a larger group of students performed outdoors, I was invited to the stage to play in a children’s song that I learned the night before at the home of the teacher Kasabolotov. Komuz expert Kutman Mega made a small show to teach me the song spontaneously right there on stage, which was a kind gesture, given my modest ability.


Empi and I bought a whole grilled chicken from a Russian lady at the roadside and had a picnic lunch on the banks of the raging river Arasan. In the afternoon, we learned more about Karakol’s history as a Russian military post in the city’s historical museum and Orthodox church. As in many cities in Central Asia, soldiers and families were moved from remote parts of the Russian Empire to Karakol for more than 150 years, and even today you get a sense of a frontier town with low light-painted houses in wood, dusty streets and cows and horses roaming free here and there. Today’s Karakol with about 67,000 inhabitants is, however, an established base for the region’s growing tourism, and in several restaurants and cafes in the city sat expectant tourists and prepared adventures on horseback, on foot or by jeep in the mountains.


Orthodox Church, Karakol

After a brief visit to the city’s mosque, which was established in the 1880s in connection with the arrival of thousands of Hui Muslims on the run from religious riots in China, we began our longest day of travel to a high plateau almost 450km south the following morning. The roads along Lake Issyk-Kul’s southern shore have not been renovated in line with the more well-developed northern shore, and we took a break to rest sore bottoms and swim in the wonderfully clear water that is not unlike the brackish water in the Baltic Sea. Along the coastal road to the west, the landscape is almost lunar, and only along the few streams and rivers that carve the mountainous desert have plants and small communities managed to take root.

In one of the deeper valleys near Tortkyol towards the western end of the lake we veered off the main road onto a winding dirt road with our Lada and arrived at an oasis by a some rapids. Local businessman Ulan, wearing a traditional hat and built like a shotputter, met us at the hanging wooden footbridge and invited us to the dining table at the edge of the rapids. It was the first taste of the highlands’ unique drink Kumys, horse milk which after a couple of days fermenting in leather bags achieves an alcohol content much like light beer and a smoky, quite sour taste. We toasted and sang, among other things, Helan Går, with a basic translation into Kyrgyz for the slightly puzzled but amused lunch guests. Somewhat drowsy after the good trout lunch and drinks, the afternoon program picked up some pace. An eagle-trainer, or bürkütchü showed his four-year-old eagle sitting quietly but constantly squeaking on his leather-gloved forearm. Hunting with eagles is a tradition in the region, but our young eagle failed with his dive to catch the domesticated rabbit they released from a cage for our enjoyment. There were more than a few of us in the group who were discreetly satisfied with that outcome.


Bürkütchü with Eagle not fond of rabbits

A five-hour drive on a yet again excellent road through increasingly wild landscapes and higher mountain passes led us to a 2,500 meter high plateau near the village of Ak-Muz just 50 kilometers from the Chinese border. The cold penetrated our jackets and hats, and we immediately went into the Yurt, the traditional tent that still functions as a home in the summer for many in this country where 90% of the land mass is over 1,500 meters. Gathered in a row and clad in white ironed collared shirts, a group of school-age musicians sat ready with their Komuz instruments, as well as some flutes. Our friend and tireless interpreter Damir told us that the children lived in small communities on the plateau, and one of the younger girls had traveled 85 kilometers to take part in this performance, which was also combined with a one-day seminar for musicians in this small Yurt camp. The darkness inside the Yurt and the melodic tunes from the music group invoked a spiritual feeling as we sat cross-legged on top of layers of wool rugs.

We were very hungry from the cold and the long drive, and the host performed a precise partitioning of a lamb which had been cooked for many hours during the day. Besh Barmak, which means five fingers, is eaten, as the name implies, with the hands, and it is of utmost importance that the pieces of meat are distributed in the right order and to the right guests according to to seniority, gender, relation to the host couple and so on. A mistake is punishable by a lifetime of social rejection. The evening ended with a poignant presentation of Kyrgyzstan’s national epic Manas by our fellow traveler, musician Samat Bilain. It is a great honor for the few men in the country to be given the title Manaschü to sing the mythical Manas story. This war hero fought against hostile forces and established a homeland for the Kyrgyz, according to many about 1,000 years ago. The record for an uninterrupted appearance of the 500,000-line epic is supposed to be over 40 hours, when the Manaschü enters a kind of trance. Samat also disappeared into another world where he sat with his eyes closed and sang with the whistling vocalization of the region for about half an hour.


Manaschü Samat sings the Manas epic, Ak-Muz plateau

It was a short night’s sleep dressed in our outerwear to keep warm. We were worried that the little splash of fuel left in the tank of the Lada would not suffice for the return trip to a gas station in the town of Naryn just over 50 kilometers north, and had decided with one of the hosts Baish that he would get us a few liters of gasoline from a neighbor in the village of Ak -Muz. A little over five in the morning, we drove from the heart of the Kyrgyz Mountains towards distant Bishkek under the millions of stars of the Milky Way , with amazing memories of this country that proudly keeps traditions and the knowledge of its ancestors alive.

The campaign to fund a scholar from Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan to attend United World College of South East Asia is going into the final stages. Please consider adding your support here!


In the Footsteps of Field Marshal Mannerheim – 1,500km in a Lada – The Issyk Kul Diaries

18/August/2019: My wife Empi arrived in Bishkek in the afternoon of the 17th of August from Stockholm, Sweden, and I arrived from a 24 trip by bus to Almaty, Kazakhstan a few hours later. Almaty has a more modern, ’reconstructed’ and anonymous feel than Bishkek, whose tree-lined avenues, large blockish buildings and monuments unaltered from decades prior evoke a communist past that is difficult to find these days.


We spent a pleasant hour in the morning walking around this part of the city, in almost complete isolation from other human beings, which added to the sensation of a different world at our feet. Kyrgyzstan’s population density of 29/km2 is not dissimilar from the more sparsely populated northern European countries such as Sweden, so while the city aesthetic is predominantly Asian, the difference with other capitals in the continent could not be more stark!

We were invited to lunch by a Kyrgyz couple to whom we had been introduced by an ethnomusicology university professor of Empi’s. Raziya and Damir prepared May Tokoch bread fried in oil and delicious vegetables cooked in their juices, many from their garden about 20km south of Bishkek.


Our lunch hosts had helped us with detailed advice for a four day drive around the country, including lodging and sights along the way, and since Damir had a week off work scheduled, they decided to come along for the drive with their two children aged 8 and 11. This would prove to be a tremendous boost to our ability to get immersed in the geography, culture, traditions and music of Kyrgyzstan. We made the 2.5 hour drive to our first stop, Ashu guest house in the Chong-Kemin National Park, where we had a tasty dinner of beef in a tomato sauce and rice.


19/August: Empi and I started the morning with a gentle hike in the foothills just south of the guesthouse. The drive to the trailhead was the first test for our 4WD Lada Niva on steeper trails, and it handled itself very well.


After fueling up with 95 octane gasoline and great coffee an hour from the national park in a station of the reliable Gazprom chain, we continued along the north shore of Issyk-Kul lake on roads recently renovated with a combination of funding from China and the Kyrgyz government to accommodate the logistics needs of the World Nomad Games. Kyrgyzstan has hosted the games continuously since 2014, and usually brings home the most medals in events such as Buzkashi, or Dead Goat Polo. Issyk-Kul is the world’s second largest alpine lake, and the second deepest after Baikal in Russia. It is slightly salty, and does not freeze even in the brutal winter at 1,800m of altitude.


Located in a funky building modernist halfway along the north shore is the Museum of Nomad Civilization, where we made the next stop. As we entered one of the side galleries for lunch I was delighted to find several books and photographs covering the 1906 expedition of Finnish army officer Carl Gustaf Mannerheim to Kyrgyzstan and the region. Mannerheim is Finland’s indisputable national hero, having played a crucial role in the drive for Finnish independence in 1917, the defeat of the communists in the 1917-18 civil war and preventing a Soviet invasion in 1939-40, among other feats. During Finland’s status as a Grand Duchy in the Russian empire, Mannerheim was sent by the Tsar to Central Asia and China in his capacity as an Army Colonel to investigate the military preparedness of the great powers of the region (Britain, China and Japan), disguising himself as an ethnographic collector. He fulfilled his spy expedition for the Tsar, while also collecting enough objects and taking hundreds of photographs to give substance to his supposed mission. Many of these photographs and collections form important records for both the Finnish and Kyrgyz files, including a photo of the meeting between Kurmanjan Datka and Mannerheim in 1906 (see below). Kurmanjan Datka was an instrumental politician in the 19th century khanates of the region, and oversaw the accession to the Russian empire in 1876, though not without strife and protest. She died at the remarkable age of 96, six months after the meeting with Mannerheim. The well-curated museum gives a comprehensive history of Kyrgyzstan and an understanding of nomadic culture and practices.


We completed the drive to Karakol at the eastern end of this 170km lake by nightfall, and enjoyed a dinner of beef plov (rice) at the house of Tolon Kasabolotov, an experienced practitioner and teacher of the Komuz stringed instrument – a perfect introduction to the musical traditions and techniques of Kyrgyzstan which we would enjoy in the days to come.


Mikael Mörn

Summits for Scholarships – Our UWCSEA Scholars in Action

Support the scholarship campaign here!


27/August/2019: The 12th of August was a momentous day for me and Luuk Karmarker UWCSEA ’20, as we summited Pik Lenin 7,134m at 12:20pm in a howling wind, -12C temperatures and bright sunshine after a rapid five day ascent from base camp. It was also a significant step in the journey of Elyzaveta “Liza” Radionova UWCSEA ’21, who arrived on this day in Singapore from her native eastern Ukraine after being awarded the Three Peak Challenge scholarship from the 2018 mountaineering campaign with the same name. Luuk walked into the Dover Campus of UWCSEA on 20/August in full mountain gear (as he had envisioned), tired but happy.

These two scholars embody the spirit and philosophy of United World College by reaching far beyond their physical and cultural boundaries to experience and understand places and communities, and aim to make positive changes. I am so proud to support and work together with them this year and in the years to come to fulfill our aims of realizing the UWC experience – in school and in life.




Pik Lenin 7,134m – Descent to Base Camp, Life and Death in the Mountains, and Wrap-up

14/August/2019: The night of our return to Advanced Base Camp at 4,300m was convivial, as the multi-national climbing groups shared some treats in our mess yurt such as Spanish wine (me), Jägermeister (young French climber) and home-made Genepis (older French climber Christian).


Christian only makes 2-3 liters per year of the fragrant green stuff, so it was a privilege to have a small glass. One person from each of the British and Russian groups ascending with the Kyrgyz Alpine Club/ITMC operator had dropped out since arriving at Advanced Base Camp/Camp II due to persistent headaches or nausea, which seems to be statistically likely in groups of 5-6. The ability to adjust to altitude is very individual, and Luuk, Evgenii and I could count ourselves genetically lucky to be able to ascend at the rate we did.

On the morning of 14 August, I decided to pay to have my gear portered on horseback down to Base Camp 3,700m and join the ride as a passenger. I am a barely competent rider, but thought this would be a rare opportunity to spend two hours on a horse and take the time to enjoy the scenery on the way down the glacier valley with a heart rate below 150bpm.


Near the front of the caravan I caught up with (in the middle picture above) is a horse which carries the plastic-wrapped body of a skier from the Sochi, Russia region. He died, as far as I understand, from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS, in this case Cerebral Edema) when skiing down down the north face of Lenin on (or about) 12 August. His death, together with the deaths of the high-ranking Russian police officer on/about 31/July and a Kazakh climber who died around 20/August are very proximate reminders of the dangers of high-altitude mountaineering, and Pik Lenin as a mountain specifically. In my amateur capacity, I draw the following conclusions based on the information I received:

  1. The weather, including small deviations from the forecast, plays a very important part in a climber’s ability to summit, make decisions and survive. The Russian police officer died after separating from his group, who had decided to descend due to bad weather. He went on to summit solo, and likely got disoriented in the bad weather and fell several hundred meters to his death. His body was recovered after a week-long search at high expense. The Kazakh climber died from AMS as his group of three was lost in bad weather for several days.
  2. AMS can affect anyone, regardless of fitness, age or mental state. The experienced Mexican guide of American climber Max (30) suffered for days of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) at the hands of his capable client, which is a reminder of the high likelihood that an initial itinerary will get derailed (as ours also did) for one of several reasons. Being very attentive to the symptoms of AMS before they become debilitating is important.
  3. Staying with the group and being in the company of a guide were factors that the dead alpinists did not appear to have followed, to various degrees. While Evgenii’s experience on Lenin was modest, his ability to judge our state and condition while pushing for the summit at the limits of our capacity were crucial components of our success.

My hat off to partner Luuk, who at age 18 showed remarkable maturity and perseverance in the face of initial illness (a cough, which young Base Camp Doctor Shabdan deemed serious enough to order three days of rest), day after day of physical and mental stress, and some equipment shortcomings such as thin gloves to make the remarkably fast ascent. Compatibility of pace and mindset is very important for expeditions of this degree of difficulty, and Luuk (alongside Walid from the Elbrus 2018 climb) is as good as they come. Luuk and I parted ways in Osh after one of the best Shahslik meals in modern time.


In addition to the survival tips above, I have the following take-aways from this Pik Lenin expedition:

  1. The difference between 5,500-6,000m and 7,000+ meters is significant. The low temperatures, the need to live and sleep on ice and snow for several days, and the manner in which hypoxia affects your entire body and mind made for a much bigger challenge than the 2018 Three Peaks expedition. Fortunately, the vast majority of my equipment was up to the task, and my conditioning preparation was adequate.
  2. Wind and sun cover is important. I have persistent numbness in my fingertips (first degree frostbite) two weeks after summiting, and the second degree frostbite on my nose has just healed without continuing repercussions.
  3. While our choice of stove allowed us flexibility in cheap fuel choice, it made the process of boiling water from ice and snow much more time-consuming than if we had a JetBoil or similar enclosed model that 98% of other climbers seemed to use.
  4. Using local operators again worked well, and when comparing notes with those who used American or British operators, probably saved us 30% or more in cost. Pik Lenin is not an expensive mountain to climb, and in combination with a tour of the country or region (see the next post!), the costs get diluted even more.

The scholarship campaign is ongoing, and we have a tremendous amount of support of both previous donors and new donors joining the cause. Please consider adding your name to this drive to bring a scholar from Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan to United World College!

  • Mik

Ascent of Pik Lenin – Alpinist Style

74EFCDF3-5719-431C-991A-7E53C2FD9321.jpeg13/August/2019: With Luuk Karmarker ‘20, we summited Pik Lenin 7,134m just after noon on 12 August, having left Base Camp only five days earlier. The summit area had another 3-4 climbers in the ferocious wind, and we concluded our visit to the top after some hugs and photos in less than ten minutes. The ascent had started at 03:40 with an initial descent from Camp III of about 150m, which we knew would be particularly painful upon return to that final camp at 6,100m. The descent was followed by an exposed ridge which tested our equipment, as the 25km/hour wind made the ambient temperature feel like -25C. Luuk’s gloves quickly proved on the thin side, and he had to spend much of the time “shaking down” his arms, to keep the blood flowing to the fingertips. I removed my right (windward) high mountain glove at one point and made the amateur error of not securing it to my wrist, which saw it fly off out of the reach of even Luuk’s desperate lunge (and guide Evgenii’s exasperated admonition!). After considering for a moment a return to Camp III, we improvised by putting my left glove on my right hand and using a regular climbing glove on my left (leeward) hand, and kept pushing for the peak. An hour or two later brought another moment of doubt, as Evgenii, thanks to his many years of mountain rescue work, noticed my nose becoming white in the brutal wind. After initially considering a return to camp, he massaged the nose enough to confirm a return of blood flow, and again we pushed on as the light began to emerge over the next ridge.

AD41E06B-A79C-4C06-828C-7E613E7F533C.jpegThe summit has a flag of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the countries which share the border. It also features, more famously, a life-size bust of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. It is probable that the bust has been “renewed” every year or two, for which self-respecting cleptomaniac alpinist wouldn’t want a cheap metal bust of the architect and operator of the world’s greatest political experiment adorning the living room?! The summit provides excellent vistas of other 7,000m+ peaks such as Pik Komunisma, part of the “Snow Leopard Five” which many alpinists attempt after, or with, a Pik Lenin ascent.

The descent to Camp III was, as anticipated, arduous and I had to resort to a repetitive numbers game in my head to maintain the correct balance between the number of steps and breaks to breathe. We spent another cold night at Camp III and ate a small amount of borrowed freeze-dried food from Denali, Alaska specialist Dave and proceeded through the crevasse fields below Camp II to reach Advanced Base Camp (ABC) the following afternoon – as exhausted as we have ever been, but proud and delighted to bask for a moment in the congratulations of fellow climbers and guides.

We had formed strong connections with many of the other multi-national mountaineers in the camps on the way though, and much of the conversation centered around the pace at which we completed our summit attempt. On arrival at base camp on 5 August we already noted a drastic deterioration of the forecast from 13-16 August, and although long term forecasts are usually unreliable, this pattern remained more or less locked as the week progressed. Winds of 60-70-90km/h make a summit attempt impossible, and already winds of 30km/h make it dangerous enough to abandon a climb, such as happened to most, if not all on the morning of 13 August, the day after our successful bid. We therefore decided on 6 August with Evgenii to adopt on 7 August an unusually tight “Alpinist style” ascent of only five days from Base Camp to summit, a self-imposed  dare which worked. The usual time is typically 12-15 days. Our agreed safety valve was (aside from Evgenii carrying, as is standard, an Acetazolamide injection to treat Acute Mountain Sickness) to go down if at any time one of us felt worse.

Luuk and I are dedicating this expedition to a scholarship for a student from Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, which share this magnificent mountain. We are very grateful for the incredible support to date – please consider adding yours on the campaign page

A “return to civilization” (including seeing one’s ravaged face in the mirror and delivery pizza) and post-expedition thoughts will follow shortly here.

– Mik



First Update and Photos from the Pik Lenin Expedition

Empi here. Mik started the journey to Pik Lenin from the Åland Islands this past Saturday morning, taking a ferry to Stockholm and flying to Bishkek. Below is his first update.

Pik Lenin: Osh and Base Camp 3,700m

6/August/2019: Writing this from the comparatively luxurious Central Asia Travel encampment a mere 200m and a river fording away from our more spartan Kyrgyz Alpine Club digs. WiFi is available here for a modest cost, and also at Advanced Base Camp at 4,400m, where will ascend to tomorrow and send a video and update with expedition partner Luuk.

Acclimatization is going according to plan so far, with a moderate hike to 4,200m this morning with guide Evgenii, 32 year old ethnic Russian from Bishkek. The green slopes at this altitude are covered in wildflowers and wild herbs such as thyme, wild onions and garlic, and a yellow poppy variety with medicinal properties.

I spent 24 hours in the city of Osh at roughly 1,000m elevation. Its 3,000 year history is not immediately evident, as the city center is dominated by the parliament building, an urban park along a raging river and one of the few remaining Lenin statues in the former Soviet Union.

The weather outlook for the anticipated summit attempt a little over a week from now looks unstable, with high winds. We will rely on our guide’s experience and advice to pick a possible ascent day.


Interview with Luuk – Pik Lenin Expedition Partner and UWCSEA Scholar


29/July/2019: While making my own final preparations in my home province of Åland, Finland, I caught up with Luuk Karmarker, my expedition partner for the Pik Lenin climb.


M: Hi Luuk. The expedition is only a few days away now. How are you preparing yourself?
L: Since I came back from Singapore in June, I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course (Goenka method). I find this really useful. I signed up for it four months ago and I did it the last year when I went to climb Stok Kangri 6,153m. I am not sure this is really anything to do with mountaineering, but for me, the 10 days of total silence and solitude prepares the mind to balance, orient and reset. For the rest, I did not have much time or opportunity to climb anywhere other than the stairs in my house and bike. Where I live in Belgium, the terrain in slightly hilly, so that helps building both cardio muscles and stamina, which is required for the long hikes. I did some long walks with my heavy mountaineering boots and backpack of 23 kilos, to break into the shoes and get used to it. Pik Lenin is not very technical, so the focus is on stamina, willpower, and proper assessment of the conditions of risk.

M: You are a scholar at the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore. What do your classmates and teachers think about your expedition?
L: UWCSEA is generally beehive of activities, and there is hardly any time to think and digest the overload of information and events taking place around you in a proper way. Many of my peers, friends and teachers know about my climb, mostly from the emails sent by Alexandra and the UWCSEA communications team. I suppose I should have been a bit more active in talking about my climb. But this was my first year in a new school and a new country, so I had lot of adjusting to do.

M: Tell me a little about your mountaineering history. What and who inspired you to start?
L: I fell in love with mountains in India. My dad grew up in the mountains, so we decided to visit the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh shrine at 4600m during the 2016 summer holidays. The Nanda Devi Bio Reserve, is a truly mesmerizing place in the monsoon months. Despite enduring mountain sickness, a deadly scorpion bite, and gut wrenching food poisoning, I found the Himalayas awe-inspiring and I was instantly smitten. Back in Belgium, I found a climber/trekking club (Bergsportvereniging Provincie Antwerpen) that offered high altitude climbing/trekking courses and they graciously accepted me as one of their first teenage club members. We trained in the Belgian Ardennes from November until March when it is cold and there is some snow. Of course it is nothing like in the high Himalayas but it was a good break for me.

When I heard that I would be going to Singapore, I wanted to make a stopover enroute and trek in Himachal or Uttrakhand. I was avidly reading Shipton, Tilman and Smythe at the time and stories of these truly amazing adventurers inspired me a lot. One friend from school wanted to come along, but at the very last moment, he dropped out. However, I was determined to explore the mountains on my own. It took an effort to persuade my mom, but eventually she relented. I flew to Leh in July 2018. I was just about adequately prepared in terms of gear, so I did some acclimatization by spending time at Tso Moriri (4500m) and Khargungla pass (5400m). I trekked alone to Stok Kangri Base Camp, not really intending to summit. I did not book any agency and was planning to find a guide on the spot. I got my lucky break, when Harsh, another climber I befriended at Base Camp decided to be my partner. He had summited Stok earlier that week, so that gave me an immense boost of confidence. Stok is not a technical climb, but anything above 5000m is not to be taken lightly – the high altitude and risks that go with it are substantial.  

Before I started at UWC, I had already connected with some UWC alumni who are climbers. I had heard good things about Central Asia, especially as I would be on a shoestring budget. At UWCSEA I came to know about Mikael’s 3-Peak Challenge last year and it was just coincidental that we were both looking at Pik Lenin in 2019. I was also looking for ways to use my passion for supporting a worthy cause – so that too was a perfect fit. I think its going to be fantastic climbing together with Mikael as he has a lot of experience.

M: Your highest summit to date is Stok Kangri 6,153m. What did you learn from that experience?

L: I learnt a lot about myself and mountains while climbing Stok. At sea level no amount of training prepares you for the challenges of high altitude. When I climbed Stok, I had no idea about establishing and following protocols with my climbing partner, so we ascended pretty quickly. We kept going up, each of us getting progressively more tired, but neither signaled a stop. Just below the summit, totally exhausted, we had stopped to catch our breath, to drink and wait for daybreak, it was still dark at 3.30 am. We had gained almost 600-700m of altitude in something like 2 hours, which is rather fast. At high altitude, consequences of small mistakes are magnified – the way down was all the more grueling because I had no reserves of energy and was truly afraid that if I stopped, I would not be able to get back on my feet again. It was a lesson in pacing and testing my willpower. That’s when I knew I had to do this again.

M: How will Pik Lenin be different from that? How has that experience shaped your ambitions in mountaineering? There are many people eagerly watching the expedition. What do you hope to achieve in addition to the summit attempt?

L: For Pik Lenin, I have made good preparation. Having long term goals is important to me, so this time, my ideas are well sketched out. Up in the mountains, the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. So this time I think I have made good gear choices. I also feel physically and mentally fit and ready to go. I will be going a week before Mikael arrives so that will give me some extra time to acclimatize.

Stok Kangri can be summited from Base Camp, and can be done in one day, so there is not much logistics involved, but at Pik Lenin we need to set up camp in at least 3 locations. The acclimatization is also done on location over at least two weeks. That means carrying everything (food, fuel, gear) up and down in stages. It’s a different setup and that’s what got me thinking. Ambition is sometimes born out of opportunity. So next year I am thinking of coming back to Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan and try maybe 2 or perhaps 3 summits in one season. I still don’t know if I am up to it, so experience at Pik Lenin will be a test, but if all goes well I would like to try for the Snow Leopard Challenge (summit all five +7000m peaks of the former Soviet Union).

Of course there is another twist to the story. That is the story related to fundraising for UWC scholars. This is so uplifting to know that well-wishers are contributing to our effort as well. I feel there is true collaboration across generations. Even before we have started, the campaign has raised over 30,000 Singapore dollars, which is amazing. I hope we can carry on this tradition. This is a true chance to make a difference in someone’s life. As a current scholar, it has indeed changed my life, so I am aware how important it is to give back. In a big way, it is thanks to Mikael that I am making this new adventure.

Footnote: at the time of writing Luuk has established himself at Base Camp and is ascending to Camp 1 with some of the gear needed for the summit attempt.

Return to the Air Crash Glacier – Les Bossons, Mont Blanc


16/July/2019: With excellent weather, but no partner to join me for training in the middle of a work week, I opted for the fastest access from Geneva to a glacier and some wild back country. I aimed to set up overnight camp as high as possible near the Glacier des Bossons, which is a rapidly retreating steep glacier on the north side of the Mont Blanc massif, and practice the typical routines needed for an expedition such as Pik Lenin – pitching a tent inconspicuously, sourcing water, cooking, night-time procedures, breaking down the camp, and finally some crampon training on the glacier itself. Subconsciously I must also have been drawn to the location for its traumatic history, as two Air India flights crashed in practically the same spot in 1950 and 1966, a fact I was only alerted to on a previous hike (scroll down to the blog post from 21/June/2019!).


The glacier edge about 250 meters away from my tent is a very ‘live’ reminder of the effects of climate change, as the glacier is shedding tons of ice and embedded rock every day. The ‘crack & thunder’ bangs woke me several times during the night, as the debris crashed down the couloir to the right – fortunately well away from my 2x1m somewhat flat tent area.

Just before dawn the next morning I climbed down to a flatter part of the Glacier called le Plateau des Pyramides, surprising a Chamois, the smaller and more timid of the two Alpine wild ruminant species. It was my first time on this part of the glacier and I was startled to discover dozens of pieces of aluminium wreckage, many in a distinct green colour, and some several feet long. Based on the larger piece of green wreckage displayed at the hut at the bottom of the climb, it would appear the majority were from the Air India 101 Kanchenjunga crash in 1966, rather than the AI245 Malabar Princess flight in 1950. The distinct red and white lettering of the Air India fuselage is clear on one of the pieces.


Some anecdotal references to efforts to remove the crash debris from the site refer to ‘several tons’, but there is clearly much more being uncovered by the melting glacier.

The most human reminders were a part of a blue bag with a zipper and this shoe, which seemed to be of high quality leather, and a size 41.


I felt it would be macabre to bring home any of the items, but intend to bring anyone interested to the site, as it is accessible in just over an hour from the trailhead near the Mont Blanc tunnel.

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