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.