Mountain People

Story by Gijs Schuurhuis

I’ve never had the feeling of being an intense community focused person. I would say that I have just enough friends, I care for my family and in ‘ordinary’ life I put my head down and I work hard. For me the mountains give a radical escape from everything that we consider normal. It offers a change in perspective, a passionate outlet, it humbles me and offers immense solitude in return. One could say that this seems a bit egocentric and perhaps this is right.

However like everything in life things are never black or white and this bold conclusion would not do justice to the friendships made, adventures experienced and people met throughout the years. So this is to all of you mountain climbers out there with whom I’ve got privilege to share a few moments.

You have to be there to understand it. In basecamp, amidst giant mountain faces, avalanches, danger and adversity, lies the strength of dozens of people all with the same reason to be there. Having invested countless hours of training, time lost with our loved ones and money spend – a lot of money spend. In return we get to push our personal boundaries, physically and mentally. And, if you’re lucky you might succeed. The famous British alpinist W.H. Murray once wrote something that still resonates with me today: “mountaineers are a different breed, for they can find pleasure – in the absence of joy”. 

The most important thing is that to get to where you want to go, you need a team, you’re in this together. In this process there’s no room for bullshit. There are no masks to hide behind. From the perspective of emotions climbing is pure and this creates a bond. I’ve felt this bond from my times spent with Guido during our Scottish winter adventures. Cold, miserable, but always a pleasure. I’ve felt it during long days in the Alps. Waking up, after a cold bivi with Allert at 3.500m, to a perfect eastern sunrise.

Even from this, expedition climbing stands out. For example, this year we got dropped off by a heli – no way back, totally isolated and only the people who are there with you. You feel committed, maybe a bit intimidated. At the same time you get to step into this crazy new world, with new faces and stories to share.

This was certainly the case back in 2016 when we got to Peak Lenin basecamp and met Martin. A highly energetic Czech guy who brought along his girlfriend Linda and their friend Tereza to ski down the north face. During our time there things clicked. After summiting Lenin we got back to basecamp, we got a beer and I remember sitting there looking through our binoculars. Seeing Martin and Tereza (Linda had to return from C3) as tiny dots on giant face, skiing their way from 7.134m, down a steep north face – it made me feel proud. In a way we were all part of their accomplishment. From this a great partnership grew and even though I wouldn’t have put money on it back then, it felt great to be on top of Khan Tengri. This time together, as a team!       

Cultural diversity 

I would say that this year we got to meet people from different countries and all types of cultural backgrounds. In some cases the language barrier proved to be too much, but in most cases it certainly broadened my view on life. Every once in a while you encounter people with their own unique perspective. In basecamp there were a lot of them.

There was the ‘union-man’, a super a nice and experienced climber from Czech. We called him this way because he only took a bunch of unions with him on the mountain, which ate raw. How’s that for a diet?! Then there was the heavy smoking and drinking Bulgarian lawyer. He was drunk most of the evenings and was smoking two packages a day. He still made to C3 though, that was his summit and then it was time to party in Biskhek – so he said (LOL).

To see multiple Iranian women moving around basecamp, climbing – feeling absolutely free – brought a smile to my face. As we spoke to them it struck me that as a western European I am so spoiled. I get to pursue my passion and of course I make my sacrifices to do so. For others the mountains provide a real sanctuary and genuine freedom.

There are a lot of Russian climbers in these mountains. In general their English is pretty poor and they  stick to themselves, the big exemption to that was the Big Boss. This Russian powerhouse climbed Everest and K2 without oxygen. He now spends his days smoking his Davidoff cigarettes, keeping track of all climbers on Khan Tengri and Pobeda, coordinating search & rescues and making sure everything goes as planned in basecamp. The truth is that we didn’t really got to speak to him that much. It was however quiet comforting to hear his voice on the radio, every morning at 07:00h and 11:00h. Screaming through his radio, “Team gHolland, please give me information!”. 

And then there’s the elite. I had a quick and awkward chat with a group of Russian climbers that climbed K2 the year before. They were planning to open a new route on Pobeda. I must say I was pretty impressed and by the time we got on the chopper to go home they were at 7.000m preparing to summit Pobeda via a alternative route, just to acclimatize! The same thing applies to a small group of pro-climbers including Felix Berg who, after acclimatizing on Peak Lenin, made it up Khan Tengri in a staggering one day ascent. These guys are from a different planet so it seems.

When we got back from our attempt on Pobeda we met up with Hans van der Meulen. He'd just arrived in BC to make an attempt on Khan Tengri (he summited a few weeks later). Hans is a very experienced Dutchy with no-O's ascent of Everest, K2 and multiple other big mountains! It's crazy to think that being a little bit older he decided to shift gears and climb 7000ers instead of the big ones! As part of the climbing community we look up to him having all this experience and of course great stories to share.  

A person who made a big impression om is ‘Cobra’ the easy going Hungarian dude. A little bit older, with a massive track record in the mountains. Having climbed multiple 8.000m peaks, he was one of the first to climb Khan Tengri this year. No fixed ropes and in bad weather! He got back to basecamp and he was wrecked. Small frostbite to his toes, fingers and face, but totally humble, not overstating his case. We sat down with him as he told us his vision on climbing – solo – in high altitude. His story was real and it gripped me as he told that climbing for him is an esoteric activity. A spiritual endeavor, something that is hard to explain to others, but a gift that keeps on giving.

When we got back from Pobeda, disappointed, tired and little bit sad – Cobra was waiting for us in basecamp. He walked up to us with a big smile and congratulated us on good effort. He said that there’s no failure in trying, not succeeding and returning safe. “You’ll be back and climb it later - I know”. I still remember the coffee he made tasted bittersweet and his words of welcome where simple but so sincere. It felt as we were home.      

Gijs Schuurhuis