Latvian mountain climbers ascend to new heights

  • 2002-02-14
  • Timothy Jacobs
RIGA - It might seem strange that the first group of climbers of the same nationality to conquer the highest peak in every continent in the world hail from a country without a single mountain. But a Latvian team achieved this astonishing feat last month.

When Teodors Kirsis, Imants Zauls, and Juris Ulmanis traveled to Antarctica and reached the top of Mt. Vinson on Jan. 10, they completed a journey that had taken them to some of the wildest, most remote places in the world.

Kirsis, a professor at Riga Technical University, and Zauls, chief engineer at Riga's Dome Cathedral, got the idea after conquering the 8,848 meter-tall Everest in 1995. The tallest mountain in the world is around two kilometers higher than any of the other continents' tallest peaks, so they were already a good way there. But for Ulmanis, the least experienced climber of the three, Everest still looms.

At 59 years old, the pair are also the two oldest men to climb the tallest peak in every continent.

Latvians speak lovingly of Gaizinkalns, the highest point in Latvia. But at 312 meters it's really more molehill than mountain, and can be scaled by foot in half an hour - or, for the more faint of heart, by car in minutes.

Kirsis and Zauls are tough, experienced climbers who have been assaulting peaks together for more than 20 years. Kirsis was bitten by the climbing bug "by accident" in his twenties, when some of his friends invited him on a climbing trip to Central Asia. Zauls found his inspiration while leading groups of students on mountain hikes.

As for Ulmanis, 42, his inspiration came from adventure stories by Jack London and explorers like Christopher Columbus. "I dreamt about going on adventures like those," he says.

All three are members of the Himalaya Club of Latvia, an exclusive mountain-climbing society where in order to be admitted, you should climb a mountain of at least 7,000 meters.

Roped in

Ulmanis' involvement with the expedition started about six years ago. Kirsis came to him and asked for financial assistance for a trip to McKinley (6,194 meters). Ulmanis, who was the business development manager for the American mobile phone company Motorola at the time, jokingly told him that he would help finance the trip only if they took him along. Kirsis agreed.

Although Ulmanis was able to keep up with his more experienced teammates on the way up McKinley, he was so tired he was unable to enjoy the view from the summit.

"But it was the whole experience that I enjoyed," said Ulmanis. "The camaraderie, being self-sustaining, learning how to use all the equipment. I was experiencing something I had never experienced."

The three men enjoyed each other's company and trusted each other's abilities, and they decided the next expedition, to Mt. Kilimanjaro (5,963 meters), located in northern Tanzania on the African continent, should go ahead.

"There's an expression in climbing," explained Ulmanis, referring to the trust that develops between climbers, "and that is, 'Would you trust your partners with the end of your rope?' We realized we could."

Kilimanjaro was different in many ways from McKinley. "There were more people on the trip, and we were not allowed to climb the mountain without local porters to guide us. They carried all our stuff, set up our tents, and made our tents for us. All we had to do was walk."

For Kirsis and Zauls, Everest unsurprisingly ranks as the most difficult mountain they have ever climbed. "Not only is it the highest mountain on Earth, it has some very technical sections to climb as well," said Kirsis.

For Ulmanis, who has yet to venture to Everest, the most difficult peak to conquer was Mt. Elbrus (5,633 meters) in Russia, the highest peak in Europe. Kirsis and Zauls had already climbed it six or seven times, but for Ulmanis, a Latvian-American, this was his first time he'd been to Russia.

He laughed at one of his experiences. "We stayed in a remote camp near the mountain, and things still seemed very Soviet. I remember one of the older ladies who worked there took her kids to see me and told them 'This is what an American looks like!'"

Ulmanis failed to climb Elbrus that first time, but a year later he returned with his two compatriots to try again. He succeeded the second time around. "But it was a humbling disappointment for me not to make it to the top the first time. In retrospect, maybe that was the best experience, because it was so difficult."

After making it to the summits of Kosciusko (2,228 meters) in Australia, which according to Ulmanis "is like climbing Gaizinkalns," and the relatively easy Aconcagua (6,962 meters) in Argentina, only Antarctica's Mt. Vinson remained.

Lonely continent

After saving up for three years, the men were ready to take on Vinson (4,897 meters). The trip started on a sour note, however, when they were delayed in Punta Arena, Chile by bad weather for almost two weeks before they were able to fly to Antarctica. They had hoped to be at the summit on New Year's Eve in order to call home to Latvia, but they didn't even begin their climb until Jan. 6.

They flew over in a giant Russian-made cargo plane that was packed with provisions for the various camps on the continent. Although the plane lacked comfortable seats and flight attendants, they were able to watch their approach to Antarctica through a giant window spanning the entire bottom of the nose of the airplane.

"All of a sudden we saw pieces of ice floating and little hills and flat ice. It was like nothing we had ever seen."

After staying at a camp for a couple of days, the men were flown to the mountain in a small four-seater airplane. Having had to sit waiting for so long, the men were eager to begin the climb, so they started up the peak the same day they reached it.

They began their ascent under cerulean skies. "We were lucky with the weather," admitted Ulmanis. Only a mountain climber would be able to say that about temperatures of -35 Celsius degrees.

As for what it's like to climb a mountain in the middle of the Antarctic, which is completely devoid of life, "It was like being on the moon. Usually there are some trees on the mountains, but there was just snow, ice and rocks on Vinson. Sometimes I thought I was hearing birds, but of course birds can't live there. I must have been imagining it."

The three men took a seldom-used route up Vinson, a path that one of the guides they met there believes only three other groups of climbers had ever taken.

"One of the interesting things about mountain climbing, is that once you think you've reached the top, there always seems to be something else ahead of you to climb," said Ulmanis.

After a few false alarms, the three men finally reached the top of the mountain on Jan. 10. Since nobody had been there in the couple of weeks before they reached the summit, they were the first three people in 2002 to get to the top.

Only about 400 people have ever climbed the mountain, so theirs was a rare feat indeed.

Nature's effects

Ulmanis, who recently left Motorola and is now president of Nordic Technology Parts, has found that his mountain-climbing trips have had a lasting effect on his personality. "In the mountains, your true character comes out - all of the good stuff and all of the bad stuff - and you can't hide anything. Even now, as we speak, we have some kind of facade. We are acting in some ways.

"On McKinley there was a very narrow passage where I couldn't go back, and I didn't want to go forward, and I just started crying. I found out about myself that I'm not as tough as I think I am. I don't know if this necessarily makes me a stronger individual, but it has given me a better idea of my strengths and weaknesses."

He added, "After being on the mountain, I am a much calmer person. I don't get as stressed out as I used to, and I don't sweat the small stuff."

As for Everest, the last of the seven continents ahead of him, Ulmanis said that although he hasn't completely ruled out a future attempt to climb it, he doesn't expect to do it either.