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At a meeting of the Harvard Mountaineering Club (HMC) last Thursday, President Lucas T. Laursen ’06 demonstrated his skill in opening a beer bottle with a carabiner. But in just four months, he will use the same tool to safely summit peaks in southeastern Kyrgyzstan that, until now, have never been visited by an American expedition.
This August, Laursen and several other mountaineers will trek into the Central Borkoldoy Range of Kyrgyzstan, an area that had been closed to foreign climbers until the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, only five expeditions have reported visiting the range.
Eight others climbers will join Laursen on the expedition, six of whom are Harvard affiliates: Alexander P. Cole ’08, Corey M. Rennell ’07, George H. Brewster ’03, Graduate School of Education student Kelly J. Faughnan, physics graduate student Adilet Imambekov, and Harvard Medical School Psychology Instructor Bjarne M. Holmes.
Cole, who is “Gear Czar” for the club, says he appreciates the diversity and experience of the group.
“Some of us have climbed in several international expeditions, and there are also people (like me) who haven’t done any international climbing trips,” Cole writes in an e-mail.
The club is currently seeking corporate sponsorship for the expedition, and a grant is pending with the American Alpine Club (AAC). The rest of the expenses will be paid out of pocket.
THE NEED TO EXPLORE
When asked why he wished to embark on such a risky expedition, Holmes says the opportunity to be the first visitors to a region is unparalleled.
“To challenge ourselves,” he writes in an e-mail. “To learn. To honor HMC past expeditions. To set an example for future HMC expeditions.”
Members are hoping that this expedition, which will include climbing unnamed peaks, will help rejuvenate the club.
“In its heyday, the Harvard Mountaineering Club was possibly the strongest undergraduate climbing club in the world,” Cole says. “Climbing has really been growing in popularity in the past years. With Lucas’ leadership, especially, and a really dedicated group of officers and climbers, the club is definitely on its way to a renaissance. I see this expedition as a sign of this rebirth.”
Laursen says the expedition members have not made a final decision on what they will name the new mountains they encounter. He says they are considering using names of Harvard buildings or corporate sponsors.
“One thing is for sure, we aim to put the Harvard flag on top at least one untouched peak,” Holmes says.
KEEPING IT SAFE
Like any mountain climb, the expedition will have its dangers, but the group is preparing to deal with any problem that might arise.
They will be climbing mountains with a maximum altitude of 18,000 feet, attempting to take the safest routes up these uncharted mountains. They will be able to summon a helicopter in the case of serious injury, but they will be 120 miles away from the nearest village and will have to get the injured climber off the mountain and back to their base camp first.
“The most challenging parts of this expedition will probably be the logistics and the planning—which will be very intensive, considering the extreme remoteness of the area we’re entering,” Cole says. “The technical difficulties of the climbs themselves shouldn’t be that hard.”
“We’re limited by available resources and the training of the team,” says David L. Krause, an EMT who will serve as the expedition’s medic. “Serious injuries will have to be evaluated carefully...Obviously, that’s a huge challenge in the middle of, say, a fifty-degree snow slope in a blizzard. So equally obviously, good judgment and careful decisions will have to be the order of the day, as preventive medicine.”
Krause has served as an EMT for eight years and a salaried wilderness medicine instructor for five. He has also served on a search-and-rescue team for over seven years.
“The team is getting some rescue training this weekend from an expert in Mt. Washington Valley,” Krause says.
The expedition will follow the Leave No Trace (LNT) philosophy, carrying out the waste they generate in order to preserve the area.
“Ideally, after a fresh snowfall, the only way anyone would know we had been there would be that they saw one of us give a slideshow,” Krause says.
Regarding safety concerns of the expedition, Holmes says, “We’ve been actively practicing emergency scenarios as a group. Several of us also have more than a decade of climbing experience and several expeditions under our belts, and that kind of experience can help keep one out of harm’s way.”
Another safety concern is the turbulent political situation in Kyrgyzstan. Laursen says that the club is keeping an eye on developments there after protests forced former Kyrgyzstan president Askar Akayev out of his office in the country’s capital, Bishek, last month.
Since the coup, the club has decided to use a more remote route through Kazakhstan, which borders Kyrgyzstan, which will allow them to avoid Bishek. American authorities in Kyrgyzstan will also be aware of the expedition’s presence.
“Basically, once we are in the field, we will be so removed from civilization that we probably wouldn’t notice anything that might happen in the capital city,” Holmes says, adding that “the consequences of both success and failure are meaningful.”
“We succeed by just getting ourselves into the area. We fail if someone gets seriously injured or worse,” he says.
CREATING A LEGACY
The expedition plans to carefully document the trip with pictures and sketches, aiming to record the journey for posterity.
Rennell, who is studying cinematography and is also Crimson editor, will make a film of the expedition to submit to international film festivals.
Laura Fox, a research assistant at MIT, will serve as an expedition photographer, as will Holmes.
“I think the combination of Laura [Fox] and my photography and Corey’s movie is gonna pack a punch that will make for a good combination at slide shows for years to come—yet another piece to add to Harvard Mountaineering history,” Holmes says.
The expedition members will sketch the area, creating guides to assist future climbers and hikers. They will include locations of mountains, ridges, glaciers, and other features, but will not draw up a formal map.
They say they plan to send their results to the AAC and the International Mountaineering Federation, which is based in Switzerland.
“I think it’s definitely a great expedition in that it’s getting out there and doing some exploring, which I think is a great objective,” said Jason C. Manke of the AAC. “There just aren’t too many people in our society who want to go and explore.”
Before the club’s weekly meeting last Thursday, Laursen pulled old volumes of their journal off a bookshelf.
The club has published dozens of issues of the “Harvard Mountaineering” journal since 1927, which contain accounts and pictures from various trips the club has taken to locations like the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Alaska, and the Himalayas.
After a recent ten-year hiatus, Laursen helped re-launch and edit the journal, which came out again last December.
Because of this expedition, these journals will be updated in time for the club’s 80th anniversary.
“We wanted to start an expedition in the tradition of the old days,” Laursen says. “We’re picking up where it was left off.”
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