Like many outdoor industry professionals; guides, photographers, etc… there is an annual climber’s migration each fall to Kalymnos. I’ve crossed paths with Danny there a few times and always enjoyed his spirit. Last year, when I asked him how his season was, I discovered he had guided one client, Peter, the whole summer in an attempt to climb all 82 of the Alps’ 4000 meter peaks. I loved this and repeatedly hounded him for stories.
When we got home, he generously agreed to a Q&A about the project.
Can you explain your 4000-meter peaks project?
As an attempt to raise awareness about the devastating effects of climate change globally through the lens of the high mountains of the European Alps, we tried to climb as many of the Alps 82 4000-meter peaks in 100 days as possible. We ended up doing 72, which was a great success. Vis-a-vis our partners we were able to secure the reduction of 71,000 tonnes (annually) of CO2. This is equivalent to the annual output of 7,000 Swedish households. We achieved this by arranging for our main partner, Nordea Bank, to divest its entire retirement portfolio (700 million euros) into green/sustainable investments.
How were you approached with the idea, and what were your first thoughts about it?
Peter and I have done many trips together and he always had this dream to do the 82 4000-meter peaks. Over time we decided that, since it is not an original climbing goal, we should create a way to have a bigger meaning and purpose for the project. My first thoughts were, this is impossible. No way we can do 82 in one season. Peter was very adamant about 100 days, I think he likes round numbers :-). In fact I am very very proud of our efforts to get 72 in 100 days, without resorting to solo climbing, or pushing ourselves in unsafe conditions. We could probably have finished with 120 days, but Peter had to go back to work, and the project period was up after 100. As well, the main objective was raising awareness about Climate Change and of course the goals of our partners, reducing carbon footprint.
What prompted the goal for your partner?
He is an incredibly motivated person, and I think the 82 is a very natural goal for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to train their technical climbing (people who live in cities) but who are very physically fit and motivated. Peter was a former professional hockey player and is a super high level athlete, so hard work and training come very naturally to him.
What type of pressure did you feel as a guide?
Yes, it was the most intense and stressful objective I’ve undertaken. Peter and I are good friends and so I always like to frame it that the “project” was my client and we are partners in the project. But, yes, technically I am a professional IFMGA mountain guide, and he is an “amateur” climber so I ultimately have responsibilities, both legal and moral, to be responsible for safety. That said a mountain guide cannot do these kinds of peaks with people who are not quite competent and reliable, and of course very strong. So there is no one else I could have imagined doing this project with.
Were there surprises in the form of new peaks & places? New challenges? Unusual logistics?
Too many to count. The logistics in the Alps are a challenging point. Certain things are easy, for example most places have a staffed huts. We went to a number that were out of season or not open. Or we bivouacked. By far the biggest challenge is creating a good “order of operations” that optimizes the conditions in such a way as to get lots of summits when they are in perfect condition. Full disclosure is that we had excellent conditions (mostly) last summer so that was a big help. But I feel that a strong point I have in my organization and guiding is to see the big picture and to create a good flow. We turned back only a couple times due to bad conditions so we didn’t have 100% efficiency, but in the end we felt like we always kept a safety margin.
What were the biggest challenges along the way?
Fatigue, stress (both emotional and physical), managing expectations of ourselves, the project partners, and the public. These kind of peaks are not “hardcore” peaks, most of them have been first done over 100 years ago. But they present constant mortal dangers. So the need to keep our “risk tolerance” always dialed up was very wearing on the mind and body. To not see the inherent risk in the activities of climbing the 4000-meter peaks is stupid, and many people have died before trying.
How did it end?
It’s not over yet… We will try to finish the last ten this year.
Take-away from the experience? Most rewarding part?
You cannot possibly anticipate all the challenges you will face on such an undertaking. It’s best to talk through as much of it as possible with your partner beforehand and to keep an open and honest dialogue the whole time. I will never recreate such an experience again and I will remember it for the rest of my life. The most rewarding part was sharing so much challenging experiences with a good friend and coming out on the other side in one piece.
Danny Uhlmann is an IFMGA/UIAGM Mountain Guide based in Chamonix, France. He has worked with absolute beginners, champion skiers, world-class endurance athletes, Everest no-O’s summiteers, and everything in between. His company, First Light Mountain Guides, considers guided mountain trips to be a collaboration between the guide and the client.
Danny is available as a mountain guide and can be reached at First Light Mountain Guides.
Danny’s personal career highlights include rock climbing to 7c+, first ski descents in Afghanistan, expedition to Bhaghirathi III in Garwhal Himalaya, El Capitan in-a-day via Zodiac, and a link-up of Astroman and Rostrum (20 pitches of up to 5.11+ Yosemite climbing). While helping others achieve their goals, he is also working towards his own lifelong goal to free climb El Cap via the Freerider.