Silvia and Stefano: how long have you known each other and for how long have you travelled together?
“We met in 2016 in the legendary bouldering room at the “Intellighenzia Project” climbing centre in Padua where, over the years, lots of mountaineers and climbers from Padua have emerged. Essentially, we met one other and began travelling at the same time. At the time, we were both office workers, but we dreamt of faraway lands and great adventures. Fate brought us together at just the right time, we resigned from our permanent jobs and began our life journey together, which continues today. In the past eight years, we've gone on various expeditions outside Europe, taken courses to become Alpine Guides, gone on climbing trips around Europe and travelled through the Alps in a van, driven at all times by our passion for climbing...all of it together throughout!”
What do you do for work? How do you balance going on expeditions around the world with work?
“We're Alpine Guides, so we take clients to the summits they dream of reaching and organise training sessions for various mountain settings, including sport climbing, ice climbing, ski mountaineering, rock climbing and mountain climbing. In our courses, we teach learners how to move independently and deal with risks. With the work we've chosen to do, we’re busiest during peak tourist season, i.e. summer and winter. This allows us to fit in expeditions at other times of the year. By working every day during peak-season months, we can afford to “shut up shop” for a couple months in a row during the off season. This means, however, that we have to adapt to the tourist season and, as such, we keep October and November free for our own expeditions. This period is not always the best for certain destinations but unfortunately, at the moment, we can’t just stop working when demand is at its peak. We do have certain mountains and projects in mind for a more prosperous future... So fingers crossed!”
What, for you, are the key ingredients of a real adventure?
Silvia: “Adventure means experiencing something far removed from my everyday life, in a place I don't know and where I’m unfamiliar with the surroundings, culture, language, customs, etc. Adventure means immersing myself in nature by doing something inseparably dependent on it; something that forces me to move to its beat. It’s a creative endeavour, something that surprises me and makes me change my plans again and again because things we don’t expect, which aren’t necessarily bad, happen. Adventure means finding something within me that I didn't know about and that makes me go “wow”. It’s the emotion I feel when someone I don't know tells me something very deep and direct related to what I was looking for in said adventure. Adventure means putting my body and its endurance to the test with a challenge suited to what’s at stake. It’s a combination of what I think about, what I do and what I discover about myself and my surroundings, both from a physical and human point of view.”
Stefano: “The unknown is definitely a factor that causes a lot of unease and stress but it’s thanks to this that an adventure has the space and time to develop day after day, decision after decision. This was the case for us during our most recent expedition to Nepal...and perhaps in life too! Passion and desire for the mountains and climbing are, without doubt, the main things that make me spend a portion of my savings and my free time setting off on adventures. If climbing didn't exist, I’d lose most of the fire I have inside me.”
You spoke about Nepal. How did you choose your destination?
“We chose Nepal for various reasons. We had an opportunity, midway through summer, to organise an expedition for autumn, so just a few months before we were due to leave. We wanted to go to the Himalayas and reach some unclimbed peaks. Of the various countries in the Himalayan mountain range, Nepal was definitely the easiest and fastest in terms of visas, permits and logistics in general. The choice we ultimately made was definitely influenced by the fact that, thanks to having some good and kind connections and a network of sources that proved very helpful and accurate when providing information, we had more information about certain valleys with unclimbed peaks.”
Nepal is big and logistically challenging. How did you choose your target down there?
“We set our sights on an unexplored area in which many peaks had not yet been reached. Bit by bit, everything slotted into place in the logistical puzzle. We deliberately chose a non-touristy valley, with the pros and cons that this would entail. Rather than settle for the more commercial areas that now exist in Nepal, we were looking for more authentic and untamed locations. Because of this, however, the build-up, which included having to take an internal flight, spending two whole days in a Jeep on bumpy, unregulated roads and, finally, spending six days trekking, ended up being long. At the same time, getting reliable and accurate information proved very challenging because few of the agencies we asked knew about the place and even less knew about the summits we were talking about. Believe it or not, the locals themselves had never ventured into the secondary valley we’d chosen for climbing Sato Peak and setting up base camp! Fortunately, the yak shepherd who helped us transport our things to base camp had a few memories from childhood: he remembered that the particular area had been a pasture for yaks but was now abandoned. Thanks to what he remembered, we had some “certainty” that the yaks were able to go up there and that there was water (which was a basic requirement for the shepherds and now for us and our base camp too, as we spent two weeks there totally alone). Aware of the limitations and dangers that the remote area may present, we remained flexible until the last moment, even with regard to the summit we wanted to climb. The initial target we’d chosen was Sharphu III which, from the photo in our possession, was clearly below 6500 metres. However, a few days before setting off, the agency we’d hired for permits and internal transport informed us that the Nepalese databases (which serve as a reference for issuing climbing permits) showed Sharphu III to be 6800 metres high. This raised the price of the permit by an additional 2500 dollars. Our meagre photo certainly wasn't enough to change the Nepalese databases with a week to go, so we turned our attention to another nearby peak, which we felt could be reached from the same valley.”
At this point, you landed in Kathmandu and immersed yourself in Nepalese culture.
"Yes, Kathmandu, which is the focal point for any activity you want to do in Nepal, was not only a must but an interesting place too. It gave us our first noisy impression of the hustle and bustle of this country. On the outward journey, we found Kathmandu absolutely bewildering, but on the return leg, it was easier to take because we knew what to expect. Perhaps after living immersed in their culture for a month, we gained a better understanding of the aspects of Nepal that we’d experienced in the capital which, superficially speaking, is so different from the silent mountain valleys. We found very kind and helpful people, colours, humility and a love for this simple yet beautiful land, as well as a desire to welcome visitors and keep tourism thriving, albeit their way!
What we liked most about Nepal, however, was undoubtedly life in the villages. We’ve never felt at ease in big cities, not even in Italy. Being immersed in the peaceful valleys of Kangchenjunga after the chaos of Kathmandu was like being able to breathe again (and in Kathmandu, there's lots of dust and air pollution, so it’s quite literally hard to breathe!). In the villages, each activity moves to a different beat. The meals were definitely the service we made the most of and, with this, you have to have a lot of patience during the long wait, which is rewarded with the simple yet genuine food served to you on the plate. The wait is totally justified if you think that, from the moment you knock on their door and ask for a hot meal, they cater to your request, starting by chopping wood, then lighting a fire, collecting fresh vegetables from their patch and then washing, chopping and cooking them... so you won't get anything to eat in less than an hour and a half! 99% of the time then, there’s just one dish—the hearty, typical dish “Dal Bhat” made with rice and creamed lentils—with a few small and unconventional variations on it.
Another interesting aspect of village life, which also slows down the inhabitants’ day-to-day routine, is the way in which goods are transported (be it long-life foods, planks of wood for construction, or anything else). There are no roads and transport by motor vehicle is impossible. Everything is transported by men with huge wicker baskets tied to their front or by yaks which—slow yet unyielding—are a great additional resource. We ourselves actually relied on the yaks to transport our equipment to base camp. Their help was vital, no doubt, but it did slow down our two-day trek, both on the outward and return journey. Yaks don’t walk at the same pace as humans: they constantly need to stop and graze on grass and lighten the heavy load they’re carrying (each yak can carry 50 kg).”
Thanks to the yaks, you reached base camp. Was the location how you expected it to be?
"We had no fixed expectations about base camp, because we’d only explored the valley with Google Earth and FatMap, with the hope of finding water and a plain at the highest possible altitude. So, when we reached the location chosen for base camp, our hopes came down to just two things: water and flat terrain... And that’s what we got. We would’ve definitely preferred being able to set up camp higher up, so we could get as close as possible to our mountain and not have to carry everything we needed up and down on our backs, but unfortunately the yaks were unable to climb any further and we wouldn’t have found water.
The location, however, was magnificent: we were all alone on a suspended balcony overlooking the majestic Jannu mountain, whose summit reaches 7700 metres. With its extraordinary grandeur, it encompasses the entire Kangchenjunga valley, as if it had a massive cape made from rock and ice.”
Was this the first time both of you were at this high an altitude? How was it?
“For both of us, 6100 metres is, so far, the highest altitude we’ve ever reached. So we learned a lot from the expedition about how our bodies react at this altitude and about timing and methods for acclimatising. Although we didn't experience any serious issues, there were definitely a few nights where we had a headache and nausea, and sometimes shortness of breath. Because of this, we were not always as fit as we would’ve hoped the following day.
We had to delay our actual ascent by a day because the first night we woke up, ready to set off for the summit, we were in no condition to do so. So we pushed our bid back to the following day.”
After all the time spent envisioning things, preparing for the expedition and the lengthy build-up, the time came for you to start climbing the mountain.
“Ah yes, that was our moment! On 31 October, we left the advanced camp at around 4.30 am and began our ascent along the glacier. The snow hurt us a lot because it was heavy and inconsistent. At times, we were up to our knees in it. When it got dark, it was very cold, we couldn't get warm and we progressed slowly. The temperature was hovering around -20° Celsius but we knew we just had to hold on a little longer. A few hours later, the sun emerged from behind Jannu and brought the temperature up to more tolerable levels.
We reached the beginning of the rocky ridge and, after a few attempts searching the area, we found the best spot to climb and begin the ascent. Here too in the steepest sections, the snow made climbing difficult, so we were constantly looking for spots where the rock, despite being scant, prevailed. The ascent alternated between sections of leaning rock where you could proceed cautiously and steeper sections where pitches were needed.
We kept trying to test the stability of the snow on the north side, which would have allowed us to move forward much quicker, but we kept having to resort to rock, where we at least managed to place a few friends or spikes to secure ourselves. The climb was varied and fun, except for a few stretches of unstable boulders and rotten rock. After six hours of traversing the ridge, we reached the fore-summit of Sato Peak at an altitude of 6100 metres, the first goal we’d set ourselves. To reach the main summit 6200 metres up, at this point we would’ve had to descend and find a snowy ridge, before zigzagging between some seracs. Unfortunately, however, the condition of the snow was still very bad, so we decided to end our ascent on this unnamed peak.
The descent followed the same path as the ascent, where there was a lot of downhill climbing and a few rappels in the steepest sections. In an attempt to avoid a tower that we’d previously climbed, we found ourselves in the middle of the south face on a section where the stones resting on top of one another would move if you so much as looked at them. We lost a lot of time getting through this section. With some trepidation, we managed to get back to the ridge and from there down to the snowy pass... At that point, we were in the clear! We descended along the glacier as the daylight faded, enjoying the beautiful sunset over Jannu, which accompanied us as it had every day, and when it got dark, we returned to the advanced base camp where, exhausted, we collapsed in our tent.”
You named your ascent Kalypso, after the Greek goddess who ensnared Odysseus. Why did you opt for this name? Were you “captured” by the mountains of Nepal?
"We decided to call our summit Sato Pyramide because of the projected, pyramid-like shape it has compared to the main summit. The name we chose for the route—Kalypso—was inspired by the fact that, during our stay at base camp, the only entertainment we had was the Odyssey, which Silvia had downloaded onto her e-book. We also felt, in some way, like prisoners of love...not because of the nymph but because of these mountains that drive us to keep pushing on and coming up with new plans. Kalypso also derives from the Ancient Greek verb meaning “to cover or conceal”: everything about this expedition was hidden until the very end, before revealing itself.”
What surprised you most about this journey?
"What surprised us most was how worn out our bodies got and, at the same time, how tired our minds became as we waited to acclimatise properly and during the slow ascent we were forced to make, having to move our equipment upwards from base camp by ourselves. The wait was not dead time per se; we were never bored. During this time, there was very little light and sunshine and we spent many hours in cold sub-zero temperatures."
Are you going back to Nepal anytime soon?
“We don't know yet if we’ll go back to Nepal.. What really captivated us was the magnificent grandeur of these mountains and how isolated they are. That said, the world is full of mountain ranges we’d like to discover and we’re always on the lookout for something new and different. So perhaps we’ll do something else before returning to Nepal!”