For a few days already I had been roaming the streets of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. All excited about a newly discovered interest in street photography and the Soviet architecture this amazing city has to offer. Occasionally however, I got a glimpse of what was lying beyond the city noise and dust: golden, rolling hills topped with snow capped mountains.
The desire to climb one of these grew stronger and stronger. And before I knew it I was researching my options.
‘How about a 6000m mountain?’ I thought to myself.
Having been up to 5600m in the Himalayas a few years ago it would only be a logical succession. But, somehow, all I could come across was this mountain that they called ‘the easiest 7000er on the planet’.
So there it was. Peak Lenin. 7134m tall. Easiest thing on the planet. It had my attention!
I soon settled on a company with a decent reputation and, what to me seemed, like fair pricing. The last group expedition for this season was to leave within the week. I had no time to lose!
A couple of emails later Olympus AU on board and with 2 days to spare I had somehow managed to find almost all the necessary equipment for a 7000m summit attempt. Some old, some new, some borrowed, some rented… the rest, I was promised, I would find at Base Camp.
At this stage I’d like to thank Olympus for believing in me and supporting this project on such short notice! You guys are total legends!
For the best experience enjoy the episodes in full screen and in beautiful 4K (if your Internet can handle it).
The Lenin Peak Expedition - Part I
The Lenin Peak Expedition - Part II
Lenin Peak is a 7134m tall mountain in the south of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. It’s on the border with Tajikistan and, believe it or not, you need documents that allow you to traverse into Tajikistan for this summit. Not that you technically go into the neighbouring country, or that you have to fear a border control at 6100m… it’s all just in case you fall off the wrong side of the mountain… true story!
Anyway, Lenin Peak is the second tallest mountain of Kyrgyzstan. It’s the highest mountain in the Trans-Alay Range of Central Asia, and in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan it is exceeded only by Ismoil Somoni Peak (7,495 m) (Read more on Wikipedia).
While, yes, technically it’s not difficult. (It’s basically a hike to the top). It’s still a 7000m mountain and should be taken seriously by anyone thinking of attempting it. The traditional route to the top involves traversing multiple glaciers and even the ascent of the Lenin Glacier. Deep and hidden crevasses make this particularly dangerous. It also has one of the longest summit days of any mountain on the planet. With almost 1200m altitude difference between the last camp 3 and the summit you can expect to walk at least 9 hours to reach summit and return to camp 3. Not exactly a stroll in the park at that altitude.
Anyway… I decided I was going to do this.
There’s a long list of mountaineering gear you’ll need. I’m going to cut it short here and talk about what camera equipment I was going to take the with me since this whole mission was a self assigned job for Olympus.
If however, you’d like to attempt this mountain, please feel free to contact me with your specific questions. I’ll happily share my advice and experience with you.
So I put myself on assignment to test how well Olympus’ currently flagship camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II would hold up at extreme altitude. Having successfully used the camera in +40ºC in Namibia, -15ºC snow storms in the Faroe Islands earlier this year, I was fairly confident it was the right tool for the job. But there was only one proper way of finding out!
In my opinion, the E-M1 Mark II is the perfect expedition camera. It’s super solid, weather resistant, small and light. In a place where weight is crucial this camera ticks all the boxes.
My thinking was that I wasn’t going to change lenses while in the extreme conditions in order to keep the camera as weather sealed as possible.. With the M.Zuiko 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO and the M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO mounted to 2 bodies I had 2 permanently sealed cameras with me that covered the range I was going to need.
Additionally I took x5 batteries, x6 Lexar 64GB UHS-II SD cards, a lens cloth and a charger and packed it all into my Mountain Smith Lumbar Pack. I setup the cameras to write all the captured data to both cards in the 2 slots (= instant back-up!)
All photos were captured in RAW (20.4MP) and the video in C4K (4096x2160px) and the i-Enhance picture profile. More on that later.
In total I captured +1,600 photos and +70GB of video material over a period of 18 days. I filled about x2 64GB cards worth.
My personal goal was to reach and go above 6000m, since that was what I initially was looking for, I set this as my bar. Reaching the summit would just be the cherry on the top…
The program was pretty well setup and our two Russian speaking guides seemed competent and experienced. Seemed, because communicating with them was a real struggle… but as usual in life: we somehow managed.
Gradually we climbed our way up to Camp 3 with ample day hikes and acclimatisation walks to get our heads and bodies to adapt to the lack of oxygen. I suffered the occasional light headache, but nothing to seriously worry about.
And with occasional rest days I had enough time to acclimatise and fight the stomach problem the lack of hygiene in the kitchen was providing me with. It didn’t help, but both times I managed to overcome it within 24 hours.
To our horror we saw many people returning with frostbite on their hands and faces… not exactly a pretty picture, nor very encouraging. But nonetheless I wasn’t going to let this stop me. Telling myself: ‘it’s only a mountain and if it won’t let me then I won’t push it.’ – secretly of course hoping I wasn’t going to die up there.
And by the time we did the final push from Camp 1/ABC (440m) to Camp 2 (5400m) then Camp 3 at 6100m I was a happy camper and felt perfectly prepared for the summit day.
Unfortunately we were late in the season. From what I heard, only about 4 people made it to the summit in August 2017. A cold summer with many days of deadly winds pushing people back and stopping even the toughest of people from reaching the 7,134m summit. But, it seemed like we were going to have a window: 15-20km/h winds and acceptable temperatures at the summit on the 28th of August.
By the time we were ready for the summit push our group of 7 had shrunk down to 3. Group members were discourage, lost the willpower or just had other reasons for leaving the expedition.
That wasn’t going to stop me. I felt great!
Finally, on the 27th of August 2017 we reached Camp 3 at 6100m and ready for the summit push on the following morning.
Camp 3 is nasty! It’s located on it’s own little summit. 100m you have to walk down before you actually get to start hiking for the real thing, fully knowing you’ll be returning up that same 100m after you’ve finished. Nothing like walking up a nasty, frozen hill after a potentially 9h long walk up to 7134m.
At 4AM we set off and by the time we reached 6400m I was empty. Totally, completely drained from energy. Every step took 5 breath out of me, every 5 steps required a break.
A frozen Snickers to the rescue and I felt fine again. Energy levels are either deadly low or just high enough to keep going up here. Slow motion is the pace and every second painfully cold. Wind blasting frozen snow straight onto our faces and a discouraging 30-35km/h wind gusts
The hardest bit? It was dark. The only thing I could see was the circle of light my headlamp was casting onto the seemingly vertical ice wall practically in arms reach in front of me. A never ending wall of ice.
I knew we had to climb a long face before it would ‘flatten out’ for a while… but how long could this face be? By now the group had shrunk to 2. A french guy and myself + one guide. The other had returned to Camp 3 with the other member of the group. He hadn’t come out of the pit of low energy and just couldn’t face a 9h walk.
We discussed giving up. I suggested climbing a little further. We reached the top of the endless face and suddenly things changed. The wind grew ever stronger, but a glimpse of light on the horizon announced a new day. My energy levels were back up and with every step I felt stronger and more determined to reach the summit. I could do this!
My french friend however was struggling, he couldn’t feel his toes and was sure he was getting frostbite.
‘It’s only a mountain’ I told myself. I agreed to turn back. This wasn’t worth a toe (or multiple of them).
Finally, at around 6500m, we turned back, but not before experiencing the most amazing sunrise I’ve ever seen.
I gathered all my strength and captured a few shots and some video footage.
Slightly gutted about the failure, but awestruck by the beauty of what we were witnessing I thought to myself: ‘This was worth every moment of suffering.’
At +6,500m things are a little different. A breeze becomes deadly, a slip can turn into a disaster and the cold is instant and to the bone and breathing is a very conscious part of survival. I was wearing 2 gloves, 5 layers on top and 4 on the bottom meaning I wasn’t exactly ‘agile’.
Every breath is a real struggle and the body basically struggling to provide sufficient energy for survival, let alone thinking of leading lines, compositions and the right camera settings.
Which is why a climb to this altitude takes about 3 weeks of acclimatisation. We had, in good old fashion, the 2 week soviet program.
Pre-visualising the composition, then getting out the camera, taking off one glove, adjusting the settings and getting the shot was the only way to take photos at that altitude. The viewfinder froze in seconds, the screen became useless (too difficult to see with level 4 sunglasses) and my fingers were numb and actually getting frostbite within seconds.
Not exactly a joke. A scenario where the camera just has to work.
The E-M1 Mark II did a surprisingly amazing job! I had control over the basics (shutter and aperture) at any time without problems. Relying heavily on the light meter (sunglasses suck for photography) I was able to instantly read and adjust my settings all while in Manual Mode (C3) and, with a flick, I could switch over to Movie Mode and using the Variable Circular Polariser to film some scenes.
Some would argue that covering the camera up, or trying to protect it would be best in this environment, but I think it’s best to have the lenses and body at ‘room’ temperature to avoid fogging up.
Nothing like trying to flick out the lens wipe and cleaning a lens with 2 gloves over your hand. Here you need to just be tough. Darn tough!
I expect it to handle the environment I’m in without additional care. The spare batteries however, I did keep close to my body to keep as much charge as possible at -30ºC.
But even on summit day I ended up draining no more than one battery between 4AM and 10AM. Not bad!
The last thing I thought of was that I’d be way more challenged than the camera equipment. Sure I knew it was going to be tough…. but you have no idea what it’s like to try and boil snow outside of your tent at 40km/h winds at -30C at that altitude just to stay hydrated, or living of frozen Snickers and questionable Russian chocolate for multiple days… Now I know and I can tell you: the camera was the least of my worries.
Which, in retrospect, is a good thing!
The other surprise, again, were the BLH-1 batteries of the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Honestly, I have no clue what magic inside those black cubes, but they last forever. Even in extremely cold conditions. Of course, a 6 hour hike from 6100-6500m at -30ºC drained a battery. But in general at lower altitudes I had enough with one battery per day! This includes shooting, filming and reviewing.
On our way to the Base Camp I spent a bit of time setting up the camera. Making sure I didn’t have to worry about things like the resolution, button configuration etc. at high altitude. I decided to give the various picture profiles a test run and though that the passing landscape looked absolutely beautiful using the i-Enhance picture profile in video. And, on a whim, decided to film the entire project in this profile.
This was the first time I used something else than flat-profile on the E-M1 Mark II. But I’m happy to say I really liked the footage that came out of the camera.
Barely any adjustments were made in the final edit for the Part 1 and 2 of the APOL episode.
Both episodes were edited in Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2017. In total it took me about 4 days to (around 40 hours) to complete the editing of the images, video all the way to finalising this blog post.
All I can say is: What and adventure! Probably the most extreme place I’ve ever visited.
Even if we didn’t make it to the top, I’m still proud about what I achieved and I think it’s safe to say that the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is a solid contender for a real expedition camera.
And don’t let anyone ever tell you: ‘Lenin Peak is easy.’
I’d like to thank Olympus for trusting me and supporting me on this project. It wouldn’t have been possible without your help!