Inspired by pictures taken during a helicopter flight with the aim of counting wild reindeer herds, Russian explorer and photographer Sergey Karpukhin back in 2016 became the first to visit the rock pillars in the hinterlands of Siberia, which he named Granite Cities of Ulakhan-Sis. In 2018, he was joined by Kilian Fischhuber, alongside German Robert Leistner and Galya Terenteva from Russia to become the first climbers to put their hands on these mystic towers.
Getting there already turned out to be an adventure in its own. The team flew to Belaya Gora high up north in the Sakha Republic, from where they took a boat up the Indigirka river for roughly 200km. Upon exiting the boat, three days of punishing hiking through the tundra brought them to the rock pillars.
For 36-year old Fischhuber, who has travelled the world as a climber for both competitions and rock climbing, this trip definitely raised the bar quite a bit in terms of exploration.
“We had seen the pictures of Sergey and thought there might be possible climbs. But with this amount of effort to even get there, there are certainly moments where you start doubting things,” Fischhuber reflects on the clashes between imagination and reality that he also speaks about in the lectures he’s been giving about this memorable expedition.
The weird shapes in the towers in Siberia are believed to be sculpted by relentless freezing and thawing, and it is these extreme changes of temperatures that also effected the quality of the granite, which made the climbing even more demanding for the experienced trio.
Robert Leistner, one of the most well-known protagonists of the Elbsandstein climbers who is very familiar with climbing towers on poor protection, described one of his first ascents out in the Siberian wilderness as his “psychologically most demanding climb ever done. It is very committing; you need to make a decision before you leave the ground.”
Russian native Galina Terenteva says that she “will remember this place and this landscape all my life, it’s hard to describe as it feels like you’re in some other world.” She and all other members of the expeditions agree with Karpukhin that these granite formations in Siberia should become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“It feels like a treat to have this film to remember this unique adventure. I’ll go back myself to live through what we experienced by watching it. What feels like a hassle in the moment becomes very rewarding when looking back,” Fischhuber says reminiscing the adventure that brought him and his friends to “Terra Incognita.”