ML Interview: Ski Mountaineer Holly Walker

Feelin’ the groove. Holly Walker in the zone on Day 17.

In the last 10 years, 33-year-old Holly Walker has skied on most of the world’s continents and recently returned from an expedition to cross the world’s largest non-polar glacier in Tajikistan. As we head into the next winter season, Mountain Life caught up quickly with Holly, between planning her next adventures to Euroasia and the Alps, to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the Fedchenko Glacier expedition came together and the trials and tribulations of spending 28 straight days in the Pamir Mountains.

Mountain Life: This trip was going to be an obvious sufferfest, what made you want to attempt this crossing of the Fedchenko Glacier?

Holly Walker: For me it was about pursuing an unknown. I knew nothing about this region, these former Soviet States. I had been to Kashmir in the east and Russia in the west, but the Pamir Mountains I knew nothing about. They are similar to the Himalayas and a lot of peaks reach up to 7,000m, but I’m not going to lie, going into the trip I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had done only minimal research and I was going on a trip with people that I had never been on expeditions with before.

On day 23, Holly Walker, Emelie Stenberg and Zeb Blais look over to the Yazgulum Valley from the head of the Fedchenko Glacier

ML: How did the idea of crossing the Fedchenko come about?

HW: I came back from a ski trip on Denali in 2012 and I went for a trail run with my friend Naomi Dunaway and she asked me what I was up to next. I said I didn’t know. She then told me to talk to her friend Emelie Stenberg, who wanted to travel to Tajikistan and ski the Fedchenko Glacier. I later emailed Emelie saying “This trip sounds like a horrible idea, let’s do it!” I spoke with my writer/photographer friend Vince Shuley and we all met at a restaurant in North Vancouver. Vince and I had no information about this zone and when we met Emelie for the first time while pulling out maps to look at a glacier.

ML: What were the biggest challenges to this trip prior to departure?

HW: With Emelie, Vince and myself planning, we were trying to figure out Tajikistan and all the visas, permits and logistics for entering Gorno-Badakhshan. We were also applying for as many grants as possible. It was a huge amount of work and we were hoping to get funding but the first grant (The Alpine Club of Canada – Jen Higgins Fund) didn’t come through until our proposed departure. We didn’t have enough financial backing in 2013, so we pulled the plug in hopes to secure more funding, sponsorship and support to do the expedition in 2014.

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Through referrals, I hired a local guide named Saidali Gaibuldaev (from Pamir Guides) who was able to help us coordinate the logistics locally. I think I had something like 50 emails back and forth with Saidali, not only about the logistics of getting to the closest town to the glaciers at the correct time and date, but also helping get our visa invitations and permits to enter the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous State.

The logistics were coming together and we had another success in January when we were awarded the Polartec Grant. I worked until midnight on New Years Eve to make the submission deadline instead of partying with my friends and it paid off. After that we were awarded the MEC Exploration Grant, which helped us even more, but we were still lacking in team numbers. If one of us three got injured and couldn’t go, it would be too much to attempt the traverse with only two people. We recruited two more members. Selena Cordeau is a glaciologist with a lot of backcountry experience. She came on board and helped source and prepare our expedition food. Also mountain guide Zebulon Blais joined our team. He helped with route finding and was key in organizing the clothing drive that brought over more than 350 pounds of winter clothing to Tajikistan, all which was donated by Whistler Blackcomb, MEC and the communities of Tahoe and Whistler. Turkish Airlines stepped up to help us get it it all over there.

Just around the corner. Holly Walker pauses to admire the view.

ML: Once you had arrived at the foot of the glacier, what were your biggest challenges over the next 28 days?

HW: Personally, one of the biggest challenges I had was dealing with the weight. We didn’t expect to have to travel overland for so much time with just backpacks, we were hoping to pull sleds on snow. It took us eight days of approach before we could use our sleds on the flatter part of the Fedchenko, having to backcarry around 200 pounds of food and gear each up and down the RGS glacier in smaller loads in our running shoes. I started off with gut rot and being sick with diarrhoea on day two, when we finally made it to the headwall of the RGS glacier a few days later, the team wanted to continue and get up on the Fedchenko the next day to begin ski touring. At that point I was so tired, I broke down and had my first tears of the trip. I gave Vince a hug and told him I wanted to go home.

The last day of the trip was a similar circumstance. We were travelling through rivers and over rocks and we were incredibly fatigued. I had lost about 10 pounds (of body weight) and after a 5 a.m. start for the final gear retrieval up the valley, Vince and I managed to get to the half way point by about 11 a.m. where we loaded up with heavy backpacks for the final push back to our pick up point, Kok Jar Pass. Vince had twisted his ankle at that point, so he was moving slowly which made it easier for me to keep up. In the last 10 km of our 43 km day, the wind picked up and tried to blow us back up the valley. On our final river crossing I was almost swept away because the bottom of my sled was catching in the fast water and it almost flipped me onto my back. Vince threw out his ski pole and pulled me in to shore, where we had a quick rest and ate our last few Clif Shot Bloks. We were only a few kilometres from camp and we got hit by a big dust storm which was soon followed by torrential downpour. We dragged ourselves into camp wet and exhausted, Vince gave me a big hug and said “Holly, we’re going home.”

Holly Walker approaches camp 3 after a week of backycarrying. The RGS headwall was the final obstacle before the team could reach the Fedchenko.

ML: The team completed the traverse, but the one attempt at skiing resulted in an avalanche. Do you think the trip was still a success?

HW: Our primary objective was to reach the head of the Fedchenko, which we felt quite honoured to have achieved. It was unfortunate that skiing didn’t come into play, but when you attempt a trip as big as we did, as far as we travelled, all in an unfamiliar land and snowpack, you really can’t make it into a ski trip. Our visas were for a strict time window and flights were booked months in advance, so to have a huge expectation for skiing on a trip like this was a bit silly.

What was amazing was spending time in the villages on our way back to Dushanbe, eating meals on tea beds and interacting with locals. Also it was interesting to see the political unrest in the Gorno-Badakhshan region. When we drove into Khorog I looked out the window and saw government buildings that had been burned due to political protests. We needed to extend our visas in order to avoid fines when leaving Tajikistan, but all our forms went up in those fires. It made for a difficult few days of running around dealing with the untrustworthy autonomous government.

Holly Walker descends a safe slope towards the Fedchenko Glacier
Easy does it. A twitchy snowpack and steep slopes don’t mix. Holly Walker cruises back towards Fedchenko.

ML: Would you attempt a trip like this again?

HW: If I were to go another expedition I would either go on a cultural trip with easier objectives or a technical one with more clearly defined goals and flexibility. I probably wouldn’t aim to do a traverse like this again, I’ve been talking friends about maybe doing a traverse in Alaska but skiing steep peaks and taking advantage of food drops. Doing a high altitude, human powered and self supported trip of this size? I think I’ve checked that one off the list.

Happy Faces. A local man from Murghab poses with Emelie, Selena and Holly wearing his newly donated jacket.

Holly Walker is sponsored by Mammut, K2 Skis, Clif Bar, Smith, POW and Mons Royale.

The Fedchenko expedition was made possible with grants from the Alpine Club of Canada Jen Higgins Fund, Polartec Challenge Grant and the MEC Expedition Support Fund. Additional expedition sponsors include inReach Canada, Goal Zero, Clif Bar, Darn Tough Socks and Beal Ropes.


By Vince Shuley