Atte Miettinen's mission to conquer the Seven Summits of the world

The Dubai-based businessman is five mountains down in his quest to climb seven peaks.
Atte Miettinen is looking to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks upon the seven continents.
Atte Miettinen is looking to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks upon the seven continents.

Picture the rampaging Dubai skyline. Zoom in on one high-rise in the Marina. Imagine your way all the way into the barren stairwell.

Get a load of this guy.

He runs from floor one to floor 55. He runs back down. He hauls a 25-kilogram backpack. He runs back up. He drinks a cup of water about every 20 floors. He runs back down. "What Dubai lacks in mountains, it makes up in high buildings," he says.

He runs back up. Often he sees no one across four hours of this. He runs back down. Occasionally, he will happen across someone fixing the lift, someone snaring a nap or someone looking at him as if he has gone mad. And he runs back up. He does this two or three times each week. Sometimes he listens to music, but more often he listens to books, and most often he listens to books about climbing mountains.

And he runs back down.

Across his 36 years he has never had alcohol, coffee or a cigarette. Friends jokingly request his organs should he pass on. Sometimes, outdoors, he runs on the beach towing a car tyre upon which his wife rides along.

"I don't mind the occasional person asking, 'Why are you doing this?'" Atte Miettinen says.

The ancient answer goes, "Because it's there," but in the case of this Finnish, Dubai-based telecommunications executive, they're there.

Of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks upon the seven continents, Miettinen has climbed five, including Antarctica, leaving only Everest (Asia) for this spring and Denali (North America) for this summer.

Only 348 humans have climbed the seven, according to the website, statistics updated with the news of Romi Garduce, the first Filipino to qualify. None has been Finnish.

Exotic mountain moment: Atop Kilimanjaro, a summiteer looks down both upon clouds and through clouds, to the savannas. Retinas know this view from only one other setting. Therefore, Miettinen reports: "You have this thought that the stewardess should come and offer me a drink, but they're not here."

It's amazing, but people seem to think they can climb mountains with scant physical preparation. This problem finds its epitome at crowded Kilimanjaro, where it can seem almost as if somebody in a pub just said, "Dude, let's climb Kilimanjaro!"

To convey the abnormality of altitude and its toll on human physiology, anecdotes do help.

At Elbrus in Russia, one of Miettinen's fellow climbers, extremely experienced, grew wobbly and said, "I'm going to go back to base camp, got a little bit of a headache." He began walking in precisely the wrong direction and, after Miettinen corralled him, he had zero memory of Miettinen walking him down. "You start developing hallucinations," Miettinen said, "and you lose your sense of direction, and in the worst case, it can change into something very, very bad."

Descending Cartensz Pyramid in Indonesia, Delanii Kerai-Miettinen, Atte's wife, collapsed. Her husband had planned painstakingly but, he said, "I didn't think about, 'What do I do if my wife collapses on the mountains, and I'm 100 kilometres away from the village where people have no clothes, let alone a doctor?'" Only through a maddening sequence at the world's third-largest gold mine, at the base of the mountain, and a two-day stay in a nearby cabin did there come a doctor and a diagnosis and a relief.

"Almost every mountain, you have a person that comes back and gets snow blindness," Miettinen said. Snow blindness? Yes. They failed to bring proper sunglasses. "Then, they have to be walked out, because you literally cannot see." Really. "Sunburn on your cornea." Oh.

Women often trump men, he said. "Men tend to be a little bit arrogant: 'I've trained enough, I'm tough enough. I'm on my first mountain, but I know what I'm doing!'" But he recalled the case of a British woman who climbed Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina, reached the summit, lifted her arms, looked at her guide and passed out.

"You have to constantly look after each other," he said, "have a look at people's faces and say, 'Your nose is getting a little bit white there. Can you feel it?'"

Gossip prevails at base camps. Could those Norwegians everybody kept seeing, the three brothers in their 50s with their father well into his 70s, possibly make it all the way up Kilimanjaro? (The brothers did; the father had to halt.)

Yet climbing proves necessarily wordless. Scaling with his Argentine guide the 6,962 metres of Cerro Aconcagua, where eight to 12 people die annually in the 100-day climbing season, the two men spoke only about 20 words per day because where you must breathe two-and-one-half times to gather the oxygen of one sea-level breath, he said, "You don't want to waste a lot of oxygen speaking."

It may come as no surprise, then, that he routinely sees a London doctor who specialises in altitude, even if that speciality might itself come as a surprise to guys with whims about climbing Kilimanjaro.

Exotic mountain moment: Beneath Cartensz Pyramid in the province of Papua in Indonesia live villagers who had no awareness of the remainder of the planet - and vice versa - until 60 years ago. They wear either nothing or very close to it. When guiding rare tourists through the jungle toward the technically challenging mountain, some of the women trap spiders. For eating. Miettinen asked one elderly man for his age, and the man replied earnestly through an interpreter, "Eighteen", indicating a notable absence of the Gregorian calendar.

This Seven Summits goal hit Miettinen only gradually, after early climbs. It became an ultimate test of self, a fine mixture of the athletic and the exotic. "It teaches you how to deal with disappointment," he said.

In fact, as just about every sport claims to mirror life, this one might boast the steepest claim. Painstaking gains routinely meet sweeping setbacks, and intimate is the contact with severe disappointment.

Two years ago, Miettinen travelled all the way to Argentina. He spent money. He spent untold hours climbing 55 floors of stairwells and all else. He spent 20 or so hours in the famous comfort of an airplane seat.

He caught a throat-and-chest infection and never made base camp.

Aconcagua rebelled again this past December. In-rushing clouds and 135km summit winds and 40 centimetres of snow kept shoving the two men back to base camp.

Seven-hour ascents kept proving fruitless until they reached the last day of the guide's availability, having sat around base camp for three days fixing tents, preparing food, washing dishes and eyeballing an unfavourable weather forecast. Only on the last day did they summit - "summit" being a verb as it happens, and properly so.

Further, this mirror on life instils a heightened sense of We're All In This Together.

Near the top of Vinson Massif in Antarctica, one climber became sick, slowing the others. "We were literally pulling him up the mountain," Miettinen said, "but if it were me, I would want them to help me."

In the jungles of Papua, abounding in people with weapons and king cobras with fangs, Miettinen said, "Me, my wife, an American lady, a Canadian guy, a Polish guy, none of us, I don't think, were scared of the situation. Everybody was just fascinated to be in the middle of this. It just felt very, very special.

"There's a connection there," he said, "and there's a connection that stretches over culture, age, sex and a lot of other boundaries. I'm sure there's a psychologist somewhere who can describe exactly what it is that happens."

Exotic mountain moment: The climbing group for Mount Elbrus, Russia, came across a bridge with bullet holes in it, not surprising given the huge troop presence near the Chechnya border. To climb Elbrus, one must apply to the FSB, main successor agency to the KGB. “We were denied access to a few routes, told, ‘You’re not allowed to go, we are conducting operations,’” Miettinen said. “And we were quite happy to go elsewhere.” Climbing mountains, as it happens, lends a sharper view of life at sea level.

The idea that 100 channels in a hotel room could seem a paucity worth bemoaning, well, that begins to seem a lunacy (and accurately so).

Sometimes, Delanii will prepare Atte a meal, and he will thank her for the meal, thank her again, and continue thanking her until she has to ask him to stop thanking her.

After climbing for weeks with two sets of thermals (three deemed a luxury), and with freeze-dried foods, and with obsession over hydration (five-to-seven litres of water per day; try doing that at home), and while collecting one’s own waste for disposal only upon descent, and with “bucket showers”, and with laborious hygiene concerns …

“You become less materialistic and you appreciate moments and experiences a lot more,” Miettinen said. “It’s the moment that counts – and the memory of the moment.”

After all, this is a pursuit with a “death zone”, the area above 8,000m on Everest where human life becomes unsustainable. Already Miettinen has submitted his Body Disposal Form. Intricately, he is aware of the corpses dropped over a ledge and entombed up there. Carefully, he will have the bottled oxygen ready for a six-week climb.

There’s just one thing that nags an eldest child (of three): that unwritten rule about fellow climbers who falter above 8,000. “If they can walk, you help him,” he said. “If they can’t walk, you leave them.” One casualty beats two. “And it fights against every principle in my mind, because I’m used to looking after my siblings. It’s quite a difficult concept for me to accept.”

Exotic mountain moment: “You see a little bit of shapes” atop Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Miettinen said. “You can see the white sea, as I describe it. And you can see the shapes of mountains popping up in the distance.” And: “I don’t know, there’s something special about the feeling of, I’m here by myself, with these people I just met, and we’re pretty much alone. No penguins. No birds. You know, this is literally untouched.”

Picture the sprawling and scattered Dubai skyline. Zoom in on one high-rise …

Published: February 11, 2012 04:00 AM


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