Eric Gilbertson Becomes Just 3rd American to Get Snow Leopard Award

Eric Gilbertson of the U.S. and Andreas Frydensberg of Denmark have finally received their Snow Leopard certificates.

The pair earned the award for climbing all five 7,000m peaks in the former Soviet Union. But they needed to convince the authorities that the East summit of Pobeda Peak, which they reached in 2021, was valid.

Pobeda Peak — at 7,439m, the roof of the Tien Shan — is the hardest of the five. The others are Ismail Somoni (formerly Pik Communism) Ibn Sina (formerly Pik Lenin), Korzhenevskaya, and Khan Tengri (which is 6,995m but features a big enough snowcap to just clear 7,000m).

A general image of pobeda, with notes pointing to the peak's South, Central and North summits.

Pobeda’s summits. Photo/notes: Eric Gilbertson


They summited Pobeda in alpine style via the Abalakov route (6A Russian grade). The problem came when they reported reaching Pobeda’s East summit. The question arose whether that was indeed the highest point on the mountain. Sound familiar?

Pobeda: Which summit is the real one?

Gilbertson, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT, argued his case with an overwhelming amount of data. He used 1940s Soviet surveys, satellite measurements, digital elevation models, photographic analysis, and more.

“I compiled my research in a technical document and concluded that the Pobeda summit massif is a 700m-long ridge with three key locations  East, Central, and West,” he wrote. “Each location has been highest or tied for the highest in at least one measurement, in at least one year. It cannot be concluded from the data that one location is the true highpoint. This is likely because the three locations are so close in elevation that yearly variation in snowpack and cornice formation determines the highest point. This changes from year to year.”

Gilbertson added this is a unique situation with Pobeda. Yet in these times of heated debates about true summits, the case is worth bearing in mind for other controversial summit points.

Just in case, Gilbertson also got hold of a copy of pioneer Vitalyi Mikhail Abalakov’s trip report from his first ascent in 1956. He found out that Abalakov himself went to the East summit. Several Russian climbers supported Gilbertson’s arguments. Finally, the Westerners’ application was approved.

Pobeda in dawn light.

The formidable Pobeda Peak. Photo: Shutterstock


Gilbertson’s long-term project

As a mountaineering feat, the Snow Leopard challenge is a big deal. While not highly publicized, these peaks are extremely demanding due to their technical difficulty, isolation, conditions, and size. Few Westerners have attempted them, and even fewer have completed all five. Gilbertson is just the third American to do so, after William Garner and Randy Starrett in 1985. Frydensberg is the first Dane.

Eric Gilbertson has been climbing high peaks around the world since he started trying to summit the highest peaks in every country with his twin brother, Matthew. They planned to summit some peaks together but also pursue others individually. That way, the common score would remain in the family. These days, Andreas Frydensberg has become Eric’s regular climbing partner. In 2022, they summited K2 without oxygen.

Tougher than the 8,000’ers

The Snow Leopard challenge began during the Cold War when Soviet climbers rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of the USSR. Fortunately for them, the Soviet Union included huge ranges such as the Pamirs and the Tien Shan.

The first Snow Leopard was Evgeniy Ivanov in 1961. The hardest version of the challenge was to climb all the peaks in winter. A Russian-Kyrgyz team achieved this feat for the first time in February 2020. Andrzej Bargiel of Poland is currently the fastest to do all five mountains. He finished them all in 29 days, 17 hours, and 5 minutes.

The Snow Leopard peaks have changed in name and even sometimes in number over the years, with the politics of the region. But ultimately, the award survived the fall of the USSR in 1991 and remains a coveted prize. However, it is only suitable for self-sufficient, diehard climbers.

A medal including a design of an ice axe and a climbing rope surrounding the shilouette of Khan Tengri.

The original Snow Leopard award. Photo: Wikimedia/Skas


While there are some organized expeditions to Ibn Sina, logistics and support remain a far cry from commercialized routes on the 8,000’ers. Each peak presents formidable obstacles, from the steep pyramid of Khan Tengri, the objective difficulties of Pobeda at the head of the Inylchek Glacier, to the 7.5km ridge of Korzhenevskaya. All the peaks have ferocious weather and dangerous isolation if anything goes wrong. Eric Gilbertson doesn’t hesitate to call Pobeda the hardest peak he has ever climbed, surpassing even his no-O2 ascent of K2.

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides graduated university in journalism and specializes in high-altitude mountaineering and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporations, press manager and communication executive, and a published author.