Weekend Warm-Up: UFO Life

This documentary has it all: Messner, Scott, UFOs, broken Piolet d’Ors, unclimbed lines and a seriously tough descent for Czech mountaineers Marek Holecek and Zdenek Hak.

In May 2019, after years of sideways glances, Holecek and Hak decide to take on the mighty northwest wall of Chamlang. A vertical face with no obvious lines, it had previously been attempted at least six times without success.

Undaunted, their preparation looks pleasingly minimalist, almost haphazard. “Base Camp” is just two lonely tents and an assortment of strewn gear. Chamlang’s northwest wall looms overhead.

The film cuts between preparations, the climb and family members back home. It is not a video to watch if you are debating getting into mountaineering. Holecek has a young daughter, Hak a pregnant partner. It’s jarring to cut from their understandably nervous relatives to Holecek and Hak plodding up sheer ice, a vertigo-inducing drop below. Ramping up the tension, Holecek’s father is dying. In what must have been a near-impossible decision, he decides to head to Chamlang anyway, hoping to return before the inevitable.

On the mountain, the duo climb alpine style, light and fast, without bottled oxygen. They carry just a small bivi tent, one 80 metre 7mm rope, six ice screws, five pitons, three gas cylinders and enough food for five days. The early climb progresses over exposed rock, ice and tricky mixed sections. Eventually, they bed down at 5,600m.

UFO Line on Chamlang. Photo: UFO Life


On their third bivy, at around 7,000m, they cram onto a tiny ledge, yet remain in disturbingly good spirits. The next day, they push up to the ridge and pass another night before the last slog to Chamlang’s 7,319m summit. They christen their new line UFO, in honor of Doug Scott and Reinhold Messner’s 1981 climb, during which they saw an unidentified flying object.

What did they find at the top of the mountain? No UFO, just loneliness and despair. Now that the line was complete, there remained the small matter of getting down alive. Out of food, they set off down the eastern ridge.

Though they survive, Holecek does not make it back in time to see his father, only to scatter his ashes.

Messner calls their achievement a work of art. I guess true art requires sacrifice.

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam. A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon. He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon. His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.

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