Johann takes Sri Lanka’s flag to Mt. Elbrus | Sunday Observer

Johann takes Sri Lanka’s flag to Mt. Elbrus

3 September, 2023
Johann Peiris and fellow  climber poses with Sri Lanka’s flag on top of Mt. Elbrus.
Johann Peiris and fellow climber poses with Sri Lanka’s flag on top of Mt. Elbrus.

On August 22, 7:35 am, Johann Peiris became the first Sri Lankan to summit Mt. Elbrus in Russia – the highest mountain in the European continent. Johann has now climbed six out of seven of the highest peaks in the world; a quest that began after his successful summiting of Mt. Everest in May 2018.

The Sri Lankan mountaineer was part of the five member expedition to Elbrus; a dormant volcano in the Caucasus Mountains at the intersection of Asia and Europe, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. The climbers faced severe cold and wind on their way to the top as well as an impending storm which forced them to summit one day earlier than scheduled.

Along with Mt Everest, Mt Elbrus and Mt Denali (North America), Johann has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro (Africa), Kosciusko (Australia), Mt.Aconcagua (South America). He is looking forward to a little hiatus before his final in 2024 where he will take on Mt. McKinley in Antarctica.

During a Press event on August 29 at the Hilton, Colombo, Johann first answered the most sought after question; is travelling to Russia safe, given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine?

“I made a few inquiries and got advice from the Embassy. There was absolutely no problem. So I decided to go. The war is somewhere else, in a completely different direction. And, yes, I went off and that was it”.

From Russia with love

Johann points at the ‘Saddle’ of Mt. Elbrus.

Russia, Johann says, was a big surprise. “Everything works so well. It’s one of the cleanest places I have been and it’s fantastic”. The climbing team was made up of Johann’s Russian guide Alexei and three other Russians. “If you look at the tourists that are around, it’s only Russians from different parts of the world and different parts of Russia. I kept looking around and asking: Am I the only foreigner here? There was nobody else. It was just me, and I seemed to stick out like a sore thumb”.

He also said that Russia’s telecommunication connectivity was so much better compared to his 21-day expedition to Mt. Denali in the Alaskan Wilderness in June, saying how he got hundreds of Whatsapp messages after posting a picture at the summit.

Johann also opened about the language barrier he encountered on his way up to Elbrus. His guide wasn’t fluent in English, but to his luck a young climber on the team named Alex was fluent in English and acted as his interpreter. “It was so funny, because once we finished our climb there were two words that was spoken the most on the mountain. It was either ‘Alexei says’, or Johann says”.

The summit

The summit of Mt. Elbrus is made of two peaks and a decline called the ‘saddle’. Johann’s ascent was from the mountain’s south side, which he described as the quickest route. The climb and summit of Elbrus is a precarious affair. Johann points at the small stage at the press event, “The last bit is a straight ridge that we had to walk along before the summit. The summit is not anything bigger than this platform”.

“We had just about five minutes on the summit, that’s all. I remember my guide saying, ‘quick, you’ve got to go down fast’. When we looked, we saw a whole string of climbers coming up. He said, ‘we’ve got to get out of here fast because there’s no room for everyone’. Once you get up there, everybody comes there with the goal to get up there and people can get a bit aggressive. So he wanted us to move out faster but for me, I had to get my flag out,” Johann spoke about the small timeframe he had to unfurl the Sri Lankan flag on the summit.

Fortunately, the young interpreter helped him with the flag. But seconds after, Alexei instructed them to get off the summit before it was too late.

“And I was trying to get my glove on, I couldn’t. Because it’s tough, you’re rushing around and you’re trying to put your backpack on. You don’t want your fingers to get frozen, so you’re trying to put your glove on. And then he (Alexei) kept shouting at me, saying, ‘come on, we’ve got to get out of here’.

We could see the stream of people coming up and they were almost at the summit. And there’s only one path, so we had to slightly edge off, because everybody who’s coming up has the right of way.

Johann said he started to run to get off the summit and Alexei screamed at him not to.

“Because one mistake and you’re down, you’re gone. He stopped me and helped me with my glove and brought me. I followed him down”.

Johann’s next adventure

Johann said that he will be climbing Mt. Denali again, because his previous 21-day climb was cut short due to adverse weather. As he plans his return to Alaska to conquer the challenge, his story continues to resonate with people far beyond Sri Lanka’s shores. His adventurous spirit, resilience, and determination inspire us to reach for our own aspirations, no matter how daunting they may seem. Through his accomplishments, Johann reminds us that the pursuit of our dreams knows no bounds, and that each summit reached is a victory over both the external elements and our internal uncertainties.