Wilson Cheung Wai-yin, who became the first Hongkonger to be named one of the “50 people changing the world” by The Explorers Club in March for his glacial research and the Asia Youth Alpine Mentors Program he set up this year, leads a life many would consider impossible for a city boy. Fifteen years ago, he was told by a local politician that his dream to become Hong Kong’s first astronaut was impossible. But this year, when the glaciologist spoke to Tatler over a scratchy video call from the remote Baffin Island in Canada in late February, he had just completed his five-day Project Possum training. The annual programme sees select candidates from around the world undergo immersive astronaut training at the Florida Institute of Technology, preparing them for future space missions.
While it will take further training before Cheung can fly to the moon, his forthcoming destination is no less extreme. This June, he will set off to the Alps again—after having surmounted 78 of the mountain range’s 4,000m peaks—to conquer the remaining four: Grand Pilier d’Angle, Grandes Jorasses (Pointe Walker), Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey and Les Droites. If he succeeds, he will be the first Hongkonger to have summited all of them.
“The last four peaks are extremely difficult and dangerous to climb,” he says. “Because of global warming, the bedrock of those sections is bare from the melted ice. Without ice, it’s difficult to secure yourself to a fixed point with shoe grips. If you fall, you get rescued by a helicopter if you’re lucky—or die if you’re not.” In some of the previous sections with the same terrain, the alpinist says he had to climb for three days straight and only rested on rock ledges in his sleeping bag. “It’s not for the faint-hearted—it’s freezing and exhausting,” he says.
Nonetheless, he loves mountaineering. “This is the only sport where you must know your abilities, body condition, gear, the weather, navigation, signs of an avalanche and terrain very well. When you’re on the glacier, you must make the right decision, because if you don’t, chances are, you won’t come back alive.”