Cover Wilson Cheung climbing the Lenzspitze– Nadelhorn ridge traverse (Photo: Wilson Cheung and Eric Wong)

This glaciologist is expected to soon become the first Hongkonger to conquer all 82 of the 4,000m peaks in the Alps. But he sees inspiring people to reconnect with nature as an even more important mountain to climb

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.

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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.”

The biggest decision that Cheung has made, which he considers even more challenging than summiting a mountain top, is leaving Hong Kong to pursue his dream job as an explorer. It all started in 2007, when Cheung, still a physical education student at Hong Kong Baptist University, was selected as one of the three local university students from 2,000 candidates to take part in the Antarctica expedition organised by 2041, a foundation dedicated to the preservation of the polar regions for scientific research. The breathtaking glaciers made a lasting impression on him. “For the first time, I felt like there was so much more to learn about this beautiful but fragile place,” he says.

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When he graduated in 2011, despite family and peer pressure to look for a regular, stable job, he wanted a career that would take him back to what he calls “the frontiers of the unknown. There would never be a Columbus or astronaut if no one ever leaves home to explore what’s yet to be discovered.”

With that wild ambition, he got a job as a hut keeper in Switzerland. Whenever he wasn’t on shift, he taught himself the skills of alpinism by watching YouTube videos of how to properly put on shoe grips and going on simple glacial routes so that he could appreciate the natural landscape up close. In time, he gained enough experience to be a professional alpinist. “I was fascinated by glaciers. They hold the secrets to climate change and natural events that have happened to the landscape in the past millions of years. If you have the skills and tools, you can unlock the rich data within,” he says.

The years around 2010 were a time when Antarctica was a popular tourist destination among Chinese tourists, as the booming economy enabled more people to afford luxury excursions to remote places. By chance, Cheung met a French expedition team staying at his lodge. When they learnt that Cheung speaks Chinese, English, and a little French and German, they recruited him to work at their cruise line as a polar guide, in particular for Chinese-speaking tourists. He has now been working with expedition teams and tourists for more than a decade.

Despite finally having his dream job, Cheung is disillusioned that not all travellers share the same vision as him. “Most tourists see Antarctica as Disneyland. They pay for a magical experience and are guaranteed pictures with penguins. But after five days or so, they’ve left behind a large carbon footprint and have learnt nothing about the place,” he says.

Cheung admits that sponsorship from wealthy travellers and the capital gained from tourism have played a major role in supporting scientific research in the polar regions, and that expeditions of scientists, who usually travel by ship, have a carbon footprint as well. Still, Cheung believes that any traveller— both tourists and scientists—should use their experience to raise awareness of environmental issues.

“If you want [a holiday involving] entertainment, big swimming pools, saunas or billiards, you don’t have to go to Antarctica or Mount Everest,” Cheung says. “You can tell people what you’ve seen from this precious travelling experience that city tours cannot offer, such as the reduced habitats of polar bears.”

For glaciologists like himself, the greatest value of expeditions lies in scientific and climate research. In August 2021, Cheung received Canada’s Queen’s University’s fellowship to work with Parks Canada on a five-year glacial monitoring project at the Penny and Bylot Ice Caps, which are remnants of the last ice age in the Canadian Arctic. Cheung points out that the Canadian Arctic makes up 20 per cent of the world’s terrestrial glacial coverage, which is the third largest after Antarctica and Greenland. “What we’ve found out so far is shocking,” he says. “It is projected that in the next 80 years, the Penny Ice Cap will lose 30 to 40 per cent of its ice. The resulting rise in sea level and landscape change may lead to ecological disaster and make the homeland of indigenous people, including the Inuits, vulnerable to flooding and water crisis.”

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Cheung believes he can help make a change through youth education. He set up Ecobus, an NGO in Hong Kong that has been bringing students to marine and country parks to learn about protecting the fragile environment for the past 13 years. “Some children I’ve talked to have never seen a real chicken or apple except in their processed forms. Our next generation’s disconnection with nature is shocking, and you can hardly blame them for being indifferent to the environment,” Cheung says.

This year, Cheung also set up Asia Youth Alpine Mentors Program, a non-profit initative to train Hongkongers aged 19 to 24 to become alpinists and polar explorers. In June, the four candidates he has selected will meet him after he completes his final four peaks to climb ten simpler 4,000m peaks in ten days. The mentees, with no prior mountaineering experience, will attend online theory lectures by Cheung and rockclimbing training by programme co-founder Eric Wong.

Their aim is to use minimal gear and time, and have the least environmental impact while reaching the summit. “Like all my previous climbs, we have to carry our own food and gear, and we will be pitching tents and not staying in lodges,” Cheung says. After the climb, his mentees will support his microplastic research for Utrecht University by collecting water samples at 3,000m.

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Cheung’s vision is not just for these young people to become great alpinists. “You don’t always have to be a doctor or lawyer to contribute to society,” he says. “There’s still so much to learn about the polar regions. Through this programme, I hope our next Hong Kong generations who care about polar expeditions and scientific research will have the basic knowhow and courage to be pioneers at the frontiers of the unknown, a career that was considered impossible in my student days.”

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