In 2018, I joined a climbing and exploration expedition sponsored by Red Bull to explore the Sundrun Pillars, aka the “Granite Cities,” of Ulakhan-Sis, Siberia. I accompanied an international team of climbers, including Kilian Fischhuber of Austria, Robert Leistner of Germany, and Galya Terenteva of Russia.
It was a huge journey just to reach this extremely remote location—by plane, boat, and multi-day trek through one of the most heinous mosquito-ridden ecosystems I’ve ever experienced. All for what? None of us had any idea if these odd formations, almost reminiscent of Easter Island idols, were even climbable.
My good friend Dane Henry was also with me as DP to film this expedition for our Novus Select production for Red Bull. The photographer Elias Holzknecht was also there with us, as well as the project champion Florian Klinger.
To reach the Granite Cities, we first flew to Moscow, then to the Sakha Republic’s capital Yakutsk—one of Russia’s most secluded cities and coldest, with an average temperature of 16 degrees F. Next, we took a flight to Belaya Gora, then boarded a boat up the Indigirka River for roughly 200 km. Finally, after three days of punishing hiking through the tundra, we arrived at these pillars.
It was a photographer who first “discovered” these unusual granite pillars in the middle of Ulakhan-Sis, Siberia. Biologist and photographer Alexander Krivoshapkin spied them from a helicopter while flying over the vast Siberian tundra on a trip to count wild reindeer herds.
Sergey Karpukhin, also a photographer, saw Krivoshapkin’s pictures and became obsessed with reaching this area and undertook three expeditions of increasing size to photograph was he dubbed the “Granite Cities.”
“This place is almost one of the last ones undiscovered on the planet,” he admired.
How did these 20-meter granite turrets form? Perhaps it was the extreme freeze-thaw cycles of Siberia that eroded the surrounding sandstone.
The Yakuts believed the granite spires looked like warriors. Their word for them—kisilyakhi—derives from “kisi,” meaning man.
Indeed, much of the climbing required a warrior’s mindset, and I was super impressed with the abilities of these professional athletes to show exceptional courage in establishing many new routes in this otherworldly landscape. The granite was often crumbly, and required a lot of cleaning to make safe. But all of the tremendous motivation and effort was really worth it because it made for some of those most striking climbing photography and video that we’ve created.
At long last our film, TERRA INCOGNITA, has released. This film documents our expedition, and just what it was like to be the first climbers ever to visit this otherworldly place. I don’t necessarily expect there to be queues of climbers forming beneath these Siberian summits anytime soon, but I do hope that this film inspires you to dream big and go beyond your comfort zones.
Thanks to Florian Klinger and the entire team at Red Bull for being champions of exploration and helping people push their limits. And thanks to Dane Henry for being such a solid expedition and filmmaking partner on our trip. And well done to the entire team at Novus that helped turn our film into a reality.
Last but not least, thanks to the climbers! Killian, Robert, and Galya: you were true badasses, in vision and climbing skill.