Michael Lehmacher

An emotional journey up 8000 m and back.

It's a typical Monday at midday. Yet, instead of eating lunch in the canteen, over 140 colleagues are gathered in the Pictet Auditorium in Geneva. They are eager to hear Michael's tales of his recent expedition to Manaslu the ‘mountain of the spirit’, the world's eighth highest peak at 8,163 m. His mountain teammates, Philippe, a former Pictet colleague, and L., a Pictet client, are seated in the front row.

Many in the audience struggle to grasp why anyone would willingly take two months of unpaid leave to embark on such a hazardous venture. The journey to basecamp alone is a gruelling ordeal, involving several flights, a lengthy jeep drive, and a 10-day trek. The teams then ascend and descend from basecamp up to 7,000 m over three weeks. “The idea is to climb high and sleep low so the body can gradually adapt to the reduced oxygen level (7.5% compared to 21% at sea level) by producing red blood cells.”

"Above 6,000 m, sleep becomes near on impossible. Your heart races, eating becomes a struggle, your body is in full survival mode. You begin to lose lucidity." 

So, why undertake such a journey? Michael's love for mountains, his natural affinity with challenges (he is a risk manager after all!), and his decade-long friendship with L. are the driving forces. Ten years ago, L. was in search of a third teammate last minute for the Patrouille des Glaciers, an arduous ski-mountaineering event in Switzerland. As a final resort, he reached out to Thierry, his Pictet banker, for assistance. Having only heard of Michael through word of mouth, Thierry, connected the two mountain enthusiasts. This marked the beginning of a strong friendship, with the pair completing the Grande Patrouille four times.

Together, they climbed many of the highest peaks in the Alps and went on an expedition to Kilimanjaro. Then came Mount McKinley in Alaska (also known as Denali), North America's highest peak at 6,190 m in 2019. "Without porters, we each had to haul 60 kg of gear (with sleds and backpacks) up a never ending glacier. The slow pace did, however, help us acclimatise to the altitude and extreme -35 C cold." The duo was later joined by Philippe Givel, a former Pictet Trading & Sales colleague and an adventure enthusiast.

Now an established trio, they set their sights on a bigger challenge - Manaslu, an 8,000 m peak in Nepal. They aimed to be among the first Swiss (after Sophie Lavaud and another climber) to reach the actual summit. Until 2021, mountaineers had only reached the fore summit, but drone technology had since revealed the ‘true’ summit. Though only marginally higher (6.7 metres to be exact), reaching the real summit involves traversing a steep and rocky slope and climbing an exposed and technical ridge. A fall from here is fatal. 

Michael’s trustworthy ice axe

Even with favourable weather conditions, reaching the peak is not a given. Michael recalls: "One of the climbers in our team had to abandon the ascent because of eye problems. At such high altitudes, even the slightest concern means you have to give up.” Despite the risks, Michael persevered. "Above 7,000 m, you’re not thinking about the dangers of a misstep or a rope anchor breaking. You just focus on the next step."

Ultimately, on 21 September 2023, Michael and L. reached the true summit at 5.30 am, after a 9.5-hour climb from camp 3 at 6,700 m. Philippe made it to the summit a few days later. The landscape at the summit was surreal. But they were in the dead zone, diminished by the effects of hypoxia, minimal food, accumulated fatigue and slowly depleting oxygen tanks. They had to get going. It was time to descend safely to basecamp and celebrate their success.

It took some time for their achievement to sink in. A few weeks after their return, Michael was suddenly filled with joy. “We had climbed an 8000 m peak and we were among the first Swiss to climb Manaslu’s true summit!”

As Michael resumed his work routine and daily life, he began to feel a sense of emptiness. "My body relaxed, the excess red blood cells finally left my body. I was no longer at my peak fitness. A deep fatigue set in. I had to fight mentally."

Michael was likely suffering from post-expedition depression. A condition that affects athletes who put themselves through prolonged mental and physical pain. "It's incredible what our brain can do. How it can suppress pains and fears to help us achieve an irrational goal."

We had climbed an 8000 m peak and we were among the first Swiss to climb Manaslu’s true summit!

He kept these feelings to himself, not wanting to burden his family, friends, and colleagues who had supported his dream for months. "It's truly thanks to their enthusiasm that we made it to the summit."

Michael found comfort in his memories of the Himalayan adventure. The simple pleasures of life: the warmth of the sun's first rays illuminating the colossal mountains; the crisp, thin air of high altitudes; the meditative silence broken only by the crunch of boots on snow and the feeling of serenity that comes with being so far removed from the hustle of daily life.

He would also think about the Sherpas, mountain people originating from Tibet who had made his adventure possible and memorable from a human and cultural perspective. Their unwavering strength, resilience and kindness in the face of such difficult conditions were a source of inspiration for him on the mountain but now also at home.

In 2024, the roles reversed as Michael and Philippe guided the sherpas who took them to the summit of Manaslu. "They visited us in Switzerland in February and were excited to try something new. So we took them skiing!”

When he’s not climbing mountains, Michael is Group Head of Market Infrastructure and Model Risk. 

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