PELHAM, NH — For Leon Tokatlian, there’s no better feeling on this planet than to sit quietly in solitude at 20,000 feet with nothing between him and God except the clouds.
If a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step, than climbing mountains and scaling the greatest heights of this universe is his stairway to paradise.
In his quest to scale the world’s greatest peaks, this intrepid mountaineer is the epitome of fitness. About the only challenge he has remaining in his life is Everest and that remains to be seen.
The oldest person to conquer that summit, in case you’re wondering, is a 71-year-old and it was recently.
“I’d like to break that record one day,” he confirms, “perhaps in 10 or 12 years. “Everest is so crowded, it’s almost like going to Hawaii for vacation. For me, I can wait.”
Tokatlian won’t reveal his true age, only to tell you he’s into his early 60s. He considers it a source of debate fun among his fellow Appalachian Mountain Club members, many of who marvel at his conditioning and conquests.
“I really feel like I’m 25,” he winks with a smile.
Over his storied career, Tokatlian has traveled the world in pursuit of what he considers “the perfect high.”
Kilimanjaro wasn’t tough enough at 20,000 feet, unless he took the more technical route to the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain. He’s been to Peru, Argentina and Nepal where he spent several days at the Everest base camp assisting other climbers.
While there, he scaled Mera Peak (22,500 feet) and Island Peak (21,000 feet). A year after returning from Kilimanjaro, he led a group of 12 atop the three highest glaciated volcanic mountains in the Andes — Gayambe, Cotopaxi and Chimboraza — each ranging between 19,500-21,500 feet.
Once wasn’t enough to ascend Mexico’s tallest Pico De Orizaba. He accomplished that feat (18,600 feet) three times. In terms of grandeur, few can compare with the 10-day junket through Yosemite National Park with Zion and Bryce exuding its own charm.
To maintain a peak physical condition, Tokatlian finds his way up 6,100-foot Mount Washington in New Hampshire twice a month, regardless of the season.
Along the rugged trail, he’s rubbed elbows with several world-renowned mountaineers like Wally Berg, who’s done Everest four times without oxygen.
“The most beautiful of all is Island Peak in Nepal,” he admits. “Words cannot describe the beauty when you’re surrounded with 8,000-meter giants. All mountains regardless of size have easy routes, semi-technical and technical in order to make it more challenging. We always choose the more difficult route.”
Tokatlian says the key to safe mountaineering is to respect the mountain and know your personal limitations — when to quit and turn back without endangering others. He considers himself a cautious mountaineer whether participating in an expedition or leading a group.
The risk is sometimes like performing a high wire act without a net.
“All high mountains have their own weather that can change instantly,” he says. “Visibility is reduced to less than two feet with whiteout conditions. For that reason, our summit attempts start at midnight to reach the top by noon.”
What’s amazing about all these conquests is his safety record. Except for a twisted ankle or knee and dislocated shoulders, he’s never been seriously injured. Even a technical ice climb over the 50-foot Seracs went unscathed, despite huge chunks hanging like a balcony that could break at any time.
“From 14,000 feet up, you have to breathe three times harder than normal,” he points out. “You begin taking baby steps. Every ounce of weight in your backpack adds more stress. You have to stop every 50 feet to catch your breath. You never really catch it, though. It’s not pretty, believe me. I like to live on the edge, that’s why I do it.”
Tokatlian has witnessed one climbing fatality of a dear friend on Island Peak in Nepal. He continues to remain undaunted by it.
“During the climb, we were all hooked together but he decided to free-climb. It was a very windy day. He was climbing on a narrow ridge and a 70 mph gust knocked him off into a deep crevasse. He’s still there.”
The passion doesn’t come cheap. Every mountain has its own price for a permit. It was $1,000 to climb Kilimanjaro and the same with Aconcagua in Argentina. Everest carries a hefty $20,000 price for a one-time-only permit.
Organizing the logistics of any expedition is a complex issue that involves the hiring of local guides, porters, oxygen, tents, hardware and ropes, anchors, leaders, safety devices, cooks and food. A week away from the nearest civilization in some remote corner of the world is no Sunday picnic.
Equipment alone can also be intimidating to a climbing neophyte. A pair of step-in crampons and an ice ax are essential tools, along with double insulated plastic boots with super gaiters or over boots, depending on the environment.
The clothing is considered “space age” and very costly, three layers of Gore-Tex shell jacket and pants, either Propylene or Fleece.
Tokatlian makes his home in a rural New Hampshire community of Pelham with his wife, the former Shake Aghazarian. The two met in 1969 while vacationing in Lebanon and married the following year. They have two children, Lisa and Harout.
None hold an interest in climbing at the moment, though wife Shake has done some shorter distances. She compares her husband’s addiction to that of a wild bird looking to escape its cage for freedom.
“At the beginning, it was very stressful for my family to wait for my safe return,” he said. “Every time I was away for months on an expedition, I would always make sure to call from a satellite phone once I descended.”
Growing up in Lebanon, Tokatlian would explore the mountain range at every opportunity. From there, he moved to France as a teenager and adopted a love affair with the Alps.
He ran a successful lithography business with his wife for 20 years in Nashua until suffering burnout in 2000. The operation became liquidated which gave Tokatlian time to enjoy life and pursue mountaineering.
“I was one of the fortunate few to succeed in the present business world without a college education,” he admits. “But life becomes too short to spend inside an enclosed environment.”
Today, his business is mountains, not for profit as much as passion. He’s an active member of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) where he leads trips twice a month, usually in the Northern Presidential range of the White Mountains.
A typical week involves three days of hiking at an average of 12-14 miles per outing with an elevation of 4,000 feet. It’s his answer to conditioning and inner peace.
Tokatlian prefers winters on these New Hampshire trails. No crowds or bugs. Anyone wishing to tag along must first pass a screening process that includes physical qualification, experience and proper gear.
Most of his trips are listed in the AMC Magazine or turn to website Appalachian Mountain Club.com
He is also vice-president and a senior guide with Summit Sensations Mountaineering Club, leading expeditions outside the country. As an active member of the American Alpine Club and Himalayan Mountain Club, he joins a major expedition each year.
“Every mountain is rewarding to me, regardless of the difficulty or elevation,” Tokatlian points out. “When I am spending day after day, night after night, on high elevation in complete peace and solitude, I feel closer to God.”
Tokatlian is also a devoted member of the Armenian community where he has assisted churches and organizations. He’s planted an Armenian Tricolor on the peaks of many high altitude mountains from Nepal to Africa and South America.
Come January, Tokatlian will lead a group of eight adventurers for a month-long expedition on Mount Tronador in Argentine Patagonia, one of the most picturesque mountains in the Andes.
The group will follow that by touring Patagonia all the way to Ushuaia near Antarctica. In June, there will be a two-week climb in Alaska and another the following month to Mount Rainier with a team of 10.
From there, who knows with Tokatlian? One day it might be Mount Kuiten in Mongolia and the peaks of Uzbekistan and Pakistan the next — wherever the wind and whim may take him.
It may not be Everest in terms of popularity and attractiveness but every bit as grueling which only true mountaineers dare to attempt.
There’s no desire to hike the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, hardly the joy of lugging a 60-pound pack in muggy and buggy conditions.
Nor does Mount Ararat pose his kind of challenge.
“Even though it’s glaciated, it is not difficult at all, just a strenuous hike to the summit,” he feels. “But for us Armenians, it’s taller than Everest. I’ll do it some day for sentimental reasons at my old age. Hopefully by then, it’ll be unrestricted. Even better, by the time I decide to climb, it might be part of Armenia.”
Because of his travels to remote parts of the world, Tokatlian feels like an ambassador for the Armenian people.
“I’ll explain our history to those who never heard of Armenia,” he maintains. “It’s sad for me not to see more Armenians on high altitude mountaineering circles. Every time I’m at the interior ministry of a foreign country for a climbing permit, I look for Armenian names in the registry and find none. I hope to see the younger generation get involved with this beautiful rewarding sport.”