Saturday, 6 February 2010

Anatoli Boukreev - the mountain iconoclast

Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion...I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.

These words written by Anatoli Boukreev are featured on his memorial chorten (above) at the Annapurna base-camp in Nepal, under the peak he died on 25 December 1997 while attempting a bold new route.

During the past six months I have got back into reading about the world’s great mountaineers spanning the 30 years from Herman Buhl, to Reinhold Messner, and from 1986 up until today. On 16 October 1986, when Reinhold Messner stood on the top of Lhotse, he became the first man to stand atop all the world’s 14, 8000 metre peaks. What was there left to do ? If someone asked me "who do you think was the greatest?" I would struggle with my choice, but somehow Anatoli Boukreev would be near the top, possibly on the top, slightly ahead of Messner. It is his sincerity, honesty, humility and simple love of the mountains, when added to his remarkable physical achievements at high altitude, brings him to the forefront of great mountaineers. These qualities that Boukreev possessed, gave him an uncompromising attitude, some saw him as abrasive, to high altitude climbing. The way he looked after himself, monitored his performance, and the performance of others, gave him the ability to care for others under extreme situations.
Anatoli Boukreev lived in a small alpine village, at about 3000 metres, above Almaty in Kazakhstan. The village is home to small farmers and mountaineers and is situated above the famous skifield, Chimbulak. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Brought up in the hard school of Soviet climbing, he developed a resilience which few western mountaineers could match. If you take a look at his ascents in the Soviet Union in the late 80s, in addition to Himalayan ascents in the same years, they are simply remarkable.

Peak Pobeda, First Winter Ascent, 7400 meters
First Solo Speed Ascent, Khan Tengri, 7005 meters
First Solo Speed Ascents, Peak Pobeda, 7439 meters
(Khan Tengri, Peak Pobeda and Peak Lenin) are extremely difficult 'massive mountains')
First Place, Mt. Elbrus speed Ascent, 5642 meters,
Record Time, I hour, 40 minutes

Khan Tengri, Kazakhstan. 7,008 metres.

First Place Mt. Elbrus Speed Ascent, 5642 meters,
Master of Sport with Honors and Order of Personal Courage,
Awarded by President Gorbachev, USSR
1987First Round Trip Speed Ascent of Peak Lenin, 7137 meters, 14 hours.

During this period he was coach of the Russian women's cross country ski team where he honed his scientific training with his knowledge of physiology and got outstanding results.

                                                         Anatoli Boukreev

His extraordinary stamina was demonstrated most dramatically in 1996 on Everest, when he reached the summit as a commercial guide to one of several teams caught by a fierce storm on the evening of 10 May. Despite climbing without supplementary oxygen, Boukreev was moving more strongly than most of his fellow guides and had descended to the shelter of Camp 4 at the South Col before the storm struck. He was later criticised fiercely for abandoning clients and colleagues, four of whom died above the South Col. However, the critics glossed over the fact that later that night Boukreev repeatedly left the safety of his tent, risking his life to fight through the blizzard and rescue another group of climbers stranded a few hundred yards from the tents.

Anatoli Boukreev (l) on the summit of Everest holding the Kazakh flag.

That rescue mission at 8,000 metres, by a man who had just climbed to the summit of Everest without oxygen, was remarkable enough. Even more extraordinary was Boukreev's action the following day, when he climbed back up to 8,400 metres, in a forlorn attempt to help his American colleague Scott Fischer. It was too late, for his friend had already died, but Boukreev was able to bring back some mementos for Fischer's family. After a memorial service at base camp, in one final gesture of defiance, Boukreev demonstrated his phenomenal stamina by speeding back up to make a one-day ascent of Everest's neighbour Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world.
Anatoli Boukreev was born in 1958, in the Russian Urals, but spent much of his life in Kazakhstan, adopting dual citizenship after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a mountaineer he made his name in a series of bold, fast ascents in the Caucasus and Tien Shan ranges, whilst earning his living as ski coach to the Russian women's cross-country ski team.
Although he was later to earn a reputation as an individual iconoclast, his first big Himalayan success, in 1989, was as part of a meticulously organised Soviet team on the world's third highest mountain, Kang-chenjunga. The expedition, which received little recognition in the West, made the first continuous traverse of Kangchenjunga's four highest summits.
Boukreev lived in a small village, high above the Medeo alpine skating rink and Chimbulak ski field, in the Tien Shan mountains overlooking the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo: Bob McKerrow
In the interests of safety, Boukreev and his companions used supplementary oxygen but in subsequent ascents of 10 of the world's 14 8,000-metre peaks, Boukreev eschewed this artificial aid. His refusal to use bottled oxygen even when guiding clients on Everest drew criticism from fellow guides, who argued that this rendered him less fit to help his charges. His bravery on the South Col in 1996 - and his actions in 1995, when he waited two hours on the summit until all his clients had started to descend - would seem to refute those criticisms.

In any case, as he stated in 1997 before leading another team on Everest, no guide can guarantee safety at extreme altitude: "I offer my experience for hire. I will advise a group of people on how to reach the summit and I will help them, but I cannot be responsible for their safety. They understand that."
Those uncompromising words may seem unpalatable, but they are an honest assessment of reality on the world's highest peaks.

After months of coaching a totally inexperienced Indonesian Everest expedition, his training, selection, motivation and coaching, got three pof them to the summit of Everest in early 1997 under his watchful eye. He had moved from guide to mentor and coach.
Anatoli Boukreev seemed to be locked into that world of extreme adventure and on 25 December 1997, his luck ran out when an avalanche swept him to his death. He had just started up a new route, in winter, on the gigantic South Face of Annapurna - a typically audacious project for a man who will be remembered as one of the world's toughest mountaineers.

I met Anatoli Boukreev when I lived in Almaty, Kazakhstan, from 1996 to 1999. When in Kazakhstan, Anatoli lived in a small alpine village above the ski field of Chimbulak, at just below 3,000 metres, and not far from peaks posted below.

Talgar Peak, 5017 m, is one of the northernmost peaks in the Tien Shan, the most northern "five-thousand metre" mountain in Asia. Anatoli Bookreev lived in a small alpine village below this range.
This village is a weekend haven for many working mountaineers who live in the foothills of the Tien Shan in Almaty, and every Friday night either walk the four hours to their alpine huts from Almaty or drive.

I fondly recall spending Christmas and New Years day (1996-97) with my good mates Sergy and Yuri,(right) their families and other Kazakh and Russian mountaineers in their club huts ( see photo below) consuming large amounts of Vodka, horse meat and intestines, the staple of Kazakhstan. Outside at least a metre of snow covered the ground offering superb skiing.
It was here I first met Anatoly Boukreev, and was impressed by this strong, quiet mountaineer.
Spending days with Kazakhstani mountaineers and their extended families in the alpine huts in the Tien Shans while blizzards rage outside, was a warm and close experience. It was amazing to find in your midst those who have scaled Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makalau, Dhalagauri, and to hear them speaking modestly of significant climbs in most ranges of the world. I was also impressed bt their fanatical approach to fitness and love of speed climbing.
Talgar Peak, near Almaty Kazakhstan. Boukreev did a lot of training on this and surrounding peaks, and being just over 5000 m, offered good altitude training.
A year later when I was in New Zealand, I got the tragic news that Anatoli had been caught in an avalanche on Christmas Day 1997, while on the South Face of Annapurna. Immediately, his fellow Kazakh climbers led by Rinat Khaibullin flew from Almaty - Tashkent - Delhi – Kathmandu and joined a search party. Anatoli’s body was never found. When I returned to Almaty I spoke to Rinat Khaibullin about Anatoli's death and the unsuccessful rescue. It was a great loss for mountaineering in Kazakhstan, Russia and the world. The South face of AnnapurnaWeston DeWalt's who co-authored Boukreev’s book the climb, said this about Boukreev when he died.
I met Anatoli Nikoliavich Boukreev on May 28, 1996, eighteen days after the tragedy on Mount Everest. When I heard his story and those of the other survivors I recalled a quote that I had tacked over my desk more than five years before. The words are those of Andrey Tarkovsky, a Russian film director. He said, "I am interested above all in the character who is capable of sacrificing himself and his way of life — regardless of whether that sacrifice is made in the name of spiritual values, or the sake of someone else, or of his own salvation, or of all these things together. Such behavior precludes, by its very nature, all of those selfish interests that make up a "normal" rationale for action; it refutes the laws of a materialistic world view. It is often absurd and impractical.

And yet — or indeed for that very reason — the man who acts in this way brings about fundamental changes in people's lives and in the course of history. The space he lives in becomes a rare, distinctive point of contrast to the empirical concepts of our experience, an area where reality — I would say — is all the more strongly present."

Anatoli Boukreev, in my experience, was one of those characters, and I am honored to have collaborated in his effort to tell his story.


Marja said...

What a beautiful quote! I think to sacrifise yourself for a higher purpose you need to be a very strong character. Mounteneers seem to have the staminee and determination for that.

They are very differnet from me
I am offered a new job next to my old one. I am teaching computer skills and I am learning a lot of valuable skills I can apply to many areas in the future
Because I am easily in overload when I have to learn many new skills my brain is not able to take in much at night so I won't
do much blogging for a while
Hope you will be well, arohanui marja

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Yes, some mountaineers are so driven, that danger often ceases to have meaning. Boukreev was a remarkable mountaineer and I was privilged to know him.

Good luck for the new job and I am sure you will bring so much learning and happiness to the children you teach.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
Always love reading about those whom love the mountains, for all the different reasons and motivations.
We have a fight on our hands here in NZ now. Key, not Brownlee, made Nationals intentions towards our most beautiful places well known today. As I knew he would.
We could use a man with the fortitiude of Boukreev here right now in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Robb

It would be good to send over a few of Boukreev's mates and sort out Keys. The Russians and Kazakhs have a way of sorting out waywood politicians.

Boukreev was an amzing climber and so fit, so fast and his home, was 'above 8000 metres'. Such a wonderful man.

Take care. Bob

恭喜發財 said...

我愛那些使自己的德行成為自己的目標或命定的人 ..................................................

Unknown said...

Boukreev ventured out alone having just climbed Everest without oxygen to save 3 climbers when no other climber sherpas included could or would help, Hours later alone and climbing at night in hurricane like winds, he attempted to rescue his boss high on Everest only to find he had already perished. He is now gone but will never be forgotten. His bravery , skill and ability must rank him as the greatest mountaineer of modern times, he represented the finest attributes of humanity. His life is an inspiration to us all.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Christopher, I agree with you wholeeartedly. He set a wonderful example of bravery.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this superb article, Bob. It is great to be reminded of this mountaineer who, in m opinion, epitomises the spirit of mountaineering more than any other. As a mountaineer with far, far less to show than Boukreev, I can but admire his strength, integrity, purity and heroism. What a privilege to know such a man and what a bleak day 25th December 1997 was for mountaineering.

Anonymous said...

I did not know about Anatoli Boukreev when he was alive. As a resident of Seattle I heard of the tragic events on Everest in 1996 and like most others, I was captivated by the story.

about five years ago, I purchased the first of several books about Boukreev. What an amazing person he was!

It's unfortunate that a fame and money seeking person like krakauer would try to tarnish the reputation of one of the finest people in the world. krakauer was not even half the mountaineer Boukreev was, and that might explain his motivation to distort the facts about the events in 1996.

Boukreev has been influential in shaping my mountaineering life which started at age 45. I think Boukreev gave back to the world and the mountaineering community in more ways than he is credited for.

Thank you for this great story about a great person!

Michael S.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Michael

So you started mountaineering at 45. It's never too late to start this amazing pastime or sport, perhaps more it becomes a way of life.

Yes, Boukreev was a remarkable mountaineer, an amazing man. It is a shame what Krakauer wrote about him, and almost ruined his reputation. But a man of Boukreev's stature and feats, will always rise above that of imposters.

One day Boukreev will be accorded his due worth in history. It is people like you michael that can keep his name alive. Good to meet you.


Donald said...

Dear Bob

A great post of great stories of an inspirational human being.

I find it sad that people judge those who climb and live so high and get caught up in events that suddenly everyone owns. They need to sit out at in the likes of the storm we've just had here at the Snow Farm at 1500 mts and ponder what it may like at several thousand meters with little oxygen!

It's just like my friend Harold [Andy Harris] who also went out in that storm to help others and never came back. His name was glossed over except in the minds of those who knew his smile and quiet ways.



Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Yes Andy Harris' name was glossed over in the wider events of that fateful Everest summit day in 1996. Similarly in 1995, Bruve Grant's death was overlooked as Alison Hargreaves got all the press. I was deeply involved with the 1995 K2 expedition as I was working in Afghanistan and came out to help Kim Logan, Pete Hillary, Matt Comensky, Jeff Lakes etc, with transport to Skardu and many other things. Bruce was a wonderful human being as was Jeff Lakes, the other climber who died on that expedition.There is an interesting link to this expedition led by Peter H:

So while remembering Anatoli Boukreev, let's remember the wonderful Otago mountaineers Bruce Grant and Andy Campbell.
Interesting to read about the snowstorm at the snowfarm. Did everyone survive? I hope so.

Take care.


Donald said...

Hi Bob

Too true, and maybe those who do get glossed over by the media would like it that way!

>Interesting to read about the snowstorm at the snowfarm. Did everyone survive? I hope so.

The last Winter Games event was cancelled. Conditions were akin to what you'd get at Scott Base at it's worst.

A few folk [who had the experience] had to stop on the access road at times for quite awhile to see the way, the next challenge being to know which side of the odd marker pole to drive.



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Vanessa said...

Hi, I think the picture of a guy in yellow suit with white band on the head is not Anatoli. Thanks for posting your blog. After reading Anatoli's book, "Above the Clouds," I felt very sad about Anatoli.

Ganezh said...

Very good article, I'm from Indonesian, and we say many thank to Boukreev, who support Indonesian Team to reach top of Everest on 1997. We very sad, when hear he dead, and about Bashkirov too. They're make us to be pride. Thank to Boukreev, Bashkirov and team.

Anonymous said...

Is Simone Moro in the second photo(the one with yellow jacket)? In what i know Simone was with Toli when he died.

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Anonymous said...

I read Anatoli's book Above the Clouds 5 times. Each time I learned more about him and what a deep, introspective, decent, intelligent, spiritual man he was. The mountains truly were is cathedrals and he was ready to die in them without regret rather than to grow old sitting in a chair waiting to die. I read Krakaur's book Into Thin Air before I read anything by Anatoli, but even then it just didn't feel right that Jon K. was suggesting Toli was acting like a coward going down early and so quickly so I wanted to learn more about the Russian. I'm glad I did. I read The Climb first - about the 1996 disaster - Anatoli's version made much more sense than Krakaur's to me and then I read Above the Clouds. I was hooked. Wish he was still alive and climbing - I'd start a Toli Fan Club! Life is ironic. You were awesome Anatoli Boukreev

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