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Nanga Parbat (8126 m), Broad Peak (8046 m) and K2 (8611 m) Kazakhstan Expedition
Summer 2003



Several days ago expedition of Kazakhstan team to three 8K summits (Nanga Parbat, K2 and Broad Peak) began. Few days before departure interviewed the coach of the expedition - famous Erwand Tikhonovich Il'insky (chief coach of Army Sport Club - CSKA) about his team, views on high altitude mountaineering and, a little, about his life.

Questions were prepared by Elena Laletina and Aldas Baltutis.

EL: Erwand Tikhonovich, you are one of the best known coaches in history of Soviet and post-Soviet mountaineering schools. Many of yours sportsmen became legendary. The routes, made by your team are clearly milestones of mountaneering. Some of your pupils wrote autobiographic books. But how did you started climbing?

EI: In the beginning I was a guide in mountain hiking (In Russia a kind of sport, called "mountain tourism" exists. It is something like very serious trecking or hiking with elements of technical climbing, often in remote areas in complete authonomy - ed. note). Later I entered the University and there was a mountaineering club. But at that time I trained actively in modern pentathlon and was unable to attend regular climbing sessions. We came to an agreement with the coach that I will attend technical lectures and participate in real climbs. But finally he excluded me from the club. And I started climbing on my own. In the mountains I often climbed together with Sarym Kuderin, and in the end he brought me back to the University club. It was in 1962 and I was 22 years old - matured enough to start mountaineering. And I still continue climbing.

EL: Which episode from your climbing life was the most impressing/challenging for you?

EI: I think that it was our first attempt to make winter climb on Lenin peak in 1974. Extremely difficult and dangerous situation. Valery Khrishchaty described this in his book. But at time he was young and everything was really clear to him. In fact, the situation was very bad. We had to carry two climbers and I thought, that if somebody will stop moving because of extreme weather and fatigue, we all will die, since it would be impossible to transport people and also impossible to leave them.

EL: What are the main obstacles for your climbing and coaching activity?

EI: Different administrative and, of course, financial problems in organization serious expeditions. Trainings and all events in Kazahkstan, competitions are under the patronage of CSKA. But when we organize expeditions to Himalaya, Karacoram, Antarctide and America - without sponsors it's impossible. Me and more than half of the team are professional climbers and we depend on this money.

EL: Was there any interferences between climbing and other things in your life?

EI: When I graduated from the Polythechnical Institute I was working as a senior researcher and even started to prepare a PhD thesis. But later I faced a choice- science or sport. I choose sport and think that it was a correct decision.

EL: Your personal dream related to mountains?

ET: When I just started climbing, I had a dream to climb Khan-Tengri. This Dream I fulfilled. Later I dreamed to climb Everest. I climbed Everest. I was really dreaming to visit Antarctide. It happened that I not only visited it, but even climbed the highest point. Later I started to think about 7 summits. I almost completed this task. Only Kostsyushko in Australia is not yet done. But its altitude is just 2300 meters, similar to our Chimbulak (resort close to Almaty - ed. note), one can do it even at 70. Therefore, almost everything I wanted to do as a sportsman is done. But as a coach I have lot of plans. Many expeditions.

AB. Your dreams appear and then you fulfill them. But the next one appears before the end of the previous one?

EI: Of course before. There was a time when we wanted to climb big walls: South wall of Communism peak, North walls of Pobeda and Khan-Tengri (we also wanted to climb North wall of Communism peak, but it was done already, though I think it should have been done differently). When the team did these walls - very strong team (Smirnov, Khrishchatii, Tselishev, Khalitov, Lunyakov, Boukreev, Shkarban, Valiev, Suviga, Moiseev and others, many of them are not with us already) - I started to think: is there any task they can not do? And I had such an idea - traverse Pobeda-Khan-Tengri. I had this idea for a long time. And when we made a traverse Khan-Tengri - Marble wall in 1974 and somebody, probably Smirnov, asked me- "Well, where is the next travers?", I answered - "Khan-Tengri - Pobeda"- "Are you crasy?" Similar reaction was when I suggested this to Khrishchaty in 1990. He asked- "You are leaving to Everest, but what about us?" - "Train for Khan-Tengri - Pobeda" - "You are an idiot". But just before my departure to Everest he and Khalitov came and told me that they have an idea how to do it. When I came back they already applied to the USSR Championship. They were ready and they did this traverse

(start and finish on technically difficult 7K summits inclusing Pobeda peak- the northernmost 7K in the world, more than 90 kilometers between them along technically challenging ridge at the altitudes 5500-7400 meters, 15 summits including many unclimbed in fifteen days. Never repeated or even attempted since - ed. note).

EL: Your non-mountaineering dream?

EI: I would like to visit Amasonka. I think it is interesting. Reach the North Pole. Now some friend suggested to make round-world trip on some yacht. I do not know where to find time to do all this, but I feel that these ideas are not impossible.

EL: What do you feel after the expedition?

EI: Usually I rest for a week. Then I resume my work. Emotions, joy etc. - during trip to home one thinks that everything is over. But when we found warmest reception in the airport - one is again full with emotions.

EL: What do you think about different international prises - Piolet d'Or, Golden Edelweis etc.?

EI: I think that all these events lack objectivity. Similar to former Championships of Soviet Union.

EL: What are your principal concerns before expeditions?

EI: Of course it is people, who are going with me. The main goal is to bring everybody back. Of course, the climb is also important, but live is the primary thing.

EL: Every climber spending lot of time in the mountains experience certain problems in private live. What can you tell about this?

EI: All my wives were positive about mountaineering. There was no problems.

EL: Apart of mountains, which things are important for you?

EI: My family, friends.

EL: You have been in Himalaya (Karakoram) many times. Your feelings are less pronounced or every time is as exciting as the first one?

EI: I have been in many expeditions. The first one was in 1964 on Lenin Peak. Of course, I was extremely happy. Now it is not like this.

EL: Do you make notes during expeditions? Do you plan to publish them?

EI: I started diary many times but it was never finished. I am a very bad writer. I always rely on my memory, but later I understand that everything is mixed. Almost every year since 1964 I am in expeditions. Of course, photos help to recover some events, but many things are lost.

EL: You created and prepared a CSKA team which attracts attention from the whole climbing world. I will ask several question about this team. When the team is on the mountain everybody works together. But back at home, what is more pronounced - team spirit or competition?

EI: As in any team. Lets look at the famous team of 80-ies. I ca not say that they were friends. There were minigroups, but there were also "connecting" parts. There was duo Valiev-Khrishchaty. There was duo Suviga-Lunyakov. Shkarban and Khalitov had friends in both groups and connected them. Taken together this made a team. Now the team is young, the climb together for short time and such structure is just started to form. Therefore, this is not a monolithe-like team, but in such high-level groups it is normal.

AB: The competition inside the team- is promotes better physical condition or there are negative points?

EI: One always have both sides of a coin.

EL: I remember how Belgian team was impressed by your group at Gasherbrum. They saw your boys for the first time and noted immediately that they are special. Very strong, technical and modest. From your point of view, what makes your team unique?

EI: It is simply a normal good team. It should be like this. Yes, on the general "background" they are notable because it is a TEAM. I was grown in Soviet mountaineering school and I try to implement the best things into my team. The Soviet approach suggests that mountaineering is a team sport. I will tell more: now the solo climbers began to join us. Say, Ed Viesturs- he has 12 eight thouthanders wants to join. Lafaille, Moro- all of them are joining us. I think that this shows the strength of our team.

AB: It seems to me that your team is the last one in the whole CIS, which is based on traditions of the Soviet school.

EI: In our recent discussion Sergei Efimov, who knows situation in Russia, said something similar. He asked me - "You started such an incredible programm- three 8K summits. You think it will be successful?". I answered that we already climbed two 8K in one expedition and should be able to climb three. He said - "You have Urubko, he can do a lot" and I answered, that we have sevral guys like him. Efimov answered- "you made a good job".

EL: Almaty is the unique place - big city close to mountains, one can climb year round, every weekend. How does it influences the training of your team?

EI: It is extremely important factor. Many times we saw that the level of specific training of our team is much higher that of other teams from the whole USSR. For example, when we made a test run to the summit of Kommunism Peak (7495 meters) before the Everest expedition (note: All members of the first Soviet Everest expedition in 1982 passed extremely complicated selection process, lasted for more than 2 years. This selection consisted of competitions in technical and altitude climbing as well as thorough medical testing), the first six places were with our team. Even the head coach (Ovchinnikov) asked me about their food: "How could they run that fast, how do you feed them?". I answered: "I do not feed them, I train them. They are supplied with nonsense- porridges. If they would eat normally - meat etc., they would run even faster".

AB: Question about the barochamber. During Everest 82 selection the barochamber was used, but many people think that it was useless. Now they say that Il'insky used this thing again.

EI: Now we are using the barochamber in completely different way. In 82 they tested us, but now we train in it. In 82 they just increased the altitude and monitored at which altitude we became unconsious. We were like laboratory animals. You can not multiply number or became unconsious- the test stops. But now we work in barochamber. Guys work in barochamber two times per week and it lasts for two month already. I think that their level will rise significantly. We started to work on stationary bike from the altitude of 4500 m. Three trainings on 4500, then three on 5500, three on 6500. After 7000 we reduced the step to 500 meters. Tommorrow, if everything will be OK, they will work at 9000 meters.

AB: They are like cosmonautes!

EI: No, cosmonautes train in hermetic suits.

AB: Training in barochamber is your idea or you use some experience of other groups?

EI: Once I read a Bulgarian book. They said that there was a positive effect from the barochamber trainings. But I did not notice that effect when they were climbing. Only one from their team made a summit - Khristo Prodanov - I knew him well. Next year he died in the mountains. But he was amasingly fit. Anyway, Bulgarians also made some mistakes during their preparation. We do differently and I hope that there will be an effect.

EL: From your point of view - what is the cutting edge of altitide mountaineering now?

EI: Climbs without supplementary oxygen. Our team follows this strategy. At the moment we stopped making technical climbs on 8K, but I hope that next year we will resume them. But expeditions to technical routes are much more expensive.

AB: Which climbers and routes are the best in modern mountaineering, who is the leader?

EI: I was never interested in "hot topics". I have my own ideas. Now I have to train my team on relatively simple routes on 8K summits. If everything will be fine, then for the next year we will have three summits in the framework of our program - Annapurna, Makalu, Lhotse -and in all these regions there are interesting tasks. For example, Makalu from China. It seems that there are inly one route from that side. May be Makalu wall. May be Annapurna wall - the route, initiated by Boukreev. In other words, if the team will confirm its potential, we will be able to do serious things. But it is very expensive. We wanted to try this year Lhotse-Everest traverse, but could not find money. There is a problem - Everest North wall, but Russian team is already trying to do it.

EL: What are the prospects of altitude mountaineering?

EI: I think there will be speed ascents. It is from the sport side. Commercial mountaineering on classic routes.

EL: What do you think about commercial expeditions on 8K?

EI: There is no difference between 8K and 7K - both are dangereous. But people make money from it. For example, Khan-Tengri was a serious sportive achievement some time ago but now there are plenty of clients there.

EL: What can you tell about records on eightthousanders?

EI: That's good. That' sportive. Denis Urubko climbed Gasherbrum one hour faster, than Boukreev.

EL: There are big crowds on highest summits. Everst is full with dummies, oxygen, porters, civilisation in the Base Camp etc.

EI: One of the reasons that we did not went to Everest is amount of people. Inevitably this will lead to necessity of rescue work and the mountain will elude.

EL: Your project "Kazakhstan team on the highest summits of the world" will be finished one day. Would you like to organise then an expedition to some remote or even unclimbed region of Himalaya or, say Hindukush (if accessible)?

EI: I was already thinking what to do when the programm will be finished. But anyway we will have tasks to made since it will be the TEAM. And we plan to have a group of people - one-two-five - who will climb all 14 eightthousanders. The problem is that some people leave and some come. We should work with this. And later- Later I will be old, will care about my house.

AB: Your opinion about climbs of 20-30 ies? To the Abalakov era? (Brothers Abalakov made many difficult technical and altitude climbs before and after WWII and, effectively, made a basis for Soviet mountaineering school).

EI: One shold regard this in the framwork of natural develloppment. Of course, Abalakov made great climbs. But there were also Kuzmin, Beletskii and others. In general, they founded Soviet mountainnering.

AB: Almost all your sportsmen consider you as a charismatic leader and authority, in other words, real leader. What is your secret and the essence of work as a coach?

EI: Well, you should ask them about this! I simply do my job and try to be frank with them. Sometimes I want to make some project but for some time I can not tell that it will be possible. But at one moment I say - there are money and the expedition will start. But sportsman trains, trains and it is difficult. And when he sees no goal - it is very difficult. But still I manage to lead expeditions for many years. But in general it is difficult to answer your question.

AB: Your opinion about K2 winter expedition?

EI: First of all the expedition was poorly organised in general. They were compalining that there was no meat - since in our expedition there is always plenty of food. I remember that I phoned then to the Base Camp and guys told me that they want to leave the expedition. I asked why did you started this expedition then? And Vassily Pivtsov and Urubko decided to continue the climb. But then Vassily called home and decided to leave. I think that it was not the best decision. I do not know if they could have climbed the summit, but if you go as a pair - then you should go back as the pair. If one stays - the second should also stay to be able to work. Because in the end Denis has nobody to climb with.

AB: You the members of the expedition. Was it reasonable for our guys to join this expedition or not?

EI: When Denis and Vsasily came to me and asked the permission to join the team I answered - you will have to work extremely hard. You are joining another, poorly prepared team and there will be nobody to help you. You should understand that you will do everything. "Yes, we are ready etc." and I understand that boys wanted to go to the expedition. From one side I hoped that they will be able to do something, but it was clear that the team is not ready for such a climb. And I let them go, they should understand the reality. I think that this climb could be made, but there should be another team. I saw Wielicky after the expedition. He was completely unhappy - huge money spent for nothing. And now he says - we should have taken more climbers from Russia and Kazakhstan. But you can take people from different places, but there will be no team.

For example, lets take USSR-China-USA Everest 90 expedition. It seemed that it will be impossible to communicate with Chinese group, they even did not speak Chinese, only Tibetian. And we translated from Tibetian to Chinese then to English and then to Russian - complete mess. We even started to draw pictures in order to understand each other. But Chinese mountaineering has Russian roots - in 50 ies Abalakov, Kuzmin, Beletsky were first coaches for Chinese climbers, and finally we could understand each other better than with Americans. But during summer Everest climb it is warm, you have plenty of time and good support. But K2 in winter - serious work - it is another thing. There should be very strong team spirit and understanding.

May 5, 2003

Translated by Andrey Shiryaev