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…Risk of death at high altitude is much higher for a strong climber than for a weak one…

Recorded from videotape by VICTOR KOZLOV, filmed during Russian Lhotse expedition in 1997. Published for the first time. We acknowledge V.Kozlov for this tape.

Year 1997. Anatoly Boukreev, Vladimir Bashkirov and Evgeny Vinogradsky guided three Indonesian climbers to the top of Everest. Then there were a first Russian attempt to make a traverse Lhotse-Lhotse Shar and the climb the last unclimbed eightthousander on the planet and an attempt of Boukreev and Moro to traverse Lhotse-Everest. Vladimir Bashkirov died. Immediately after this tragedy, down in the Khumbu Base Camp Anatoly Boukreev gave an interview with explanations of this death and about these two expeditions.

Anatoly Boukreev: From one hand I realised how much I know about high altitude climbing, from another hand, I understand that there are plenty of things I do not know yet… The tragedy happened with one of the strongest and experienced Russian climbers.

- Don't you think that it is because of his experience Bashkirov took such an responsibility, that he was unable to reject even being in such a critical state? You remember, he told that he is ill before leaving for the summit bid.

Anatoly: I can describe the situation. We came back after guiding Indonesian team to the Everest. We were guides, advisers, coaches and rescue team. We, Vinogradsky, Bashkirov and me, participated in such an extraordinary national Indonesian event that took a lot of energy from us. I do not know about Evgeny and Vladimir, may for them it was easier. But for me, after tragedy in 1996, when I was severely criticized whereas I made enormous effort to rescue people, it was very difficult. It looks like I was a hero but in the same time many thinks that I made mistakes. The best and most experienced guides died that day. Take Rob Hall, who made a fifth ascent but died on way down with his client - he was responsible for others, weaker people. Weaker climbers also died. The storm cut people from the life without distinguishing who is strong and who is weak. When it began people lost the ability to orientate on the way down, stayed high and that lead to the lethal end. During that tragedy I rescued three people, but I have not used supplementary oxygen. They blame me for that. But I was in such a perfect conditions, I had climbed three eightthousanders with the last one (Manaslu) just two month before the expedition, I have had amasing acclimatisation and I felt that I do not need oxygen. This year, after the car accident, lack of training, two operations, the situation is very different.
You meet unforeseen situations. Last year strongest climbers died. Scott Fischer - I consider him as the America's best altitude climber. Rob Hall - head of "Adventure Consultants", expert on Everest. Two of his climbers, his guide and he himself died during that blizzard. In that situation I worked, did what I could, rescued clients, making nontrivial decisions, which were in contrast with views of conservative guides. I did everything on my own, differently, and that helped me to survive and to save others. But these nontrivial solutions do not fit with experience of western climbers. We had lot of arguments with people, who are considered as great experts (Todd Burleson, Ed Viesturs, they are also in the BC now). They started to criticize me. In the States, in journals like Life, Climbing etc there were lots of things, both positive and negative. All these factors put a huge responsibility on me. The Indonesian expedition took everything, emptied me psychologically. I think that for Bashkirov it was also a very hard task, since he made a whole preparation and arranged this climb. I was an adviser. I have not manifested my health problems, my two operations in the States, I was sitting there and organised the equipment and managed technical preparation of the expedition. Vladimir was in Nepal and was a coach for the team.

We coordinated our efforts. And success of the expedition was reached not for nothing, since we climbed Everest with Indonesians, who never saw snow in their life, took the ice axe, crampons and ascender in December for the first time. But they were military guys, commandos. They had a task and tried to solve it. That's why the event required much more efforts by me and by Bashkirov than we thought.

Boukreev and Vinogradsky just after the Everest ascent

And finally, we ran into unforeseen situation. Usually we start the expedition, make an acclimatisation and perform sportive climb with full engagement. In this case we have acclimatised made a huge effort with Indonesians, and tried to save some force for the main event. Bashkirov and his team intended to traverse Lhotse-Lhotse Shar and me with my Italian friend Simone Moro intended to make Lhotse-Everest traverse. If we would have done it, this traverse would have important international influence, comparable with traverse of Lhotse massive.

Everest summiters: Bashkirov, Indonesians, Vinogradsky and Boukreev
When we descended to Katmandu, there were 17 Indonesian generals, and I had to explain why only three persons made a climb and not everybody. They were not climbers, but militaries and we had to explain everything from very basic things. There were such strange questions that I wanted to laugh. We spent 12 days to explain to representatives of Indonesian government what we have done in order to get a correct perception of the expedition.

We hoped that this rest will give positive results and it will give more chances for success in the next event. But it happened differently. We descended to Katmandu after enormous efforts and we sharply lost the altitude and did nothing for 12 days. If you suddenly stop a running horse, or, better, a car, rushing at 100 miles per hour, what will happen with the car? Same thing happened with our bodies, I think. Everything was similar with both of us, me and Vladimir. During the traverse, after only one third of the work needed, I was very close to stay in the mountains forever.
Vladimir was in a similar state. One the first stage we were collaborating closely with the Russian expedition. We intended to sleep in the Camp 4, but it happened that we had to start from the Camp 3. Already in the Camp 4 I saw that Russian team faced some problems, which should have been solved before the traverse. They became another burden for the leader, the most experienced and strongest climber. At 4 AM we approached Camp 4 and the Russian team was already leaving. We decided to rest couple of hours to avoid crowds on the route and also to recover after continuous four hours work. Together with Simone we stayed and I noticed strange things with my health. After this rest my condition was not that good as I expected. I think that it was related to sharp changes in our preparations for the assault. Our bodies were not ready - we broke normal schedule which I followed for 20 and Bashkirov for 25 years.

- Bashkirov took this burden - he could not tell to people - go without me, I am ill. He was preparing this traverse for 4 years. He could not stay behind...

Anatoly: Take, for example, Kangchenjunga expedition (Second Soviet Himalaya Expedition, 1989, traverse of the whole Kangchenjunga massive. Two groups made a whole traverse in different directions and support groups climbed all summits crating stocks of oxygen and other supply - Ed. note). In order to go to this difficult climb the best climbers trained, skip jobs for two years, passed a hard selection to enter the final team of twenty. And all these twenty people worked for the traverse. There was an incredible two years preparation, the best climbers from the Soviet mountaineering school, which is one of the strongest in the World, were selected. And then we made this traverse. We had such a spirit… I was in a perfect condition… The condition of the team… And now I compare the Kangchenjunga traverse with that of Lhotse-Lhotse Shar. These tasks are identical. It is difficult to say which one is harder - Kangchenjunga is longer and higher, Lhotse is more technical. On Kangchenjunga everything was planned and safety was very high, here the preparation is not that good. I can not tell anything negative about this team - I simply do not know. I know my condition 6-7 years ago and now. I can judge the level of Koroteev or, say, Bogomolov. The younger guys… It is impossible to compare conditions of their training with ours in national team. We lived in Esher (sport camp at the Black Sea coast for Soviet Olymipic teams), trained three times per day, eat for 20 roubles per day (average monthly salary in USSR was ~100 roubles). I do not know finances, but nowadays it should be amazingly expensive.

- Usually climbers descend for rest before the summit push?

Anatoly: Yes. Sometimes you descend after heavy job at the altitude and later you hit a raise of you condition, but every raise is followed by decline. And if you face this decline (our biorhythms follow sinusoid), then your later your state is extremely bad, your immune system is much worse than usual. And we were on such a decline. Every person has some health problems. My bronchite worsened, the gorge was inflamed, I felt myself semi-ill. Problems with my gorge developed in few hours. I left Camp 3 at 7200 in perfect condition. Approached camp 4 and Bashkirov was just leaving. I asked him "how are you?" and he answered, that he is not in a good shape. I said that I am also not OK. I'll rest and decide what to do. I will work according to my condition, but anyway my shape is not the best one. Similar things I heard from him.
We rested for two hours. Simone is ten years younger than me, he is strong climber, but not that experienced, and I carried all the load for the traverse. I started to think that problems are related to the large backpack weight. At 8300-8400 we already reached the Russian team and moved ahead. I left the backpack, thinking about the traverse afterwards.

- You were the first on the Lhotse Main?

Anatoly: Only Babanov and Gleb Sokolov were ahead of us. I was permanently telling Simone not to rush - we still have 2-3 days of hard work on huge altitude. I left the backpack, but my state did not improve. Bashkirov and Koroteev approached. Bashkirov started to make a video - everything is OK. Bashkirov always was somewhat introverted, you could never say about his condition. Bashkirov was Bashkirov. I told him - "I am leaving real world, I feel bad. Either the acclimatisation is lost either I am ill". Everything overlapped. Good schedule of the climb was broken, chronic diseases worsened. To ask them about help - they have a lot of own problems. But I told that I can stay on the descent. If they will notice me in snow - do not be surprised…
And suddenly Bashkirov told me: "You know, this night I had high temperature and I felt very bad". I asked about his current state. He answered "OK, but I feel myself very weak. Go on, anyway I will wait for the last guys. And you go on". We continued the ascent, I climbed the summit automatically. We made a photo and I feel that I am at the limit - loosing the camera box. I told to Simone - "Let's go down to the backpack, I feel very bad. There we will decide what to do". The only thing which can help in such situation is to loose the altitude as soon as possible. Otherwise things worsens very fast.
While descending I stopped close to Bashkirov and told him: "I do not know, if I will go down". They had own problems. Bashkirov intended to wait for everybody. Bogomolov was climbing very late. In principle, one should not ascent that late.

- When you descended what was the Bashkirov's state? He felt worse?

Anatoly: I did not noticed, since I was very bad myself. Simone told me that Volodya's eyes changed sharply.

- Bashkirov was without goggles?

Anatoly: Sometimes he took goggles off to work with videocamera. He said nothing about his state. Just said that he will wait the last one and will film things. It was clear that he feels badly. But weak person - when he feels badly, he can not climb, he can not work. But a strong man can continue in such a state. That is why the risk to die at the altitude is much higher for a strong climber, than fo ra weak one. The weak one have the barrier and he does not climb further, but a strong one overpowers himself…
Besides, Simone and me worked as a pair and could descend fast. But Bashkirov had to stay longer. He stayed for too long at high altitude and this worsened his condition. You think that things became easier. When man freezes, it seems to him that he is in warmth and comfort, he simply leaves real world. Same thing happens at the altitude - you just do not control the situation anymore.

- The last time when Bashkirov made a radio call was at 12. He should have started to descend, probably help was necessary, but he told to continue work on the mountain, fix ropes. For him personally it was at least 5 more hours to the summit. What does it means? He never radioed again. He stopped to control himself?

Anatoly: First of all, he did not realised the situation. Second, he was responsible for the group. He should care about them. Say, I organise some event and I climb together with the team. I can not continue, but the idea remains, the group has to work further.

- Why didn't he admit his bad state, did not ask for help of the team?

Anatoly: Well, we speak about 12-hour connection, but it may be that his state became very bad at 5-6 or even 8 o'clock.

- When did you speak with him?

Anatoly: At 4 AM in the Camp, at 1 PM around the summit and around 2-215 on descend. Bashkirov and me climbed Everest, we drained ourselves equally, equally rested in Katmandu and became ill at the same moment. I think that it is not just a coincidence. My condition also changed very fast, in few hours. I was going to the traverse to meet a superchallenge, I trusted into success, I was ready for it. In just four hours, approaching tents at 7900 I started to doubt about our success. Two hours later I felt myself badly, in another two hours I was leaving the real world. Same thing happened with Bashkirov. Simone noted more things and he told that when we spoke with Bashkirov at 1 PM he was smiling and was OK, but just one hour later his conditions changed dramatically.

- About rescue operation. Was there such an event on eight tousander that people climbed the mountain, descended to tents and then ascended half way up to rescue? You on Everest climbed for the second time…

Anatoly: I worked for three days without any visibilty. When all experienced sherpas refused not only to rescue but even to leave tents. And I know what is this - altitude and rescue work after the climb. I had to do it after Everest. I managed to save people after oxygenless Everest climb. After this it is difficult to explain - people do not realise what I have done. Simply it is impossible. Last year during these three days I was on the limit…
You ascend to risk zone, you can save a man but you can die there. That is why it is difficult to make this decision… Foreigners, they simply could not understand what's happened when our guys found Bashkirov's body just 100 meters from tents. They do not understand that guys worked till the end and did everything possible. But when man is dead and nothing could help, they descended to tents and started to struggle for their own lives.

- But later they ascended to him again?

Anatoly: Yes, but just to say the last good bye, cover the body, not to leave it without attention. What they could do they did.
Nowadays people on Himalaya try not to enter the risk zone. There is a lot of commercial expeditions. They try not to risk and not to face the situation when somebody should be rescued. If you face situation like ours last year, you made a mistake. Missed the weather. It means that you are inexperienced and somebody dies because of your fault. But in the mountains little could be done without risk. This year six Russians died here. It is a lot for the season. It is notable event, say, anti advertising of Russian mountaineering.

- I was surprised when I saw list of team on Makalu (Russian expedition on Makalu wall. It was climbed for the first time and received Piolet d'Or, but two members died -Ed. note). Only Efimov had 4 eight thousanders.

Anatoly: This is a serious problem. If a person has no experience, his technical level can not compensate it. If there is no experience, the risk to die increases, moreover, if you are strong but unexperienced - this is even more dangerous. You easily enters dangerous zone and then …
You see, here people are experienced, huge chances, but they die. Look for last year, classic routes… The strongest and the best die because they work more and they are responsible for others and all this drains to the end.

- The death of Russian climbers confirms your words that the best and the strongest die?

Anatoly: I would precise that the highest chances to die are for the strongest and for the weakest. For those in the middle it is somewhat better. Especially if there is also a psychological responsibility about the others…
For a very long time Soviet mountaineering existed in USSR only and even when people climbed abroad they climber with Russians. Now the doors are open and the level dropped dramatically.

- Many regard the climb as a last chance?

Anatoly: Yes, they live as if there is nothing after. During last five years I also started to think what I did before and what I do not like to do now. I compared myself with Western climbers. They never risk. They have credit cards, bank account, house in California or somewhere else. He has normal life and he comes here to rest. Somebody's fault can lead to death of another person. In the mountains you should depend on yourself only, on your own strength and that's why it is amoral to think that somebody will save you on the altitude.

- Is it easier to work in a team?

Anatoly: When you work in a team it is easier. You climb not alone, you share loads. Last year I made, as I think, an extraordinary thing when I rescued people. No one guide attempted to help. Yasuko Namba died - nobody moved to help. I brought oxygen for three - three survived. Yasuko Namba was very close, but she had no oxygen. I gave oxygen to my clients only (I had only two cans). I carried one woman on my shoulders (I helped her, but she was able to move herself) - we covered 400 meters in 40 minutes, strong wind into face. I was simply carrying her. Charlotte Fox. It is better not to be in such a situation. Now she did not remember and does not understand this. A professional can understand, but again, a professional will say - why did you enter such a situation? You should have foreseen it. If you are there - it is your fault.

- Last year the tragedy was actively discussed on the West. What will appear in Russia? Six people died this year?

Anatoly: About the West. I understood after the last year tragedy that any catastrophe, any accident attracts TV, media. Media are eager to see tragedies. If our Everest climb would be perfect - nobody would ever think about it. And now everybody remembers qualities of these people - as it usually happens after death. In the West it is also related with money. Making what I made you expect some attention, respect, but, in contrast, they started to discuss the tragedy everywhere. Yes, there are a lot of deaths. Last year we made a perfect climb in Himalaya, were going back in minivan and had an accident. 24 years old climber died. Many different things happen.

Vladimir Bashkirov
Russian mountaineering lost its best climber. We should focus not on the next death, but on the next guy, who will contribute more to glory of Russian mountaineering. Bashkirov did a lot and we have to remember him.

And after the last year tragedy I do not like many of things happening on the West. People make incredible money on it, showing things, as America wants, not the real picture. Now Hollywood is making a movie. I do not know how will they imagine me - with a Red star, with banner in hands - and how will they show this to American society. It is clear, that it will be completely different from the reality.

- Did they discuss this with you?

Anatoly: Yes, they try to negotiate, but… It is not important. I would like that in Russia it would be different from the West when any negative event is used to make money. And people forget about everything when they speak about money - you can rewrite history as you like.

Everest Base Camp, Nepal, May 1997.

Translated by © Andrey Shiryaev 2003

Sourse: video by © Victor Kozlov 1997

Text (redaction) © Elena Laletina 2002

Photo: © Gleb Sokolov 1997