Annapurna, Attempt and Tragedy.
On December 2, Anatoli Boukreev and I, accompanied by the alpinist
and videographer Dimitri Sobolev, flew by helicopter from the last lodge
to a base camp at 4095 meters. A long glacier separated us from the beginning
of Annapurna's south face and the traditional Base Camp, where,
due to the abundant snow in which the helicopter would have sunk it had
not been possible to land. We were forced to break trail along the glacier
to get to the base of the face, an exhausting task compounded by much new
and abundant snows.
Our stay on the mountain continued to be christened by snowfall
that accumulated to four meters. This forced us to change our climbing
itinerary (though we kept the summit of Annapurna I as our final objective).
The new line of ascent we picked wound its way up the steep east face of
Annapurna Fang (7847m) to the line of notches situated between this summit
and that of Annapurna II. Once we reached this col we would be able to
make a long traverse along the ridge that would bring us to the summit
of Annapurna Fang (which is avoidable) and then on to that of Annapurna
I. A new itinerary, possibly more difficult, surely longer than an ascent
via the Bonington route but, in our minds, much safer given the conditions.
We grew accustomed to proceeding with snow up to our bellies
and with packs weighing up to 34 kilos. On December 25 we began a constant
advance in piolet traction on fine mixed terrain to reach the ridge. As
we had agreed, I led and equipped the most technically demanding pitches.
Thus, after an hour's climb, Anatoli made a small stance for himself on
the slope to deal with the unspooling and joining of the rope coils as
I slowly dragged them toward the ridge.
After a couple of hours I was about 50 to 70 meters from the
exit onto the ridge at 6300 meters, but a yell from Anatoli announced the
end of the last coil of rope. He suggested I set up an anchor to fix the
long umbilical cord that connected us. I carried out the task and, given
the high difficulty of the last section remaining to be climbed, I decided
to wait for him, who meanwhile had been joined by Dimitri.
I spent the first few minutes filming and photographing my two
friends, then concerned myself with putting the video camera away in my
pack so I could get my gloves back on. In the time it took to think of
doing this, but before I could actually begin, I realized the moment of
my death was silently approaching. Blocks of ice and rock in a cloud of snow were falling down on
me. In a state of animated peaceful 'resignation' I thought only of yelling
out the danger to Anatoli and Dimitri. I remember seeing them make a rapid
lateral move in an attempt to get out of the way of the avalanche while
I crouched and leaned against the wall, gripping with my bare hands the
rope that had just been fixed.
I wasn't able to resist the fury of this mass for even
a second, and I fell rapidly, grasping the rope between my hands which
burned and lacerated my fingers almost through to the bone. The series
of flights, slides and ricochets seemed like they would never end. All
I could do wasgo along with the movement of the avalanche, often tumbling
at break-neck speed and losing orientation.
It was 12:37 when I stopped half-buried in the snow at 5500 meters.
I could not see out of one eye, my hands were stripped to the bone, my
clothes were in shreds and I had lost all my equipment except for my crampons.
I immediately called Anatoli and Dimitri many times but no one answered.
I staggered about in the avalanche for about 15 minutes without seeing
or hearing anything from them. I was alive, but unsure of my survival given the conditions and
the 1500 meters of wall yet to descend before getting to Base Camp. There,
I would be able to organize the rescue that I knew would arrive within
a few days' wait. Good fortune willed that only 50 meters from the avalanche stood
our Camp I tent, inside which I had a supply of clothing. After exhaustingly
redressing I started the long, dramatic descent without use of my hands
and able to see out of only one eye. After six hours I arrived exhausted
at the 4095-meter Base Camp where my Nepalese cook attended to me, ignorant
of what had just happened. Thanks to his nocturnal walk of more than ten
hours to a village, and the subsequent radio contact with a friend, Nima,
from Cho Oyu, who was trekking in Kathmandu, I was able to take advantage
of the help of a helicopter that came and got me on December 26 at Base
Three days later I was once again in a helicopter trying to fly
over the avalanche and possibly see my friends still alive. Unfortunately
there is still no trace of them today, apart from what remains of Anatoli
in the pages of the history of alpinism.
The last 15 months that have been left on my shoulders have given
me three splendid successes, both personal and in sport. An ascent on Fitz
Roy (3441m) in Patagonia via the west face in 25 hours round-trip, an ascent
of the South Summit of Shishapangma (8008m) in Tibet in 28 hours round-trip
with a partial descent on skis, and finally my second ascent of Lhotse
(8516m) in Nepal. All this intensely moved and motivated me to continue
my pursuit of and craving for alpinism.
The most beautiful thing, though, that I remember of these months
was the start of a great friendship with the strongest alpinist of all
time, Anatoli Boukreev, who had decided to continue his activities in my
Twenty-one times on the summits of the 8000-meter peaks in only
eight years, the last four of these summits made within 80 days of each
other, many with the fastest speed records for the 14 Himalayan giants,
and 40 summits of more than 7000 meters to his credit-a veritable 'tank'
Little known in the international circles, Anatoli passed into
the chronicles when, in 1996, he carried and saved from the hand of death
some American alpinists who, bereft of oxygen, had been caught in a storm,
beaten by wind and frozen by the temperatures on the flanks of Everest.
On that occasion Anatoli was capable of helping them in a situation where
others could only stagger and hang on to their ice axes.
Ex-trainer of the National Russian Alpine skiing team, graduate
of the 'Army Sport Club' of Kazakstan, veteran of the Afgani war (special
forces), Anatoli Boukreev showed me many things that revealed that he knew
how to be a man before being an alpinist. I learned more things from him
in one year than in all my 17 years of activity. Through the millions of
circumstantial smiles and sneers that a great part of the world of alpinists
gave, we communicated in November our intention to try the south face of
Annapurna during the winter of 1997-'98. There would only be the two of
us, without Sherpas, without any other expeditions at Base Camp, deprived
of any method of satellite or radio communication, and facing a mountain
that counts more dead than alpinists on its summit and that, in winter,
has been summited only once in over 20 attempts.
We did not want to be disrespectful of a repeated invitation
toward a more tranquil style of alpinism; we simply wanted to try an ascent
of a mountain in a climatically difficult moment and with an old approach
and style. Anatoli and I did not believe (and continue to not believe)
in the 'death of alpinism' that the sport has been sentenced to, often
by illustrious persons who, due to their influence and the habit of wearing
comfortable slippers, pretended that alpinism retired with them. Himalayan
alpinism is alive and growing! And without a doubt changed, in respect
to 15-20 years agoóbut it is enough to have a pinch of imagination,
some contrary ideas and no fear of eventual lack of success, to remember
that there are also alternatives to the pilgrimages to high altitude. Without
condemning sponsors and 'intelligent' commercial expeditions, Anatoli knew
how to marry his spirit of adventure with the sacrosanct need for making
a living from alpinism. Extreme moralism, denigrating or defaming actions
against other ìcolleaguesî or other summits, never entered
in the language or mind of Boukreev (even if it was part of interesting
gossip. . .).
All of this constitutes the testament that Anatoli has left me
and that I leave to those who still have a passion, energy and desire to
go to the mountains. No one, ever, has seemed to me so human. No one, ever, has appeared
to me so terribly strong. An abyss exists between him and the other champions
and personalities of the Himalayas that I have had the good fortune (and
with some, the misfortune) of having known. There remains now his imprint
and the many lessons he has left me. There remain also the many ideas that
he and I had in mind and that occupied also the last hours we spent together
on that night, the 25th of December. . . .