Anatoli Boukreev

19th Dec 2013

Last week I visited the site of Annapurna Base Camp.  On a rocky outcrop above the camping area there is a memorial to mountaineers who have lost their lives on the huge south face of his magnificent 8000er. I have seen various memorials over the years but this one seemed particularly poignant.  Perhaps it was the location, surrounded as it is by a circle of stunning 7 and 8000 metre peaks that all looked like superb mountaineering objectives.  Perhaps it was imagining those climbers, who are now remembered there, striding their way up to this point and looking with excitement and anticipation at what they saw as their great adventure ahead.  It was probably also partly because I was aware of the adventures of most of these climbers through my reading of mountaineering literature over the years.
One of the memorials is to Ian Clough and I distinctly remember Chris Bonington describing the terrible moment when he was killed on Annapurna's lower slopes during the otherwise highly successful British 1970 Expedition.  Bonington's team had placed Dougal Haston and Don Whillans on the summit after the first ever ascent of the south face, but tragically Clough was struck by a falling serac during the team's retreat from the mountain.
Another plaque remembers British mountaineer Alex Macintyre who was lost in 1982.  McIntyre was a shining light in the British climbing scene and an exceptional Alpinist who, after many groundbreaking ascents in the Alps, took his skills to the Himalayas.   He lost his life on Annapurna due to a single falling rock to the head.
There was also a simple wooden plaque remembering the talented alpinist Pierre Beghin.  I had read of  Beghin falling while climbing unroped alongside Jean Christophe Lafaille on a new line up the face in 1992.  The pair had reached 7500 metres when poor weather forced them to descend and Beghin was lost down the face when a single cam abseil anchor failed.  Lafaille ended up descending most of the 75 degree face using only 20 metres of thin climbing cord to abseil the steepest sections because Beghin was carrying most of their technical equipment and ropes when he fell.  His limited hardware meant he had to use tent pegs and even, at one point, a plastic bottle as an anchor.  Cruelly, having descended to the lower part of the face, Lafaille was struck by a rock which broke his arm and forced him to down climb the rest of the face one handed.  It was one of the greatest tales of survival in mountaineering history although Lafaille tragically went on to lose his life during a solo winter attempt of Makulu some years later.  
For some time, while I rested by the Base Camp memorial, I missed one plaque which was hidden by prayers flags.  But I suddenly noticed a glint of metal from behind the colourful fabric squares and, as I drew the flags aside, I saw a large brass plaque dedicated to Anatoli Boukreev.  For some reason this plaque caught my attention the most.
Anatoli was a renowned Kazakh mountaineer who, at the time of his Annapurna death in 1997, had already climbed 6 of the worlds 14 8000 plus metre peaks without using supplementary oxygen.  These ascents included new routes on Kanchenjunga and Dhaulagiri along with several speed ascents of various major mountains and a number of Everest ascents.  In 1997 alone he climbed 4 peaks over 8000 metres within 80 days.  Anatoli was renowned for his speed and strength in the high mountains as well as being an excellent technical climber.
In 1990 he started guiding after an American asked him to lead a team on Mt McKinley.  This led on to further opportunities and so it came about that in 1996 he was working on Everest for American guide Scott Fischer.  During their summit attempt a storm blew in and caught many climbers near the summit.  In the carnage that ensued 12 people, including Fischer, lost their lives.  It was his actions during this event for which Anatoli was to become most widely known.
On the day of the storm Anatoli was again climbing without supplementary oxygen and, after summiting well before the storm struck (and waiting around 90 minutes on the summit for the arrival of others), he whizzed down to the team's camp at the South Col to await the returning climbers.  Unfortunately, in the time shortly after he reached safety, the storm engulfed the tired climbers above and even those who managed to battle their way to the South Col struggled to locate the tents.  Anatoli went into the storm several times to shepherd some of them successfully to the tents but his actions on the day still divided opinion in some sectors of the mountaineering world mainly because of his choice to guide without supplementary oxygen and to descend before his clients.
One of the most widely known accounts of the disaster was written by the American journalist Jon Krakauer in his best selling book 'Into Thin Air'.  Krakauer was on Everest as a guided member of Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants team after being commissioned to report on the expedition for an American Magazine.  In the aftermath of the tragedy he decided to write a book about the expedition and in it he discusses Anatoli's role and his actions in considerable critical detail.
Anatoli was apparently considerably wounded by Krakauer's comments and he went on to co-write a book detailing his own version of the events on that fateful day.  I read this book, which he called The Climb, some time after I'd read Krakauers and, although it's a riveting read and offers a different perspective on the events of May 1996,  I couldn't help feeling that he was predominantly using the book as a vehicle to justify his actions and the book didn't really tell us very much about him as a man.  In reality Boukreev didn't need to defend his actions and he was supported in his actions by at least as many climbers as those that chose to criticise.  He was also given an award for his brave actions by the American Alpine Club.
Soon after receiving the award Boukreev left for his attempt on the South Face of Annapurna with Simone Moro.  Some months before he had dreamed vividly of being killed in an avalanche and, tragically, his dream became reality soon into the expedition when a huge cornice tumbled down a couloir while he was fixing ropes.  Attempts to find his body were hampered by poor weather but, when the weather finally cleared, his partner Lynda Wylie (who had flown over from America), could only find the team's empty camp one tent.  Boukreev's body has never been found.
That could easily have been the end of the story and Boukreev would have remained a mysterious character that I could admire as a talented mountaineer and feel regret for the way he was vilified for his actions on Everest.  Except that I did find out more about the real Anatoli Boukreev.  In 2001 Lynda Wylie published a magical book called 'Above the Clouds'.  The book is based on Anatoli's personal diaries and tells a story of both a man driven to achieve at the highest level as well as a man totally in touch with the mountains where he sought to challenge himself.  It is, I'm delighted to say, not at all about Everest.  This book is about Anatoli and I would heartily recommend it.
On the top of his memorial plaque there is a quote from Boukreev that's says it all...... 'mountains are not the stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion'.  Rest in Peace Anatoli Boukreev.