from Russian by Martin Berka of the Alpine Fund.
In one of the most popular
regions of the Himalayas, right next to Everest, lies Kali-Himal (7066m). Most
large expeditions heading to the highest peak of the planet do not pay
attention to the corner of the valley always covered in clouds. Only once has
Kali-Himal been disturbed by people – in 1983, a Danish expedition
successfully reached the summit along the north ridge.
Kali is a goddess. She was
once the foremother of all other Hindu gods and now aspires to eliminate
universal evil. Of the male sex, undoubtedly. It was for this “feminist” that
human sacrifices were made until the end of the nineteenth century – and you
are now surely pondering about their gender. They still give her sacrifices
these days – animals killed on an altar.
It is the abrupt northwest
wall that gives this mountain its charm. Cold and dark it stands above the
glaciers, but at sunset – if the sun is strong enough to dissolve the clouds –
its purple curtain creates a terrible decoration to the outgoing day.
Fascinated by our chance to
answer the calling of this 1750m high face, we returned to Nepal in the spring
of 2004. The author of the idea and the leader of the expedition, Italian
Simone Moro, is one of the leading professional alpinists of the world.
Reflecting our sport ambitions, the group selection was extremely limited.
Simone chose Bruno Tassi, a mountain guide and rock climber, and myself,
representing the Central Army Sport Club of Kazakhstan and bonded with Simone
by many years of friendship and our common experience from Himalayan
From Kathmandu, the route to
the mountains begins with a trek in a caravan of sherpas or pack yaks. Lukla,
where you normally get by a plane, marks the start of the trek, from a deep
canyon to snow-covered peaks. Not one of the numerous tourist groups we met
along the way believed that we with our modest luggage are in fact a mountain
expedition. However, news of our venture, as it was called, somehow moved
through the air and we were met everywhere with much respect. It was time to
On April 8, our
mini-expedition set up Base camp at 5100m. Simone, married two days before the
departure, left his wife Barbara at home and decided to spend his honeymoon
with us and goddess Kali. This time he planned only to help us while preparing
for the upcoming ascent of Annapurna (8091m) in May.
After some reconnaissance and
short but wild discussions, Simone, Bruno and I decided on the safest variant.
At the top end of the wall, two icefalls were baring their white teeth. One
has to be very cautious in a Himalayan first attempt, which is why we chose a
buttress in the left side of the northwest wall Kali-Himal for our route.
Moro and Tassi took on the
start of the route, through steep ice and rock walls to a plateau around the
icefall. Afterwards, Korshunov (?) and I exchanged them. Our task was to
acclimatize for higher elevations and get a feel for the character of the
route – its tough and easy spots, type of the rock, possibility of bivouacs on
Bruno elegantly climbed the
rock part of the rib. At approximately 6200m Boris and I rest in a wide band
of overhanging rock. The weather worsened in the mid-April and, climbing in
streams of snow and whirls of storms on slabs and cornices, I had to draw on
all my years of experience. Fortunately, our work was slowly coming to an end.
We succeeded in climbing about 100m per day and named this section the
“traverse of the suiciders”.
For the experts I can add
that the rock is a mix of crumbly black slate and light granite, all
completely destroyed. Moreover, the layers of rock are turned downwards,
changing the rock face into a group of slabs. Damn! It is now hard to believe
that it was possible but it really was all like that.
Our clothing helped us a lot.
It used to be that you had to adjust this and watch that all the time but now
you just zipped up in the morning and that was it – BASK worked.
And after two days of waiting
for the weather to change, Korshunov, as the older member of the team, made a
decision to descend. It can not be said I followed him with displeasure.
Sliding along the fixed lines into the foggy abyss, passing by avalanches, I
was glad that our route successfully bypassed the dangerous spots.
The weeklong period of snow
soon changed for freezing cold hurricane winds at an elevation of 6,500m. Even
the sun, hanging in an ultramarine sea, was freezing in this cold.
Nevertheless, I, a
serviceman, was obliged to fulfill my task – hiding sometimes with amusement
behind the sense of duty. In their base camps, all expeditions stiffened with
cold, waiting. The hurricane winds covered the route up Everest, Cho Oyu and
other mountains. Kali-Himal, just south of the “peak of the world”, received
particularly violent blows of the Tibetan wind.
On April 30, we stormed the
mountain. We were receiving bad weather forecasts and warnings from
everywhere. “Don’t go!”, everyone was saying, “It is time to wait!”
Nevertheless, Simone and I, feeling lucky, managed to convince Bruno to join
Our assault was in alpine
style – starting at the base of the mountain we headed up with bivys on the
wall and all gear in our packs. Hanging above the abyss on a portaledge with
barely enough space for one person, we with concentration calculated our
foodstuffs, gas, and chances of success. Two days of wind thundering against
the rock and the roof of our portaledge remain imprinted well in our memory.
The two days of work in the
ledge belt were well worth the effort. Here, after the same overhang I went
over last time, somewhat easier rock appeared. But the cold and wind were a
strong mix and we had to climb in gloves, front-pointing on our crampons.
Drytooling on CAMP’s Awax icetools, scratching under snow and ice in search
for the microscopic features to hold yourself on. But the pleasures, as you
may well know, do not last long. On top of all this, hammering pitons in an
uncomfortable position, I smacked flat my pinky finger. Nevertheless, hanging
in the portaledge in the evening, I felt content about our today’s work. The
road ahead laid now open.
The next day, balancing
around with our heavy packs, we continued along rock and ice slabs towards the
sub-peak ridge. We again worked in hurricane winds, and hammering in the
ice-axes it struck me how deeply frozen the high-altitude Himalayan ice is.
Its dark blue color was almost haunting. Building our portaledge camp on the
snow ridge at 6700m in the twilight of the day is better forgotten.
The morning greeted us with a
thundering roar. On the east of us stood the massif of Makalu, and it was
clear that the winds reigned there as well. In this final day of the assault
our route followed a steep snowy ridge – as if a springboard to the sky. At
11a.m., on the summit, Simone, Bruno and myself watched all the highest peaks
of the planet bow under the gusts of wind. Or was that a tribute to our
persistence? Or just a vision?
We reached the base came the
following evening after a twenty pitch rappel. The air was still at the base
of Kali-Himal. With a happy grin, Povar Tsering made us a dinner of pizza,
spaghetti, and tea with compote. I noticed the myriads of stars twinkling in
the sky as I was sipping from my mug. It was cozy and still at the camp, yet
somewhere out there, unseen, icy wind was whirling, a messenger of the Tibetan
mountains. So good, I thought, that him and I did not cross our ways!
This was the end of the
ascent of the north-west wall of Kali-Himal in the spring of 2004. In honor of
the famous French alpinist Patrick Berhault, who died a few days later, we
named the route “Ciao Patrick!”. He was a friend of ours.
Annapurna (8091m) was the
first 8000-meter peak summated by people. Not that this means much; many
expeditions attempted to summit other 8000-meter peaks time and again:
Everest, K2, Nanga Parbat. Annapurna gave in at the first try. A true drama
unfolded on its slopes in 1950, and the French alpinists Herzog and XYZ (the
transcript of the Rusified name is clearly wrong = Liashenal?) miraculously
managed to return from their successful summit bid. These days, Annapurna is
the 8000-meter peak summited by the fewest number of people. Kazakh climbers
never succeeded in climbing the mountain. In 1988, Valiev and Moiseev planned
to do so but for some reason changed their plans later on. Instead, together
with a Slovak mountaineer Zoltan Demian, they set a beautiful new route on
Dhaulagiri that fall. A new climbing pair appeared at the base of Annapurna in
the winter of 1997: A. Boukreev and D. Sobolev. Simone was with them. They
begun their ascent of the mountain along the south-west ridge but bad weather
covered the whole route with heavy snow. On December 25, an avalanche from
Fangl peak buried the Kazakh alpinist.
Annapurna is a beautiful
mountain. Its beauty is full of charm that cannot be described in logical
terms. It is simply magnificent, as if to challenge human ambition. It is
obviously not by a chance that its name is the second name of the Hindu
goddess of fertility Lakshmi. This goddess personifies the primary living
energy Shakti that gives existence to everything in the world. Hindus treat
her with flowers, sweets, rice and saffron.
As an object of climbing
attention, the mountain leaves plenty of space for mountaineers’ aspirations.
Its walls rise steeply on the south and west sides from the canyons, up some
2.5 – 3 kilometers. The slope of the north face of the mountain is relatively
low but with its length and the large quantity of snow and ice it presents a
no-lesser obstacle. That is why all mountaineers of the world treat it with
respect and suspicion.
In the spring of 2004, Simone
and I decided that the time has come for another adventure. The mountain was
still equally dangerous, but our experience of climbs of the 8000-meter peaks
in the course of the past few years added to our confidence. That is why we
decided to “do” a new route along the north rib of the mountain – our little
but beautiful note in the melody of the Himalayan mountaineering.
The first ascents always
bring something new to sport mountaineering. They are about understanding the
nature and yourself. The will to make the step to the unknown, to risk setting
a route that has never been done before – all that is of interest to the world
of mountaineering. Typically, a new route is created because all the other
simpler routes have been done before. And the fact that the alpinist prefers a
route not climbed by anyone to a more reliable route on the mountain set by
other people gives reason to judge the person as someone willing to risk the
success for the sake of self-expression and discovery. In alpinism, this also
characterizes you as a sportsman (high valued???).
After the expedition to Kali-Himal,
Bruno went home while Simone, Korshunov and I appeared under Annapurna on May
15. The funding for the expedition came from Simone, Rinat Hibullin and the
American Anatolyi Boukreev Foundation. The management of the foundation was
able to find sources to support our attempt, as it always tries to support
There were three more
alpinists with us at the base camp at 4100 meters. Leader of the expedition R.
Diumovich from Germany, an Austrian climber G. Kaltenbruner and Hirotaka from
Japan tried to summit Shishapangma in April and now intended to summit
Annapurna. It was difficult to find a more international group in the
Himalayas this spring.
We started the ascent a few
days later. The four started first, and Simone and me headed up two days later
with all our heavy gear. The idea was that Ralph, Gerlinda, Hirotaki and Boris
Stepanovich would climb Annapurna together along the standard first-ascend
route. Simone and I wanted to test our mettle on a rocky buttress on the right
side of the standard route. The buttress starts at around 7000m and rises
sharply to 7300m. The steep ice walls above and below the buttress make the
route more difficult.
On May 28, Simone and I came
to the upper part of the icefalls where we set camp 3 at the elevation of
6800m. Our friends ahead successfully reached the summit of Annapurna that day
and returned to their camp. Boris Stepanovich stunned everyone with any
knowledge of the mountain when he headed up, without any idea about the actual
route, simply following what he thought was the best way up the large rocky
pyramid. This way he reached the east summit of Annapurna (8012m) that has
only climbed by a few people before.
Things were getting on less
brilliantly for the two of us. The climb with heavy packs in deep snow was
very tiring. Moreover, Simone felt sick and could hardly cope with the last
few meters. Rested after the supper, we agreed that climbing the new route is
not realistic for us at the moment.
My grief knew no end. The
goal was rising right above us – cherished yet exhausting. Only one last
effort was needed to crown our victory, to reach the summit of the most
dangerous 8000-meter mountain along a new route. I have stubbornly aimed not
to take the easier way. One’s plans can only go as far as the circumstances
allow (English?). After a thorough rest and a long talk with Simone we decided
not to climb the buttress but attempt to follow the footsteps of the first
group. Tomorrow we would leave all now useless equipment and follow the easier
Simone felt better in the
morning. At high altitude, illness generally develop swiftly, and a cold can
develop overnight into a serious inflammation of lungs (pulmonary edema???).
Happy that my partner is healthy again, we climbed to 7200m with light packs
where we met with the four summiteers. They moved on down into the maze of the
icefield while we set up tent and prepared for the final push.
In general, the “French”
route on Annapurna follows mainly ice and snow. The icefalls that fall along
the north face of the mountain to 4300m are very dangerous. We hear the
thundering of collapsing seracs in the middle of the night. The upper part of
the mountain always accumulates a large amount of cornices making avalanches a
serious problem. Within a few hours of a snowfall at camp 2 we counted more
than 30 of the “white deaths” flying down. This is why the first ascent route
did not become a “classic”, unlike on Everest or Cho-Oyu where large numbers
of alpinists continue taking the first ascent route to the summit. On
Annapurna, majority of the expeditions prefer to take a more complicate route
to the summit – Bonnington, Japanese, Polish, etc. For us, acclimatized this
year at other high peaks, our safety on this mountain depended on the speed of
our progress. We were to avoid moving slowly through the fields of seracs and
cross icefalls first thing in the morning.
The camps on our route are
traditionally placed at 5000, 5900, 6800 and 7200 meters. The areas are spaced
out to match the normal pace of the climbers and in relatively safe spots.
The view of the upper
mountain imprints into every climber’s memory. A glacier of a characteristic
form (nicknamed “serp”) crawls down from under the summit. Its crevassed lower
part gradually rises to the upper summit tower, about 200m high. Our fourth
camp lies at the “handle” of the serp.
We spent the whole day
drinking tea and resting before the decisive push. Simone got gradually better
and more optimistic. We spent a few hours worrying at night after being
informed on the radio that Korshunov got lost somewhere in the icefall. He was
found soon after Simone and I put on our crampons to go searching for him.
Finally, we could return to
our sleeping bags. Yet given that we were to get up at midnight again we
decided to start our ascent immediately. We left our camp at 9pm.
Going up snow/ice slopes in
dark at elevations above 7000m is not too pleasant. In the glimmering light of
the moon we slowly made our way through the seracs and across less than stable
ice bridges. More and more often, Simone would stop for a breather and the
rope connecting us would straighten up. We quickly lost the tracks of the
previous group and continued climbing along the shortest way straight up. Soon
my partner felt very bad and refused continuing further. What a situation!
Simon said that I should continue alone if I like while he goes back down. But
alone? I understood at once there will be no second chance. Either now up for
the summit, or back home. After thinking for a while I untied from the rope,
which slid down the ice slope towards Simone’s headlamp. I shouted I’m heading
for the summit, turned around, and climbed up the ice slope towards the rocks.
The moon was out. The eerie
greatness of the night covered everything a man lost if the world of altitude
can sense. I was alone. Alone as no one else in the world. Just the stars, the
ice, the rocks and the snow, and one lieutenant of CSKA Kazakhstan filled with
determination. All or nothing – the motto pushed me along the flat fields of
ice and snow right into the space. I sped up after Simone turned around and my
feet stopped freezing. I walked up 20-30 steps and then took a breathing
break. First up along the rocks, then a traverse to the right. Here I
encountered the tracks of the Germans and followed them to the summit pyramid.
It got very dark underneath it, for the moon was now on the other side of the
mountain. I had to climb up a steep and narrow rock couloir covered with snow
in places, as if inside a well. And then, after a few hundred meters, at
1:20am on May 30, I stood on top of Annapurna.
The uppermost point of the
mountain is narrow as a blade made of firn snow. The south face dropped on the
other side like the entry to the underworld. The darkness at the base of the
mountain was awesome, like water in a bottomless pool. The moon has just set
at the horizon, and from it through a barely perceptible cloud of mist a lane
of light came my way. The silver tower of Dhaulagiri hung in the sky between
the stars. After warming the video camera underneath my armpit I took some
shots from the summit…
Then the climb down followed,
of which I have nothing nice to say. You can’t help it! All the preparation,
all the work that coaches L. Savina and D. Grekov put into me into me during
my youth has paid off. It is to them that I am thankful for having what is
necessary in alpinism. At 3:15 I was back at the tent. Simone met me here and
we jumped back to the warmth of our sleeping bags to await morning. The work
Somewhere in the ice under
Annapurna lie Boukreev and Sobolev. Let their achievements live and promote
Kazakh alpinism. That is why I dedicated my climb of Annapurna to them.
The expedition was over.
Evaluating it we can say that the new route on Kali-Himal climbed in the
Himalayas is undoubtedly a great achievement for Kazakh alpinism bringing
about optimistic thoughts for the future. Taking into account the fact that
our sportsmen did not put a new route in the Himalayas since Dhaulagiri 1991,
I hope that the the work in the steep walls of Himalayan giants will start
again. Sport ascents can not be reduced to climbing the mountains along their
first ascent routes and routes done decades ago. For me, this experience was
very valuable and allows me to make the following conclusions. The complexity
of climbing in a small group, especially with the representatives of the
“western” school of mountaineering, allows for a relatively free choice of
objects for serious mountaineering and climbing tasks. Undoubtedly, the
prestige of Kazakh sport can only gain from this. Of course, the sport side of
our expedition lost somewhat from the fact that we did not climb a new route
on Annapurna. This was caused by the indisposition of my friend which,
unfortunately, is in part determined simply by luck. Nevertheless, the ascent
of the mountain adds to the treasure box of the Kazakh mountaineering.
The switching from Kali-Himal
to Annapurna also made the expedition more difficult. The first route took a
huge amount of our energy, both physical and mental.
Central Army Sport Club (CSKA)
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