Above The Clouds
The Diaries of A High-Altitude Mountaineer
By Anatoli Boukreev
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2001 Linda Wylie
All rights reserved.
AMERICA, MCKINLEY, SPRING 1990
In America, Anatoli's eyes opened to a world full of possibility. Access to current climbing publications allowed him to appreciate what international climbers considered the cutting edge in mountaineering. During his three-month stay this view of the world helped him to refine a plan for personal accomplishment.
Responding to a request from Beth Wald, well-known American mountaineer Michael Covington provided the thirty-two-year-old Soviet star with a working berth on a Mount McKinley expedition. In the last hours of his stay in Alaska, without permission from authorities in his country, Anatoli set in motion events that would stretch both him and Michael to the limit.
TALKEETNA, ALASKA, MAY 19, 1990
Tomorrow I fly to the Base Camp on the glacier below Mount McKinley. Many hours of training have gone into realizing this dream. The training is over and the last stage of the journey is before me. It has not been easy to create this opportunity, and the last few days of organization have been especially difficult. My backpack is full of trouble; twenty kilos is too heavy. Experienced backwoodsmen would be surprised to hear my thoughts. In their trips to the mountains, that amount of weight is nothing to carry. For a speed ascent, it will be a big problem.
This giant of rock and ice has seen nothing like what I want to do. I treat this mountain with a lot of respect, though I have success on many higher peaks behind my shoulders. Last year my teammates and I raised the ceiling of our abilities on Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world. Maybe we set a new standard of endurance for all human beings. That exploit is the theme for a different conversation; tomorrow I face a challenge that is no less serious. I want to climb from the base of McKinley to the summit in one day.
Because it is located near the arctic circle, and relatively close to the ocean, rapidly changing weather patterns often create conditions on this mountain that are more severe that those we endured in the Himalaya. My rate of ascent will be faster, and going alone, if there are unforeseen difficulties or my body becomes disabled, there will be no teammates to rely on. Alone in this hotel room in Talkeetna, suddenly I am aware of my total solitude. What happens from now on will be up to me.
My patron left me this evening. Michael Covington, the owner of Fantasy Ridge Mountain Guides, has looked after me during this, my first visit to Alaska. Working the last twenty-five days, I believed that I helped him as well. With my assistance, Michael led four paying clients to the top of Mount McKinley via the Cassin route. Mountain historians can record our climb as the second successful ascent by a group of nonprofessionals on the difficult route. That was not my success, it was Michael's, and I have to thank him for teaching me the ropes of guiding paying clients.
Michael Covington is a real professional; throughout the expedition I was impressed with his endurance and his judgment. In the beginning he was a puzzle for me. Though I sensed his professionalism, I felt uneasy with him. That feeling stayed with me for a long time.
We met at the airport in Anchorage on the nineteenth of April two days before his clients arrived. He took me along on a shopping trip for expedition supplies. That market amazed me. Though it was early spring in Alaska, the counters in the Anchorage store were crammed and bending under the weight of fresh fruits and vegetables. Such a variety of produce could not be found in Almaty's Green Bazaar even during the peak summer growing season. As well as providing ordinary food for the local people, the store had a whole section with special products for use by outdoorsmen. Michael purchased a mountain of supplies; everything we needed was to be found in that one store.
Four clients arrived in Anchorage on the twenty-first of April. They were from a variety of professions and included an oil businessman, an engineer, a moviemaker, and a university professor. Their ages, twenty-six to thirty-three, put them at the peak of human physical ability. I was curious about how Michael screened candidates for such a hard route. He told me that he had assessed their technical ability while ice climbing with them in Colorado. Each of the men had experience climbing high mountains in other parts of the world, and two of them had previously summited McKinley via the normal route. I was informed that another, no less important criterion was an individual's ability to write a check for a large sum. A client had to be pretty well-off financially to afford to pay one or two month's wages for a vacation. Michael charges more to guide on the Cassin route than he charges for climbing via the normal one. Because of that, I understood the men on our team had sportsmen's appetites for adventure.
We flew to Talkeetna, the Alaskan village where all McKinley expeditions begin and end. After picking up the necessary gear from Michael's equipment storage, we boarded small planes that flew us to a camp on the glacier below McKinley. The cold temperature left us with no doubts that we were in Alaska.
During the first days of the climb, Michael made an effort to explain his schedule to me using a photograph. I saw four camps on the glacier and seven camps marked on the mountain slopes, but my poor command of English prevented me from understanding the details of his plan. Seven days into the expedition, when I found myself sleeping at Camp I for the second night, I began to grasp Michael's tactics. Some confusion at dinner helped to clarify the situation.
The sleds we dragged behind us across the glacier were piled high with enormous loads of supplies. Based on my past experience, taking into account the size of the mountain, I was sure we had about three times as much food as we could eat. Therefore, I saw no reason to limit consumption at mealtime. I can never complain about my appetite in the mountains. Among the stores were many foods that had never been available to me on a mountaineering expedition: freeze-dried strawberries, ice cream, many different kinds of tasty drink mixes, soups, and entrées. Each item was in a beautiful, colored package. My curiosity about those packages had a life of its own.
At mealtime Michael gave me a frequent notice: "Tolya, it is a ration."
I thought he was saying "Russian." So I would answer, "Okay, Michael, it is Russian." For several nights, with a mysterious grin, he had allowed the conversation to end there. After his usual declaration on night seven, I watched his patience come to an end. Asking for my dictionary, he looked up the word ration. Thanks to that English lesson, during the next twenty days the team did not run short of food. By the end of the climb I was eight kilograms lighter.
Twenty-five days is a long time to work on climbing a 6,000-meter-high peak. The American school of thought regarding acclimatization is dramatically different from ours. On Michael's schedule, there were no preliminary trips to higher elevation to adjust to the altitude. Two or three nights were spent in each of seven successively higher camps; that is how our bodies adjusted to increases in elevation.
Michael and I worked on the route or hauled up supplies between each advance. The clients did not express much eagerness to carry loads, and because they were not properly trained, the necessary technical work was beyond their ability. Guaranteed safety and reliable support, each of them had paid big money to Fantasy Ridge Mountain Guides so they could feel like real mountaineers on a complicated route. In general, there is nothing wrong with that. Enjoying a vacation in exotic circumstances, each man moved up the mountain securely connected to fixed rope, with ample free time to take a lot of pictures. Michael and I worked hard. Despite the hardship imposed by our route and episodes of bad weather, on May 14 we made it to the summit. The thermometer registered minus thirty degrees centigrade.
We flew back to Talkeetna on the seventeenth. Before they left for home, I exchanged addresses with my teammates and invited them to my region for climbing. We stayed up late drinking beer and talking in the hotel bar. Saying good-bye, I could see they were immersed in the problems of their normal lives. Though they were good men, the mountains are the only things we had in common. Surviving here is very different from in Russia. Here people face different problems; you sense the struggle in every encounter. Even the most basic requirements of life have a price. Work earns you the money to pay for things; and that is the only way to live a full life. This constant struggle makes things more interesting for the individual.
When it was over, Michael asked me what I thought about the climb. Mostly I enjoyed learning about the technological advances in our sport; some of the equipment I used was completely new to me. Michael had French rope that absorbs the shock of falling. Boots are available that are designed specially for rocks or providing protection in extremely low temperatures. Crampons and ice axes are available that accommodate any degree of steepness on a slope. Comparable Soviet items do not meet the same high standards for safety and quality. The best in every category can be purchased in any mountaineering store in America. My experiences have made it clear that the technical support provided for Soviet mountaineers is far from good. The compensation for us is that we have peaks that rise above seven thousand meters in our beautiful mountain regions. Our expertise is built on experience. I did not find this climb with clients to be challenging, but only hard work.
Last night at dinner, I flabbergasted Michael and another team member, Bill Pierson. When I delivered the not so pleasant news that I wanted to attempt to reclimb McKinley alone, Michael thought I was showing off. Slowly, I watched as his face registered the seriousness of my intention. Gruffly, he said that he had no time or money to be occupied with my problems. Probably he is tired of my straightforward requests for help and my unpredictability. He must think that I want too much. My request creates problems for him, and his work is hard enough already. From his tense response I understood that the picture did not look so good. With only obstinacy to rely on, I decided to bring the subject up again after dinner. Michael has an interesting character, a little strange in the way of all mountaineers. He lit a cigarette, so I lit a cigarette. We talked; he relented. He decided that I could stay at the guesthouse without paying, that I had to leave for the glacier as soon as possible. Flight arrangements were up to me. Kindly, Bill Pierson offered to help me with the organizational problems that stood in my way.
Unable to sleep after that conversation, I walked the streets of Talkeetna alone. I find it humiliating to rely on others for what happens in my life. The burden of my ambition has fallen on Michael, and I know that he has no money to help me. The mountaineering equipment I brought from home to sell during my trip has not generated much interest. I have a bag full of axes and ice- screws and very little American money to make my plan a reality.
Determined to fight on till the end, I went to the airport this morning armed with the issue of Climbing magazine that contained Beth Wald's article about my Elbrus victory. Loren, a nice woman who controls the office, had some sympathy for the ambitions of a penniless Russian; she agreed to give me a free seat on one of the air flights to the glacier tomorrow morning.
During a breakfast discussion regarding my tactics, Michael tried to talk me out of making the speed ascent up the West Rib. Time-wise, he thinks it would be better for me to start on the West Buttress; the routes join on the upper part of the mountain. That approach does not suit me. I want to try to ascend the line on the Rib from beginning to end. I appreciated that Michael was uneasy about letting me go through the glacier alone, and I know that it is risky. If the weather conditions are bad, I promised him that I would consider changing my mind. He left it at that. I ate the food on my plate quickly, and still hungry, I asked for more. That request made Michael boil; he said that I could pay my own food bill. I was a little surprised by his reaction, but did not show it.
My supplies cost $70; there is very little money left. The stove I borrowed from Michael's storage works differently from the system I am accustomed to. At park headquarters, Bill Pierson registered me for the "Ration" West Rib, No Problem expedition. The rangers asked me what I would do alone with no radio if I fell into a crevasse.
"No problem," I said, "I can sing."
Though it was funny at the time, only the future will tell if this solo climb will be "no problem." Saying my good-byes to Michael and Bill this afternoon, I sensed that they were both pretty tired of me.
* * *
Though I stayed up until 5 A.M. writing and thinking, I woke at eight and jogged to the airport the morning of May 20. By noon, I was in a seat on a flight to the glacier. I thanked Loren and the pilot with some small souvenirs from Russia. Loren gave me two canisters of gas for Michael's stove. Two hours after touchdown, I walked past the place where the West Rib route diverges from the easier route up the Buttress. Stopping about 5 P.M. near a group of Colorado skiers with two guides named Bob, I set up my camp. The Bobs patiently showed me how to operate Michael's stove. Snow started falling; heavy accumulations made unloading the tent necessary twice during the night. Fog and snow all day long on the twenty-first reduced the visibility to zero. Since it was impossible to go on, I took the precaution of relocating my tent in a more protected spot.
After breakfast on the twenty-second I said good-bye to the two Bobs. All their efforts to discourage my departure were useless. Soon the camp was far behind and I was left one-on-one with the knee-deep snow and the crevasses. Being attentive and careful, I struggled breaking a new trail for five hours. A couple descending from the West Rib passed me and reported that the couloir, the most dangerous part of my route, was in good condition. That was all I needed to know. Following in their tracks, I relaxed a little. Suddenly the snow dropped out from under me. Wedged in a crack, I sensed only emptiness beneath my feet. Unclipping my pack to decrease my weight, inch by inch I crawled to safety, then hauled the pack out. I was lucky that I had not disappeared down that hole. I proceeded more carefully, intending to finish what was normally a two-day crossing before dinner. Wading through the deep snow exhausted me. My level of fatigue was a clear indication to me that I had not fully rehabilitated from working on the previous expedition. Though I would not say that I starved on that trip, my weight was down to 74 kilograms from my normal eighty-two kilograms. Ahead of me was an unusual effort. A team would take about twenty days and acclimated mountaineers might take three or four days to do what I hoped to accomplish in one. My plan was simple: to climb continuously until I reached the summit.
By evening I threw down my tarp at the base of McKinley's West Rib. The sky looked as if the weather would cooperate. In a good mood, I fixed a huge dinner and visited with two Anchorage mountain guides who shared my campsite. The nights here are only a little darker than the day, so time loses meaning. I woke at 5 A.M. on the twenty-third and might have started out earlier, but I was fatigued from the work the day before. Still feeling the full effects of dinner, I ate a light breakfast. As I packed up, firsthand knowledge of McKinley's penetrating cold and mercurial weather patterns prevented me from lightening my load. With the sleeping bag, stove, gas, and tent, my pack weighed twenty kilograms or more. I began the assault at exactly 7:30 A.M. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Above The Clouds by Anatoli Boukreev. Copyright © 2001 Linda Wylie. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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