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Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer

Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer

by Anatoli Boukreev

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When Anatoli Boukreev died on the slopes of Annapurna on Christmas day, 1997, the world lost one of the greatest adventurers of our time.

In Above the Clouds, both the man and his incredible climbs on Mt. McKinley, K2, Makalu, Manaslu, and Everest-including his diary entries on the infamous 1996 disaster, written shortly after his return-are immortalized.


When Anatoli Boukreev died on the slopes of Annapurna on Christmas day, 1997, the world lost one of the greatest adventurers of our time.

In Above the Clouds, both the man and his incredible climbs on Mt. McKinley, K2, Makalu, Manaslu, and Everest-including his diary entries on the infamous 1996 disaster, written shortly after his return-are immortalized. There also are minute technical details about the skill of mountain climbing, as well as personal reflections on what life means to someone who risks it every day. Fully illustrated with gorgeous color photos, Above the Clouds is a unique and breathtaking look at the world from its most remote peaks.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
During his lifetime, Anatoli Boukreev climbed 11 of the world's 14 8,000-meter peaks. He set numerous speed records on solo ascents, and on group missions rescued countless climbers from the "death zone." Above the Clouds, a compilation of Boukreev's journal entries, unveils the rich interior life of the controversial Russian/Kazakh legend.

Followers of mountaineering literature are well acquainted with Boukreev. Jon Krakauer's 1997 bestseller, Into Thin Air, was critical of Boukreev's behavior during the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster. The Climb, Boukreev's own bestselling version of events, put a contrary spin on the ill-fated expedition.

Above the Clouds adds much-needed perspective on Boukreev's mountaineering life: The Everest disaster was not the first that he faced. So what possesses a climber to repeatedly put his life at risk? For Boukreev, it was simply a case of being more comfortable in the mountains than anywhere else. "I do not fear climbing high.... Down below, when I become immersed in the problems of ordinary life, there is fear sometimes."

Boukreev was nurtured by the school of Soviet mountaineering, a program that he believed "[compared] with the Soviet Union's great accomplishments in space exploration, science, and the discipline of Russian ballet." The school was disbanded with the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the loss of these cultural underpinnings left Boukreev ill at ease. He did not enjoy leading inexperienced climbers up Mt. Everest, but needed the commissions to fund his own projects.

In his journals, Boukreev shows great respect for Scott Fischer, the esteemed American mountaineer who perished high on Everest. Boukreev met his own maker on Christmas Day, 1997, when he was caught in an avalanche on the deadly slopes of Annapurna. He died in what was for him a holy place: "Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambitions to achieve. They are cathedrals, grand and pure, the houses of my religion.... In the mountains I celebrate creation, for on each journey I am reborn." (Brenn Jones)

Publishers Weekly
Born in Mayak, Russia, in 1958, Boukreev became one of the world's greatest mountain climbers. But while his accomplishments included 21 ascents of 11 of the world's 14 highest mountains, Boukreev became known to the general public only after his work as a guide on a disastrous Mt. Everest climb was described in less than glowing terms in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Boukreev's coauthored bestselling account of the tragedy, The Climb, was an attempt to set the record straight. This new posthumous collection is a series of narratives Boukreev wrote between 1987 and his death climbing Annapurna in 1997; it stands as an excellent addition to The Climb and as one of the most revealing and tough-minded descriptions of the life of a mountain climber. Three themes dominate the essays: the spiritual beauty and power of the mountains, the increasing commercialization of mountain climbing and the necessity for rigorous training by people (pros and newcomers alike) who want to climb the big mountains. The accounts collected and edited by his companion Linda Wylie capture Boukreev's thoughts during an often troubled period: by 1989, at the height of his powers, Boukreev had received the highest sports honors in Soviet history, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, Boukreev was forced to move to America, where he made his living as a guide for wealthy patrons on private climbing adventures including the terrible Mt. Everest trip, which haunted him until he died. 32 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Nov. 16) Forecast: The bestselling status of Boukreev's first book as well as continuing interest in the 1996 attempt to climb Mt. Everest should promise sizable, serious readership. Copyright 2001 CahnersBusiness Information.
Library Journal
Readers familiar with the 1996 Everest disaster will likely remember Boukreev as the Russian climber vilified by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air (LJ 4/1/97). Boukreev responded later that year with his version of the accident in his best-selling The Climb (LJ 11/1/97), coauthored by G. Weston DeWalt. Although somewhat hindered by his lack of English skills, Boukreev managed to create a large and dedicated circle of friends in the United States and elsewhere. In December 1997, he was killed in an avalanche while attempting a winter ascent of Annapurna. These narratives, originally written in Russian and collected and edited by his partner Linda Wylie, offer a look into the exclusive and dangerous world of high-altitude mountaineering and the unique training methods formerly practiced in the Soviet Union. One recurring theme is Boukreev's near-constant struggle to raise the large funds needed for expeditions when government funding dried up virtually overnight after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This work makes a nice companion piece to The Climb and contains a thoughtful, well-written foreword by climbing photographer Galen Rowell. Recommended for all mountaineering and larger public collections. Tim Markus, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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St. Martin's Press
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First Edition
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6.10(w) x 8.94(h) x 0.73(d)

Read an Excerpt

Above The Clouds

The Diaries of A High-Altitude Mountaineer

By Anatoli Boukreev

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2001 Linda Wylie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09748-4



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.


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.


Excerpted from Above The Clouds by Anatoli Boukreev. Copyright © 2001 Linda Wylie. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Anatoli Boukreev was (with G. Weston DeWalt) coauthor of The Climb and a world-renowned high-altitude mountaineer. Twenty-one times he reached the summit of the world's highest mountains. For his heroic actions on Mount Everest in May 1996, he was awarded the American Alpine Club's highest honor, the David A. Sowles Memorial Award.

Linda Wylie was Anatoli Boukreev's companion and is now executor of his estate.

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