At the base of Annapurna, in Nepal, there’s a base camp where hikers, trekkers, pilgrims, wanderers, and mountain climbers come and stay to acclimatize, or to rest, or simply to stand or sit among these famed peaks whose names have become the stuff of legend. Sealed into white rock and concrete, there’s a copper plaque, blueing around the edges some where water drips and rubs the copper to rust. The plaque says:
“Anatoli Nickolivich Boukreev. January 16, 1958; Korkino, Russia – December 25, 1997; Annapurna Sanctuary, Nepal. ‘Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve. They are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.’ ”
Boukreev was born to poor parents. He went to school, went to university, did things that many young Russians do. But he dreamed of something larger than himself, and, following university, he moved to the mountains, and there Boukreev found himself. After graduation, the 21-year-old dreamed of mountain climbing. And so it was that in the early 1980s Boukreev found himself in Alma-Ata, in present day Kazakhstan, in the shadow of the Tian Shan mountain, where he learned to climb mountains. He took to it quickly and with a preternatural skill and in 1985 he became a member of a Kazakhstani mountaineering team.
In the next 12 years to follow before his death, Boukreev amassed an almost superhuman collection of important ascents in the world’s great ranges. In 1987, he made the first solo ascent of Lenin Peak. In 1989, he was part of an expedition to Kangchenjunga that succeeded not only in climbing a new route, but also made the first traverse of the massif’s four 8,000-meter summits. From 1990 to 1995, Boukreev was a commanding presence in the Himalaya. He summited Mount Everest by two different routes, climbed K2’s Abruzzi route, climbed new routes and set speed records on Dhaulagiri, made ascents of Makalu, Makalu II, and Manaslu.
But Boukreev may have left his largest mark on the alpine climbing world in 1996 and 1997. On May 17, 1996, he set a new speed record, solo, on Lhotse. September 25 of the same year, he climbed Cho Oyu. Two weeks later, he stood upon the North Summit of Shishapangma. On April 24th, 1997, he stood upon Everest for his final time. A month later he was on top of Lhotse again. July 7th he soloed Broad Peak. The following week, he soloed Gasherbrum II. The amount of successful Himalayan climbing he squeezed into this two year period was more than most mountain climbers could even dare to dream to fit into an entire life. He climbed snow, ice, and rock, in all seasons–often solo–at blistering speeds, always without supplemental oxygen.
In spite of all his climbing prowess, Boukreev is probably best remembered for his daring rescues on Everest during the devastating blizzard that killed eight climbers on the South Col route in 1996. Boukreev was the lead guide for a Mountain Madness expedition at the time and is credited with single-handedly saving the lives of three different climbers in the melee of that disastrous tempest. As Galen Rowell wrote in an article for The Wall Street Journal, “While [Jon] Krakauer slept and no other guide, client, or Sherpa could muster the strength and courage to leave camp, Mr. Boukreev made several solo forays into a blizzard in the dark at 26,000 feet to rescue three climbers near death.”
Boukreev was widely criticized following the Everest disaster for leaving clients behind during the eventual descent. Krakauer all but threw Boukreev under the bus in the ensuing article he wrote for Outside Magazine. And yet, as Rowell described, Boukreev’s was “one of the most amazing rescues in mountaineering history performed single-handedly a few hours after climbing Everest without oxygen by a man some describe as the Tiger Woods of Himalayan climbing.”
Criticism and praise aside, Boukreev was, first and foremost, a climber: a devotee of the mountains. And so, in December 1997, he was back in the Himalaya, this time in Nepal, on the hallowed flanks of Annapurna, along with famed Italian alpinist, Simone Moro and the Kazakh cinematographer, Dimitri Sobolev. On Christmas day, the team was fixing ropes in a couloir around 5700 meters when an enormous cornice broke loose above them. The three climbers were swept away in the ensuing avalanche. Somehow, Moro survived. Sobolev and Boukreev did not.
It is said that Boukreev foresaw his death by avalanche in vivid detail nine months prior to his passing. It is also said that, in spite of this, he would not be swayed from his particular form of worship. “Mountains are my life…my work,” he said. “It is too late for me to take up another road.”
Boukreev’s body still has not been found. But if you travel to Annapurna, you can see the plaque that has been placed to remember him. It’s starting to wear; it has begun, a bit, to show its age. And yet, the words and the man it commemorates still stand out clearly against a stunning mountain backdrop.
Photos via Wikimedia Commons. Annapurna photo by Sung-Joo Choi
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