Climbing Is What I Do
Anatoli Boukreev Talks Everest
Mountain Zone correspondent Peter Potterfield talked
to Anatoli Boukreev six days before the climber lead an Indonesian team
to the first Mount Everest summit of the 1997 season. Known for his
powerful climbing, Boukreev considers what it means to guide on
Everest, the 1996 tragedy and the difficulty of getting facts on such
an emotionally charged issue.
Anatoli in Kathmandu -- April 20, 1997
"What is guiding Everest?" asks Anatoli
Boukreev. "I don't know what being an Everest guide means. I am a
coach, not a guide." Anatoli Boukreev, wearing sandals and sweatpants,
is sitting in the Gauri Shankar Hotel in Kathmandu next to a big paper
sack of green grapes he's scored somewhere. He takes another sip of
strong black tea and talks about his latest venture to climb Mount
It's clear that he's still hounded, if not
haunted, by the tragic events on the mountain in 1996 and the public
perception of his own role in that well-publicized disaster. "This year
my role is clear: I am a coach, a coach to sportsmen. I offer my
expertise and experience for hire in order to help a group of people
reach the summit. But am I responsible for whether they live or die? I
am not. I will advise them on how to reach the summit, I will show them
how, and I will help them, but I cannot be responsible for their
safety. They understand that."
I ran into Anatoli as he walked the dusty
streets of Thamel near the Pumpernickel, the inexpensive and always
crowded local bakery that's become a favorite with hip Kathmandu
travelers. I was surprised to see him. I was just back in town from the
Khumbu myself and knew he was supposed to be climbing Mount Everest
with a large Indonesian team. Explaining a tooth ache had driven him
down to Kathmandu for some dental work, he agreed to talk to The
Mountain Zone about the busy climbing scene on Everest this year. When
I finally walked over from the Hotel Manang, past a couple of eventful
blocks (sleeping mongrel dogs, roaming cows, and piles of reeking
garbage) to the Gauri Shankar, where Anatoli was headquartered, he
talked non-stop in his intense Russian way for a couple of hours. His
blue eyes positively burned at times with different emotions:
resentment, excitement, and bafflement at where climbing on Everest is
Boukreev, of course, was working for Scott
Fischer last year when a sudden summit-day storm caught many climbers
high on the mountain. A year later it's clear he feels pilloried by the
press, specifically Jon Krakauer's accounts. At the same time, he wants
to put that nagging episode behind him. He's given his official
sanction to a new book on the Everest tragedy, and turned his attention
to what he does best: high-altitude climbing. Since he summited the
morning of the Everest tragedy last year, Boukreev has climbed three
eight thousand meter peaks -- Lhotse, Cho-Oyu, and Shisha Pangma -- and
is contemplating an Everest-Lhotse extravaganza this spring that may
include a traverse from the south side to the north side.
"Climbing is what I do," he shrugs. "I have the opportunity, so now maybe I will do this thing. I will see."
On the Book by Westin DeWalt
I wanted to contribute to a book that was not
about dreams, not emotions, but fact: what actually happened. So when I
made the agreement, I insisted that the book be based only on fact. I
think that people ran out of oxygen and don't really know what happened
up there, maybe some of them just made things up because they weren't
sure what had happened.. I want this book to be facts, to be important,
to be history. Maybe it won't be so good for me, maybe I made mistakes,
but no matter, this is a book that will be based totally in fact. This
will be important, not just right now, but for years to come because
this will be history not dreams. It's not just my book, but dependent
on many sources.
Krakauer has great power. I try to correct the
misconceptions in his book, the magazine says, you have only 400 words,
then just 250 words. Impossible to say in that length. My power to get
information out is small compared to Krakauer, and I don't like that.
For me, I'm not angry. I just think it's not right not to have more
open forum about what happened lasted year. It's just bullshit. [The
full exchange between Boukreev and Krakauer can be found on The Mountain Zone Everest '96 Forum.]
On the Indonesian Team
There were many Indonesian climbers who wanted
to climb Everest, so we had to pick the best. It came down to mostly
military people, and I like that, I like that better than clients who
pay $65,000 to climb. There is discipline, they understand the risk. I
told them, you can succeed -- it's not likely the first time, maybe 25
per cent, but you CAN succeed. You can also die. By April 16 they had
already been to camp III, well ahead of most teams.
I travel to Jakarta, I see what an important
country it is. I've been working with them for a year. I tell them, you
have no experience, but I know they will try anyway regardless of what
I say. So I tell them I can help them succeed, show them how. People
respected my experience, they hire me, they pay me what I am worth to
coach their team. They have significant strength but not much
experience. With my experience, they have a chance. If I didn't do it,
they would just get somebody else, perhaps somebody without as much
I see the psychology of this team, I see they
respect me very much as a climber, not like last year -- these people
value what I bring to them.
Own Aspirations on Everest
Traverse of Lhotse, then Everest, maybe go down North Side. I have opportunity. I am ready, I feel my chances are 25 per cent.
Been invited to Gasherbrum in Pakistan, then
maybe Broad Peak, too. I have these opportunities, so that is what I
will do. It's my life. I've been a professional climber for 25 years.
Nothing is different now.
Recent auto accident has taken its toll. I'm not as strong perhaps as I was the past two years, but I am strong enough.
On Russian ClimbersProposed traverse of Lhotse, Lhotse Middle, Lhotse Shar
Also, Russian climbers on big West Wall of Makalu, very difficult.
Some of most ambitious climbing by Russians:
I cannot say to be glad or not glad to be on
Everest. It is my life. I have opportunity to be here, so I am here. I
respect Everest very much.
Last fall make experiments of my own: Climb Cho-Oyu in just five days to see if I could acclimatize. I did.
Last Year's tragedy
Rob Hall and Scott Fischer were the best, and
they tried to do it the right way. They were the best, and they died.
But I wonder what will happen with this Everest climbing now. I am not
sure the others are as committed as Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. I think
there is more business now, and I know it will be impossible to stop
this Everest business. And I don't know where it will lead, where it
will take climbing. There are many questions, but I cannot answer
because I'm not a businessman, I am a climber.
[Editor's note: Boukreev was killed in an avalanche December of 1997 on a winter ascent of Annapurna.]
-- Peter Potterfield, The Mountain Zone