Thursday, September 23, 2010

Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer, by Anatoli Boukreev; page 125

I'll have to admit that I started off with a very low opinion of Boukreev, hearing of him for the first time in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. I can't say that reading Boukreev's The Climb improved things much---it seemed a poor rebuttal to scathing accusations and to reinforce the stereotypes of the obstinate Russian who doesn't give a dang. Then, I read Maria Coffey's Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow, which talks about his relationship with Linda Wylie, and Ed Viesturs talks about how much respect he has for him in No Shortcuts to the Top. Viesturs also mentions that anyone who wants a taste of the real Toli had better read Above the Clouds. Now I'm interested!

What a change! I'm only halfway through the book, and I'm definitely a convert. While he comes off as standoff-ish and rude when he speaks in English, he is a master of nuance and hard truth writing in his mother tongue. I need to share an example of his writing that I found particularly impressive:

"Big mountains are a completely different world: snow, ice, rocks, sky, and thin air. You cannot conquer them, only rise to their height for a short time; and for that they demand a great deal. The struggle is not with the enemy, or a competitor like in sports, but with yourself, with the feelings of weakness and inadequacy. That struggle appeals to me. It is why I became a mountaineer. Every summit is different, each a different life that you have lived. You arrive at the top having renounced everything that you think you must have to support life and are alone with your soul. That empty vantage point lets you reappraise yourself and every relationship and object that is part of the civilized world with a different perspective."

If that's what I found at the top of a mountain, you bet I'd go up! I really like pleasant surprises, and this book has so far been swell.

The book begins with an extended introduction by Galen Rowell and then a short biography by Linda Wylie. Galen's intro is certainly a better rebuttal to Krakauer than I've read before, and it talks about many of Boukreev's accomplishments and his dedication, both to friends and to mountains. The biography includes information from his friends and family, both at home in Khazakhstan and in the United States. It covers his childhood, his Soviet sports career, his transition to mountain guiding life after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his eventual death on Annapurna.

The diaries cover expeditions beginning in 1989 with his participation in the Soviet traverse of Kachenjunga and finishing with a poem presented to Wylie before his departure for Annapurna in 1997. He remains thoughtful throughout, and he admits in his contact with Americans that they often believe him to be argumentative when he offers a different course of action. What they cannot know, because of the language barrier, is that he speaks from unbelievable amounts of experience, training, and knowledge. Though he does not brag or even dote on this in his journals, he has (according to his biography) climbed over 200 6,000 meter peaks and all of the 7,000 meter peaks in the Soviet Union several times over. Whereas occasional American and British scientists like to study the physiology of high-altitude acclimation, the Soviets made this study a state priority, and used their best mountaineers as test subjects to root out the most effective courses for fitness at elevation. Just as the Soviet mountaineering machine was coming to a climax, and its climbers began to take on the Himalaya, communism fell, and so, too, did state support for mountaineering. Boukreev was at the top of a generation of climbers engineered to take on the world, and he suddenly found himself without the means to climb the mountains he had spent his life training for.

An editor at Climbing magazine got him a job as a guide for a McKinley expedition, and he slowly worked his contacts to find other work in the mountains. He sometimes guided American friends in the mountains of the former Soviet states, he guided McKinley once more, and then he landed a spot in 1993 on a K2 expedition for the price of showing up. He once again inadvertantly came off as argumentative, this time with his German partners, but he trusted them to make the important decisions. Even though he did not agree with their plan of action, he followed them, and then reluctantly led the party to the summit late in the day. Only one of his three climbing partners, and neither of the leaders, made it back to the high camp after summitting. He was the eighth person in the world to surmount Everest, K2, and Kanchenjunga, (He climbed Everest via the South Col "quite by accident" on the last Soviet expedition to the mountain in 1991.) but he felt little reward after such a tragedy. The K2 at first did little for him, but after working a while in Boulder, CO as a cement mixer, the local paper wrote an article about him, and Thor Keiser (who attempted K2 at the same time as Ed Viesturs in 1992) noticed. Thor invited him to guide Makalu, and the Cho Oyu, and then Rob Hall snatched him up for Everest. His career had begun.

Above the Clouds continues here.


  1. Thanks, I have read his account of those events before Thin Air and had no doubts about him as a great climber and extremely strong person. I just wish I could find this book in electronic version as it is not translated into Russian hence can't be found here, in my country. Have you read a paper version or have you found where to source a ebook? There is also interesting book by Simone Moro though outside your Everest subject - about their last expedition to Annapurna. It is not translated into English so far but i struggle to find a Polish edition)

  2. One of these days I'll get around to reading the Spanish version of Moro's book, even though it's not quite a fit for the blog. There's no ebook that I know of for "Above the Clouds;" I read a paper version. I'm amazed that there's no Russian version, as his diaries had to be translated from Russian to make the English version. Too bad!