Friday, September 24, 2010

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

(My post on the first half of this book can be found here.)

I have another quote to share, written by Boukreev after summitting Everest and Lhotse back-to-back, in 1996:

"My thoughts during the last few ascents have evolved. When climbing the last few meters or even stopping on the summit's snowy ledge, my understanding of the meaning of the achievement has changed. My sense of joy in the accomplishment and my satisfaction with being on the top is overshadowed by the wonder that one could make such an effort for the transitory reasons of human vanity. It is as though, arriving at the top, something has been forgotten or lost, and without that it is impossible for me to understand why I am standing there. A great emptiness fills me, and I experience tranquillity, knowing that when I go down, the world will be easier for me."

Boukreev serves as a lead climber for Henry Todd on the north side of Everest in 1995, and is hired by Scott Fischer as a guide for the spring of 1996 on the South Col route. In between, he summits Dhaulagiri, and makes a winter ascent with his countrymen of Manaslu. Though he never mentions it, its clear he's working his way to the fourteen 8000ers. He worries about guiding Everest, but he cannot complain about the money, compared to his other climbing gigs. He again has trouble with English, and he's not sure he likes the idea of taking amateurs up Everest. Anyone acutally interested in this blog already knows the story that follows. Death, carnage, zombies...I mean Beck Weathers wandering around the South Col. In his Russian diaries, he actually talks more about trying to save people and in greater detail than in The Climb. He is satisfied that he was able to save all of his clients. He feels horrible for not saving Scott, but he felt he must save the clients first. He has unresolved mixed feelings about leaving the comatose Yasuko Namba where she lay. He makes a speed ascent of Lhotse days after arriving back at base camp as a memorial to Scott and to help himself sort out his feelings. Interestingly, he thought that Fischer had climbed the summits back-to-back previously, and that he was repeating this feat. Upon summitting Lhotse, he had climbed five 8000-meter peaks in one year.

He travels to America to attend Fischer's memorial, and heads back to the Himalaya for the fall season. He summits Cho Oyu and Shishipangma by his own standards. Interestingly, the final summit ridge was too dangerous to climb unroped on Shishipangma, and he turned back just shy of the summit, the same situation Ed Viesturs found himself in on the mountain. Boukreev feels that mountain climbing is between the climber and the mountain, and that he climbed the mountain and is happy with his results. Ed Viesturs, you may remember, needed to walk those final few steps and returns to Shishipangma later to finish the job. I am certainly not qualified to say either of them is right or wrong, but I do find the difference in their attitudes interesting.

That winter, he is hired by an Indonesian general to train and guide an Indonesian expedition for the South Col route of Everest. He lets the general know that he thinks the odds are slim that anyone will get a bunch of guys (even special forces) who have never seen snow to the top of Everest with three months training. Boukreev and two of his climbing friends train and weed a field of candidates down to a short list. The expedition makes two training climbs to trekkers' peaks before heading to base camp. He and his friends bring three of the troops to the summit and back down safely early in the season. On the way up, he finds the body of Bruce Herrod on the Hillary Step, and he performs burials for Fischer and Namba on the way down.

After his guiding is finished, he does some climbing for himself. First, he attempts with Simone Moro a traverse of the Everest-Lhotse massif, but is brought down by bronchitis after summitting Everest again. He then heads to Pakistan and ascends Broad Peak, and again, just like Viesturs, is turned around by unsafe snow conditions meters shy of the summit. Broad Peak is quickly followed by a speed summit of Gasherbrum II, summitting in 9 1/2 hours, and returning to base camp within 13 hours. Four 8000-meter peaks in 80 days! Yikes!

A winter ascent of Annapurna with Simone Moro follows. This time, however, there is no descent for Boukreev. He is crushed by a collapsing serac on his way up. The book ends with letters mailed from base camp and a poem written for Linda Wylie before he left.

I heart this book!


  1. I am currently reading this book and find books by so called experts like 'Krakeur' to not even be in the league of this book. The fact that this book gives so much into Anatoli's psyche brings tears to my eyes. He has become a role model of sorts. I mean, when he mentions how as a kid, he refuses to spend money given to him to buy sweets was moving.
    I have not read any other book that goes this much into the mind of a mountaineer. Would you have any recommendations?
    I will be getting my hands on My Vertical World by the Jerzy Kukuczka soon which I know is amazing. Other recommendations ? I am not a fan of Ed Viestures or Messners books.

    Amazing website. Keep up the good work.

  2. For more thoughtful books by talented climbers, try Tim Macartney-Snape's "Everest Sea to Summit," Greg Child's "Mixed Emotions," Andy DeKlerk's "Sharper Edges," or Peter Hillary & John Elder's "In the Ghost Country." "Above the Clouds" is one of my favorites, however. It's hard to beat!

  3. I just read this book recently, and on numerous occasions, the hardships that Tolya goes through made me sad within. To quote from the book where his sister mentions about him "As a boy he refused the money his father offered he children for ice cream, reasoning that "it was better for our family to buy bread"" has changed me to be more like him. I can certainly say that this book has had a profound effect on how I view things in this life that all of us lead.
    @Grant, are there any books apart from the books you have mentioned above that stand out with respect to the mental aspect of climbing ?

    PS: Keep up the awesome blog you maintain

    1. David Roberts' "On the Ridge Between Life and Death" and Jeff Conner's "Beyond Risk" are a couple that I've recently found. Haven't yet had a chance to write about them yet.