Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Zum Dritten Pol: Sowjetische Alpinisten auf dem Mount Everest, by Dmitri Meschtchaninow

I wanted to read a book about the 1982 Soviet Mount Everest expedition, in which they climb a difficult pillar on the Southwest Face, so I tracked down a copy of Dmitri Meschtschaninow's Zum Dritten Pol, a translation into German (for the benefit of readers in East Germany) of his Russian text. I first became interested in this climb while reading Jan Kielkowski's Mount Everest Massif guidebook, in which there was a route next to Bonington's famous Southwest Face climb, that went straight up the mountain on a rocky buttress. I became even more intrigued when I found out from Unworth's Everest: The Mountaineering History that nine climbers made the summit on this expedition. There are no books about the Soviet climb in English, but I was glad to find out that the expedition account had been translated into the only other language I read well.

The Soviet climbers had something to prove on this climb, both to the West and to the system back home. On this first Soviet Himalayan expedition, the climbers needed to show the world that Soviets know a thing or two about technical climbing and high altitude mountaineering. They also needed to show the old guard, who ran the mountaineering agency that decided who can climb what and when, that the new generation of climbers were capable, competent, and not ambitious beyond their abilities. The Soviets had the advantage of having four 7,000-meter peaks in their territory, and all of their Everest climbers had ascended them several times. As a result (in addition to trials in a decompression chamber), they knew ahead of time that their team would perform at altitude, and all climbers were able to contribute significantly to putting up the route. They set the route quickly (though the book doesn't get too much in to the details about it) using alternating teams, and are ready to send up summit pairs by May 4. Vladimir Balyberdin, without using supplementary oxygen on the ascent, becomes the first Russian to summit Mount Everest, followed closely by his rope mate Eduard Myslowski. They spend a hypoxic night high on the route and are revived and helped down the mountain by the second summit pair (notably after their own climb to the summit). Myslowski receives frostbite in one hand, but Balyberdin escapes unscathed. Another pair ascends, followed by a rope of three after a storm.

Also of interest in the book is Meschtschaninow's mountaineering history. He begins with a chapter-long telling of the history of climbing Mount Everest, from the surveying to the 1980 season. More interesting, however, is his history of Soviet mountaineering, from the initial climbs in the Caucusus Range to the modern day, including the story of the initial ascents of the 7,000-meter peaks, and the development of international climbing meets in recent past. He also comments on the Soviet Union's early history and pseudo-history of climbing Everest. He gives the other side of the story that I'd previously read Zhou & Liu's Footprints on the Peaks, about the collaboration of the Chinese and Soviets beginning in 1955 to develop a mountaineering relationship, and China's later proposal to climb Mount Everest jointly. Three Russian climbers accompanied a Chinese reconnaissance of the Tibetan side of Everest in 1958 to assess its climbing possibilities. He mentions that the Russian climbers for the 1959 joint climb had already gathered the gear together and assembled in Moscow for the flight to China when the Chinese called off the climb due to the political instability of Tibet. This, naturally, soured their climbing partnership. Meschtschaninow also writes about the 1952 "Russian" expedition to the north side of Everest, saying that it only existed (inconsistently at that!) in the western media, and that no one in the Soviet Union has ever head of Pawel Datschnolian or any of the other climbers supposed to have died on the mountain. I'm going to have to side with Meschtschaninow on the expedition's non-existence (though his argument hardly won me over) until somebody finds some old Soviet trash, or even a body, on the north side. It seems strange to me that everyone else's rubbish from 1921 to 1960 was readily found when searched for and often happened upon accidentally, and yet no one has reported picking up anything old-looking with Cyrillic writing on it.

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