Exclusive Story from Famed Russian Alpinist Denis Urubko - Ascent of Kali-Himal

Mountain Goddesses
Translated from Russian by Martin Berka of the Alpine Fund.

In one of the most popular regions of the Himalayas, right next to Everest, lies Kali-Himal (7066m). Most large expeditions heading to the highest peak of the planet do not pay attention to the corner of the valley always covered in clouds. Only once has Kali-Himal been disturbed by people – in 1983, a Danish expedition successfully reached the summit along the north ridge.

Kali is a goddess. She was once the foremother of all other Hindu gods and now aspires to eliminate universal evil. Of the male sex, undoubtedly. It was for this “feminist” that human sacrifices were made until the end of the nineteenth century – and you are now surely pondering about their gender. They still give her sacrifices these days – animals killed on an altar.

It is the abrupt northwest wall that gives this mountain its charm. Cold and dark it stands above the glaciers, but at sunset – if the sun is strong enough to dissolve the clouds – its purple curtain creates a terrible decoration to the outgoing day.

Fascinated by our chance to answer the calling of this 1750m high face, we returned to Nepal in the spring of 2004. The author of the idea and the leader of the expedition, Italian Simone Moro, is one of the leading professional alpinists of the world. Reflecting our sport ambitions, the group selection was extremely limited. Simone chose Bruno Tassi, a mountain guide and rock climber, and myself, representing the Central Army Sport Club of Kazakhstan and bonded with Simone by many years of friendship and our common experience from Himalayan expeditions.

From Kathmandu, the route to the mountains begins with a trek in a caravan of sherpas or pack yaks. Lukla, where you normally get by a plane, marks the start of the trek, from a deep canyon to snow-covered peaks. Not one of the numerous tourist groups we met along the way believed that we with our modest luggage are in fact a mountain expedition. However, news of our venture, as it was called, somehow moved through the air and we were met everywhere with much respect. It was time to deliver.

On April 8, our mini-expedition set up Base camp at 5100m. Simone, married two days before the departure, left his wife Barbara at home and decided to spend his honeymoon with us and goddess Kali. This time he planned only to help us while preparing for the upcoming ascent of Annapurna (8091m) in May.

After some reconnaissance and short but wild discussions, Simone, Bruno and I decided on the safest variant. At the top end of the wall, two icefalls were baring their white teeth. One has to be very cautious in a Himalayan first attempt, which is why we chose a buttress in the left side of the northwest wall Kali-Himal for our route.

Moro and Tassi took on the start of the route, through steep ice and rock walls to a plateau around the icefall. Afterwards, Korshunov (?) and I exchanged them. Our task was to acclimatize for higher elevations and get a feel for the character of the route – its tough and easy spots, type of the rock, possibility of bivouacs on the wall.

Bruno elegantly climbed the rock part of the rib. At approximately 6200m Boris and I rest in a wide band of overhanging rock. The weather worsened in the mid-April and, climbing in streams of snow and whirls of storms on slabs and cornices, I had to draw on all my years of experience. Fortunately, our work was slowly coming to an end. We succeeded in climbing about 100m per day and named this section the “traverse of the suiciders” (ENGLISH?).

For the experts I can add that the rock is a mix of crumbly black slate and light granite, all completely destroyed. Moreover, the layers of rock are turned downwards, changing the rock face into a group of slabs. Damn! It is now hard to believe that it was possible but it really was all like that.

Our clothing helped us a lot. It used to be that you had to adjust this and watch that all the time but now you just zipped up in the morning and that was it – BASK worked.

And after two days of waiting for the weather to change, Korshunov, as the older member of the team, made a decision to descend. It can not be said I followed him with displeasure. Sliding along the fixed lines into the foggy abyss, passing by avalanches, I was glad that our route successfully bypassed the dangerous spots.

The weeklong period of snow soon changed for freezing cold hurricane winds at an elevation of 6,500m. Even the sun, hanging in an ultramarine sea, was freezing in this cold.

Nevertheless, I, a serviceman, was obliged to fulfill my task – hiding sometimes with amusement behind the sense of duty. In their base camps, all expeditions stiffened with cold, waiting. The hurricane winds covered the route up Everest, Cho Oyu and other mountains. Kali-Himal, just south of the “peak of the world”, received particularly violent blows of the Tibetan wind.

On April 30, we stormed the mountain. We were receiving bad weather forecasts and warnings from everywhere. “Don’t go!”, everyone was saying, “It is time to wait!” Nevertheless, Simone and I, feeling lucky, managed to convince Bruno to join us.

Our assault was in alpine style – starting at the base of the mountain we headed up with bivys on the wall and all gear in our packs. Hanging above the abyss on a portaledge with barely enough space for one person, we with concentration calculated our foodstuffs, gas, and chances of success. Two days of wind thundering against the rock and the roof of our portaledge remain imprinted well in our memory.

The two days of work in the ledge belt were well worth the effort. Here, after the same overhang I went over last time, somewhat easier rock appeared. But the cold and wind were a strong mix and we had to climb in gloves, front-pointing on our crampons. Drytooling on CAMP’s Awax icetools, scratching under snow and ice in search for the microscopic features to hold yourself on. But the pleasures, as you may well know, do not last long. On top of all this, hammering pitons in an uncomfortable position, I smacked flat my pinky finger. Nevertheless, hanging in the portaledge in the evening, I felt content about our today’s work. The road ahead laid now open.

The next day, balancing around with our heavy packs, we continued along rock and ice slabs towards the sub-peak ridge. We again worked in hurricane winds, and hammering in the ice-axes it struck me how deeply frozen the high-altitude Himalayan ice is. Its dark blue color was almost haunting. Building our portaledge camp on the snow ridge at 6700m in the twilight of the day is better forgotten.

The morning greeted us with a thundering roar. On the east of us stood the massif of Makalu, and it was clear that the winds reigned there as well. In this final day of the assault our route followed a steep snowy ridge – as if a springboard to the sky. At 11a.m., on the summit, Simone, Bruno and myself watched all the highest peaks of the planet bow under the gusts of wind. Or was that a tribute to our persistence? Or just a vision?

We reached the base came the following evening after a twenty pitch rappel. The air was still at the base of Kali-Himal. With a happy grin, Povar Tsering made us a dinner of pizza, spaghetti, and tea with compote. I noticed the myriads of stars twinkling in the sky as I was sipping from my mug. It was cozy and still at the camp, yet somewhere out there, unseen, icy wind was whirling, a messenger of the Tibetan mountains. So good, I thought, that him and I did not cross our ways!

This was the end of the ascent of the north-west wall of Kali-Himal in the spring of 2004. In honor of the famous French alpinist Patrick Berhault, who died a few days later, we named the route “Ciao Patrick!”. He was a friend of ours.

* * *

Annapurna (8091m) was the first 8000-meter peak summated by people. Not that this means much; many expeditions attempted to summit other 8000-meter peaks time and again: Everest, K2, Nanga Parbat. Annapurna gave in at the first try. A true drama unfolded on its slopes in 1950, and the French alpinists Herzog and XYZ (the transcript of the Rusified name is clearly wrong = Liashenal?) miraculously managed to return from their successful summit bid. These days, Annapurna is the 8000-meter peak summited by the fewest number of people. Kazakh climbers never succeeded in climbing the mountain. In 1988, Valiev and Moiseev planned to do so but for some reason changed their plans later on. Instead, together with a Slovak mountaineer Zoltan Demian, they set a beautiful new route on Dhaulagiri that fall. A new climbing pair appeared at the base of Annapurna in the winter of 1997: A. Boukreev and D. Sobolev. Simone was with them. They begun their ascent of the mountain along the south-west ridge but bad weather covered the whole route with heavy snow. On December 25, an avalanche from Fangl(?) peak buried the Kazakh alpinists. Simone survived by a chance, yet suffered serious injuries.

Annapurna is a beautiful mountain. Its beauty is full of charm that cannot be described in logical terms. It is simply magnificent, as if to challenge human ambition. It is obviously not by a chance that its name is the second name of the Hindu goddess of fertility Lakshmi. This goddess personifies the primary living energy Shakti (???) that gives existence to everything in the world. Hindus treat her with flowers, sweets, rice and saffron.

As an object of climbing attention, the mountain leaves plenty of space for mountaineers’ aspirations. Its walls rise steeply on the south and west sides from the canyons, up some 2.5 – 3 kilometers. The slope of the north face of the mountain is relatively low but with its length and the large quantity of snow and ice it presents a no-lesser obstacle. That is why all mountaineers of the world treat it with respect and suspicion.

In the spring of 2004, Simone and I decided that the time has come for another adventure. The mountain was still equally dangerous, but our experience of climbs of the 8000-meter peaks in the course of the past few years added to our confidence. That is why we decided to “do” a new route along the north rib of the mountain – our little but beautiful note in the melody of the Himalayan mountaineering.

The first ascents always bring something new to sport mountaineering. They are about understanding the nature and yourself. The will to make the step to the unknown, to risk setting a route that has never been done before – all that is of interest to the world of mountaineering. Typically, a new route is created because all the other simpler routes have been done before. And the fact that the alpinist prefers a route not climbed by anyone to a more reliable route on the mountain set by other people gives reason to judge the person as someone willing to risk the success for the sake of self-expression and discovery. In alpinism, this also characterizes you as a sportsman (high valued???).

After the expedition to Kali-Himal, Bruno went home while Simone, Korshunov and I appeared under Annapurna on May 15. The funding for the expedition came from Simone, Rinat Hibullin (???) and the American Anatolyi Boukreev Foundation. The management of the foundation was able to find sources to support our attempt, as it always tries to support Kazakh alpinists.

There were three more alpinists with us at the base camp at 4100 meters. Leader of the expedition R. Diumovich (???) from Germany, an Austrian climber G. Kaltenbruner (???) and Hirotaka from Japan tried to summit Shishapangma in April and now intended to summit Annapurna. It was difficult to find a more international group in the Himalayas this spring. We were all from different countries with the exceptions of Ralph and Gerlinda from Germany (??? Before Austrian???) and Boris Stepanovich and me being Russian.

We started the ascent a few days later. The four started first, and Simone and me headed up two days later with all our heavy gear. The idea was that Ralph, Gerlinda, Hirotaki and Boris Stepanovich would climb Annapurna together along the standard first-ascend route. Simone and I wanted to test our mettle on a rocky buttress on the right side of the standard route. The buttress starts at around 7000m and rises sharply to 7300m. The steep ice walls above and below the buttress make the route more difficult.

On May 28, Simone and I came to the upper part of the icefalls where we set camp 3 at the elevation of 6800m. Our friends ahead successfully reached the summit of Annapurna that day and returned to their camp. Boris Stepanovich stunned everyone with any knowledge of the mountain when he headed up, without any idea about the actual route, simply following what he thought was the best way up the large rocky pyramid. This way he reached the east summit of Annapurna (8012m) that has only climbed by a few people before.

Things were getting on less brilliantly for the two of us. The climb with heavy packs in deep snow was very tiring. Moreover, Simone felt sick and could hardly cope with the last few meters. Rested after the supper, we agreed that climbing the new route is not realistic for us at the moment.

My grief knew no end. The goal was rising right above us – cherished yet exhausting. Only one last effort was needed to crown our victory, to reach the summit of the most dangerous 8000-meter mountain along a new route. I have stubbornly aimed not to take the easier way. One’s plans can only go as far as the circumstances allow (English?). After a thorough rest and a long talk with Simone we decided not to climb the buttress but attempt to follow the footsteps of the first group. Tomorrow we would leave all now useless equipment and follow the easier route.

Simone felt better in the morning. At high altitude, illness generally develop swiftly, and a cold can develop overnight into a serious inflammation of lungs (pulmonary edema???). Happy that my partner is healthy again, we climbed to 7200m with light packs where we met with the four summiteers. They moved on down into the maze of the icefield while we set up tent and prepared for the final push.

In general, the “French” route on Annapurna follows mainly ice and snow. The icefalls that fall along the north face of the mountain to 4300m are very dangerous. We hear the thundering of collapsing seracs in the middle of the night. The upper part of the mountain always accumulates a large amount of cornices making avalanches a serious problem. Within a few hours of a snowfall at camp 2 we counted more than 30 of the “white deaths” flying down. This is why the first ascent route did not become a “classic”, unlike on Everest or Cho-Oyu where large numbers of alpinists continue taking the first ascent route to the summit. On Annapurna, majority of the expeditions prefer to take a more complicate route to the summit – Bonnington, Japanese, Polish, etc. For us, acclimatized this year at other high peaks, our safety on this mountain depended on the speed of our progress. We were to avoid moving slowly through the fields of seracs and cross icefalls first thing in the morning.

The camps on our route are traditionally placed at 5000, 5900, 6800 and 7200 meters. The areas are spaced out to match the normal pace of the climbers and in relatively safe spots.

The view of the upper mountain imprints into every climber’s memory. A glacier of a characteristic form (nicknamed “serp”) crawls down from under the summit. Its crevassed lower part gradually rises to the upper summit tower, about 200m high. Our fourth camp lies at the “handle” of the serp.

We spent the whole day drinking tea and resting before the decisive push. Simone got gradually better and more optimistic. We spent a few hours worrying at night after being informed on the radio that Korshunov got lost somewhere in the icefall. He was found soon after Simone and I put on our crampons to go searching for him.

Finally, we could return to our sleeping bags. Yet given that we were to get up at midnight again we decided to start our ascent immediately. We left our camp at 9pm.

Going up snow/ice slopes in dark at elevations above 7000m is not too pleasant. In the glimmering light of the moon we slowly made our way through the seracs and across less than stable ice bridges. More and more often, Simone would stop for a breather and the rope connecting us would straighten up. We quickly lost the tracks of the previous group and continued climbing along the shortest way straight up. Soon my partner felt very bad and refused continuing further. What a situation! Simon said that I should continue alone if I like while he goes back down. But alone? I understood at once there will be no second chance. Either now up for the summit, or back home. After thinking for a while I untied from the rope, which slid down the ice slope towards Simone’s headlamp. I shouted I’m heading for the summit, turned around, and climbed up the ice slope towards the rocks.

The moon was out. The eerie greatness of the night covered everything a man lost if the world of altitude can sense. I was alone. Alone as no one else in the world. Just the stars, the ice, the rocks and the snow, and one lieutenant of CSKA Kazakhstan filled with determination. All or nothing – the motto pushed me along the flat fields of ice and snow right into the space. I sped up after Simone turned around and my feet stopped freezing. I walked up 20-30 steps and then took a breathing break. First up along the rocks, then a traverse to the right. Here I encountered the tracks of the Germans and followed them to the summit pyramid. It got very dark underneath it, for the moon was now on the other side of the mountain. I had to climb up a steep and narrow rock couloir covered with snow in places, as if inside a well. And then, after a few hundred meters, at 1:20am on May 30, I stood on top of Annapurna.

The uppermost point of the mountain is narrow as a blade made of firn snow. The south face dropped on the other side like the entry to the underworld. The darkness at the base of the mountain was awesome, like water in a bottomless pool. The moon has just set at the horizon, and from it through a barely perceptible cloud of mist a lane of light came my way. The silver tower of Daulaghiri hung in the sky between the stars. After warming the video camera underneath my armpit I took some shots from the summit…

Then the climb down followed, of which I have nothing nice to say. You can’t help it! (???) All the preparation, all the work that coaches L. Savina and D. Grekov put into me into me during my youth has paid off. It is to them that I am thankful for having what is necessary in alpinism. At 3:15 I was back at the tent. Simone met me here and we jumped back to the warmth of our sleeping bags to await morning. The work was done.

Somewhere in the ice under Annapurna lie Boukreev and Sobolev. Let their achievements live and promote Kazakh alpinism. That is why I dedicated my climb of Annapurna to them.

The expedition was over. Evaluating it we can say that the new route on Kali-Himal climbed in the Himalayas is undoubtedly a great achievement for Kazakh alpinism bringing about optimistic thoughts for the future. Taking into account the fact that our sportsmen did not put a new route in the Himalayas since Daulaghiri 1991, I hope that the the work in the steep walls of Himalayan giants will start again. Sport ascents can not be reduced to climbing the mountains along their first ascent routes and routes done decades ago. For me, this experience was very valuable and allows me to make the following conclusions. The complexity (???) of climbing in a small group, especially with the representatives of the “western” school of mountaineering, allows for a relatively free choice of objects for serious mountaineering and climbing tasks. Undoubtedly, the prestige of Kazakh sport can only gain from this. Of course, the sport side of our expedition lost somewhat from the fact that we did not climb a new route on Annapurna. This was caused by the indisposition of my friend which, unfortunately, is in part determined simply by luck. Nevertheless, the ascent of the mountain adds to the treasure box of the Kazakh mountaineering.

The switching from Kali-Himal to Annapurna also made the expedition more difficult. The first route took a huge amount of our energy, both physical and mental.

Denis Urubko
Central Army Sport Club (CSKA)
SALICE, La Sportiva, CAMP, North Face


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