Obituary: Anatoli Boukreev

Stephen Venables
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:14

Anatoli Boukreev, mountaineer: born 1958; died 25 December 1997.

Anatoli Boukreev, who died in an avalanche on Annapurna on Christmas Day, was one of the outstanding high-altitude mountaineers of his day. Brought up in the hard school of Soviet climbing, he developed a resilience which few western mountaineers could match.

His extraordinary stamina was demonstrated most dramatically last year on Everest, when he reached the summit as a commercial guide to one of several teams caught by a fierce storm on the evening of 10 May. Despite climbing without supplementary oxygen, Boukreev was moving more strongly than most of his fellow guides and had descended to the shelter of Camp 4 at the South Col before the storm struck. He was later criticised fiercely for abandoning clients and colleagues, four of whom died above the South Col. However, the critics glossed over the fact that later that night Boukreev repeatedly left the safety of his tent, risking his life to fight through the blizzard and rescue another group of climbers stranded a few hundred yards from the tents.

That rescue mission at 8,000 metres, by a man who had just climbed to the summit of Everest without oxygen, was remarkable enough. Even more extraordinary was Boukreev's action the following day, when he climbed back up to 8,400 metres, in a forlorn attempt to help his American colleague Scott Fischer. It was too late, for his friend had already died, but Boukreev was able to bring back some mementoes for Fischer's family. After a memorial service at base camp, in one final gesture of defiance, Boukreev demonstrated his phenomenal stamina by speeding back up to make a one-day ascent of Everest's neighbour Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world.

Anatoli Boukreev was born in 1958, in the Russian Urals, but spent much of his life in Kazakhstan, adopting dual citizenship after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a mountaineer he made his name in a series of bold, fast ascents in the Caucasus and Tien Shan ranges, whilst earning his living as ski coach to the Russian women's cross-country ski team.

Although he was later to earn a reputation as an individual iconoclast, his first big Himalayan success, in 1989, was as part of a meticulously organised Soviet team on the world's third highest mountain, Kang-chenjunga. The expedition, which received little recognition in the West, made the first continuous traverse of Kangchenjunga's four highest summits.

In the interests of safety, Boukreev and his companions used supplementary oxygen but in subsequent ascents of 10 of the world's 14 8,000-metre peaks, Boukreev eschewed this artificial aid. His refusal to use bottled oxygen even when guiding clients on Everest drew criticism from fellow guides, who argued that this rendered him less fit to help his charges. His bravery on the South Col last year - and his actions in 1995, when he waited two hours on the summit until all his clients had started to descend - would seem to refute those criticisms.

In any case, as he stated this year before leading another team on Everest, no guide can guarantee safety at extreme altitude: "I offer my experience for hire. I will advise a group of people on how to reach the summit and I will help them, but I cannot be responsible for their safety. They understand that."

Those uncompromising words may seem unpalatable, but they are an honest assessment of reality on the world's highest peaks. Anatoli Boukreev seemed to be locked into that world of extreme adventure and on 25 December his luck ran out when an avalanche swept him to his death. He had just started up a new route, in winter, on the gigantic South Face of Annapurna - a typically audacious project for a man who will be remembered as one of the world's toughest mountaineers.

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