American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Vitaly Mikhailovich Abalakov, 1906-1986

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1987


With good reason Vitaly Abalakov was known as “The Father of Soviet Mountaineering.” One of the first to pursue serious mountaineering within the socialist system, he contributed much to the development of Russian climbing: as the indomitable leader of first ascents; fertile inventor of ironmongery; advocate and example of extreme physical conditioning; efficient director of international climbing camps; delegate to the UIAA and its belaying commission; and esteemed member of the first Soviet team to visit the United States. He was made an honorary member of the American Alpine Club in 1976.

At an early age he began scrambling on rock formations near Krasnoyarsk, the Siberian city of his birth. In the early 1930s he shot to prominence, accomplishing many notable ascents in the Pamirs, Tien Shan, Altai, and Caucasus. His partners included wife Valentina, the finest Soviet woman climber of her time, and brother Eugene, the first person to attain the summit of Pik Kom- munizma, highest in the Soviet Union.

Vitaly stopped climbing in 1936 after suffering frostbite on Khan Tengri in the Tien Shan; one-third of his left foot and parts of fingers on both hands had to be amputated. Rebounding from this setback, he embarked on a formidable exercise program that presaged Buhl, Gill, and Messner in its intensity. Dispensing with gloves in winter tempered his hands against the cold. Gymnastic workouts strengthened arms and fingers (he could execute one-arm pull-ups on each arm). And ski racing developed his cardiovascular system to the efficiency of a professional athlete.

After World War II he returned to high-altitude mountaineering, leading a major expedition almost every year until the early 1960s. Among his best achievements were “north face” routes in the Caucasus; a seven-peak traverse of Pik Lenin, Pik 19, and others in the Pamirs; and the first ascent of Pik Pobedy in the Tien Shan, second highest Soviet summit.

A mechanical engineer by profession, Abalakov developed various kinds of climbing equipment, many of them constructed of lightweight titanium. The bulk of his talent, however, was invested at the Central Scientific Research Institute for Sport, where for twenty years he held the position of laboratory director. Here he specialized in constructing devices to monitor athletic performance in different sports. His work has been credited with improving athletic training methods in the USSR and other socialist countries.

The years brought many awards from the Soviet state: Honored Master of Mountaineering (1934), Honored Master of Sport (1943), Honored Trainer of the USSR (1957), Order of Lenin (1957), Order of the Badge of Honor (1972), Order of Friendship Among Peoples (1982).

Not until recent years did American mountaineers become personally acquainted with the man. In 1974, Abalakov acted as climbing director of the international camp attended by a large contingent of Americans. The tragic events of that summer, which included the loss of American Gary Ullin and a group of Soviet women, were described by Robert Craig in Storm and Sorrow in the Pamirs. The following year, the American Alpine Club invited a Soviet team to tour the United States, and Abalakov was sent as a kind of honorary leader; he took little part in the actual climbing. Even at the age of 69 he was remarkably fit and possessed the physique of a man years younger. His character left a lasting impression, too. An unquenchable spirit and patient wisdom shone through his modest demeanor.

A mild stroke finally put an end to active mountaineering, yet Abalakov’s last years were anything but inactive. He worked on equipment for the successful Soviet expedition to Everest in 1982 and lectured around the country, en: couraging young people to get involved in mountaineering organizations. He also canoed the rivers of northern Russia and enjoyed life as a great-grandfather.

Pieter Crow

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