The last 15 months that have been left on my shoulders have given me three splendid successes, both personal and in sport. An ascent on Fitz Roy (3441m) in Patagonia via the west face in 25 hours round-trip, an ascent of the South Summit of Shishapangma (8008m) in Tibet in 28 hours round-trip with a partial descent on skis, and finally my second ascent of Lhotse (8516m) in Nepal. All this intensely moved and motivated me to continue my pursuit of and craving for alpinism.
The most beautiful thing that I remember, though, of these months was the start of a great friendship with the strongest alpinist of all time, Anatoli Boukreev, who had decided to continue his activities in my company.
Twenty-one times on the summits of the 8000-meter peaks in only eight years, the last four of these summits made within 80 days of each other, many with the fastest speed records for the 14 Himalayan giants, and 40 summits of more than 7000 meters to his credit—a veritable “tank” of high-altitude!
Little known in the international circles, Anatoli passed into the chronicles when, in 1996, he carried and saved from the hand of death some American alpinists who, bereft of oxygen, had been caught in a storm, beaten by wind and frozen by the temperatures on the flanks of Everest. On that occasion, Anatoli was capable of helping them in a situation where others could only stagger and hang on to their ice axes.
Ex-trainer of the National Russian Alpine skiing team, graduate of the “Army Sport Club” of Kazakstan, veteran of the Afgani War (special forces), Anatoli Boukreev showed me many things that revealed that he knew how to be a man before being an alpinist. I learned more things from him in one year than in all my 17 years of activity. Through the millions of circumstantial smiles and sneers that a great part of the world of alpinists gave, we communicated in November our intention to try the south face of Annapurna during the winter of 1997- 98. There would only be the two of us, without Sherpas, without any other expeditions at base camp, deprived of any method of satellite or radio communication, and facing a mountain that counts more dead than alpinists on its summit and that, in winter, has been summited only once in more than 20 attempts.
We did not want to be disrespectful of a repeated invitation toward a more tranquil style of alpinism; we simply wanted to try an ascent of a mountain in a climatically difficult moment and with an old approach and style. Anatoli and I did not believe (and continue not to believe) in the “death of alpinism” that the sport has been sentenced to, often by illustrious persons who, due to their influence and the habit of wearing comfortable slippers, pretended that alpinism retired with them. Himalayan alpinism is alive and growing! And without a doubt changed, in respect to 15-20 years ago—but it is enough to have a pinch of imagination, some contrary ideas and no fear of eventual lack of success, to remember that there also are alternatives to the pilgrimages to high altitude. Without condemning sponsors and “intelligent” commercial expeditions, Anatoli knew how to marry his spirit of adventure with the sacrosanct need for making a living from alpinism. Extreme moralism, denigrating or defaming actions against other “colleagues” or other summits, never entered in the language or mind of Boukreev (even if it was part of interesting gossip.…)
All of this constitutes the testament that Anatoli has left me and that I leave to those who still have a passion, energy and desire to go to the mountains.
No one, ever, has seemed to me so human. No one, ever, has appeared to me so terribly strong. An abyss exists between him and the other champions and personalities of the Himalayas that I have had the good fortune (and with some, the misfortune) of having known. There remains now his imprint and the many lessons he has left me. There remain also the many ideas that he and I had in mind and that occupied also the last hours we spent together on that night, the 25th of December.…