Degrees of Difficulty. Vladimir Shatayev. Translated from the Russian by Deborah Piranian. Foreword by Pete Schoening. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1987. 194 pages, 13 black-and-white photographs. $10.95 (paper).
In this book the great Soviet climber, Vladimir Shatayev, has developed his ideals allegorically, through tales of a life centered around mountaineering. Through climbing, he learned discipline and independence; he accepted fear; he exceeded thresholds; he found love and experienced tragedy. And with artistic measure he has poured into his book just enough of his mountaineering experiences to reveal a lot about the development of his own character. He accomplishes this mainly by the straightforward method of recounting emotional dialogues between climbers during poignant moments of crisis and debate.
Thus this book is more a psychological autobiography than a conventional description of the mountaineering feats of a master climber. It is an intelligent, sensitive, self-searching attempt to address the age-old question of “why mountaineering?” and to extend his answers to all human endeavor.
For the western reader Shatayev’s book offers special insights of another kind. It is an unvarnished account of how a single individual pursued his personal goals and developed his own community of peers within, but distinct from, the larger context of Soviet society. Shatayev’s mountaineering community is no safe haven from the bureaucratization of that society, though. It too suffers from the battles over rank, turf and authority, as well as from personal jealousies and prejudices. His depiction of how and why these battles occur and the human motivations behind them exposes a fascinating slice of Soviet society. These unfamiliar characteristics and obstacles of Soviet mountaineering, such as their rigidly hierarchical organization of the sport and a certain “peak-bagging” approach to meeting out climbing permits according to rank, will impress many readers almost as much as the fact that Shatayev overcame them.
Readers may be surprised by Shatayev’s frank account of his own early prejudices against women in mountaineering. The emotional core of his story relates how his own wife gained his grudging respect as a true mountaineering leader before her entire team of eight women tragically perished in 1974, while descending Pik Lenin in a hurricane. His wife’s unprecedented 1971–72 climbs on all-women teams of Ushba in the Caucasus and Pik Korzhenevskaya in the Pamirs had “shaken his opinion” just before her tragic death in 1974. Since the book ends with his moving account of his personal reaction to that accident, he never adequately resolves the question of how much he had actually changed his earlier, strongly expressed prejudices. In fact, my own impression from extensive climbing in the Soviet Union is that the legendary death of “The Eight,” as the Soviet public refers to them, reinforced a widespread prejudice against women mountaineers in the Soviet Union. Fewer permits are given for all-women expeditions to the more difficult peaks.
But it is only by virtue of the unfailing honesty of his dialogues that Shatayev lays himself open to criticism for his treatment of women in mountaineering. To his credit he does not simply set up “straw women” to act as foils in this arresting debate. He allows his wife and other super-achieving Soviet women climbers to eloquently defend their own objectives and special capabilities. Honesty and uncanny recollection of psychological nuances even better serve him, though, when he reveals the internal dialogues during his pivotal mountaineering experiences with external danger and human failings.