Mountaineer's journal provides a glimpse into the abyss of mortality
When Anatoli Boukreev died in an avalanche on 26,545-foot Annapurna in the Himalayas, the international climbing fraternity lost one of its toughest men.
Like Reinhold Messner, the 39-year-old Boukreev specialized in solo speed climbs of the world's highest peaks. He once reached the summit of Alaska's Mount McKinley in 10 1/2 hours; he also got to the top of Himalayan mountains Dhaulagiri (17 hours, 15 minutes), Gasherbrum II (nine hours, 37 minutes) and Broad Peak (36 hours).
At the time of his death in 1997, he had climbed four 24,000-foot peaks in the preceding 80 days.
Boukreev's journals have just been collected and edited by his companion, Linda Wylie, in a 240-page paperback, 'Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer.' Translated from Russian, they shed new light on this enigmatic character.
Throughout his extraordinary 20-year career, and 21 climbs of the world's highest peaks, death was a constant companion. Boukreev's survival depended on his critically accurate estimate of his own strength and ability, and even then luck could Ñ and eventually did Ñ desert him.
Never fluent in English, Boukreev comes to life in his journals, introspective, profound, driven beyond belief and utterly certain of his destiny.
'The best alpinists are quite different,' Outside magazine adventure columnist Mark Jenkins, who has climbed in the Himalayas for 20 years, tells the Tribune. 'Great alpinists have the ability to move simply and faster than ordinary people Ñ to do things you and I can't do. The very best have certain genetic components that aren't yet fully understood.'
Most of Boukreev's journeys seem impossible to normal earthbound humans. Longtime mountaineer and photographer Galen Rowell, who wrote the prologue to Boukreev's book, observes that rarely do people face the existential paradox of meaning and mortality as alpinists do.
'He dreamt the avalanche (which killed him) nine months before it came,' writes Rowell, who died in a plane crash in August. 'All that was missing was the name of the mountain. We could not stand on the edge of any abyss with that much composure.'
Boukreev may best be remembered for his part as a guide on the Mountain Madness Expedition disaster on Everest in 1996. Demonized in Jon Krakauer's book about the expedition, 'Into Thin Air,' Boukreev was redeemed by subsequent awards from Congress and the American Alpine Club for his part in rescuing survivors.
That 1996 accident focused public attention on Everest as it hadn't been focused since Edmund Hillary's first climb, in 1953.
As with oldtime African safaris, in the 1990s wealthy clients were helped by experienced climbers to the summit of their dreams. In the 1996 climb, it proved beyond their abilities.
Krakauer's book told a tale of untested climbers, haste and risk, ending with eight deaths and an unforgettable scene: Expedition leader Rob Hall Ñ freezing to death on Everest's summit as night fell Ñ called his pregnant wife in New Zealand on his cell phone to tell her he wasn't coming home, and to name their unborn child.
In Krakuer's account, Boukreev, climbing without oxygen in lightweight gear, went down the mountain as darkness and temperatures fell, leaving clients on the summit ridge. He'd given his single oxygen canister to a fellow climber but was roundly criticized for not carrying enough or wearing heavy enough clothes to stay and help.
What subsequently emerged, however, was that Boukreev Ñ alone among the survivors Ñ went back up the mountain twice in the dark to bring down climbers who would certainly not have survived otherwise.
In later climbs on Everest (Boukreev summited four times), he stopped to bury the bodies of second expedition leader Scott Fisher Ñ whom he never forgave himself for not saving Ñ and Japanese climber Yasuko Namba.
With Boukreev's fine memory for detail and profound philosophical questions, his diaries vividly illustrate the determined grip he had on life.
Outside's Jenkins summarizes the meaning of climbing and succinctly abstracts Boukreev's outlook:
'Climbing has all the great aspects of war with none of the negatives. There's comradeship, risk, but no cruelty Ñ unless you anthropomorphize the mountain.'