Remembering an Everest hero

An appreciation of recently deceased mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev, whose role in the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy remains a controversy.

Published January 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

On Dec. 25, Anatoli Boukreev, an esteemed Russian mountaineer and guide, died in an avalanche on the south face of Annapurna in Nepal. Boukreev, 39, was known among the international climbing community as one of the foremost high-altitude mountaineers of his generation. Shortly before he left for Annapurna, Boukreev was given the David Sowles Award for valor by the American Alpine Club, an honor conferred only nine times in the last 16 years. In the United States, however, Boukreev was generally known only from coverage of the much publicized, tragic events on Mount Everest in May 1996, in which Boukreev's employer and friend, Scott Fischer, along with a number of other climbers, lost their lives.

The controversy surrounding his role in the Everest disaster was initiated by journalist Jon Krakauer, who made two serious allegations about Boukreev in his bestselling book, "Into Thin Air." As a result of Krakauer's criticism, in the summer of 1997, Boukreev responded online to this controversy. The late Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, a Nepalese guide and manager for Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness team, and another recipient of Krakauer's criticism, also issued a statement that was published online. In November 1997 Boukreev and filmmaker G. Weston DeWalt sought to bring Boukreev's perspective to a greater audience with the publication of their book, "The Climb."

In a recent interview, DeWalt explained that the controversy was two-pronged. In "Into Thin Air," Krakauer makes two suggestions that Boukreev's descent ahead of the other clients on May 10 had endangered them. Krakauer failed to report, however, that Boukreev and Fischer had agreed, just below the summit, that Boukreev was to do exactly what he did: descend before the Mountain Madness clients in order to set up camp and to prepare tea and oxygen for the descending climbers. Krakauer also failed to report that he had interviewed Fischer's publicist, Jane Bromet, who had also told him that it was Fischer's plan that Boukreev should descend ahead of the clients.

The other part of the controversy involved the use of oxygen. It is common practice among high-altitude climbers to use bottled oxygen to protect them against the deadly condition that makes this sport uniquely dangerous: severe altitude sickness. Its effects range from a drunken feeling and impaired judgment to fluid retention in the brain or in the lungs and, ultimately, death. This condition contributed to the breakdown of communication on Everest; the leaders and the clients were all suffering to some extent from the altitude, and as a result, their thinking and their physical endurance were compromised at the time of the storm.

Boukreev, who was born in the Urals, lived for several years in Khazakhstan after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. He had been climbing at high altitudes since 1975 and he held to a very strong personal training ethic. His obituary in the London Guardian noted: "He carried a reputation for physical endurance with a string of speed ascents in the Caucuses and Tien Shan, but it was his flawless success rate in the Himalayas which marked him out as almost unparalleled." Prior to May 10, Boukreev had previously scaled Everest twice without oxygen. He had used oxygen only once, in a 1989 ascent of Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. He used it because the expedition leader didn't want to make the other climbers, who were using oxygen, look, as Boukreev had said, "not-so-good." Boukreev's commitment was to a very rigorous training and acclimatization.

DeWalt said of his late colleague: "I have never met anybody who trained harder or was any more disciplined than Anatoli was. His position was that if you train, acclimatize well, if you knew your body and paid attention to your body, then it was better to climb without oxygen. You were in touch with your physiology. If you used oxygen and you ran out of it, you'd crash pretty quickly. The test of that philosophy, which makes Krakauer's criticism misplaced, is that on May 10, from the south side of Everest, 33 climbers went up the mountain. Two of those climbers were not using oxygen: Anatoli Boukreev and Scott Fischer's climbing sirdar (manager), Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa. These were the only two people who were capable of extending their physical efforts in an attempt to save other people's lives. Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa struggled for more than five hours to bring Scott Fischer down from 8,400 meters, where Scott had collapsed. Anatoli was the only one who went out into the storm that night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. There was a lateral blow of snow in the dark, and little visibility. He made two forays out into 60- to 70-mile-an-hour winds in sub-zero temperatures. This is not about his heroism. I say this to point out that everyone else had either collapsed or were psychologically or physically unable to do what Anatoli and Lopsang were able to accomplish."

Boukreev helped rescue three climbers that day, Charlotte Fox, Tim Madsen and Sandy Hill Pittman, in an effort that mountain photographer Galen Rowell has described as "one of the most amazing rescues in mountaineering history, performed single-handedly a few hours after climbing Mount Everest without oxygen."

DeWalt described the hole in Krakauer's argument: "What would happen if Boukreev got into trouble and he didn't have oxygen? Krakauer implies that going without oxygen was a reckless decision. He fails to mention that Anatoli was carrying one bottle of oxygen with him for an emergency. Two other oxygen bottles had been left for him at the south summit in the event of an emergency. He did not need it. The bottle that he carried he gave to Neal Biedelman, who subsequently was partly responsible for shepherding climbers down through the storm. Boukreev left the other two bottles of oxygen at the south summit, which were used by descending climbers as well, and which contributed to them getting down the mountain as far as they did before they were rescued."

DeWalt went on to say, "One of the pleasures of working with Boukreev was that he was a legend in the climbing community. Anatoli once described to me how he had nearly lost his life during the rescue of two fellow climbers in Manaslu in December 1996. He said, 'There is not enough luck in the world. That night I got somebody else's share.' I think that it's not that Anatoli ran out of luck on Annapurna on Christmas Day, but that he gave it to somebody who needed it more. I haven't the words to express how much he will be missed."

By Suzette Lalime

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