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Àâòîð:Alexander Gukov, S.Peterburg
Translation: Maria Samsonova, Dmitry Zagorovskiy, Ekaterinburg
Alexander Gukov. Latok I Impossible is not forever
One winter one of my friends commented on a Facebook post by Anna Piunova about rescuing Elizabeth Revol:
“Marina, this story is a classic example of why it’s NOT ADVISABLE to climb such mountains as a pair.
Either solo, or three members. But if you go as a pair, you must be ready for a similar situation where you are going to face a CHOICE: leave the partner and go, or fight till the end, his or both of you.
Note that there are almost no people who would have faced it at least annually among those who are publicly declaring that she did the right thing or not.
Do you know why? Because tomorrow we can face the same choice. And even if you do everything in your power, only you will be the witness to it.” Who could have known that in six months I would also go in a pair to climb a complex route, and my friend and partner would fall to his death, and I would have to face the choice, and I would be that lone witness. I want to tell you how it happened, briefly but succinctly. Three of us were actually going to climb – me and Glazunov brothers. We have never climbed together, but we were knew one another. Gukov and Glazunovs.
I thought we would make a great team for a mountain like that.
Although I’m already old compared to them, I believed that with their speed and my experience and knowledge of the route we would quickly get to the summit. But then something went wrong, and at the last moment Evgeni could not go. Everything was ready but there were only two of us.
Sergey was in a fighting mood. I’m not a superstitious person, but something felt wrong deep down in my heart. It is not a good idea to go as a pair on such a route.
But what if I was wrong? What if everything was not so bad, what if Sergey was ready, and we would make a great team? Who can answer these questions in advance? Eventually, we decided to go just together. Our friends arrived to the BC a week before us. But they were planning to draw another line to the summit. Pakistan is a place for first ascents, and quite an expensive one at that. Going there to repeat someone else’s route is not worth the effort.
But we actually had different routes in mind, so it was possible to combine our teams. We thought we would settle that in the BC. Jun. 30 We arrived in Pakistan and flew to Skardu immediately. Jul. 05 We already got to the BC, met our friends, and learnt about their plans.
They decided to go straight along the middle of the north face.
It would be a good line if they made it.
We spent one night at 5,200m and two nights on the shoulder.
We realized that this was not enough, but we didn’t know anything as easy higher in that area.
Climbing as a pair is not like a triple: the equipment is almost the same, but there are fewer people. We went through everything: left the third ice tool, a couple of hooks, a couple of camalots, one ice screw, one anchor loop, took no spare clothes except mittens, cut off my wide Therm-a-rest mat, removed central anti-sublindens from Grivel crampons, shortened toothbrush handles, cut off extra polyethylene from Mountain House mountain food, made holes in it with a needle to avoid inflation at height, removed the T-block, removed a part of the shovel handle, removed the only snowpick, removed one gas bottle, removed dried fruits and peanuts.
This way we left about six kg behind. Eventually, our backpacks turned out to be 20 kg each, including all equipment, food for 10 days, five 240g gas cans, and outwear. Meanwhile, we were looking through binoculars all day long for the guys who had come up to the wall in the morning, hid in the berg, and that was the last we saw of them.
It was in the evening, just before sunset, that I saw them start descending.
“So things are pretty bad up there,” I thought. In the morning of July 13 I ped by their tent before leaving. “There were rockfalls all day long: no chance of getting out of the berg,” the guys said. “What do you figure?” I asked. “We’ll think about it, maybe we’ll follow you later,” they answered. Although the idea of five of us going all together crossed my mind at the moment, I did not mention it.
We did not want to wait for them, we decided to go as a pair, everything was ready, we were leaving in 10 minutes. We started our route in the same way we did last year, on the left side of the ridge.
The higher the sun rose, the oftener wet avalanches descended.
But we mostly managed to hide from them, although by the end of the day all the equipment and clothes were wet. We spent the first night at 5,360m. Jul. 14 We crossed the N ridge, but we could not reach the 5,800m spot as we planned.
We had to traverse a lot of snow, which took quite a while.
As a result, we found a good spot at 5,640m where we spent the night. Jul. 15 At 15:00 we reached the end of the snow ridge at 5,800m and decided to stop for a day, get dry, and try to make our backpacks even lighter. By taking some stuff out, we reduced the weight by two kg.
Everything went as per plan. I hadn’t climbed higher than that – we did not know what would come next.
But there was a nasty turn in the weather in the evening, and when we climbed up the “iron”, the wall was no longer visible. We always worked in turns, one day I was the leader, the other day Sergey led.
But most of the time we simul climbing, for half the rope, if there were no traverses. But there were a lot of them. Compared to the previous year, the route had melted very much. But our line was relatively safe from rockfalls and avalanches. The guys from the second team started climbing a day after us. We saw them from the overnight at 5,800m.
We received messages from them or about them.
We had no means of communication except Iridium360 tracker and Iridium satellite phone. But we left the phone in the BC.
Our satellite tracker was supposed to work for two weeks with the hourly tracking function, but either something was wrong with the settings, or the unfortunate location of the combined power button and menu scrolling accidentally turned Bluetooth on, or there was a battery glitch: I do not know, but it almost completely discharged in a day, and I decided to switch the tracking function to manual mode. There were two scaring falls during the ascent, me and then Sergey.
Everything turned out okay, but Sergey lost his GoPro camera with all the shooting for our film.
I would like to note that if you are climbing in a pair and moving simultaneously, you don’t have much time for shooting, but we tried to do it in turns. Jul. 21-22 We were stuck at the snow “iron” because of the bad weather.
Sometimes the fog cleared, but not for long enough to consider the next line carefully.
Finally, it cleared up in the evening and we managed to see what was ahead of us although a part of the wall was concealed by the neighboring snow serac.
We ate one dinner pack over two days. It left one breakfast pack only.
We fixed two pitches (one required for aid climbing) and descended for the overnight. Jul.23 The next morning we decided to leave all the bivouac equipment, try to reach the summit and return.
It was a bad idea, in my opinion. But Sergey convinced me and he could do it well. It was his turn to lead. We ate the last pack of food and started our summit push. The rocks were technically hard and the weather started getting worse so our progress was slow.
The last position point I registered on the tracker was at 6,980m at 14:40, after that the tracker turned off by itself because of the low battery. By 4:00 pm I began to realize that we might not make it to the summit on time and that we needed to descend.
The weather was getting worse and worse. But we really wanted to reach the summit, so we procrastinated with the return point. By 07:00 pm, Sergey climbed up a small col between a rock and a snowy serak.
I was standing ten meters below him.
The snow was almost vertical. I started shooting the video, commenting that we climbed up somewhere. “What do you mean, “somewhere”: it’s Latok I, Sanya,” - Sergey shouted. “Take me,” I shouted to him. “This is unreal, Sanya. Everything is covered with snow mushrooms and vertical slopes here,” Sergey answered and began to descend.
We descended straight to our tent late at night. July 24, I do not remember. I’m trying to remember that day, but I cannot.
I thought that we started to descend the next day after the mountain, and that was the day Sergey fell down.
But it turned out that this happened on July 25, i.e. on the second day of descent. But I do not remember this at all.
I do not remember the overnight. Maybe we were sleeping for the whole day? I remember that the weather was good when we woke up. I remember sharing my doubts with Sergey as to whether we’d actually been on the summit. I am still in doubts today. Perhaps someone would bend the facts and say that he had been there, but not me. I did not feel the summit, I don't remember the pre-summit ridge, we did not stand together and hug one another and enjoy ourselves on the summit as I dreamt to.
Although I can now see on Google Earth that there was only 360m from that point to the main summit with a small height difference but we did not see this in the fog. Sergey and I decided that we would not lie. He believed it was the summit, I believed it was not.
We didn’t have a second chance to check it. If we had taken the tent and stayed there on the “mushrooms”, we would have found out. But we did not take it. After that we started to descend. When we heard and saw the helicopter we thought that it was the second team who called for assistance, as we knew that they had been injured by the rockfall during the descent, and that they decided to look for us at the same time.
How Sergey caught it, I have no idea.
There wasn’t much food, though. I took it into my backpack. After that we repelling a few more ropes. Sergey went first, making ice screw anchors and Abalakov thread for rappelling.
So far, there was enough ice terrain and we were rappelling using the Abalakov thread with a 6mm cord.
I rappelled to him, combined the ice screw with the cord, gave him all the equipment from the last anchors, pulled out the ropes. One rope was fixed to the Abalakov cord, the second one was securing Sergey through the ice screw.
He was using Gri-Gri for rappelling, I was using the Petzl ascender with a binner as a figure 8 most of the time because we lost Reverso while ascending. There was a snow-and-ice slope, which ended with rocks. Sergey rappelled down to the rock and that was the last I saw of him. The belaying rope ended, I shouted that to him. I do not remember how long I was waiting on the anchors for his command.
It was not clear by the ropes if they were free or not.
Sergey often rappelled himself almost to the whole length of his rope.
One rope seemed to be free, the other one didn’t.
I shouted to him several times but there was no answer. “Maybe he cannot hear me because of the sharp edge of slope,” I thought.
I re-arranged the ropes to rappel myself on twin ropes, left the ice screw combined with the cord just in case and rappelled down.
When I reached the edge I saw that Sergey was out. There was one poorly hammered piton and both ropes were secured to it as to an anchor. Nothing else.
I hammered this piton as hard as possible but I was not sure it was enough. And now about the CHOICE.
Was I obligated to rappel down to look for Sergey? Yes, I thought about this.
I had many thoughts in my head at that time.
“How the fuck did this happen, Sergey... Okay, think what next. You’re alone on the mountain. The elevation is 6,250m.
The height difference is 1,700m. What do you have? One piton at this anchor, one short ice screw on the anchors above.
You can ascend by the rope to get this screw. But it is 6mm Abalakov cord. Can my ascent wear it off? You bet. Have I combined the ice screw with the ropes or with the cord? I think it was with the cord. Fuck.
Ok, even if I do it, what will this one short screw give me? Nothing at 1,700m difference, etc. etc.” The rock where I found myself ended in about five meters, then there was one more snow slope, it was visible for a very long distance, almost to the end.
Of course there were supposed to be many such rock walls below, but they were not visible from where I was.
I couldn’t see Sergey anywhere. He could probably fall from the next wall to the next snow field. Probably.
Now, looking through the photos and the estimated place of accident, I see that there was a huge wall below. But I did not know it at that time.
I did not want this at all. I had an ice tool. It was possible to hammer it, maybe. But 50m or even 100m rope was not enough.
Even if I rappel down what do I do next? l have absolutely nothing to make the next anchors with. “Ok, keep thinking. The satellite tracker discharged, but can the SOS button still work at two percent charge?”
I took it out, pressed it, and it triggered the SOS.
I sent a message that I needed help and evacuation, that Sergey fell down, and that I was left without equipment. Soon Anja Piunova sent a message that the helicopter had taken off, and Julia, my wife, advised me to find a shelf nearby.
Yes, hanging here was really not an option. There was nothing nearby, neither shelves nor seracs.
But there were a couple of stones on the snow slope a little lower, there, I could make something to wait for the helicopter.
I had a piece of cord that was tied to the food bag they had thrown to us. It was just enough to get to these stones. Finally, I got into the tent which I hung up to the cord like a bag.
The tracker stopped working completely in three days. The weather was awful throughout.
I was constantly under avalanches from the wall and I had to dig myself out of the snow all the time. It calmed me down that if there was a big avalanche it would fly over the wall and that tomorrow the weather would be fine and the helicopters would reach me.
But the helicopters were only able to get up in the air and rescue me in six days. But you already know that. I am very grateful to everyone who arranged for the search and rescue operation, especially Anja Piunova, Alexey Ovchinnikov, my wife Julia Krisanova, I thank the pilots who were able to do this, I thank the employees of the Russian Embassy in Pakistan, and Vadim Zaitsev in particular, I thank Vitja Koval and the guys, I thank everyone who sympathized, felt concerned and helped all that time.
My condolences to Sergey’s relatives. I do not know if it was the summit of Latok I or not, I think it was not. But to be honest, it does not matter to me whether we climbed this 360m summit ridge or not.
I am sure that we climbed the North ridge up to the top. It was a good climb.
We did it by working in turns, replacing one another.
We made a good team with Sergey despite the fact that we worked together for the first time. You were a good person, Sergey! I’m very sorry that it all happened at the descent, when most of the work had already been done. Please forgive me if I did something wrong.
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