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Alexander Odintsov on Latok III

While researching the Latok Group for Alpinist 30’s Mountain Profile (Spring 2010), Alpinist contacted Alexander Odintsov for information about his experiences in the region. Below is a translation of Odintsov’s response. Check out Alpinist 30, page fifty for photos from Odintsov’s attempts. -Ed

Alexander Odintsov. For more information on the Russian Big Wall Project see Odintsov’s article in Alpinist 19. [Photo] Anna Piunova

When the idea occurred to me to climb new routes on the ten highest walls in various
mountain regions of the world, the word “Latok” was unfamiliar to me. I learned of the
existence of this plexus of mountains and this mountain wall after the expedition to Great Trango
Tower. Yura Koshelenko dug up information on the region and on the history of its exploration.
The era of the all-powerful Internet had not yet arrived in Russia, so we were only able to learn
that the summit had been reached by the Japanese, who had climbed along a ridge, and that there
had been several unsuccessful attempts to climb the wall itself. We knew that the area was rarely
visited and inaccessible, and that the wall was subject to frequent rockfalls.

The decision to
organize an expedition to the Latok III Wall was quite adventurous. We were aware of the
number of problems that lay ahead of us, but were certain that any problem would have its
solution. The difficulty lay only in finding it. In short, all else aside, it was an adventure. The
surprises began as we were still approaching. The porters were in revolt. There were forty-five
of them and five of us. But we were a close-knit group from a country where chaos was not
unheard of. The revolt was nipped in the bud, order was re-established, the rabble-rousers were
punished. Three days later they were wandering on the edges of base camp, asking me to return
their porters’ cards to them.

The wall surpassed our expectations. It enclosed a ravine and made a huge impression.
At first glance it looked monolithic, but in the snow were many rock fragments. There was
additional danger in the form of flanking slopes with overhanging icefalls. Nearby, a glacier
collapsed from the wall of Latok I and covered the entire ravine. There was a lot to think about.
Rational people adapt themselves to the world, while irrational people adapt the world to
themselves. Thus adventurers push forward the wheels of progress. We ran up against the wall
both literally and figuratively. But any wall is a potential door. We decided to test this assertion.
Yura Koshelenko insisted on the choice of a route on the right side of the wall, along
snow and ice “rivers”, alpine style. I was inclined towards an ascent in the middle, along a
dihedral, capsule style. We spent some time observing the wall, and chose the second option.
Alpine style presupposed that the group would spend practically the entire time on sections of
the wall that were relatively flat and uniformly broken up by rocks. In addition, we’d have to
spend the night wherever the night caught us, and towards evening the rockfalls intensified.
Capsule style, we could tuck a platform under a cornice and, at least for the night, feel secure. I
always felt that if you’re doing something crazy, you should do it prudently.

Unfortunately, in
addition to calculation and cautiousness, you also need luck. We weren’t lucky. The rock was
the size of a soccer ball and fell from a height of only 10 meters, but it fell directly on
Koshelenko’s arm. The result was two broken bones. We began to bring Yura down and, and I
as leader made a fool of myself. I rushed. I did know that during the second half of the day, the
lower part of the wall was dangerous, but I relied on sheer Russian luck. The Pakistani gods
were unfamiliar with Russian idioms and smashed us with an avalanche. Sergey Yefimov was
ripped from his position and thrown down 350 meters. We mentally bade him farewell.
However, Fortune smiles on fools and brandy lovers. I’ve seen that for myself many times.
Sergey, having flown 350 meters, was still alive, and escaped with only two leg fractures. Not
the highest price to pay for such a dramatic flight. There followed the routine of rescue and
transportation operations. Evacuation, battles with porters, a return to Russia, and a rethinking
of what had happened. As a result, we decided to repeat our attempt at climbing the wall the
next year. I expanded the number of group participants to 6 people. We once again climbed
vertically capsule style, and this time we did everything right. This time we didn’t take extra
risks. We climbed three quarters of the wall at a good pace…

When I think back to 19 July 2001, I get a lump in my throat. This time the rock wasn’t
the size of a soccer ball. Apparently a gendarme had fallen off the ridge. And the upper part of
the wall was a granite monolith. There are almost never stray rocks, but suddenly, there it was, a
meteorite. The entire group was protected by a cornice. All except one. Igor Barikhin didn’t
have time to descend the rope.
We found the body lower down… Further events are hazy in my memory. Base camp,
Askoli, Skardu, Rawalpindi, Russia. Anyone who has endured this sort of thing needs no
explanation; if God has spared you, there’s no explaining it.
Nine years passed. The wall remained unclimbed, although attempts were made. Is it
really that dangerous? I’ve seen more fearsome walls. The fact is that the mountain is made of
granite. Spontaneous rockfalls are not that common. On the other hand, if something decides to
fall, then Big Bertha can take a rest (remember Petit Dru).

As for climbing style, the wall can be climbed both capsule style and alpine style. The
right side of the wall looks flatter, and fans of alpine style have a chance here, although the risk
of ending up with a rock, in my opinion, exceeds rational bounds. On the central part of the wall
there are practically no sites for bivouac, so capsule style is preferred.
In general I find amusing the severity of the discussion of which style is good and which
bad. Specialists in alpine climbing denounce those who dare to climb by any other method. But
it should not be forgotten that a specialist is like flux: his entirety is one-sided. One cannot
become a narrow specialist without having turned into a bonehead in the strictest sense.
There are walls on which alpine-style climbing is dangerous. I find the propagandizing
of unjustified risk to be incorrect. I’m concerned that climbers will turn in the eyes of the public
into outcasts on the fringe who care nothing for their lives or their health. I don’t know how it is
in America, but in Russia climbers appear on television screens only as figures in news reports.
In my view, engaging in alpinism is a positive thing, and it would be a good thing for as many
young people as possible to take it up, and for all of them to live to a ripe old age.
As to whether or not someone will climb the wall of Latok III?

In April I’m going to
Pakistan. I want to see what the wall is like in the spring. It might be better to climb it at that
time of the year. I want young people to climb that wall. Whether I myself will be part of that
team – I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Old horses are taken out of harness.

Translated from the Russian by Karen Freund.