[This story first appeared in Alpinist 64, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. The issue also features other stories about Latok I by Tom Livingstone and Jim Donini. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 64 for more.–Ed.]
“Sanya, I have a proposition for you that you can’t refuse,” Oleg Koltunov called to tell me. “The North Ridge of Latok I.” It did turn out to be really hard to refuse. The mountain looked tremendous in the photos. It was spring 2013. Our team would consist of four Russian climbers: Oleg Koltunov, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Alexander Ruchkin and me. But that summer, a group of terrorists killed eleven climbers at a base camp below Nanga Parbat, and we didn’t go to Pakistan. And now I’m the only one of the four still alive. Oleg fell to his death during the Russian Mountaineering Championship in May 2015. Alexander and Vyacheslav died during the descent from Nevado Huandoy Sur three months later.
Since then, the North Ridge became my idee fixe. Alpinists had been trying to complete that route for forty years, to no avail. In 2017 I aimed to climb it with Anton Kashevnik and Valery Shamalo. Our attempt showed me that impossible is not forever. It was realistic to climb that ridge.
Three tough climbers with an ambitious goal, minimum equipment and maximum effort–that’s what we needed. The North Ridge of Latok I isn’t a mountain route on which you can spend two or three days and you’re done. It’s at least seven days from base camp to the top–that is, at today’s level of alpinism. And even then, you need three things to happen at the same time: good weather, maximum acclimatization–and the best lucky streak of your lives.
Most of the past expeditions, if you take a look at them, lacked good weather, if nothing else. The North Ridge isn’t just a ridge that from base camp, at first glance, merely looks long and technically uncomplicated. No. It’s impossible to walk simply on the crest itself. There are numerous snowy seracs that alternate with granite walls. Last time, it took Anton, Valery and me three hours to dig a fifty-meter horizontal path across the ridge from our bivouac to the rocky part with a shovel. It was brutal. So you have to climb to the right of the ridge, on the west wall. And the more the angle of the crest lessens, the more you must traverse, following its contour. It sounds strange, but that’s the way it is. Moreover, the wall itself is cut by many small, vertical snow crests, and each of these must be climbed, one after the other. And if the last person on the rope doesn’t have an ice axe, and they just jumar, that means lots of leaping from one anchor to the next. I’ll tell you, it’s not much fun.
But back to the preparation of this year’s expedition…. Three tough climbers. Whom should I call? The Glazunov brothers, ambitious young guys, known for their speedy ascents. Gukov and the Glazunovs: we’d be a force to be reckoned with, I thought.
Although they’d never climbed with me before, the brothers immediately agreed to my proposal. I believed we’d definitely succeed. I launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to make a film. I contracted with companies to sponsor us with equipment. Everything was going well.
But a couple of weeks before our departure for Pakistan, Yevgeny Glazunov began to have doubts. I got his final No the day before we were leaving, on my birthday.
Fuck fuck fuck. Where was I going tofind a third man? We were leaving the next day. Then thoughts began to creep in my mind: It’s not worth climbing as just a pair; it’s dangerous; it’s difficult. But mountains are always dangerous and difficult. Who can predict how accurate your misgivings will turn out to be? Maybe they’re all just cowardice?
“So, Sergey, should we go as a pair?” I asked.
“I’m ready,” Sergey said.
“Then let’s go. Five of us will start on the mountain together, at least.”
At base camp, we met up with three guys from another Russian expedition–Victor Koval, Konstantin Markevich and Alexander Parfenov–who’d arrived five days earlier.They planned a direct climb of Latok I via the North Face. It looked like an amazing, but very, very serious route. Its lower third was blue-grey ice; the middle third was snow; and the highest third was a rock wall. If they climbed it, their success would create a sensation.
But, as they drew nearer, they realized that the unbelievably warm air had melted the ice that sealed loose rocks to the face, and the entire wall was being bombarded with falling stones. They were forced to retreat.
Meanwhile, for two days, Sergey and I went over our gear–again and again–reducing it as far as was reasonable. There was an anxious feeling I couldn’t shake. Oh, if only there were three of us! To our surprise, the weather stayed fine: blue skies with only a few, high clouds. All the summits around were uncovered. But at the same time, the heat was causing more and more of the mountain to crumble off: we could see the avalanches from camp, but not the rockfalls–they were still far away. From the start of the route, we looked around and didn’t notice anything unusual.We planned our departure for the next day.
On the lower part, moving up the snow couloir, we tried to keep ourselves below the upper rocks to shelter from wet avalanches that rushed past. By the evening of the first day, we’d reached the spot where my partners and I had spent our second night the year before. Once we moved to the west side of the crest, however, the climbing got much harder. We knew that we’d violated the second condition for a successful ascent–maximum acclimatization. But there was no other way: either squander the good weather or finish the climb because of extraordinary health.
Yes, it was difficult, but damn it, it’s Latok I. It’s supposed to be difficult. Along the entire route, until we reached 6700 meters, we observed traces of past expeditions: pieces of ropes, slings, old-school pitons. The last thing we encountered was a small, dark blue haulbag, frozen into the ice. At that height, only the Jeff Lowe expedition could have left it.
“What’s there, Sergey?” I yelled. “Is there food?” Food was the main thing we didn’t have enough of by that point.
“No, Sanya, only stuff,” Sergey said. Man, how I wanted to snack on a bit of chocolate from that long-ago expedition.
On the seventh day of climbing, when we clambered onto a huge serac, the weather turned bad: dark-grey clouds covered the top of the mountain. It started snowing. What lay farther ahead, we didn’t know. We remained in the tent waiting for a clearing in the clouds. I changed the points on my crampons and sharpened the ice tools and screws. There was only enough food left for two days, and we had to ration it, since we didn’t know how much time we’d have to sit there. I really wanted to order a pizza on the satellite tracker-communicator, but I didn’t know where to call.
We talked a lot. It turned out that Sergey and I had many of the same opinions: we both didn’t like Putin and his corrupt power system; we both liked Navalny and his “wonderful Russian future”; we were both thinking about immigrating to other countries: me to the United States, Sergey to France, where his wife Nina came from. Sergey dreamed of going to mountain guide school and learning how to lead people on trips in the Alps. A great dream. But fate had other plans.
After two days, the weather improved, and we could see the final wall. “Sanya, tomorrow is the best day, you have to get this mountain and then get the fuck off it,” my friend Anna Piunova, the editor-in-chief of Mountain.ru, texted me from Moscow.
But that day didn’t work out to be the best day. As soon as we began to get closer to the wall, half of the serac–on which we had spent three very quiet nights–collapsed under me with a whooshing sound. I hung over the precipice and watched the remnants of the serac sweep down and away, bringing with them everything in their path. I hadn’t experienced such a surge of fear-based adrenaline in a long time.
After that near miss, we fixed two ropes on the rock wall, and we spent the night in the place that the serac had vacated. Once we’d eaten our last breakfast, we set off in the dark, traveling light. I tried to convince Sergey to take a tent with us, or at least a mat. No luck.
After 10 a.m. snow fell again, and our speed dropped. For such a height, the terrain was very difficult: steep rocks covered by drifts. Indeed, we got pretty tired. At last,the rocks ended. Ahead, however, the snow became almost vertical. Seven o’clock in the evening. It will soon get dark. We need to go down, otherwise we will freeze here, I thought. But there, a little higher, it looks like that’s it, like it’s the end. It looks likeit’s the summit. We have to climb there.
Ten to fifteen meters above me, Sergey shouted that there was nowhere farther to go: all he saw were steep, downward slopes and snow mushrooms. He could perceive nothing above him, he said. Below him, the otherside vanished into the whiteout. Snowflakes whirled in the air. He could not belay me up there: the snow was too friable. We decided that was the summit and that we shouldget the hell out of there. After all, four and a half hours earlier, the satellite tracker had indicated that the altitude was 6980 meters.
Then it was as if everything took place in a fog. I remember that we descended to our tent and that we slept there for a long time; I remember that in the early morning we discussed whether or not Sergey had actually reached the apex of the mountain. He thought he’d arrived on the main summit. I thought he’d only gotten to the top of the North Ridge. We kept going down. Sergey went first. I went second.
For me, the descent is always the most important part. Once I’ve used my last iota of strength, and I’ve stood on the highest point of a climb, there’s a click–as if one battery in my body turns off. I know I must be extremely attentive to continue safely on what energy remains.
Early the next morning, I heard the pleasant sound of a helicopter.
Are they looking for us? I thought. Not likely. Maybe the guys from the second expedition called for help because of rockfall. But the pilots were looking for us. They dropped some provisions and gas, and they flew off. It would have been impossible to pick us up at such a height and on such steep ground.
Later, from an Abalakov anchor, Sergey descended a snowy slope.
“Sergey, use two ice screws for the anchors. I don’t like to stay on just one,” I told him several times.
“No Alex, we don’t have time for this,” he replied.
He stopped on the edge, looked around intently, and then disappeared beyond a bend in a field of rocks. I never saw him again.
What’s taking so long? I thought.
“Sergey, what’s happening with the rappel? Off belay?” I shouted for a long time. But there was no answer.
The ropes seemed to have slackened. This must mean everything is OK. The next belay is ready.
I rappelled to the bend, but Sergey wasn’t there.
Fuck, fuck, fuck….
I rappelled to the next anchor. Both ropes were attached to a solitary piton hammered into the rock. Where is Seryoga? How did this happen? I told him to use two points for the anchors! I have absolutely nothing: nothing to make the descent, and nothing even to establish a reliable anchor here. Only one hammered piton and the ice axe on my belt. Fuck. These were only some of the thoughts that coursed through my head. Then the worst realization sunk in: Down there is the dizzying kilometer-and-a-half of void where your friend fell.
I kept shouting and looking, but neither Sergey nor any traces of his fall were anywhere to be seen. All that appeared was a snow slope that plunged, empty, into the far distance below.
For two days, my satellite tracker wouldn’t turn on–it had only 2 percent left of its battery charge. But the SOS button should work. Then: Hallelujah. It turned on. I sent a message: “I need help. Evacuation required. Sergey fell. I’m hanging on, without any gear.”
Anna Piunova replied: “The helicopters will be there soon, wait.”
If someone had told me right away that I’d have to stay there a week, I probably wouldn’t have survived. I rappelled to a small stone ledge with the 6 or 8mm cord, tied the tent to it without poles, climbed in and began to wait.
But the helicopters didn’t reach me that day. A storm blew in, and avalanches rumbled from above. And so it went on for the next six days. Each morning, I dug myself out of new-fallen snow. Over and over, I received the same messages: The next day, there should be a weather window, and the helicopter should arrive. But the next day, nothing changed. If help never arrives at all, I wondered, what should I do? Maybe try to go down myself, draping a rope over rock features for anchors? Would I even find them?
Day and night merged. The hallucinations began. I kept seeing Sergey, sitting somewhere below, half-frozen in the snow. Once, I even thought that he’d been saved.
How did this happen? Such a young guy, and he died. Did he try to self-belay on a single piton, and he fell?
The hallucinations became more and more frequent.
What’s going on? Where am I? I asked myself.
You’re in Skardu. You’ve been saved. Climb on down, unknown people answered.
As soon as I opened my eyes, I realized that there wasn’t anyone nearby. All around me was just snow. The silence was broken only by the avalanches falling on me. I found half a candy bar in my jacket pocket, but heating snow for water when you’re sitting in a bivy and you’re constantly in the path of avalanches is problematic–to say the least. I only managed to melt four or five ounces twice a day.
After three days, the tracker finally died, and I was without a link to the outside world. Yet I could still hear the sounds of helicopters making new attempts to reach me.
If I get out of here, I’m going to marry Julia, I promised the mountain. We already have two kids.
One night, the air got noticeably colder. The avalanches stopped.
It’s got to clear up in the morning, I thought. If the helicopters didn’t fly in the next day, then they’d never arrive. But they did fly in–and they rescued me. On the glacier, I saw the familiar faces of friends. They wrapped me with a sleeping bag and injected me with dexamethasone. My friends and the pilots were smiling and laughing. I felt well and calm. Impossible is not forever, I told myself. Even if you think there’s no chance to survive, it can be possible. Believe me.
Then there was a helicopter, a military hospital in Pakistan, a plane, a surgical institute in Russian, and home.
And a month later I married Julia, as I’d promised.
Author’s note: Thank you, thank you, everyone who arranged the rescue operation, who took part in it, who worried, believed and prayed. My sympathies are with Sergey’s near and dear ones. His body was not found, but we will remember him forever.
–Translated from the Russian by Karen Freund
[The mission that extracted Gukov from the mountain was flown by Pakistani pilots Major Qazi Muhammad Mazhar-ud-Din, Major Abid Rafique, Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Anjum Rafique and Major Fakhar-e-Abbas. Glazunov’s wife Nina Glazunov-Neverov shared several photos and stories about her husband’s life with Alpinist, which can be found here. This story by Alexander Gukov first appeared in Alpinist 64, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. The issue also features other stories about Latok I by Tom Livingstone and Jim Donini.–Ed.]