Everest 97 NAVBAR
Exclusive interview about Everest, climbing, and guiding.

Anatoli Boukreev
Climbing Is What I Do
Anatoli Boukreev Talks Everest

Mountain Zone correspondent Peter Potterfield talked to Anatoli Boukreev six days before the climber lead an Indonesian team to the first Mount Everest summit of the 1997 season. Known for his powerful climbing, Boukreev considers what it means to guide on Everest, the 1996 tragedy and the difficulty of getting facts on such an emotionally charged issue.

Anatoli in Kathmandu -- April 20, 1997
"What is guiding Everest?" asks Anatoli Boukreev. "I don't know what being an Everest guide means. I am a coach, not a guide." Anatoli Boukreev, wearing sandals and sweatpants, is sitting in the Gauri Shankar Hotel in Kathmandu next to a big paper sack of green grapes he's scored somewhere. He takes another sip of strong black tea and talks about his latest venture to climb Mount Everest.

It's clear that he's still hounded, if not haunted, by the tragic events on the mountain in 1996 and the public perception of his own role in that well-publicized disaster. "This year my role is clear: I am a coach, a coach to sportsmen. I offer my expertise and experience for hire in order to help a group of people reach the summit. But am I responsible for whether they live or die? I am not. I will advise them on how to reach the summit, I will show them how, and I will help them, but I cannot be responsible for their safety. They understand that."

I ran into Anatoli as he walked the dusty streets of Thamel near the Pumpernickel, the inexpensive and always crowded local bakery that's become a favorite with hip Kathmandu travelers. I was surprised to see him. I was just back in town from the Khumbu myself and knew he was supposed to be climbing Mount Everest with a large Indonesian team. Explaining a tooth ache had driven him down to Kathmandu for some dental work, he agreed to talk to The Mountain Zone about the busy climbing scene on Everest this year. When I finally walked over from the Hotel Manang, past a couple of eventful blocks (sleeping mongrel dogs, roaming cows, and piles of reeking garbage) to the Gauri Shankar, where Anatoli was headquartered, he talked non-stop in his intense Russian way for a couple of hours. His blue eyes positively burned at times with different emotions: resentment, excitement, and bafflement at where climbing on Everest is going.

Boukreev, of course, was working for Scott Fischer last year when a sudden summit-day storm caught many climbers high on the mountain. A year later it's clear he feels pilloried by the press, specifically Jon Krakauer's accounts. At the same time, he wants to put that nagging episode behind him. He's given his official sanction to a new book on the Everest tragedy, and turned his attention to what he does best: high-altitude climbing. Since he summited the morning of the Everest tragedy last year, Boukreev has climbed three eight thousand meter peaks -- Lhotse, Cho-Oyu, and Shisha Pangma -- and is contemplating an Everest-Lhotse extravaganza this spring that may include a traverse from the south side to the north side.

"Climbing is what I do," he shrugs. "I have the opportunity, so now maybe I will do this thing. I will see."

On the Book by Westin DeWalt
I wanted to contribute to a book that was not about dreams, not emotions, but fact: what actually happened. So when I made the agreement, I insisted that the book be based only on fact. I think that people ran out of oxygen and don't really know what happened up there, maybe some of them just made things up because they weren't sure what had happened.. I want this book to be facts, to be important, to be history. Maybe it won't be so good for me, maybe I made mistakes, but no matter, this is a book that will be based totally in fact. This will be important, not just right now, but for years to come because this will be history not dreams. It's not just my book, but dependent on many sources.

Krakauer has great power. I try to correct the misconceptions in his book, the magazine says, you have only 400 words, then just 250 words. Impossible to say in that length. My power to get information out is small compared to Krakauer, and I don't like that. For me, I'm not angry. I just think it's not right not to have more open forum about what happened lasted year. It's just bullshit. [The full exchange between Boukreev and Krakauer can be found on The Mountain Zone Everest '96 Forum.]

On the Indonesian Team
There were many Indonesian climbers who wanted to climb Everest, so we had to pick the best. It came down to mostly military people, and I like that, I like that better than clients who pay $65,000 to climb. There is discipline, they understand the risk. I told them, you can succeed -- it's not likely the first time, maybe 25 per cent, but you CAN succeed. You can also die. By April 16 they had already been to camp III, well ahead of most teams.

I travel to Jakarta, I see what an important country it is. I've been working with them for a year. I tell them, you have no experience, but I know they will try anyway regardless of what I say. So I tell them I can help them succeed, show them how. People respected my experience, they hire me, they pay me what I am worth to coach their team. They have significant strength but not much experience. With my experience, they have a chance. If I didn't do it, they would just get somebody else, perhaps somebody without as much experience.

I see the psychology of this team, I see they respect me very much as a climber, not like last year -- these people value what I bring to them.

Own Aspirations on Everest
Traverse of Lhotse, then Everest, maybe go down North Side. I have opportunity. I am ready, I feel my chances are 25 per cent.

After Everest
Been invited to Gasherbrum in Pakistan, then maybe Broad Peak, too. I have these opportunities, so that is what I will do. It's my life. I've been a professional climber for 25 years. Nothing is different now.

Recent auto accident has taken its toll. I'm not as strong perhaps as I was the past two years, but I am strong enough.

On Russian Climbers
Some of most ambitious climbing by Russians:

  • Proposed traverse of Lhotse, Lhotse Middle, Lhotse Shar
  • Also, Russian climbers on big West Wall of Makalu, very difficult.

    On Climbing
    I cannot say to be glad or not glad to be on Everest. It is my life. I have opportunity to be here, so I am here. I respect Everest very much.

    Last fall make experiments of my own: Climb Cho-Oyu in just five days to see if I could acclimatize. I did.

    Last Year's tragedy
    Rob Hall and Scott Fischer were the best, and they tried to do it the right way. They were the best, and they died. But I wonder what will happen with this Everest climbing now. I am not sure the others are as committed as Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. I think there is more business now, and I know it will be impossible to stop this Everest business. And I don't know where it will lead, where it will take climbing. There are many questions, but I cannot answer because I'm not a businessman, I am a climber.

    [Editor's note: Boukreev was killed in an avalanche December of 1997 on a winter ascent of Annapurna.]

    -- Peter Potterfield, The Mountain Zone

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    Photos by Peter Potterfield/The Mountain Zone

    1997 Everest Expedition with
    Alpine Ascents International, Inc.
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