Translated from Russian by Lidia Fedorova
.. .Where there is the victory,
there is the courage to go on.
WE ARRIVED IN DELHI on 24 August. From the very beginning our autumn expedition was put together successfully. We went through a briefing at the IMF and left the stuffy city, languished with heat. In a small bus we rushed to Gangotri. There were no roads above it. There were only mountain paths there.
It took us two days to get to Gangotri.
Igor Zdhanovich, my old friend, was with me. About 10 years ago we had climbed together but then he left mountaineering. Our lives had temporarily drifted apart. But now I needed his help in organising ABC on the glacier of Meru, at 4900 m.
After arriving at Gangotri, we organised porters. In two days the string of 22 porters arrived at BC, Tapovan, 4300 m. It was 27 August. Everything was moving according to plan.
On 28 August, not wasting time, we went up on the glacier to organise ABC. It was a difficult climb for lack of proper acclimatisation. There was the endless conglomeration of moraines around on our way. It took us four and half an hour to get to the place where we would pitch our tents.
In the afternoon, among the stone chaos of Meru glacier, the bright yellow tent of ABC appeared. Generally speaking, from this very place at the height of 4900 m, my ascent toward the summit of Meru Central or as it was called, Shark’s Fin, would begin.
As far as I knew there were about 15 attempts to climb it. My attempt was after the spring one. Then there was much snow on the wall. Now, at the end of August it had greatly changed. The snow on the glacier had thawed and the lower part of the wall was nothing but black rock.
It was obvious to me that the first 300-400 m of the way would be dangerous enough. There was constant stone fall from the wall.
In contrast to the spring attempt I would be going up another route – along the right buttress. From the height of 5800 m it went to the north wall of the summit of Meru Central. I thought that the new route was a little easier than the spring one and also logical. One could say that the new route would be perfect for my solo ascent. The height from the glacier to the summit was a little more than 1500 m. The total length of the route was 2000 m.
Taking into account all mistakes of the spring expedition, I had carried about 500 m of 5-mm Kevlar static, and 8-mm rope. I would fix them on the lower part of the wall.
On 1 September, we came to the glacier under the wall. Igor helped me to drag part of the equipment up here. After this I would begin to work alone. The route went up on the greatly destroyed and steep rock slabs with a great number of stones on them. The climbing was very delicate. If you did not keep your eyes open, you could fall along with a changeable rocky block.
The weather was extremely unpredictable. As a rule it snowed after 12 p.m. I had to stop the work on the wall at the height of 4900 m and come down to ABC. In two days, 2 and 3 September, I reached the height of 5500 m. I fixed some ropes. On 4 September, I return to BC at Tapovan to rest. Below, it was raining since the last evening. It was snowing above.
On 7 September, the weather got better. That day I returned to ABC. The weather stabilised a little: it was sunny until noon and began to snow later.
On 8 and 9 September I worked on the route and went out to the rock shoulder at the 5600 m. I decided to set up a high camp here and make a bid for the summit.
The rock wall more than 100 m in length closed any progress towards the ice. I would later decide how to overcome the wall but now I had to descend to ABC for ferrying food to the higher camp.
From 10 to 12 September, bad weather continued. So, we rested and ate at BC. We went up to ABC, next day. Tomorrow I would begin the ascent. It was necessary go up to the height of 5600 m and to fasten the portaledge. It would be, take 2 or 3 days to pass rocks at the height of 5600-5800 m and to reach the beginning of the ice wall, leading toward the crest. The crest joined the central and the north summits of Meru peak.
Early in morning on 14 September, I began the ascent on the fixed rope. But soon heavy clouds came crawling and it began snowing heavily. Another day wasted; I had to come down to ABC. Next day, it continued to snow. I sat above and thought only about the ascent. It was getting colder every day. At night a hurricane wind shook the tent. It seemed as if the weather was getting furious. What would it be tomorrow? Nobody knew.
In the morning the sun shone but the same hurricane wind blew. It blew huge snow ‘flags’ on the crest and the wall. I made up my mind not to go out. I needed to wait. My instinct whispered that a radical change would come over the weather.
It was the morning of 17 September. There were no clouds in the sky. A mild wind was blowing. Really, the weather had changed. That day I went up to 5600 m, where my high-altitude camp would be. From that very place I would undertake the summit attempt.
21 September 2001. I had a rest at 5600 m to gather my strength after a three-day solo ascent. It was 9 p.m. local time and 10.30 p.m. in Omsk. Everybody was probably going to bed at that time but I was on the north face of Meru peak and had to spend a long and dangerous night here. I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited, waiting impatiently to ascend to the summit and was afraid of the uncertainties of being above 5800 m. Besides, the time of the ascent was unusual.
To calm down I decided to analyse my previous action and note the positive points. First of all, it had been a correct decision to wait for good weather at BC. Then I was sure, that my instincts as a climber could not be wrong and the weather would be good for some days. I was lucky. There were no clouds in the sky and there was no snowfall (unlike in May of the same year when I was at the height of 5800 m and couldn’t finish the ascent to the summit of Meru Peak because of bad weather during five days).
Secondly, I had done all preliminary work at the wall correctly and in time. I had fastened 250 m of rope on the rocks so everything was alright. I became calmer and was ready to begin a spurt toward the summit. Not getting out of the sleeping-bag, I cooked soup and sweet tea. I was perfectly quiet because I concluded that my actions were correct because they were based upon my knowledge, skills and instinct. Every mountaineer and especially a solo climber would have to be aware of these factors. The day of rest had come to an end and the time of introspection was over.
I came out of my sleeping bag. It was absolutely dark with a weak wind. I breathed the cold air and began to put all necessary things on: a warm polartec jacket, windprotected suit and light feather coat. My motions were downy, quick and confident; result of many years of climbing. I put on boots without crampons because the first 150 m of the ascent would be through rocks.
It took me some time to pack my rucksack. My equipment consisted of two 60 m ropes, a Gore-Tex bivouac-sack if I needed to wait out in bad weather. Two pairs of Polartec gloves in a stock, some rock pitons, ten ice-screws, frends, a half-litre flask of hot tea and some bars of chocolate. The rucksack weighed a little more than 10 kg. I tried to imagine the ascent over 5800 m, step-by-step and made sure that all I needed was packed.
I snapped my jumar to the rope, which went from the tent straight to darkness, and began the ascent. The light from my flash jumped all over the rocks snatching all I needed to see out of darkness. The night world surrounded me. Everything that was outside this spot of light seemed to me another world of measuring and colours. I tried not to think about fears of the night. I went slowly up, using the fastened rope and often stopped. I had to keep my strength for the next working day.
While stopping, I would mentally climb the next 10-15 metres. Soon I came to the place where I put on my crampons. The next pitch was tiring, a complex mix of ice and rocks. At about 2 p.m. I reached the place where the fixed ropes ended, at 5800 m. It was getting colder. It was better to work on ice in polartec gloves. I needed to move my toes to keep them from been frozen. I went up with the help of ice axes and without rope for the first 100 m. As it was getting steeper and more dangerous, I used the insurance rope. My fear increased as the darkness and soundlessness of night increased.
I climbed higher in spite of the night and uncertainty all around. I began to think and reason again. Why was I on the huge ice-covered wall? What was it: aspiration to prove something or some kind of obsession? I couldn’t find a definite answer or give a logical explanation. Here, in the Himalaya, I did not belong to myself. There were other laws and rules, which I could explain only with intuition or instinct. These laws and rules of the mountains ruled me and I had no way of changing them.
With these thoughts, I continued upwards with my axe. I broke the upper thin ice crest and tried to hook on to the safe ice covering under it.
I moved mechanically. Sometimes I was losing track of time. The driving of ice axes and crampons became my existence here. Strong blows, short stops and breath exercises were the means of survival. Little by little, the steepness of ice covering increased. There was a vertical ice pitch like a narrow ‘neck’ on my way. There were high ice walls, which ran up on the right and left. I felt as I was in an ice metro tunnel. Only there were no trains in it.
Down below, I saw the solitary tent of ABC, where Igor was. There was a great silence here. Only sometimes the rustle of snow, flowing away of the wall, broke the silence. All other sounds seemed to be frozen here.
From time to time I switched on my forehead flash. But it was not easy to examine the chaos of the ice couloir. It was very difficult to define the distance to the summit, to orientate myself among these huge ice fences, which crossed the wall many times. In the daytime they had seemed lower. The night changed everything around. It is very difficult to describe the tension or feelings when I was alone on that wall in the Himalaya.
It was dawn. I had worked almost eight hours. Altimeter showed the height more than 6000 m. Behind me the two-headed mountain massif of Shivling was visible in the weak morning light. It was quite near and seemed like I could touch it.
Soon the first rays of the sun lit up the distant summits. On the next second, the light enveloped the very top of Meru Peak. I could see very distinctly every rock jut on its sharp crest, leading to the summit. The dark blue sky contrasted with blinding white summits in the morning sun. The great snow cornices were scarlet, the ice slope was gold and crimson. The shades rippled in the soft light of the rising sun. The huge mountain chains melted away in the distance. I stood on steep ice and couldn’t tear myself away from the magnificent view and magic colours. The air was warmer. Now it didn’t seem so cold and terrible as at night.
I wanted to take my feather jacket off. The heat had weakened me. My eyes began to close when I climbed up the rope again. Tiredness rolled over me like a sea wave. Almost in despair I realised that I could not go on. I was very tired and the summit was so far. I had to gather all my strength to keep on moving. Only when I used the upper insurance and began to come up again, my balance returned.
It was past 2 p.m. I went on under the crest with snow cornices falling on me. I was excited. ‘My’ summit was not far from me. There was an ice triangle, which, blocked most of the sky to the left. The slope on the right, was not steep but I met a seemingly impossible obstacle – the crest, which joined the central and the north summits of Meru Peak. I came under the crest as high as possible. There was only one and half or two metres of overhanging snow above my head, separating me from the exit on the crest. The last ice screw was about 4 m lower. If I fell I would fly down for 8-9 m. So I tried to consolidate my position with the ice axes: I dug the ice near the head and caught on the ice on the level of the waist. Suddenly the support collapsed and I hardly had time to catch on something with the ice axe. It must be said that the sensation was very unpleasant. I realised that I would not get through this snow carnice directly. I decided to do a traverse along the cornice, straight under its snow cap. It was my chance. I was ready to do any acrobatics at this height to go to the other side of the crest. The sense of despair was suppressed by the instinct of self-preservation.
I began the traversing to the right very carefully. I did not realise where my feet stood. The ice axes held on the emptiness. I looked like a rope-walker trying to keep my balance. I managed to screw in an ice screw into the hard snow with my left hand on the level of the waist. I realized that it would not bear my own weight. But it was a good hand hold for the left hand. My stretching right hand tried to screw up the second ice screw. I managed to do it. But the insurance rope would not click into the ice screw because it was of no use and dangerous. Now I managed to make a breach in the snow cornice with the ice axe in my right hand. Then I threw my hand with the ice axe on the other side of the cornice and pushed myself very carefully. I felt that the ice axe was holding me. I tucked my legs under one and drew myself up. All the weight was on the right hand. I drew the left hand in so that I could lean on both hands. Then I felt that I held on to something and crossed on the other side.
Freedom! I couldn’t believe it yet. The passing of half the wall took me less mental and physical efforts than the overcoming this crest. I saw that the summit of Meru Central was quite near. The North summit of Meru fell to my side with almost 100 m rocky wall. There was a relatively simple crest from it towards Meru Central . I was 100-150 m from the summit of Meru Central.
I tried to find safe ice in the hard neve on the crest with the ice axe. I found something like ice, screwed in the ice screw there, clicked the carabine with sling to it and fixed the rope. All this would be needed for my descent My rucksack was somewhere on the other side, at about 10-15 m from here. I had no wish to go down to take it. Excited, I slowly began moving toward the Meru Central. The average angle of steepness was about 45 degrees. I felt the mystery breath of the summit.
The crampons held me splendidly on the hard snow, leaving on it, a hardly visible track. All my attention was concentrated on my feet. I could not afford to stumble. The snow slope impressed me greatly. I saw how it smoothly was going away and then falling down steeply to the right toward the glacier Kirti bamak. The glacier, around the massif Meru from the south, was clearly visible from here.
Having a rest, I tried to restore the breath. I had a sore throat. Even a swallowing movement terribly hurt. So as not to lose balance while resting, I sat on my knees and took a firm stand with front teeth of crampons in the hard neve, which steeply fell down. I drove ice axes into snow as deep as possible I was very tired and stopped every 30-40 steps. When I stopped, I didn’t want to move. I had to summon all my strength to go on.
I stopped once more on my knees. At last I got up. There was nothing above my head here. I realised that I was standing on the Central summit of massif Meru. I was at the top of (Shark Fin).
The altimeter showed 6310 m. It was 13.40 p.m., IST. My strength was restored again because the work had been done and it would not be necessary to go up again.
I turned round and looked about. There were mountains and only mountains – up to the horizon. I would have liked to stop this moment, to stamp this magic world around me in my memory forever. I was sure that such minutes of victory and joy seldom happened to men. I looked at the other side of valley where the grand summit of Thalay Sagar rose. There at that moment the sky was covered with dark gray clouds. Far below the ABC of an expedition was visible as well. It was situated on a large snow plateau before the mountain. I saw the ‘fan’ of paths in the snow. Apparently somebody had stormed his ‘own’ summit.
Also I saw that the ‘window’ of favourable weather would close very soon as clouds began to run toward the summit of Meru from the south. It meant that it was time to go down. The time of contact with the mountain was swiftly over. It would be dangerous to stay here anymore.
I knew that life, especially the life of a solo climber depended upon unforeseen circumstances and was full of risk. It was impossible to calculate everything. I believed that my instinct as a mountaineer would never let me down. So I began the descent toward the rope, which was fastened before on the piton immediately. The opposite end of the rope disappeared in the deep dark of the central face of Meru. It would be a long and dangerous descent.
For the last time, again and again, I feasted my eyes on the country, which spread out below and disappeared into the distance.
I returned to bivouac at 5600 m at about 7 p.m. I was worn out and wished only to drink something, lie down and not move. I had eaten only one small bar of chocolate and some sips of water during the whole day, because I had no time to stop.
Now I needed to cook a meal and water, but I got into the portaledge and fell asleep. I slept for about 20 minutes. It was enough to restore a little strength so that I could cook. At last I had enough to drink after a meal. I subsided into a peaceful slumber. My sleep was the sleep of the man whose dream had come true.
All of next day, 23 September, I collected equipment off the wall and late in the evening came down to the glacier. Igor met me. He took a part of the equipment and we reached ABC in 40 minutes.
Tomorrow, we would go down to BC. The expedition was over. Gods had helped me climb to the summit of Meru (Shark’s Fin) and come back alive.
Area: Indian Himalaya, Garhwal. Central Meru Peak or Shark’s Fin (6310 m). First solo ascent. New Route: ‘Shangri La’. Difficulty: ED (5C/6A,A1/A2,M5,750). Total length: 2000 m. Ascent Dates: 17-22 September 2001. The expedition was awarded GHM’s Piolet d’Or award for the outstanding climb in the year 2001.