Alexey Nikiforov in Tibet, 2001. His friends describe the Russian as self-denying, modest, laconic, but always ready to help. He risked his life to save Chantal Mauduit on K2 in 1992, and remained silent afterwards. Alexey Nikiforov died on Everest soon after this picture was taken. Image courtesy of RussianClimb (click to enlarge).
A K2 side-story and a prayer for the Kazakh climbers

Posted: Aug 16, 2005 09:23 am EDT
There is yet no news on the Kazakh climbers who left for the summit of K2 at midnight on the 15th of August. The climbing community all over the world is increasingly concerned. However, team leader Maxut reported on his sat-phones batteries being low probably the guys are just unable to communicate their position.

They may be in a higher camp, but even if they had to search for refuge by digging a snow cave, they wouldnt be the first. Others have survived a night in similar circumstances, on the upper slopes of the savage mountain. <cutoff>

Lena Laletina, journalist with RussianClimb, has just translated a remarkable story by Ukrainian Gennady Kopeyka for us. Its one of those dark episodes of K2, showing that reality is sometimes slightly different from the epic stories we read in climbing magazines - or at least some details are lost. It is proof as well, that there are many mountain heroes who remain unknown and silent.

<b>A summit in the dark</b>

In 1992, Russian Vladimir Balyberdin invited Gennady Kopeyka to climb K2. They set camp on the Shoulder, at 7900 m. The weather was stable - they had 2-3 days to get to the summit and back. In the morning the pair set off from their camp at 8 a.m. (their departure being delayed due to strong wind) and reached the summit at 9 pm, in absolute darkness.

On descent they lost sight of each other. Gennady found the tent at 7900 at 3 a.m., but Balyberdin had to dig a cave for the night. By dawn he started again and finally made it to the tent at 7 a.m.

<b>We will wait for you</b>

When they were prepared to go further down, they saw three climbers heading up: Russian Alexey Nikiforov, French Chantal Mauduit and an American climber. Vladimir and Gennady decided to stay in their tent waiting for them, and suggested the trio start out as early as possible.

Alexey and the American started at 6 a.m., but Chantal didnt leave the tent before 8 am. She wanted to climb "in light style", which included taking along no warm clothes. She went fast, and met the men at 8200, near the "bottle neck". The American would eventually turn back. Chantal reached the summit at 8:30 p.m. It was dark already, very cold and high winds were blowing.

<b>He just couldn't leave her there</b>

Alexey summited half an hour later than Chantal. Luckily, he had seen her on his way up - she was going down, extremely tired. Chantal stopped for the night in the small snow cave, dug by Vladimir Balyberdin two days back. She had no down jacket. Clearly, It wasn't enough to survive a cold night at such altitude (8600). When Alexey found her, she was about "absolutely finished" - she wouldn't respond to Alexeys words.

The Russian managed to bring her back to consciousness. He could have well kept on going down but Alexey just couldn't leave her there. In spite of being at the limit himself, he fought for Chantal's life all night long: He shook her and made her move to prevent frostbite. On the next morning, by 8:00 am, they descended together back to the tent at 7900m. Chantal had been climbing without goggles, and thus she was snowblind.

<b>Back at home - silence</b>

Later, some other climbers got to the spot and helped Chantal down to BC.

Back at home, details on Chantal Mauduit's epic descent were mentioned, but not the entire story: Alexey remained silent, and nobody knew of the huge risk he had taken, staying and helping Chantal when he could have gone down.

His friends describe the Russian as self-denying, modest, laconic, but always ready to help. Alexey Nikiforov died on Everest in 2001.

<b>Ed Viesturs' side of the story</b>

<b><i>Ed. Note:</b></i> Chantals rescue was reported by those climbers who helped her and Alexey down from the tent at 7900m: Scott Fischer and Ed Viesturs. The Americans got the SOS call as they were in C3, getting ready for the summit bid, on August 3rd, 1992. Viesturs and Fischer started the climb toward her in a whiteout storm that was priming the steeps for an avalanche, is reported on Viesturs website.

When small clumps of snow began to fall on him, Viesturs knew what was coming and began digging a hole, where he hunkered as the slide hit. He held as the snow roared over and around him, until Fischer, who was above on the rope, shot past in the torrent. Viesturs was dragged out of his burrow, but somehow managed to arrest their fall with his ice ax. Then, despite the still-worsening conditions, they finished the climb to Mauduit and her partner and spent three days getting them back to Base Camp.

Both Viesturs and Fischer would launch another bid and summited K2 on August 16th, 1992.

Chantal Mauduit would lead a remarkable climbing career, until she perished on Dhaulagiri. K2 was her first 8000er.

<b>A prayer for the Kazakhs</b>

Back to the Kazakhs currently on K2, their friends in Alma-Ata are of course worried, but otherwise they trust in the young guns' skills, their endurance and their sense of team-work. Eross, the Hungarian climber who turned back at 8200m, reported on three climbers still on the attempt. Thus, a fourth team member might be waiting for them in a higher camp.

Father Alexander, a friend of the climbers at home, keeps on praying to St. Nikolay, patron of the travelers. Its all we can do now pray and wait for the good news, a reader from Alma Ata told ExplorersWeb.

<i>French Chantal Mauduit summited K2 without supplementary O2 in 1992. It was her first 8000er. In her expedition report, she stated she summited at 5:00pm though, not at 8:30 pm.

After the Swiss team that she had joined abandoned their attempt, Maudit hooked up with an international expedition that included Scott Fischer, Ed Viesturs, and Dan Mazur. Despite the epic descent, Maudit had started her high- altitude career with a bang - and went on to climb five more 8000-meter peaks without oxygen, including Lhotse and Manaslu. She later perished on Dhaulagiri in 1998.

The Kazakh climbers left camp 4 Sunday midnight. Hungarian Eross Zsolt, who joined the summit push two hours after the others, turned back after ten hours climbing at 8200m due to atrocious weather conditions. Also both the Polish climbers Anna and Darek turned around due to very deep snow and high wind.

The young guns continued up, trodding in snow that was up to their chests, facing winds over 100 km/h. They spent five hours to cover a very small distance, reported the Hungarians. The climbers are, in spite of their young age, very experienced: Leading the climb, and the Kazakh army team of 4 is Maxut Zhumayev: Not even 30 years old, Maxut has climbed eight 8000ers (including Kangchenjunga and Makalus West Pillar) - all of them without supplementary O2. Vassiliy Pivtsov is Maxut's regular climbing buddy with pretty much the same track record.

The two other Kazakhs are Damir Molgachev, who climbed Hidden Peak, G II, and Kangchenjunga between 2001 and 2002, and Serguey Brodsky who also did Kangchenjunga with the guys.

The Kazakh's are as usual coached by Ervand Iljinsky. The climbers are part of a national team of Kazakhstan climbers with the intent to summit all fourteen 8,000m peaks in time to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union, coming up in December 2006.</i>

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