Boukreev Speed Climb: Can you outrun Father Alexander?

Posted: Jan 18, 2008 04:18 pm EST

(MountEverest.net) "There's another clown here, this Russian amateur, he's climbing the Lhotse Wall in sneakers," reported the Swedish mountaineer to his home media.

The year was 1996; and the mountaineer described was Kazakh Anatoli Boukreev, scaling Everest using his signature speed climbing shoes with custom-made soccer spikes.

Less than a decade ago, Kazakh climbers were enigmatic legends to a few initiated mountaineers but unknown to most mainstream climbers in the west.

Star mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev had just begun to make headlines; more for "appearing" in Krakauer's Into thin Air than for his climbing though. His own The Climb was sadly released only shortly before his 1997 death on Christmas day at Annapurna's south face.

These days, thanks to internet and also ExplorersWeb's international crew of reporters and contributors; climbers such as Denis Urubko, Maxut Zhumayev and Vassiliy Pivtsov are household names in the mountaineering community - and even Father Alexander is familiar to most.

Bedtime stories

You might have heard tales about proud Kazakh horsemen. It is believed that Kazakh nomads were the first in the world to domesticate horses - in order to cover the vast steppes spanning between the majestic Tien Shan Mountains and the Caspian Sea. There's plenty of wilderness still; a mere 6 people per km2 enjoy the varied landscape of this the ninth largest country in the world.

Squeezed on all sides by Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China; Kazakhs have fought off Mongols - and more recently Russian dictators at a massive cost: between 1926-1939, the Kazakh population declined by 22%, due to starvation, violence and mass emigration brought on by Soviet communists.

It's easy to imagine that when growing up; Boukreev and Urubko's bedtime stories differed wildly from the tales passed down at the dinner table of their fellow western mountaineers.

Rewriting history

Man is a cruel beast. The rich have always suppressed the poor and the Kazakhs, like the Polish, the Koreans, the Taiwanese and even Basque climbers have long been ignored by the climbing establishment in spite of their superior climbing skills.

The Swedish climber mentioned above got a nice write-up in Krakauer's book; Boukreev however did not in spite of being one of the very few to actually try to help up there in camp 4 that terrible night in 1996.

Krakauer corrected his story in the second edition of his book - but Boukreev was not alone. Taiwanese Ming-Ho Gau, another 1996 Everest survivor, has been fighting for years against the American Outside mag reporter. I havent given any kind of interview to Jon Krakauer, and the way he has portrayed Taiwanese climbers as incompetent and inexperienced is absolutely false, Makalu told reporters in 2006.

It was popular to trash non-English speaking climbers back then. Heroic tales of rescues often involved Russians, Koreans and others who probably would not defend themselves. Today, this attitude is still all too visible in many publishing houses, alpine clubs, events such as the Piolet d'Or and latest in the case of Oscar Cadiach and Everest second step.

Watch out though - the close history of hardship has bred the trademark Kazakh courage and resilience on the hills - and also off them.

Kazakhstan is a free nation today; a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Economist (The World in 2008 issue) ranks the country number 8 in terms of GDP growth (9.2%); compared to 2,5% average worldwide. They have minerals, a booming space industry - and oil.

Amangeldy Boukreev Speed Climb

The shoes Boukreev used on Everest were customized for the remarkable speed climbs he made in his home country; the friendly competitions that would come to foster some of the world's finest mountaineers.

In 1999, two years after his death, Boukreev's friends and mountaineering partners Rinat Khaibulin and Nikolay Chervonenko kicked off the first Speed Climbing Competition in his memory.

Given that Anatoli was the winner of Amangelgy Peak speed climbs since the 1990s, his friends decided that putting up a dedicated competition in his name there would be the best commemoration of the stellar Kazakhstani climber.

Andrey Puchinin, one of the best speed climbers in Kazakhstan today and regular participant of the Amangeldy competition, says about the event, Anatoly is still the holder of the best result - but it is difficult to compare with the current as in Anatolis time the start of the climb was situated lower (near Chimbulak, 2,260 m) and the distance to the summit was 2.5 kms longer."

The first winner of the 1999 Amangeldy-Boukreev race was Denis Urubko. His time - 1h. 15m. 42 s. - has still to be beaten.

Father Alexander

Father Alexander participated already in the 1989 Amangeldy Speed Climb. Funny enough, back then he was just a 'civilian', simply a kid - Alexander Zyryanov - not yet a priest and placing number 10 in the race; won by Anatoli.

The 1989 competition was part of the preparation and selection for the first Kazakhstani expedition to Dhaulagiri in 1991. Alexander Zyryanov was not a candidate - he went on to find a calling higher than Everest and has been the Kazakh climbers' special patron ever since.

They SMS him; bring his parish mag to the summits, and help to upkeep (the upper parts) of his church. He in turn keeps a close watch on them; holding special masses on summit pushes and proposing appropriate saints to pray to.

The 2007 results

In the latest edition of the Amangeldy Boukreev Speed Climb held last month (December 23), most of the strongest Kazakh and Kyrgyz speed climbers participated either as runners or as parts of the safety team. The total of 41 participants included 4 girls.

The weather was quite bad, a cold blizzard swept most of the competition - but that was alright as the race provided perhaps the strongest rescue team in the world!

It would be hard to assemble such a skilled support bunch for regular climbers anywhere else. Competitors/safety included names such as Nikolay Chervonenko, Evgeny Shutov (currently on Makalu), Semyon Dvornichenko, Mikhail Danechkin, Svetlana Sharipova (summited Dhaulagiri last year and the first Kazakh lady to summit an 8000+ peak without O2), Ekaterina Chervonenko (Nikolay Chervonenko's daughter and 2007 women's category winner at 1h. 48m. 43s.)

Denis Urubko won as usual; with 1h.19m. 44s he was 4 minutes short of his own 1999 record. Urubko's Himalayan climbing partner Sergey Samoilov was part of the safety team. SSA member Sayat Satybaldiev, 22, came in second at 1h. 21m. 40s.

K2 Kazakh team members Andrey Puchinin (winner of 2006 Elbrus Classic route speed climb competition) came in 3rd; Alexander Sofrygin came in 8th (1h.31m.07s) and Aggei Skopin came in number 9 (1h.31m.27s).

Father Alexander came in 32nd, with 2h.48m.16s.

A very special Christmas day

Two days later, on December 25, at the 10th anniversary of Anatoli's death, a memorial bell was installed at 3000 meters about 30 km east of Alma-Ata; on the summit of Kotyrbulak peak near the mountain village where Anatoli lived and trained.

Anatoli's friends Alexander Valitov and Baglan Zhunusov were key. Baglan is President of the Federation of Alpinism and Rock Climbing in Kazakhstan and was leader of the Kazakh K2 NWR expedition last year.

Old friends and climbing partners of Boukreev included Sergey Samoilov (currently on Makalu) and Nikolay Chervonenko (co-organizer for the Boukreev Speed Climb and photographer of the memorial climb).

"It was a very clean and sunny day, but also very windy and cold," Andrey Verkhovod reported to ExplorersWeb.

"This did not stop the guys. They installed not only the Bell but also two memorial tablets, one from the Federation of Alpinism and another - from the Russian Orthodox Church, to which Anatoli belonged."

The ceremony ended by Father Alexander holding an Orthodox memorial for the great Kazakhstani climber Anatoli Boukreev.

Speed climb competition details courtesy of Andrey Puchinin and Andrey Verkhovod; ExWeb's correspondent in Kazakhstan.

Official notes for the Alpiniada* and Open Championship Kazakhstan Speed Climb on Amangeldy Peak (3,970m):

1) Aims and Tasks: Speed Climb and Alpiniada are conducted in memory of outstanding Kazakhstani climber Anatoli Boukreev, perished on December 25, 1997 on Annapurna, Nepal. As well as to further build up alpinism in Kazakhstan and to attract Kazakhstani people to mountaineering sports.

2) Place and Date: Alpiniada and Speed Climb are conducted in Malo-Almatinskoe Valley on 23 December. Alpinist base Tuyuk-Su, 2 kms above Chimbulak ski resort.

3) Organizers and Support: Sport Committee of Defense Ministry of Kazakhstan - Central Sport Club of Kazakhstan Army (CSKA). Center for Mountain Training for Rescue Guides.

4) Participants: All interested persons are welcome.

5) Alpiniada and Speed Climb schedule:

5.00 - 9.00: Start for Alpiniada participants, from Tuyuk-Su alpinist base.
9.30 - 9.50: Registration of Speed Climb participants
10.00: Start of Speed Climb.
16.00: Ceremony of winners announcement. Held at Perished Alpinists Memorial (near Tuyuk-Su alpinist base).

6) Competition rules: Speed climbers are allowed to participate after permission of competition judges. Speed climbers and Alpiniada participants should be equipped in accordance with mountain weather conditions. In case of disputed points [during speed climb], the final decision is taken by competition judges.

7) Speed climb route: start at Alpinists Memorial (~2,500 msl) -- Mynzhilki Dumb (~3000msl) -- Alpingrad (~3,500 msl) Amangeldys summit bastion (~30 meters below the true Amangeldy Peak summit, 3,999 msl).

8) Winners and Rewards: The winners are decided by the best times. Winners are rewarded by official diplomas and prizes allocated by sponsors of the competition.

Issued and approved by - Major-general Pavel Novikov, Chairman of Sport Committee of Ministry of Defense of Kazakhstan, Head of Central Sport Club of Kazakhstan Army (CSKA).

*Alpiniada is the common name for popular climbing events in Kazakhstan/CIS countries, when mass climbing is organized to celebrate various events or anniversaries, or just regular mass climbs to popular nearby summits.

In Almaty, most popular regular Alpiniadas are made to Komsomol Peak (4,376), Abai Peak (4,010), and Molodezhnaya Peak (4,147). They are yearly and attended by hundreds of people.

By tradition, safety support for Alpiniadas is provided by CSKA climbers and Center of Mountain Training for Rescue Guides and 051 Emergency Rescue Service of Almaty (Kazakhstan's 911).


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Father Alexander in the 2006 Anatoli Boukreev Speed Climb Competition. (Click to enlarge).
Climber on the upper part of Amangeldy peak in the December 2007 competition. Image by Father Alexander (click to enlarge).
Denis Urubko served as a member of the Rescue and Support team in 2006, and won again in 2007. Image by Father Alexander (click to enlarge).
Svetlana Sharipova summited Dhaulagiri last year and was the first Kazakh lady to summit an 8000+ peak without O2. She came in 2nd (womens') in 2007. Image by Father Alexander (click to enlarge).
Sergey Samoilov was part of the safety team in December 2007. Image by Father Alexander (click to enlarge).
Ekaterina Chervonenko, women's category 2006 and 2007 winner. Image by Father Alexander.
Amangeldy peak second fom left. The final part is quite steep. All mountains in this range seen are 4000+ meters. Image by Andrey Verkhovod. (Click to enlarge).
On Chistmas Day 2007, at the 10th anniversary of Anatoli's death, Father Alexander and a group of Kazakh mountaineers climbed to the summit of Kotyrbulak peak near the mountain village where Anatoli lived. Image by Nikolay Chervonenko (click to enlarge).
It was a very clean and sunny day, but also very windy and cold. Father Alexander held an Orthodox memorial for the great Kazakh climber. Image by Nikolay Chervonenko (click to enlarge).
A memorial bell was installed at 3000 meters. Image by Nikolay Chervonenko (click to enlarge).
The climbers also brought up two memorial tablets, one from the Federation of Alpinism and another from the Russian Orthodox Church, to which Anatoli belonged. Image by Nikolay Chervonenko (click to enlarge).
Memorial party heading up to Kotyrbulak peak (seen between trees) where Anatoli did most of his training when home. Image by Nikolay Chervonenko (click to enlarge).
The Kazakh climbing priest Father Alexander is patron for the Kazakh mountaineers. All images from the memorial climb and ceremony courtesy of Nikolay Chervonenko.