Occasionally, we see double-headers in Himalaya. A times, an 8000er will get a new route. But a double header made up of two new routes is unheard of.
Luck can create success but not excellence. Repeated success is not a sign of repeated luck - but of mastery. Valery Babanov has been called "Master of Alpinism" for good reason.
We have covered close to a thousand expeditions in 2008. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.
And yet, there are those who linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2008.
Today number 5: Valery Babanov
Born in Omsk (Siberia) Valery Babanov had to fight to climb. In a land where tough climbers abound but money is scarce, he had no option but to become outstanding. Babanov didn't join the huge official expeditions, he went alone, for new routes on the big North Faces of the Alps, and to the Himalayas.
Valery is the only climber in history to be awarded the International Piolet dOr twice in a row: In 2002, for his solo, first climb on Meru Central, in Garwhal Himalaya; and in 2003 - together with Yuri Koshelenko - for the first ascent on Nuptse East.
He has since continued his ascent into the mountaineering Hall of Fame, latest last year on the highly technical (and tall) Jannu West Pillar (7710m), in a two-man team with Sergey Kofanov. The climb - a new line in pure alpine style - won the new version of the Piolet d'Or; the St. Vincent Award.
The climb got an ExWeb special mention; it won second place in the Russian Golden Ice Axe award - and pancakes with caviar for Sergey. "Whats next?" Valery pondered ExWeb's question. "Maybe new routes on 8000+ m peaks," he said.
Babanov switched for 8000ers with a bang. He didn't want the standard routes, but the next step - technically complex, new routes snaking above the death zone. The new project kicked off this spring when Valery and Nikolay Totmjanin made an attempt to climb Dhaulagiri west face.
The west face and its exposed west pillar in particular, belong to the few formidable faces in Himalaya which exceed more than 4000 meters in size and elevation. Climbing such faces in alpine style is called a one way ticket for the difficulty of return via the ascent route.
Nobody hade ever even attempted this 7 km route on Dhaulagiri before. The lower part (3700 - 5500 m) is steep rock, leading to the pillar connecting with the NW summit ridge at 7000 meters. Only the section between 7600 meters and summit had been climbed before, by a Japanese expedition in 1981.
The very dangerous and demanding ascent went in light, alpine style, without fixed ropes or pre-established camps - but was aborted after two days and 1200 meters of elevation. Technical difficulties, bad weather and dangerous seracs forced the climbers to abort at 4900 meters, by then way off their initial route.
A few months later, Valery showed up in Pakistan with Victor Afanasiev and a satellite team of Valery Shamalo, Pavel Chochia, Girard Antoine Francois and Elisabeth Revol. While all targeted the same peaks with Babanov as leader; Valery and Victor would separate from their mates in base camps to attempt new routes.
The team went for a triple: Broad peak 8047m, Gasherbrum I (Hidden peak) 8068m and Gasherbrum-II 8035m.
Technical climber Victor Afanasiev had climbed K2 and 7000 meter summits in Pamir. Moreover, his motivation made Babanov sure that they could pull it off. The four satellite climbers were invited as clients to help fund Valery's and Victor's challenge.
The team reached Broad Peak during an ongoing drama. Vlado Plulik had gone missing and Babanov's team searched for him in bad weather on their acclimatization climb on the normal route. Plulik was never found and Antoine Girard had to be airlifted out with suspected appendicitis.
10 days later the team split up; the three remaining clients headed up the normal route while Valery and Victor ventured for the 100 meter ice serac overhang in the middle of Broad Peak's western wall. Dodging falling rock and ice from the moving glacier above, carrying 20 kg each on their backs the two followed a route they had scouted with binoculars from BC.
In spite of bad weather the climbers were at 7000 meters already four days later; reaching above the vertical ice serac. Success seemed near at 7500 meters the next day, with only 300 meters left on a steep slope leading to a col and then a ridge to the top.
That's when weather suddenly turned for the worse. Heavy snowfall dumped on the wall transforming the mountaineers' camp, sitting just below the huge 45 degree snow slope, into a trap. The first avalanche hit at 03.00 am followed by others every 15-20 minutes. The climbers got dressed in a hurry, ready to leave their tent with each new hit.
They dig a cave in the morning and waited for the snow to settle. July 15 arrived with blue skies but slopes heavily loaded with the fresh snow. The climbers knew they had to leave as soon as possible, via the fastest exit available. Cutting the snow field in waist deep snow; a highly dangerous traverse of the slope to the classical route lay ahead as their only choice.
Valery and Victor managed to reach camp 3 at 7100 meters and took a rest day. The got company the next day; several people had reached the camp site via the normal route; among them 3 members of their own expedition.
On July 17 finally, starting at 04.00 am in the morning, a final push through deep snow took the climbers to the col at 7800 meters, over the ridge to the summit at 7.30 pm. Midnight, back in C3, it was over at last. Or was it.
"We still had to climb two other eight thousanders," Babanov recalled. G1 and G2; two days walk from BP BC.
The team reached the joint BC on July 23. Following a streak of bad weather other expeditions were packing up and by the time Valery and Victor hit the south-west face of Gasherbrum I on July 25th, the peak was empty. "One could say it was a perfect ascent except for the rock," concluded Valery.
At 6900 meters, on the second night a rock shot right through the climber's tent; hitting the sleeping Viktor in the head. The climbers spent the remains of the night trying to stop the bleeding.
In normal cases, such an injury would have aborted the expedition. We thought our climb was over, but couldn't go down our ascent route," Babanov said. The two mountaineers wrapped the wound, put on helmets and resumed the climb by daybreak up the new route to the ridge from where a safe descent would be possible.
On arrival at the ridge, Victor however decided he wanted the summit after all. "I can only add that my partner showed outstanding courage by his decision to continue the ascent," commented Valery. "He had only to say: 'I have to go back' and I would have stopped the ascent, immediately and without hesitation."
Their buddies Valery Shamalo, Pavel Chochia and Elizabeth Revol in addition made an unscheduled show at 7800 meters, and the 5 climbers summited GI together at 3 pm, August 1.
With that Valery Babanov and Viltor Afanasiev had opened two new routes in alpine style within only 3 weeks; the clients finally went off to Gasherbrum 2 and a hat-trick accomplished in less than a month.
"Each of us took with us something that we he had acquired there. But only we know what that is," Valery Babanov wrapped his team's grand climb.
Previous in the countdown:
6. Red flares for freedom, Alberto Peruffo
7. The 14th knight - Ivan Vallejo
8. Wintering the Big White - Tara's 2007-2008 Arctic Voyage
North Pole explorers Matvey Shparo and Boris Smolin
B.A.S.E. jumper Valery Rozov
Everest seniors Yuichiro Miura and Min Bahadur Sherchan
James Burwick and the Anasazi girl
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