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Russian-Kazakhstani mountaineer who made ascents of 10 of the 14 eight-thousander peaks without supplemental oxygen.
Anatoli Boukreev was born in Korkino, Russia to a poor family.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1979, and simultaneously completing a coaching program for cross-country skiing, he developed an interest in mountain climbing.
He relocated to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan so that he could have access to the Tian Shan mountain range and in 1985 he became a part of the Kazakhstani mountaineering team, allowing him to work as a commercial guide throughout the ‘90s.
In 1990 Boukreev was invited by an American climber to guide several clients to the summit of Denali in Alaska, famed for its hidden crevasses and unpredictably cold weather.
The expedition was a success but something within Boukreev remained unsatisfied.
Before he returned to the Soviet Union he wanted to complete a speed climb of the formidable mountain.
Boukreev’s solo speed ascent took just 10.5 hours from the base to the summit – a feat that was typically taking acclimated climbers four days.
Climbing Magazine featured his climb in their annual issue, with Denali Park rangers describing it as completely “unreal”.
Both this climb and ones that followed over the next few years helped Boukreev gain recognition as a skilled climber and experienced mountaineering guide.
Known as the Savage Mountain, due to its steep pyramidal relief, Boukreev undertook an incredibly tough climb.
Expending too much energy placing fixed lines along a narrow, steep portion earlier that day, but faced with a team that wanted to push to the summit on the same afternoon rather than returning to their tents to sleep, he agreed to continue on.
However, he later wrote that there was little sense of achievement at the top as they still had to safely make it down.
Wrung dry of energy, and thus relying heavily on previous mountaineering experiences, Boukreev slowly made his way down the steep rock face with a crampon that kept falling off of his boot, at one point having to use his ice axe to avoid falling into the abyss.
Eventually arriving at the tents at the highest elevation camp, he found out that his teammates Peter Metzger and Reinmar Joswig had both fallen to their death during the descent.
Seemingly unphased by the perils of this climb, in 1994 he climbed both Makalu and Makalu II – adding to his repertoire of eight-thousanders.
The following year he summited Mount Everest via the North Ridge route, set a speed record on Dhaulagiri and returned to Manaslu – climbing regularly without the aid of oxygen.
His extensive experience made him the perfect choice as the lead climbing guide for Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness expedition in May 1996.
It was just one of several attempting to summit Everest on the same day but not long after summiting on May 10, a blizzard swept across the mountain, stranding all climbers above the South Col. Eight climbers from three different expeditions perished overnight.
Boukreev rescued three climbers stranded in the disaster above 8.000 metres, and all six of the climbing clients on the Mountain Madness expedition survived the ordeal. It is widely hailed as one of the most amazing rescues in mountaineering history, having been performed single-handedly and without oxygen, by someone who has only recently returned from Everest’s summit.
However, author Jon Krakauer was far more critical in his book, Into Thin Air, and argued that Boukreev’s decision to attempt the summit without supplementary oxygen was foolish and potentially hazardous for his clients.
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Before flying back to the USA after these horrific events, Boukreev travelled to nearby Lhotse (another eight-thousander) for a solo ascent, hoping that in the process of climbing he may find inner clarity and peace in regards to what had transpired on Everest.
For the next couple of years he continued climbing Himalayan peaks and setting new speed records, and in 1997 Anatoli Boukreev was awarded the Sowles Memorial Award by the American Alpine Club.
The award honoured him as someone that has “distinguished themselves, with unselfish devotion at personal risk or sacrifice of a major objective, in going to the assistance of fellow climbers imperilled in the mountains”.
Just three weeks after receiving the award, Boukreev began his attempt to climb the south face of Annapurna I with fellow climber Simone Moro and cinematographer Dimitri Sobolev who would document their attempt.
However, on Christmas Day of 1997 around noon, whilst fixing ropes in a couloir at 6,000 metres, Boukreev and Moro were swept down the mountain by an avalanche tumbling from the heights of Annapurna’s Western Wall.
Although Moro somehow stayed near the top of the avalanche debris and managed to dig himself out after a few minutes, both Boukreev and Sobolev disappeared beneath car-sized blocks of ice.
Several attempts were made to reach the avalanche site by helicopter but search teams were prevented from reaching Camp I for over a week due to weather conditions and admitted there were no longer hopes of finding him alive.
Eerily enough, Boukreev had actually dreamt in detail of dying in an avalanche early that year, with the only thing missing being the name of the mountain.
When one of his companions tried to convince him to take a different path to avoid his likely fate, Boukreev simply replied, “Mountains are my life and my work. It is too late for me to take up another road.”
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