Annapurna III: The great challenge of 20th century mountaineering has finally been taken up | United States


The Annapurna (8,091 meters), the first mountain over 8,000 meters high to have been conquered by man – Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal made the first ascent in 1950 – hid other Annapurnas in its shadow , none of which is as severe and complex as the southeast ridge of Annapurna III (7,555 meters). This fall, it was finally climbed. Marked as the great goal of mountaineering in the 20th century, Annapurna III had been visited by some of the company’s most famous names, who have made their drip attempts over the past 40 years. Rather than just a route someone would have to climb in the indefinite future, it represented something like a half-finished canvas that no shoddy work should be allowed to smear; climber Conrad Anker wrote an article almost begging whoever manages to overcome the southeast ridge to do it in the right style, cleanly, and by the fairest means possible.

Previous attempts followed Anker’s request. In 1981, three renowned British mountaineers – Nick Colton, Steve Bell and Tim Leach – reached a height of 6500 meters on this ridge. They knew how to recognize their limits and had the means to give up their attempt. They had paved the way for others, but the difficulties they faced were so unbearable that their minds were looking down even though their eyes were fixed in the opposite direction. Interviewed by Ed Douglas in 2012 for Mountaineer magazine, the three climbers admitted that after this experience they had never been able to climb with such commitment again.

It was a magnificent season in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal: many adventurous teams and very favorable conditions due to the impact of climate change led to several impressive first climbs, including the northeast pillar of the Tengkangpoche (6,487 meters) and the virgin north face of Chamlang (7,319 meters). But none has aroused as much admiration as the conquest of Annapurna III by Ukrainian climbers Nikita Balabanov, Mikhail Fomin and Viacheslav Polezhaiko.

(lr) Viacheslav Polezhaiko, Nikita Balabanov and Mikhail Fomin

In 2019, the trio learned the strategy necessary to calculate the line, where great climbing figures Hansjörg Auer and David Lama (who were killed in an avalanche in 2019 alongside Jess Roskelley) were foiled in 2016, and a British expedition led by Nick Bullock was turned back in 2010. None of these expeditions managed to exceed the height reached in 1981. The Ukrainian expedition told Explorers website that they had relied on their reserves of patience to succeed in their feat on one of the harshest faces of the Himalayas.

Alpine style: strength, technique and autonomy

Nick Bullock wrote in 2010: “It only took a few days to realize that the southeast ridge was an incredibly dangerous, if not suicidal, goal for an Alpine-style climb.” Alpine style is in line with Conrad Anker’s pleas: it consists of leaving base camp as if you were climbing close to home, that is to say with everything you need to climb and sleep in the mountains if necessary. Of course, one goal is not the same as another: it is still common for large expeditions in the eight thousand (mountains over 8,000 kilometers) to employ sherpas to transport loads, set up camps. altitude and setting lines for climbers, but the Alpine style avoids all that and requires climbers to be as strong as they are technical and, most importantly, self-sufficient.

Each carrying 40 kilograms of gear on the Annapurna III, the Ukrainian trio calculated it would take them 12 days to climb the mountain and back down, knowing they had no idea where they would descend as they retraced their steps along the ascension line were impossible due to its enormous technical difficulty. In the end, they spent 18 days on the mountain, eating an energy bar and a half a day for the last six days.

Balabanov, Fomin and Polezhaiko named the route Patience. They lost an average of 13 kilos between them and suffered only slight frostbite to the fingers, the price of a blind descent on the southern slope of the mountain while being shaken by fierce gusts of wind. To the point of collapsing and with no chance of returning to their base camp, they were transported to Kathmandu by helicopter.

Non-professionals and non-sponsored

As they told several media outlets upon their safe return, the decision-making process in situations of extreme risk or indecision was the key to their persistence. At such times, the odd number helped simplify the debate: when two opposing opinions emerged at times of extreme stress, the voice of the third team member decided to balance. This is how they were able to make their way through terrifying areas of loose snow, expanses of corroded rock that crumbled like dough under their boots, boulders that threatened to fall like bombs on them. two fixing the first rope and gusts of wind reaching 70 kilometers per hour.

None of the three are professional climbers and they have no sponsorship contracts, only receiving some form of assistance from time to time. Compared to the eight thousand trade expeditions taking the usual routes, one can only conclude that higher does not mean more difficult, only higher, and above all something that was once called mountaineering has now changed. . They felt the attraction of climbing an eight mile by an unprecedented route: technical climbing and extreme altitude. Now that they have taken on the greatest challenge of the 20th century in the 21st century, perhaps they can meet the great challenge of the next century.