Interview: Alexander Gukov Talks Latok I, Responds to Livingstone
Gukov reached out to Rock and Ice wanting to set the record straight on what he felt were some unfair criticisms levied against him and Glazunov.
The trickle of information about the goings-on on Latok I from the past month continues. After catching up with Tom Livingstone about his, Aleš Česen and Luka Stražar’s historic second ascent of the mountain—and the first from the north side—we now have in interview with Alexander Gukov about his and Sergey Glazunov’s climb of the North Ridge. Though their ascent looks to have ended shy of Latok I’s true summit, they became the first pair to top out the North Ridge proper before their climb turned tragic when Glazunov fell to his death.
Gukov reached out to Rock and Ice wanting to set the record straight on what he felt were some unfair criticisms levied against him and Glazunov by Livingstone during the British climber’s interview.
In addition to addressing those points, he talks about seeing relics from the 1978 expedition and what actually happened when Glazunov disappeared.
Q&A with Alexander Gukov
How are you recovering after your ordeal on Latok?
I am getting better every day, thank you. The doctors were worried they would need to cut off parts of a few toes, but they did a great job in the end surgical intervention is not necessary. I hope to be at home next week.
Before things went wrong, how was the climb? Did you guys feel good and strong the whole way?
Everything was going as we had planned. We planned to get to the summit or even up and down in ten days. We were thinking that a couple of days without food on the descent would be no problem if we had to.
After three days we had half a day of rest to dry our stuff, and we decided to leave some equipment and food there (two days worth). So we continued on with five days worth of food. We thought that on our descent we’d be able to pick it up. It was good plan and we reached a big snow serac at 6,800 meters four days after that.
We were feeling quite good and strong. We received a weather forecast every day from Sergey’s wife, but I remembered from my experience last year that the real weather could be different.
Of course we were tired during the last days, but it was not critical. We realized our force and endurance to push to the summit on July 23.
How would you describe your and Sergey’s style of climbing?
We hadn’t climbed together before. He was climbing most of the time with his brother in fast and light alpine style. And they were really fast, like no one else in Russia.
I was the old school climber. I’ve climbed in the past in expedition style often. But I love the way they climbed; I prefer the alpine-style philosophy.
On the boat—I am a seaman—I was running every day 10 kilometers on the treadmill to be ready. But then I was told by one of my friends that I had to run 20 kilometers instead of 10 every day to be ready to climb with Sergey and his brother. And so I started to do it. Finally I ran my first marathon— 42.195 kilometers—after I got off the boat. And I spent a lot of time in the mountains of course preparing for this expedition.
Tom Livingstone thinks you pushed it too far both last year and this year. What’s your response to that?
[Gukov’s answer references information from an interview Tom Livingstone gave to Rock and Ice last week, a relevant part of which is copied here: “Alexander had an epic on the north ridge last year. He spent 15 days on the mountain, and his two partners suffered heavily. One lost a few toes, the other all his toes and some parts of his fingers. His final comment in a report says, ‘I’m confident I have a good chance next time.’ This agitated us (my Slovenian friends and I). He seemed to pay little regard for the epic and danger he’d just been through. One of his friends at BC this year even admitted, ‘He doesn’t know when to turn around.’ He also reinforced the rumors of ‘Russian style’—success at all costs, whatever the price.”]
First I’d like to say that the comment in the American Alpine Journal article is a typical lost-in-translation situation: I did not have a time to write a new report in English, so I sent my report in Russian. Nobody sent it back to me for correction after translation, and I didn’t know if it was published or not. I found it on the web a few days before departure to Pakistan this year.
Those sentences in the AAJ (“In the end, Anton lost a few toes. Valery eventually recovered from pneumonia but lost all his toes and parts of some of his fingers. Though we didn’t summit, I’m confident I have a good chance next time, inshallah”) were taken from two different paragraphs of the original Russian article!
The first part of the quote from the original report (translated from Russian): “In the end, Anton lost a few toes. Valery eventually recovered from pneumonia but lost all his toes and parts of some of his fingers.”
The second part of the quote from the original report, including a missing sentence from the AAJ (in bold): “It was a good try. I don’t remember returning home as exhausted as this after a climb in a long ago. Though we didn’t get to the summit, I think we have a good chance next time. Inshalla.”
So the statement from Tom that I “pay little regard for the epic and danger,” based on the AAJ article is not true.
I also don’t know what he was talking about with our friends or who told him that I “don’t know when to turn around.” Believe me: If I didn’t know when to turn around, I wouldn’t be alive and talking with you now after 22 years of mountaineering.
About “‘Russian style’—success at all costs, whatever the price”— it sounds like just another crazy rumor about Russia, like bears walking in the street and drinking beer with us here, or something like that.
[ALSO READ TOM LIVINGSTONE’S FULL INTERVIEW ON LATOK I]
You told me you wanted to respond to Livingstone’s other comments about your climb this year as well. What else would you like to say?
[The next two paragraphs are more of Livingstone’s interview for reference: “When Alexander and Sergey were climbing this year and were high on the mountain, they repeatedly said they were making ambitious and unrealistic “summit attempts.” They were far below the summit (about 6,800m), and despite attempts on previous days, they again and again (for perhaps three days in a row) pushed for the top. We watched them through the binoculars at base camp, nervous at their risky attitude.
“Their pace from the previous nine days was incredibly slow. Their pace was unlikely to have dramatically improved on summit attempts, and they were climbing very small distances each day. They were in bad weather, at high altitude, and very fatigued after many days without much food. Their perseverance was impressive, but we believe they should have retreated days ago. Indeed, when bad weather appeared, they still made a summit attempt. We simply shook our heads, and thought they were pushing too far, at too high an altitude, for too long. We thought they were going to have an epic. Even their Russian friends at BC were concerned, and organized a helicopter to check them out and attempted to throw supplies to them.”]
When going to climb a route like the North ridge of Latok I, you should understand the danger and difficulties that could occur on it. We understood that it would be difficult. That’s why initially we planned to go three of us together, with Sergey’s brother Yevgeny, but at the last moment he cancelled his trip and we had to climb as a two only.
We understood that it would be more difficult and dangerous to climb in a pair, but a big team of five was not a good choice either. Progress is slower than in pair and I remembered from last year that it was quite difficult to find bivy spots even for three. Though this year the situation changed and we were able to find bivy spots with no problems
Tom wrote that “they repeatedly said they were making ambitious and unrealistic ‘summit attempts.’”Really? We said this? To whom? Can anybody remind me where or when Sergey or I said this? We had two days of good weather coming up according to the forecast and left on our summit push July 22, but the upper part of the route was the most technically difficult so we continued July 23 and finished that day.
Not to mention that it would have been impossible to see any summit push progress from Base Camp through binoculars.
Tom wrote, “Their pace from the previous nine days was incredibly slow.”
On our fifth day, we made it to the height where they [Livingstone, Aleš Česen and Luka Stražar] turned from the North Ridge to the col [between Latok I and II]. Last year during our ascent, Valera Shamalo suggested we go by that same line, but we decided not. I think the elevation at this spot was 6,300 meters, not 6,500 meters. Everybody knows that from this point on the North Ridge just gets harder and harder up there.
So yes, we moved slower than Tom’s team; but we had harder terrain and we had accounted for it in our time schedule.
Tom wrote that “despite attempts on previous days, they again and again (for perhaps three days in a row) pushed for the top.”
We didn’t make attempts push for the summit three days in a row. We were sitting two days—July 20 and 21— at a good bivy at 6,800 meters waiting for good weather so that we could see what the best way through the rock wall would be. Visibility was very poor, so we stayed and relaxed and waited for a final push.
When you repeatedly say in each interview “I’m not jealous,” it sounds a lot like jealousy. All Tom’s statements about how we didn’t reach the top of the North Ridge are based on nothing. [Tom Livingstone—after reading Rock and Ice’s article saying that Gukov and Glazunov did in fact reach the top of the North Ridge—told us that he believed that the pair had completed it.] I respect other climbers and don’t ask them to prove things with videos, or panorama photos from the top, GPS data, etc. I’m sure Tom has it, the weather was perfect.
We had poor visibility the last hours of our summit push, but I have video showing Sergey reaching what he believes to be the summit and what I think is the top of North Ridge. Also, an easy calculation proves that if we started at 2:40 pm from 6,980 meters (our last recorded GPS point) and kept going up and finished at 7:00 pm, we would have had a lot of time to complete the ridge.
The rescue influenced a lot to people’s minds and everybody remembered me half dead after the helicopters dropped me down to Base Camp. But don’t forget that I spent seven days and six nights sitting up there without food, and the last two days under heavy snow without any contact withanyone, all alone. Sergey and I both were in quite good shape before the accident. If I hadn’t been in good shape before the accident, I would not have survived those next days.
By the way—the whole way up, we discovered evidence of the first American expedition: very old pitons, slings and ice screws from Michael Kennedy, Jim Donini, Jeff and George Lowe. It gave us a warm feeling, inspiration and motivation that we were going the right way. We found a very old blue haul bag with some stuff at 6,650 meters—it was the last sign we came across of their progress.
It was very, very sad to hear that Jeff Lowe died. When I was sitting and waiting for help after Sergey fell, Anna Piunova sent me a message from Jeff Lowe. He said, “I am sure Alexander will be safely lifted off.” He really gave me more power to survive.
How do you know that you didn’t push too far? Did you guys always feel you were in control?
Who knows better than us when to retreat? We had trained hard. We quite realistically assessed the conditions all the time. Moreover, as the older one, I felt responsibility for Sergey and looked after him all the time. But he was ok, he was in even better condition than me. We were tired, but not exhausted.
I do not remember what we were doing on July 24 and where our bivy was that day. I lost some memories as a result of the shock of Sergey’s death and seven days and six nights all alone waiting on the ledge for rescue team.
So you think you and Sergey reached the top of the North Ridge, but not the true summit, correct? Can you talk a little bit more about this?
We were discussing this in the tent after our final push. I think we made a mistake to push for the summit without any bivy equipment. If we took it, we could have seen in the morning whether it was summit or just the top of the North Ridge.
Sergey was the leader on the summit push. He climbed up to a small col between a massive rock and and snow mushroom [see feature image at top of article]. I was standing ten meters below him. I started to shoot video and began asking him where we were climbing. He answered that he was on the summit but there was no way to belay me up because there was just vertical snow. He said he didn’t see anything higher except for a few snow mushrooms around him. We decided it was the summit and started to descend.
So why do I doubt that we did it? I did not reach the summit myself, but I don’t remember climbing along the pre-summit crest. Either way, we did not stand on the top together and enjoy the summit like I dreamed.
From the Base Camp it looks like it is almost flat along the crest from the top of the North Ridge to the summit; you feel like you should be going up and down over the terrain at that point. But from the other side, in reality, everything was not like it looked from base.
The final rocky wall from our bivy at 6,800 meters was 250 meters high. We fixed two pitches with ropes on July 22. As I already said, we were at 6,980 meters at 2:40 pm according to the GPS and we kept climbing till 7:00 pm. Top of the North ridge should be somewhere around 7,050 meters, and the summit is just under 7,150 meters.
So Sergey were sure that it was the summit and that he had been there on the top. But I think it was the top of North Ridge only.
What is it about the North Ridge on Latok that drew you back again? What do you love about the mountain?
Latok I’s North ridge is a route that many alpinists dreamed to climb during the last 40 years. I had been there, and this line fascinated me. It’s really beautiful and a perfect ridge to climb, but not friendly and always changing.
Can you explain what you think happened to Sergey? What went wrong on the rappel?
I do not know what really happened—I didn’t see it. We descended most of the pitches using abalakov threads with 6-millimeter cord. Sergey was rappelling first, I second. He rappelled, made the anchor and the abalakov thread and waited for me.
On this pitch there was a snow-and-ice slope that turned into rocky wall. Sergey rappelled to the rocks on one rope while I secured him on the other. I did not see him after he went over the edge between the snow slope and the rocks.
I was at the anchor waiting for his “on-belay/off-belay” command but it never came.
It was not clear whether the ropes were free or not. I thought maybe we simply could not hear each other because of the edge created by the rocks.
I waited some time, rearranged the ropes for rappelling on twin ropes, and started rappelling. When I reached the edge I saw that Sergey was off the ropes and nowhere in sight.
There was one poorly hammered piton and both ropes were secured to it. Nothing else. I have my own thoughts about what could have happened, but I don’t know really.
When Sergey fell did you try to keep descending by yourself or was it impossible? Did you not have enough gear?
I had no gear at all. We did not have too much gear between us to begin with. I had all the bivy equipment and Sergey had all the gear to arrange the next belay.
To rappel to where Sergey disappeared, I had left an ice screw with the abalakov thread on the upper anchors just in case. There was also one piton on the lower anchors and two ropes. That’s all the climbing gear I had.
Looking 1,700 meters down, I understood that I had almost no chance to descend even if I could get that upper ice screw. But neither did I want to pull the rope and leave myself hanging on one piton only.
What were the days when you were alone and stranded like? Did you think you would make it out alive?
I was sitting and waiting for the rescue team seven days and six nights on a tiny ledge of a couple of stones. I was in a tent without poles.
What was I thinking during these days? Maybe I’ll tell you about this next time, but not now. This is a different story, and it still hurts.
Are you finished with Latok now that you guys did the North Ridge? Or will you return for any reason?
Yes, I am finished. We completed the North Ridge, for sure. And I promised to someone while sitting up there that I would never try it again.
Jeff Lowe, Best Alpinist of a Generation, Dies at 67
New Information Suggests Russians Finished North Ridge of Latok I
Latok I Finally Climbed from the North!
No Summit No Cry: Michael Kennedy on the 1978 American Expedition to Latok I
[UPDATE: SAVED!] Russian Climber Alexander Gukov in Peril on Latok I, Rescue Operation in the Works