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Jannu East Wall Interviews: Dmitry Golovchenko and Eliza Kubarska

Interviews about one of the wildest climbs in recent memory.

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The Russian alpinists Sergey Nilov and Dmitry Golovchenko spent 19 days on Jannu, in Nepal, in March and April. After two weeks climbing a new route on the east face, they reached the south ridge, where they abandoned any designs on summiting—getting down would be challenge enough. The route they had pioneered up the east face—-which they subsequently named Unfinished Sympathy—was too dicy to descend, and instead they had to find their way down the southwest side of the mountain via the rarely climbed French Route.

The filmmaker and expedition organizer Eliza Kubarska aided them as they descended over the next week, their supplies dwindling by the day. It is an incredible story—and lucky for us, it will be told in Kubarska’s forthcoming film about Jannu, The Wall of Shadows.

Federico Bernardi, special to Rock and Ice, caught up with Golovchenko and Kubarska to hear their two different experiences—one on the mountain, one below helping the Russian climbers figure out how to escape it. Read the interviews below!

Read a full recap on Golovchenko and Nilov’s ascent here

Q&A with Dmitry Golovchenko

Interview by Federico Bernardi

Dmitry, how did you and Sergey connect with Marcin Tomaszewski and Eliza Kubarska for this Jannu expedition ?

A couple of years ago, we were impressed by the Jannu East face view and we decided that it could be a nice objective for us. In one of the interviews after our Thalay Sagar climb, I mentioned that Jannu East was our back-up goal and Eliza read it. Later, she wrote me and asked if we still want to climb Jannu and we answered, ‘Yes indeed!’

Our regular third teammate, Dmitry Grigoriev, took a break from climbing because of family, so we were searching for candidates. Later Eliza found Marcin. He has very good experience and we were happy to have such a great climber with us.

Sergey Nilov on a steep pitch at 7,200 meters on March 25. Photo: Dmitry Golovchenko.

Sergey and you are not “professional” alpinists—what do you do for your primary jobs? How did you two meet and become close climbing partners? Was it all through the Demchenko Alpine Club ?

I am a statistician and work in the office five days per week. Sergey is a rope access worker. We both came to the Demchenko Alpine Club at more or less the same time, in 2001. I think I was in the mountains without Sergey only two or three times—every other time we were together and climbed as a team.

Tell me about your decision to go ahead with your climb up the East Wall even after Marcin bailed. Was it a hard decision for you and Sergey ? Did you immediately know you would have to avoid the headwall at 6,900 meters to summit without a third member?

For us it was difficult. The whole plan was built around a team of three people. So when we knew there would only be two of us, we had to replan everything. We had back-up objectives just in case, so one of the options was to switch to one of those. Sergey and I went to sleep without discussing any of it, and in the morning both of us woke up with the same decision: at least to try Jannu.

You had very bad weather and bad conditions during the first days. Did you have scary moments with avalanches or the climbing itself during the ascent?

I would say the weather was actually okay on this climb. It wasn’t perfect, but at the same time you could live with it. Scary moments: both of us had quite big falls, Sergey as a leader and me on a traverse. Not too scary, but definitely unpleasant.

We had a number of pitches with very delicate climbing on vertical snow… Fortunately Sergey is brilliant at that.

When you decided not to push to the summit was it a disappointing moment for you both?

It was our decision and we accepted it. And the story later showed it was the only right decision. But thinking about it now, I have a small feeling of disappointment that we didn’t reach the summit…

Sergey Nilov on one of the last pitches before the south ridge on March 28. Photo: Dmitry Golovchenko.

What do you think about the support you received from Eliza Kubarska and the rest of the base camp team ? Did you have a difficult time finding the route during the descent?  I noticed that you went down through the bergschrund near the Throne Circus in a variant to the French route—is that correct ?

The support was very helpful! I can not say how important it was for us. We were waiting for Eliza’s radio communications every day. They helped guide us through the descent. Also just knowing that they were close to us and standing on horizontal ground—it was very important and very helpful.

And yes, for our second bivouac on the descent we had were in a crevasse on Throne glacier. It was a very comfortable night!

Did you run out of food or gas, and if yes when did that occur ? How was your physical condition during the final days?

We had enough gas and we even brought almost one full canister down. We were out of tea quite soon after the start. So on the last couple of days we drank boiled water. As for food, for the last couple of days, all we ate was just some walnuts and super-spicy dried yak meat.

We were very tired these last days. I was dreaming about warm drinks with multivitamins. And when we met them on the glacier, I got it from our rescue team. It was amazing!

What are your feelings after this “unsuccessful” climb? I think you did something exceptional, even without summiting: You opened a major climb up a virgin wall, and downclimbed a rarely repeated route. Still, I know that in Russia some purists are criticizing your climb a little… What do you think about it ?

In Russia it is very simple: You have to climb to the summit, as mountaineering is about reaching the top of the mountain. And this simplicity is good.

Many things were unexpectedly different to what was planned, but we finished the east face route and we managed to descend successfully, so both of us are satisfied and we do not plan to go back and finish anything. Both of us agree that we are finished with Jannu.

Dmitry Golovchenko takes a selfie above 7,300 meters on Jannu’s South Ridge, on March 8. Photo: Dmitry Golovchenko.

Q&A with Eliza Kubarska

Interview by Federico Bernardi

Eliza,  you’re working on The Wall of Shadows, a film project of yours for the past two years. You visited Jannu twice before the expedition with Marcin, Sergey and Dmitry. How did you decide to ask Marcin and the two Russians to join your filmmaking team?

The first time I visited the Kanchenjunga area was in Autumn 2016. I went alone to do some research. The locals told me that there was a holy mountain in the area, and its peak is home to gods and demons. That peak is Khumbakarna, also known as Jannu.

The idea for the film The Wall of Shadows was to tell a story of an encounter between Sherpas and climbers at the foot of the sacred mountain. Unfortunately, the most holy mountain was also one of the most difficult—I knew that it would not be easy to find climbers who could climb it.

Sometime later, I started research on the Internet and unexpectedly I found an interview with Dmitry and Sergey who had received a Piolet d’Or for Thalay Sagar in 2017. They said that their original plan was to climb Jannu, but they were unable to raise funds for the expedition. I went to Moscow to meet them. From the very beginning, I had very good feelings about them, and I could see them as film protagonists. They seemed very interesting to me as a team.

My film project had already gained the interest of Arte/Zdf TV, plus support from German, Polish and Swiss film funds, so I was sure we would be able to help with the expedition’s costs. Sergey and Dmitry needed a third climber for their team, so I suggested Marcin Tomaszewski, one of the best Polish alpinists, whom I knew personally.

How did you organize the filming tasks? Who else was on the team ? What was the whole experience like, aside from the long days of waiting after the climbers started?

It is not easy to assemble a good film crew to shoot in the Himalayas in winter. But, somehow, I convinced the best filmmakers to join our project.

From the very beginning, I had with me my producer Monika Braid, who ultimately was also responsible for organizing the whole expedition. She did an amazing job and, I’m telling you, now she can organize the most complicated expedition anywhere. Also, Piotr Rosołowski, the director of photography and a film director himself, was involved in the project from the start. Keith Partridge, a renowned filmmaker from the U.K. (cinematographer on Touching the Void) accepted my invitation because he loved the project. We also scored a brave sound-recordist, Zosia Moruś, who at the end of the expedition played a key role.

We had plenty of work throughout the expedition. It is not only a film focused on alpinists; we aimed to film it from the Sherpas’ point of view. There was lots of filming to be done with our Sherpa protagonists: Ngada Sherpa, his wife Jomdoe, and his son Dawa. We also had to struggle with the weather and with some equipment malfunctioning (like a faulty generator).

Golovchenko finding a path on the descent on March 31. Photo: Sergey Nilov.

After the first 10 days of the climb, when it was clear that Dmitry and Sergey needed to descend the other side, how difficult was it for you to organize things?

From the moment Dmitry and Sergey started climbing, we were in regular radio contact. Everyday at 6, 7 or 8.00 p.m. we were waiting for their call. Whenever they didn’t call at 6, Zosia and I  climbed the highest hill near base camp to be sure that at 7 pm.m we would be in range. When Marcin was in base camp he was also with us.

When the Russians went through the icefall, Dmitry told me that they probably would not be able to come back the same way. The weather wasn’t perfect.

From base camp you could see a lot of wind in the upper part of the mountain. The climbers were prepared for 14 days of action. They reached the south ridge after 13 days.

A week before, I already knew that, whatever they decided, whether they descended this side or the southwest side, it would be difficult. I decided to wait in the base camp as long as I was still in radio range with them, although my team had left already. When they reached the ridge and went to the other side of the mountain, we lost radio contact. I started a race through the mountains to the other valley to pick up the radio signal again. I was with Pasang Sherpa. The only person who was in touch with climbers during that short time, through the GPS tracker, was Sasha Golovchenko, Dmitry’s wife. She was sending me their position.

In Tseram I met my film crew again. Zosia decided to join me. We went through Sele La pass, which tops out at 4,700 meters. It was still covered with a heavy snow, visibility was very bad. A day and a half after leaving base camp, Pasang and I reached Ghunsa. The next morning, we made radio contact with Dima [Dmitry] again. We arrived at the Yamatari glacier.

The day before we met the climbers, Zosia and I set a camp at 4,500 meters. There was a storm that night. In the morning, we were planning to go further and Pasang was on his way from the village. We were at the top of Yamatari and we understood that we must find a way down to the glacier. The main glacier eroded into a deep U-shaped valley with nearly vertical sides made from loose stones. In some places, the steep edge was running down more than 100 meters. We had no climbing gear and Zosia is not a climber. I couldn’t find easy and safe pass.

I felt terribly stupid. I started to cry in anger. I suddenly noticed a notch in the ridge. There was a section where the cliff was only a few meters above the glacier. It was easy to go through. In the end there was Zosia, Pasang, another Sherpa-porter from Ghunsa and myself. We had one tent and a lot of food. We put up a new, single-tent base camp at an altitude of 4,900 meters.

(Left to right) Dmitry Golovchenko, Sergey Nilov, Eliza Kubarska and Zosia Moruś on the Yamatari Glacier on April 3. Photo: Courtesy of Dmitry Golovchenko.

Your role was pivotal in bringing Dmitry and Sergey to safety. How do you feel about all of it? What is your relationship with them like?

When Dmitry and Sergey started their descent, we agreed to touch base every three hours, starting at 6 a.m. I was talking to Dmitry through the radio for 19 days, everyday, and towards the end every three hours. We were giving them the weather forecast and instructions regarding the descent, which I got at first from my husband and mountaineer David Kaszlikowski and later from the Polish topography expert Grzegorz Głazek. Also other people were helping from all over the world. Zosia was always with me. We were recording radio communications between me and the climbers.

We didn’t know each other very well before our film-climbing expedition. I don’t know how to explain it, but when you hear someone’s voice for such a long time, he becomes very close to you. During that time, these two Russians were the most important people to me. Although they are some of the best alpinists in the world, it was me who invited them for this expedition, and I felt responsible for them.

Back home a media circus was waiting for you. How has that been? What are the next steps to complete the movie?

It’s not so bad. Not many people in Poland heard about our adventure!

About the film: now we start the long post-production process. I just delivered the hard drives with material to the post-production house. Next steps will be picture and sound synchronization, then we must work on translation—we have many languages in the film! Later, I will be editing in Berlin, which will take at least four full months. The film will be ready at the beginning of 2020.