"Above the cloud" by Anatoli Boukreev is an exceptional document in many ways. One of the most interesting aspect of it is the lucid consideration about the difference between the Soviet and the American's way of life.
When Boukreev visited the USA for the first time, in 1990, the USSR still existed, and it was one of the two countries ruling the world. Boukreev's perspective was somehow periferical, not his homeland Korkino nor his elective residence Almaty were to compare with Moskow or Leningrad, and he didn't belong to the Soviet elite. That made more acute his feeling of the difference, the undertanding of its deep roots in the concept of 'human'. So his consideration of it is not superficial and he can't - or doesn't want to - get to an easy verdict.
Facing for the first time the US' reality, Boukreev gets impressed by two aspects: everything has a price - so can but also must be paied - and everything is available to everybody.
'Superfluous' had no place in the Soviet system. Or at least in the Soviet representation of reality. For sure not in Boukreev's daily world. As far as food is concerned, we are now used to find everything at anytime, we almost lost the awarness of the material process bringing food to our bursting at the seams supermarkets. As well as the appealing package, quantity and variety are now perceived as normal, obvious, due. In a concept that keeps separated offert and need, availability of goods and possibility to acquire them.
My passion for sports has led to its becoming my profession. I live about forty km from Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the midrange of the Zaalysky Ala Tau Mountains. When I am not climbing, I work as the coach of the skiing program at a collective farm in the village of Mountain Gardener. The pay is miserable, $100 a month, but my work allows me to maintain a schedule of training." p. 49
|Kazakh Young Pioneers|
In the USSR mountaineering - and in general sport - wasn't considered an individual leisure activity but a collective effort toward the human perfection. Also it had a central role in the patriotic affirmation against the 'West' and 'Capitalism'. As a consequence "Though in the West solo climbing is considered a high level of accomplishment, in the USSR such climbs are prohibited by Soviet mountaineering rules." p. 51 Individual ambition was never the point, not the aim nor the motivation. And of course mountaineering expeditions were directly organised and supported by the State, while "Bussinessmen from many companies in Europe and America understand the advertising benefits of sponsoring competitions and professional athletes." p. 50 Boukreev was much more an individualist than the ideal Soviet athlete: "I find it humiliating to rely on others for what happens in my life." p. 43 he writes, thinking both of need of money and Soviet bureaucracy. At the same time he will always pay his debt to the Soviet school of mountaineering, and will painfully miss its camaraderie. In a poem dated 1995, after his first summit of Everest, he writes:
"Next to me, climbing with me were a troop of men
their past lives marching.
Lives cut short by love that was true." and he feels a part of this collective battle to better the human limit, to strive to perfection. He's always happy when he can share the route with his old Soviet mates, especially after the drama of the Soviet Union's implosion.
Suddenly there is no option. The USA system is the only one. Individualism, consumerism, commercialisation, the cruel struggle for life, money not merit. It's a brutal awakening. In 1996 Boukreev will taste the bitter of the new situation when forced to work for a commercial expedition on mount Everst. Loyal to the Soviet humanism he will give it all to save the lives of Fisher's clients but months later, meeting the husband of the Japanese woman he couldn't help, he can't avoid to feel wrong. He had given priority to the Mountain Madness clients and now this looks monstruous: "Has Capitalism changed me so much?" he wonders. The mountaineering community absolved him, moreover acknowledged his courage and abnegation by a prestigious award and he often writes he didn't feel guilty. He felt the whole situation was wrong and there was no confortable moral short cut.
During his first visit to the USA Boukreev climbed mount McKinley - or better Denali - twice, the second one solo in 10 h and 30: the fastest ascent in the history of the mountain. The story of this record climb is one of my favourite part of the book. With no support by his American friends, against their advice in fact, without the Soviet autorisation and with a very few money in his pocket, Boukreev ostinately pursued his goal.
That was Anatoli Boukreev: a 'white crow' in the Soviet Union but 'our white crow' as Soviet mountaineers used to say.