10.08.2016

Mountain: On Boukreev's Track 5

Denali
See also part 1, 2, 3 and 4.
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"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. 
Risultati immagini per anatolij bukreev ussr
Anatoli Boukreev
"That marked amazed me." he writes "Though it was early spring in Alaska, counters in the Anchorage store were crammed and bending under the weight of fresh fruits and vegetables. Such a variety of produce could not be found in Almaty's Green Bazaar even during the peak summer growing season. As well as providing ordinary food for the local people, the store had a whole section with special products for use by outdoorsmen. Michael purchased a mountain of supplies; everything we needed was to be found in that one store." p. 40 and again "I was sure we had about three times as much food as we could eat. Therefore, I saw no reason to limit consumption at mealtime. [...] Each item was in a beautiful, coloured package." p. 41
'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. 
Risultati immagini per anatolij bukreev ussr
Anatoli Boukreev
Quantity and an inviting outward look were for Boukreev the most salient side of the American market, but coming to mountaineering equipment he was more interested in quality"The best in every category can be purchased in any mountaineering store in America." he writes "My experiences have made it clear that the technical support provided for Soviet mountaineers is far from good." p. 42 Few months later: "I found out that there are specially designed sports shoes [...] When I visited American stores, my eyes devoured the racks of special equipment that is available to anyone. In the USSR even top-caliber athletes can only find work boots for training." p. 50 It sounded like a paradox"In America I observed a phenomenon that was new to me. Masses of people running to keep fit.  [...] ejoying hiking or rock climbing. Few of those people were training to be professional athletes. Daily sports activity is used to relieve the stress of work or as a way to socialise or commune with nature. [...] in those countries it is possible to earn enough money to finance the luxury of active leisure.
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
Risultati immagini per green bazaar almaty ussr
Almaty
In the USSR everybody was entitled to aim high, merit was the key, not money or your social condition. In the poor small village of Korkino, where the coal mine made for everybody's living, miners' sons and daughters used to get the same high standard education as in Moskow, art and sport were free for everybody. In the secluded Zaalysky Ala Tau Mountains the workers of a collective farm could attend a free skiing program. Boukreev himself had got the chance to live his dream because of his personal merit first of all as a model student and then as talented mountaineer. His family was extremely modest, his home town absolutely marginal but this had had no role in his development and career. At the opposite in the USA money was key, way more important than merit or talent. Working on Mount McKinley as the assistent of a commercial expedition's guide, Boukreev notes that "The clients did not express much eagerness to carry loads, and because they were not properly trained, the necessary technical work was beyond their ability. Guaranteed safety and reliable support, each of them had paid big money to Fantasy Ridge Mountain Guides so they could feel like real mountaineers on a complicated route." p. 41-42
Risultati immagini per green bazaar almaty ussr
Almaty
By the other hand in the USA masses of people were able and eager to enjoy "the luxury of active leisure" while in the USSR only talented people were involved in sport as profesionals. This fact was no doubt related with the scarcity of resources in the Soviet system but also with a different way of life. Considering the Fantasy Ridge Mountain Guides' clients "Saying good-bye" he writes "I could see they were immersed in the problems of their normal lives. [...] Surviving here is very different from in Russia. Here people face different problems; you sense the struggle in every encounter. Even the most basic requirement of life have a price. Work earns you the money to pay for things; and that is the only way to live a full life. This constant struggle make things more interesting for the individual." p. 42 And again in another place: "I don't believe that the United States is free of problems. Everything has a price. Survival depends on the individual's initiative; there no one is promising you anything. There is some cruelty in a system that makes no allowances for human weakness, but at the same time, the people are forced to be stronger." p. 49 Sum up he admits that "At home all our attempts at humanism have gotten us to the place where no one remember how to work hard and there is no motivation to strive for a better life. [...] Average people should be inspired by the opportunities in their lives, but they are not." p. 49 In the USA sport is a mass activity for paying amateurs, in the USSR it's a free, State supported activity for few selected profesionals.
Risultati immagini per almaty ussr 1970
Kazakh Young Pioneers
Boukreev seems to apreciate the strong individual motivation moving people in the USA especially when compared to the apathy of  the Soviet citizens, used to get for garated that their basic needs will be anyway assured. Still "There is some cruelty in a system that makes no allowances for human weakness" and Soviet humanism looks a desirable aim, probably pursued by wrong means. And Boukreev is aware that's a complex question. 
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
Risultati immagini per almaty ussr 1970Suddenly 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. 
Risultati immagini per Denali black and white
Denali
"Determined to fight on till the end" he writes "I went to the airport this morning armed with the issue of Climbing magazine that contained Beth Wald's article about my Elbrus victory. Loren, a nice woman who controls the office, had some synpathy for the ambition of a penniless Russian; she agreed to give me a free seat on one of the air lights to the glacier tomorrow morning." p. 43 "At park headquarters, Bill Pierson registered me for the "Ration" [joke with Russian explained earlier in the book: basicly Boukreev was eating a lot] West Rib, No Prpblem expedition. The rengers asked me what I would do alone with no radio if I fell into a crevasse. "No problem" I said "I can sing". p. 44 "My plan was simple: to climb continously until I reached the summit." p. 45...and yes: "I had done it. In less than one day I had completed a route that woul normally have taken five camps." p. 47
That was Anatoli Boukreev: a 'white crow'  in the Soviet Union but 'our white crow' as Soviet mountaineers used to say.

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