It was June 1974. The Cold War was entering a phase of detente where there was a relaxation of strained relations through verbal communication. The USSR reached out to the world by holding an international mountaineering gathering to climb Lenin Peak 7134m located between the former Soviet states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is part of the rarely seen but incredibly beautiful Pamirs.
It was the first major American expedition allowed in the Soviet Union. Apparently, the purpose of the meet was mend relations with Cold War rivals, give young foreign mountaineers exposure to new environment and promote the exchange of mountaineering skills and experiences between the countries. Cynics however, saw it as a means for the USSR to showcase the majesty of their “undiscovered” mountains and the superior skills and strength of the host climbers.
19 Americans attended the meet as part of the 1974 American Pamirs / USSR Expedition. It was not a particularly difficult mountain to climb, but the intention of the Soviets would soon be obvious. The Americans only had one woman in the team initially. Molly Higgins was a last-minute addition after the Americans found out that the Soviets were sending an all-women team of 8. Some of the other teams from other countries had no women at all. But American climber Arlene Blum later wrote that the American team was not short of female applicants. She applied to join but was rejected. Nevertheless, she managed to join the expedition as part of the Swiss team. She tried to mingle in the American tent, but was completely ignored. As it turned out, the Soviets were friendlier to her than her fellow Americans.
Almost 200 climbers and supporting members from various countries met at base camp. Though the men outnumbered the women, one gorgeous blonde Russian stood out. Often seen barking orders to the men, she was the leader of the Soviet women’s team. Unlike the Americans, she was very approachable and keen on showing her credentials.
Master of Sport is the highest honour awarded to Soviet sporting legends and Shatayeva was only 32. Through her friendly introductions, she was proudly “displaying her medal” to the international mountaineering fraternity at base camp. New York Times Moscow correspondent Christopher Wren described her: “A striking blonde with high cheekbones and cat-like blue eyes, she had come there to lead a team of the Soviet Union’s best women climbers in an assault on Lenin Peak.”
Apart from virtual “medals” from the Soviets, the disparity in wealth of the nations at base camp was evident in the equipment used by the climbing teams. The Americans sported the latest high tech gear while the Russians had to button their tents and wear cumbersome space-worthy suits and boots. Molly Higgins candidly asked if she could climb with the Russian women. She was flatly rejected. The Americans soon found out that the Russian women’s team did not just plan to climb the mountain. They intended to climb the mountain via the northeast ridge and then descend via the northwest ridge towards Razdelnaya Peak. It was a feat which had not been accomplished by Russian men, let alone women.
For the uninitiated, most mountaineering expeditions would climb and descend via the same route. As intermediate camps have been established on the way up, they would serve as life-saving shelters for exhausted climbers on the way down. Doing a crossover means that the climbers would have to carry their shelters and supplies for the descent with them during the assault on the summit. On the way down, they had to set up new camps with what energy they had left.
In fact, Shatayeva had plans to camp on the exposed summit before descending. On 26 July 1974 when the teams were still doing their practice and acclimatisation climbs, an earthquake hit the Pamirs, triggering a massive avalanche on Lenin Peak. Deputy leader of the American team Robert Craig and Jon Gary Ullin, were buried. They managed to dig Robert Craig out, but Ullin had died. Another avalanche hit, resulting in Craig and his two rescuers being swept away and stranded. The Soviets sent a powerful helicopter, the Mi-26 to drop supplies to the climbers before conditions improved and they found their way out. Having proven its mettle, the Mi-26 would be employed in numerous mountaineering expeditions and rescues worldwide.
On 30 July, the first teams set off for the summit. Both American women in the American team successfully summitted Lenin Peak, Molly Higgins on 3 August and Marty Hoey on 4 August. Both of them climbed via the easier and safer Razdelnaya route. The Soviet women would traverse the steep, icy north face.
On 3 August, the Soviet women’s team was in position for a summit bid. Shatayeva deliberately called a rest day so that they would not share the summit with the men’s team which would also have summitted the next day. Earlier, she heard over the radio that base camp commander Vitaly Abalakov had instructed the men to provide some assistance to the women on their descent. Shatayeva could have deliberately set her team back by one day to avoid that. Her husband Vladimir Shatayev wrote, “The possibility cannot be ruled out that it was precisely for this reason that the women were dragging out the climb, trying to break loose from the guardianship (of the men).” It was a decision that would cost Shatayeva and her team their lives.
On 4 August, when a major storm was forecast, base camp commander Vitaly Abalakov (also Master of Sport) ordered all climbers to descend. The men’s team had already summited and descended in time. Close to their first objective, the Russian women either ignored or didn’t receive Abalakov’s orders. They were seen walking in a line just 400 feet below the summit. Scottish climber Richard Alan North met them on his descent. He joked with the women that he nearly died. The women’s reply? “We are strong. We are women.”
The third American woman (not on the American team) Arlene Blum was then in position for summit attempt on 5 August. A kind Soviet climber who knew that they were given trashy radio sets came to her tent to warn her of the impending storm. As the weather was still good, Blum went ahead but gave up the moment the storm hit. A blizzard was soon upon her, but she managed to descend safely with guidance from fellow American Jed Williamson.
Some other climbers, including the Americans, did not receive the orders to descend. That’s because for security reasons, their radio sets were impounded by Soviet customs and they had to made do with weak Soviet sets. On 5 August, the Russian women’s team radioed from the summit that visibility was NIL and they could not find the route to descend. Base camp commander radioed back for them to stay put and descend first thing in the morning, aborting the mission and taking the familiar route down.
As the storm hit, the Americans slept in their tents fully dressed. The Soviet tents, made of canvas with no zippers and supported by toggle ropes and wooden poles, stood no chance against the wind. On 6 August, the Soviet women tried to descend but only managed a few hundred feet. Shatayeva reported whiteout and strong winds. Their tents and equipment had all been lost to the 90mph winds. One by one, the women died. In the beginning, Shatayeva was still strong enough to descend by herself, but she did not have the heart to abandon her teammates. Their last transmission came on 7 August 20.30.
On August 8, the storm was over. From their final camp, located about 400 meters below the summit, an American team comprising the trio of Allen Steck, Christopher Wren and Jock Glidden which had been waiting out the storm with a malfunctioning radio set, set out for the summit with no idea of the events that had occurred above. They found 7 bodies together with a Japanese team which managed to get their powerful radio set through customs. They radioed their tragic findings to base camp where everyone was expecting the worse. The 8th body was later recovered by Shatayeva’s husband.
Bob Craig would later write the book Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs which was later made into a 1990 movie. Interestingly, there was practically no coverage of the tragedy on Soviet media. There was only brief mention that there had been an “accident” on Lenin Peak.
On the 45th anniversary of the tragedy, Jed Williamson in his forgiving, politically correct tone, wrote: “They weren’t weak or stupid. I place no blame on them. Those conditions converged. It was the perfect storm. I have nothing but admiration.”
While it is true that mistakes are easy to spot in hindsight, one cannot deny that the tragedy could have been prevented if there had been less nationalistic instincts and feminist agenda at what was supposed to be a multinational conciliatory event. There are some common characteristics and behavour patterns among climbers who live to climb at 75.