Russian Climbers Safe and Happy After Historic Ascent of Denali
Celebrating in Talkeetna After the First Ever January Ascent of Denali

Denali viewed from Talkeetna, Alaska
[Click to zoom]
(photo: Colby Coombs)
Wednesday, January 21, 1998

"We climbed it like mice," said Vladimir Ananich from Talkeetna, Alaska this afternoon describing his January climb on Denali. "We'd hole up in a snow cave for two, three, five days, then poke our noses out to look around. If it was too windy, we'd duck back in; if bearable, we'd scurry up a little higher. And that's how we got up that hill!"

The three Russian climbers, Ananich, 40, Artur Testov, 32, and Alex Nikiforov, 29, are the first people to ever climb 20,320-foot Mount Denali (the highest peak on the North American continent) in January. They spent exactly a month digging 14 snow caves on the West Buttress route and moving up in color-coded parkas so observers below could tell them apart. Their success drew world-wide attention when pilot Jay Hudson of Hudson Air Service flew over the mountain at 4pm on Friday (January 16) and spotted two excited figures in red and blue (Testov and Ananich) waving from the summit.

As was planned, the yellow-clad Nikiforov was a support climber who helped set up camps and carry loads of food and gear, but did not go above 14,000'.

A crowd of reporters joined Hudson on the flight to the Kahiltna Glacier this morning to pick-up the climbers he'd flown in on December 21, 1997. Crowds were still milling at the Hudson Air Service offices in Talkeetna this afternoon, yelling, howling and threatening to break into a party at any minute. "People
"So much wind it blew the roof off our snow cave. It was blowing so hard, we couldn't go out to fix it..."
here don't get too excited about this stuff much. They're around it all the time," said Hudson, "but this was really something. There's a whole line of people who want to buy these guys dinner tonight."

Still excited, sounding like they'd gotten away with something, the Russian climbers spoke to The Mountain Zone about the climb. "Sure it was cold, dark, windy — really windy — but you know, it wasn't so bad," said Testov. "Inside our snow cave, it was probably 37°. Much colder outside, but inside, not bad at all." January is the dead of winter on Denali with extreme blizzard conditions and only about five hours of light per day.

"At our high-camp, before the summit bid, we got caught in a storm," said Ananich. "Lots of wind. So much wind it blew the roof off our snow cave. It was blowing so hard, we couldn't go out to fix it, so we tried to cover up the holes with gear and covered ourselves with warm clothes, but snow blew in. It was very cold. When the wind would settle a bit, we'd get out and patch the roof with blocks of ice, but the wind kept breaking through. I don't know how fast the wind got, but... it was enough. After five days, we thought we'd have to give up the summit, but then we looked out, and it was calm! We ran for the top. It was beautiful. Wonderful."

Denali summit ridge
[Click to zoom]
(photo: Kaj Bune)
For a month the three Russians lived with no contact to the rest of the world. "All we did was work to get up the hill," said Testov, "and work to get down the hill. Every once in a while, a little plane would buzz past, but that's it. Excellent." Ananich isn't sure if he remembers his address after a month on the mountain, but says his third time on Denali was spectacular. Both climbers were moved by the Northern Lights that seemed so close.

The Anchorage Daily News later reported that locals were especially impressed because the Russians descended in perfect health — freshly shaven and without a sign of frost bite even though they'd used simple felt-lined boots instead of the standard vapor barrier "bunny" boots. The only hardship Testov would admit to was running out of coffee, tobacco and whiskey, and so resorting to smoking Lipton tea. "My biggest concern," said Annanich, "was listening to Artur for three weeks. Good thing I brought earplugs." Asked what possessed them to climb in January, Testov said "well, in February, March, it's warmer. You can climb in your shirt-sleeves. This is more interesting." Most people consider a winter ascent on Denali to be so extreme that the last one was done in the mid-80's — in February. Back in Russia, Testov is a construction worker who learned to climb with friends, and though sponsored on this one, has funded his own past expeditions. He shares an apartment with Nikiforov in the small town of Ryazan where the two specialize in height construction — tall buildings, church steeples, that sort of thing.

What does his family think of the dangerous climb? "Well, what could they think?" said Testov. "It's another world. They don't realize what it's like here, don't know about it. I think, they don't worry much."

Catching up on a month of news, they were stunned to learn that Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev was killed on Annapurna while they were on Denali. "Oh, it is terrible," whispered Testov. "Very sad. To us, he was like your Michael Jordan is to you. All Russian climbers knew of him."

Neither spoke of plans for future climbs, but both are certain there will be more. "Right now, my only plans are books!" said Ananich, a vice president for a publishing company of medical books in Moscow. "I've been gone for so long."

Hudson told us it is their custom to offer climbers a choice of coffee or beer after the flight back to town. "I guess you know what these guys went for," chuckled Hudson. "You should remember that a beer at 7,000' is like a six-pack at sea-level..."

"It's just so wonderful," said Ananich echoing the mood of the noisy room in Talkeetna. "We're tired and very happy. It's like we stepped out of a refrigerator. We're just starting to get warm."

Anya Zolotusky, Mountain Zone Staff

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Original News Bulletin:

Russian Climbers Make First Ever January Ascent of Denali
North America's highest peak climbed in harshest conditions
Monday, January 19, 1998

Two Russian climbers have done what no one has ever done before: Climb Denali in the dead of winter. Jay Hudson of Hudson Air Service, out of Talkeetna, Alaska, reports that at least two from a party of three Russians were on top of 20,320-foot Denali (Mount McKinley) at 4pm, January 16.

"We were flying over the mountain at the time," Hudson said, "and we clearly saw two climbers waving ecstatically from the summit." The climbers had intentionally worn parkas of distinctive colors: leader Artur Testov wore red; Vladimir Ananich wore blue; and, Alex Nikiforov wore yellow.

"From the airplane on the 16th, I saw two guys on top, one in red and one in blue," said Hudson, "so I assume it was Testov and Ananich on top."

Even though this is not the first winter ascent of Denali — others have climbed it in February and March — it is the first January ascent, a time when the days are shortest (five hours of daylight) and temperatures most extreme (as cold as -50 degrees F. not counting the wind chill factor.)

"A time when the days are shortest (five hours of daylight) and temperatures most extreme..."

The three-man Russian party faced extremes of not just temperature and wind, but avalanche danger from heavy snows, the psychological problems of isolation in an extreme environment and long hours of cold and dark.

"On the lower glacier," said Hudson, "the guys had deep snow and cold temperatures. Once they got higher, it was high winds and dangerous cold. This isn't something most people could have done. It's much more dangerous than a summer climb of the mountain, much more serious."

The three Russians had already proved their mettle by making the final ascent of the regular climbing season, reaching the top of the mountain in late July 1997 and then traversing it and walking out to Wonder Lake.

A year earlier, in January 1997, Artur Testov had made his first attempt at a January ascent, which was foiled when he fell in a crevasse at 14,000 feet.

"This is an admirable achievement," Hudson said, "Even in the jaded world of Talkeetna, people are impressed. These guys knew what they were doing, they knew what they were in for, and they pulled it off."

As of today (Monday, January 19), the three climbers apparently are safe and working their way down the West Buttress route. Hudson said he made a visual check of the climbers at 3pm local time on January 19th, when he received a radio call from the climbers who said they were well.

The adventure required almost a month: Hudson had flown the climbers to the landing strip on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on December 21.

Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Staff

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