In Memory of Sir Edmund Hillary

    Sir Edmund Hillary. Photo Reuters


The First Lady

Valeriy Klestov, rescuer
Elbrus, Caucasus, Russia

As usual in summer, during the mass pilgrimage on Elbrus, a small rescue team was constantly on duty at "The Shelter of the Eleven". The rescuers tried to give advice on the tactics of climbing. Sometimes they had to cool and reason some hotheads who were going to climb the Mountain, for example, in usual footwear or obviously not prepared at all. During the busy season the rescuers used to put snowsticks in the snow above the Pastukhov rocks that could help mountaineers to orient themselves on the slope in a bad weather. Quite often though, the rescuers had to rush upwards to help the climbers in distress.

In time of selections for the Himalaya expeditions some sportsmen passed the route from "The Shelter of the Eleven" to the saddle of Elbrus in one hour and several minutes. They did not take any luggage. At the same time a rescuer always carries a medical kit, food, spare clothes, and sometimes an oxygen cylinder. We used to pass the same distance between "The Shelter" and the saddle in two hours and a quarter, and all that in a strong wind or even in a blizzard. Only those who passed that route at such a speed can adequately assess how exhausting is fast climbing at the altitude of five thousand or even more meters. Moreover, the rescuers must spare their efforts so that, they still have enough force to give first medical aid and transport the injured downwards. Terrible fatigue and lack of oxygen is what one feels at such movement.

Once being on duty I received a radio message from Leonid Andreev. He told me that a team of thirteen Japanese led by Junko Tabei were coming up. Normally we did not make great fuss about renowned names that appeared once in while in our field of activity. In the end, however banal it may sound, they are all our potential clients. The Mountain makes us all equals. And yet, in this particular case, I was curious. Junko Tabei was the first woman of the planet to climb the highest mountain on Earth - Everest (8848 meters above the sea level). So, Leonid Andreev, the manager of the International Mountaineers' camp, asked me to take care of her.

According to the plan, Junko and her partners during their first day in the Mount Elbrus region (Prielbrusie area) had to stay in the hotel "Itkol". However, they thought that their previous climb on the highest peak of Africa 6000 meters high Mount Kilimanjaro was enough to acclimatize themselves, and they immediately set off for "The Shelter of the Eleven". The Japanese did not take into consideration our soviet reality. Normally, foreign climbers leaving for the high-mountain area were provided with rations, which had been ordered in advance in the Accountant office of the hotel. But that group arrived by the end of the working day of Friday, when all the serving staff had already gone home. And on Saturday or Sunday rations were never distributed. Leonid explained all this to me on the radio and asked me to support somehow the Japanese during 24 hours. Certainly, that was not the rescuers' job, but when your friend asks you how can you refuse.

When I go on a high-mountain watch, I carry with me only a strictly calculated set of cloths and food, necessary for the time of my stay there. This is why we did not have a lot of extra food, especially, minding thirteen additional persons. I went to the manager of "The Shelter" Kostia Khapaev and asked him for a loaf of bread and a pack of sugar. Being a friend of mine he shared these things with me. From our side we had enough tea and biscuits. I believed we would survive that night and the next morning. In his turn, Andreev promised me to do his best to find food and get it to the clients upwards.

I was glad to meet the Japanese. We communicated through the interpreter, who accompanied them. Shura, the interpreter, was in his final year at a Moscow Foreign Languages School and he spoke Japanese fluently. He was tall and thin, in his previous life he had nothing to do with the mountaineering. The altitude soon made him feel sick, but he behaved courageously and tried to interpret as best as he could.

I prepared some tea using thawed snow water. Having invited the guests into a sort of lounge on the first floor of "The Shelter", I put on the table the loaf of bread and the pack of sugar that I had procured. Eating their small portions the Japanese asked me a lot of questions concerning the specificity of the ascent of our Mountain. Then, all of a sudden, as if on orders, they all rose from their seats and went to sleep, saying that at night they will start the ascent. I tried to explain to them that in the first 24 hours they have to acclimatize themselves climbing up first to the Pastukhov rocks. And only the following day if they felt well and the weather was good they could go and climb the Mountain. I warned them that fleecy clouds (cirri) had appeared in the sky, and that a cumulus cloud that was stuck to the summits was a clear sign of bad weather that we would have in the coming hours. The Japanese smiled and thanked me for the recommendations, but they did not change their mind. It was their right. So, I also went to sleep.

In the morning the blowing wind woke me up. It was the beginning of a snowstorm. The Japanese were already gone. In a little more than one hour, having climbed up only 300 meters, they came back. The expression of their faces indicated that their sortie was not an easy thing for them to do. I treated them again with tea and the same bread and sugar. Leonid had already informed me on the radio that he could not find any food because of the absence of the personnel in the hotel. At lunch time the Japanese took small packs from their emergency ration. They diluted what was inside these packs with hot water and ate this sort of rice soup using adroitly their sticks. Then they taught me to eat with two sticks. So passed Saturday.

At night they set off for the ascent again, in spite of the gale. There was practically no visibility. I waited for two hours and then, understanding the danger that threatened them, I went up for them. A little higher than the Pastukhov rocks I caught up with a group of nine persons. The Japanese hardly moved. I walked with them upwards for one hour and than using my bad English I proposed that we turn back for "The Shelter". They discussed my proposal and sadly plodded downwards.

I passed a slanting shelf and came up the saddle and there I met Junko Tabei and her three lady friends. Junko and her three friends, very slim girls, had already been to the eastern summit and now were descending slowly.

Many people say that mountaineering is not a female sport, because of extreme physical efforts that it requires. But I think that in this activity the will power and the will for survival are more important. And women who have devoted themselves to sport are never short of these qualities.

I felt how much of their force the girls had given to climb Elbrus. They can hardly walk. I take my thermos flask with hot tea and make them drink it. They cheer up a little. I take their rucksacks and walk next to them. They almost fall dawn on snow with fatigue, but don't stop.

Curiously enough, the first man who climbed the Mount Everest, Norgei Tentsing, wanted also to climb Elbrus and he failed, saying jokingly afterwards that the mountain did not want to accept him.

I used the portable radio set to ask the guys from my rescue team who were on duty at "The Shelter of the Eleven" to come up and meet us halfway. The Japanese had planned to descend Elbrus on skis, but they had just managed to bring the skis up to the Pastukhov rocks. Therefore now we have to pick up that equipment and lead the exhausted climbers to "The Shelter". I accompany the Japanese girls, helping one girl and then another to rise from snow. Ms. Tabei feels better, but she also can hardly move. I try to cheer them up and give them tea.

As we approach "The Shelter" I go faster, in order to prepare hot tea before the girls arrive there. In the lounge Junko and her friends see the same menu on the table. At that very moment a group of Americans bursts into the hotel. Their guide is a famous climber Valentin Ivanov. Noise and laughter have filled the small dining room. Ivanov's assistants have quickly served the tables with fresh vegetables and fruit, sausages, black caviar and some more delicious stuff. Valentin introduces me to the Americans. He tells them about the work that our rescue service does and invites me join them at the table. I feel embarrassed. The difference between the American menu and the Japanese is striking. I stay a few minutes with the new guests just for the sake of proprieties, and return to the poor table that we share with the Japanese. Speaking to me in a mixture of English and Japanese Junko tries to tell me something, getting more and more irritated with every phrase. I ask the interpreter to explain her claims.

- You treat the whites better than us, the yellows. Why do the Americans have such abundance of meal at their table and we don't? Where are our guides? Where are the high-altitude porters? Why didn't you prepare our climb? We have paid you money for all that.

- Tell her, that she takes me for someone else. I am a rescuer and my work here is to help all the climbers, be they white, red, yellow, or whatever other colour. Beside that, we have warned them about the possible dangers on the mountain, and it is not our problem if the climbers ignore our advice and the climbing of the mountain fails. As for the meal, guides and porters, I have nothing to do with all that.

- But you helped us when we were going down. Only it was not enough. You are here a representative of your country and you had to ensure that all our team comes up to the summit.

- For the Soviet authorities and, moreover, for the people who had invited her to Elbrus, and who had received money for that, I bear no responsibility. As for my help, it was done not because it was my duty in this case, but because I respect her as the first lady mountaineer who managed to climb Everest.

Junko calmed down a little. She invited me to her room and showed me their contract. The interpreter translated the paper word for word. Now, in my turn, I was perplexed. It was stipulated in the contract with Sovintersport that the team led by Ms. Tabei to climb Elbrus shall be provided with 13 individual guides for each member of the team. The fourteenth guide shall go ahead of the group during the climbing, signalling to them possible ice cracks or crevasses that they might come across. In addition, their luggage had to be carried by five high-altitude porters. Naturally, it was mentioned that the clients would have high calorie meals, and that all the thirteen members of the team would climb the summit without fail. For all these services each Japanese paid in Moscow one thousand dollars for each day of stay in the Mount Elbrus region. In total $78 000 had been paid for the mentioned services. I tried to explain to Junko that I have nothing to do with the contract, but it seemed to me she did not believe me. Incidentally, those "businessmen" from SovIntersport had neither informed Leonid Andreev about the conditions of the contract. When the snowstorm calmed down, the Japanese said goodbye and went down.

Three months later I received a very warm letter from Japan, from Junko with excuses, best wishes and photographs. She also wrote that she had looked into that matter and understood who was who.

And in a while I had an opportunity to realize what the climbers' solidarity was.

After the Chernobyl disaster my daughter developed a thyroid gland disease. Her doctors recommended that she should eat tinned sea-kale. I got in touch with my friends in Baku and asked them to find it. They thought, that I might need a certain sum of dollars and were ready to give me the financial support. But when my friend Rasim Djafarov learned that what was needed was tinned sea-kale, he sent a huge amount of it to me. At the same time I found out that medics in Japan had elaborated a treatment of thyroid with the use of a medicine, which gave very good results. In despair, without any hope, I wrote a letter to Junko Tabei. She immediately sent to me the necessary drugs. Owing to the efforts of my friends my daughter's health has improved.