Sergey Kovalev, Master of Sport of International Class,
city of Donetsk.
The first thing that impressed me about Slava was his unusual
energy. He was the most bright and active personality on one of
the first Himalayas expeditions from Odessa at the beginning of
the 90s. I had been ordered to supply some clothes for the expedition
and at that time I became acquainted with climbers from Odessa.
Later we met at the selection of climbers for the Annapurna expedition
in the spring of 1996. It was the preparation of the First National
Ukrainian expedition. Slava didn’t win any of the tests requiring
technique or physical training. For practice we ran to the top
of Elbrus. At the beginning, from Mir station (elevator) to “bochki”
(“barrels,” end station), the other runners were ahead. But on
the upper part of the route, from “bochki” to the col between
the two summits, Slava ran ahead around the others and did not
free the trail to his followers, so everyone arrived at the summit
together. Higher up, his second wind worked better. And he surprised
me not only with that. The main feature engraved on my memory
was that such a non-sportive fellow could chin himself 25 times
on the horizontal bar. Obviously he hadn’t trained that regularly
but he struggled and demonstrated an extraordinary spiritual power.
I often observed this in him subsequently, but I have never gotten
used to it. He was phenomenal. And in the mountains he walked
uniquely: equally slow at 5000m as well as at 8000m, where everyone
else bluntly fell down.
So I climbed a lot with Slava - Ama-Dablam, Pumori, Everest…,
but Manaslu was like a revelation for me. This is probably the
most terrible mountain existing in nature, the only one whose
summit has never been climbed twice by the same person. Even on
K2 people have climbed more than once. It is very dangerous, upward
is plateau inclined on a 20-30 degree - a huge avalanche accumulator.
While climbing via any face one is always at risk to be smashed
by an avalanche. Moreover one could not see when an avalanche
could be triggered. On other mountains it is possible to check
with binoculars and estimate the snow condition; here it is invisible.
Our route along the south-east ridge was not an exception. We
selected this ridge for safety. In general the climbing was very
difficult: technically, physically, morally - constant vertical
pitches. And all the time there were conflicts and competition
between the groups. We arrived at a situation where all three
groups made three ascents each but none reached the summit. We
had fulfilled our plan but failed to summit. And for the last
ascent, we got together at 7800m: me, Leontiev and Pugachov climbed
up; and Slava’s group: he, Igor Chaplinsky and Kolya Goryunov
-came down from above after an unsuccessful attempt to round the
Pinnacle from the left side. Slava looked absolutely ill. From
my point of view he dying, he couldn’t speak, his eyes fell back.
Normal people in such a condition and at such an altitude die
within 24 hours if they are not brought down urgently. I believed
that we should begin to rescue him because Yura Strelnikov looked
the same and we carried him down. And in Slava’s absolutely similar
situation everything happened absolutely otherwise. We worked
there for four days and Slava recovered in that four days. For
me it was incredible. You know no one recovers at such an altitude,
they only die! But Slava decided to stay with us and it shocked
After Igor and Kolya had gone down there were four of us and opinion
was divided. Slava wanted to summit, Leontiev was neutral and
I proposed to get down while we were still alive. We decided to
proceed with climbing and I obeyed and worked for the team. On
our route arose an insuperable obstacle, the Pinnacle. But there
remained a chance to reach the summit via the normal route. So
we traversed to the classical route. It was an interminable, absolutely
unreal traverse - around 15 km at an elevation of 7800m. We went
out before dawn and continued till late at night and no one knew
exactly which way to go. We moved underneath terrible hanging
icefalls; there was no way to retreat, we seemed to go nowhere
at all. Slava, not being aware of the route, said: let pass this
piece and then there will be a place for overnight. There was
no visibility, ice inclined 50 degrees, and at the end is the
eminence. We stretched out along the way, the elevation was already
8000m, it was getting dark, there was hurricane wind, we needed
to set the tent at any cost. I went first and found a spot of
snow, not ice like everywhere else, and it was possible to dig.
It was the first island of snow we had met so I began to dig and
prepare a place for the tent. Then Slava came and Leontiev brought
the tent. We got inside and found that Pugachev was absent. We
were about to go back for him but he had arrived in the deep darkness
of late night. It was very cold, because to make our backpacks
lighter we had only taken 2 sleeping bags. To those who did not
have sleeping bags we gave our down jackets.
Next day we tried to reach the summit. Slava moved slower than
usual but he did move. And he didn’t just say that we should go;
he showed the direction. The weather was bad, visibility was only
5 meters, so we marked our way with landmarks. No one knew where
we were or where the summit was. I insisted on returning to the
tent. When we got up next morning the weather improved and the
summit appeared to be not far away, much closer than we had supposed.
So we went straight up following yesterday’s landmarks. It was
absolutely the right direction. Slava was an absolutely perfect
high altitude climber - he felt the direction, the snow condition,
something else… All the parameters necessary for that were somewhere
inside him. At high altitude the components of success are just
to stay alive in every situation, taken separately. One must awake,
one must eat something, one must come out - the task is to live
for one more day. One is beyond reality - this is space and one
is there without a space-suit, without anything… Slava was perfectly
adjusted to that. High altitude was the natural environment for
him, he felt at home there like a fish in water.
We were so hysterical on the top, excited, euphoric that we had
crawled there. I personally for the first time was very happy
that we had summited - the team had worked exhaustingly for a
long time, and suddenly we had achieved that!
Our way down was via the normal route. We were in a hurry to catch
up to the helicopter and hoped that some fixed ropes remained
on the route left by other expeditions. But there were no ropes
so we used ours in the proper way - fixed it then pulled it out,
usual climbing work. We did not see the way down, just followed
the logical direction, and it was not easy. Slava felt bad - he
had stayed at high altitude much longer than the rest of us and
the task had now been fulfilled. He had no motivation and thought,
well we would miss the helicopter - this is not crucial. He often
fell down on the snow, laid for a certain time, then stood up.
At one of those moments he asked: how long will it still take
to get down? I replied - I didn’t know, it depended on our pace.
- What do you think of our pace? - We communicated by radio with
BC once per hour. During one session I said, let’s turn back,
see, you were over here, and we showed him his imprint on the
snow twenty meters upward. Slava took a look, meditated on that,
appreciated the humor… and it was a lot of fun! He never felt
abused, he was a very pure soul.
Then we came to the glacier, a huge wide glacier. There was dense
fog and we had never been on this glacier before, we had no idea
how it looked. We just walked down according to our compass heading.
It was misty surrealism… we felt nothing but got together with
our team who came to meet us. We went further without backpacks
and our guys tracked the trail. Then events got precipitated together
and perceived vaguely - in one day and night we went down from
the summit of an eight thousand meter peak and happened to end
up in Kathmandu. I have a photo where we are standing in the hotel
hall dressed in our summit clothes - boots, goretex, we had taken
no time to change...
Slava was a pretty targeted person. His motivation manifested
in any activity - to summon all his internal resources and achieve
the purpose: it didn’t matter whether he was chinning a bar or
climbing a mountain. It struck me always how Slava made an aim
and reached it, ignoring obstacles.
Mt. Hidden Peak was one more illustration of this. Slava was hit
in the hand by falling ice on the first day of work on the route.
His hand was fractured, but in two weeks he succeeded in healing.
When later in Odessa an X-ray was made and the doctor asked how
long ago he got this trauma, he could not believe the truth and
said it was impossible for the bones to knit so fast. We had made
a splint of a box carton for Slava’s hand and he wore it. And
walked not over a plain! He didn’t even know whether it was a
fracture but he knew well that he must climb the mountain.
Being so strong a sportsman, Slava was an absolutely placable
person, I have never met such a placable guy - we could swear
at each other heavily, almost coming to blows, and then go to
a lake bank, play guitar, laugh at some jokes… He appreciated
good jokes even in difficult situations; it was easy to be with
him. As members of the Ukrainian National team we met each other
2-3 times per year and every time was a pleasure. In the year
2000, for the Championship of Ukraine, Slava and I climbed Grand
Joras in France, a technically difficult mountain, not steep,
around 70 degrees, but as smooth as a “lamb’s forehead.” The route
was 1500m long and there was no shelf for overnight; the route
was called accordingly “no siesta.” And this tremendous lamb’s
forehead was covered with icy snot. Well, we climbed the mountain,
the first night, the second… For overnights it is always necessary
to attach to some reliable kind of relief. We found an internal
angle in the rock. At night it snowed and all the grains of snow
seemed to flow exactly into our coulouir. I slept in the same
gear that I worked in - boots and clothes inside goretex bag.
Several times during the night I had to get out and shake hail
out of the hammock. And Slava, like a real high altitude mountaineer,
took off his clothes and boots, got on down socks and was sleeping
not bad. Reaching him in the morning I saw the following picture:
Slava’s hammock was full of water, up to the neck and Slava was
lying in a cold bath. It became clear that further climbing was
impossible, but…to take a bath on Grand Joras!
Once more funny story at that time in Chamonix. We were buying
trekking trousers for Slava; for a long time we picked out, tried
on, bargained. It was a real show to dress Slava - he was so spontaneous
and characteristic. At last we bought the trousers and got some
discount. Slava was happy and wanted to celebrate the bargain.
So we visited a restaurant with a view of Mount Blanc, a pretty
expensive one where a glass of beer cost 10-12 euros. So we left
there around 100 euros - celebrating an acquisition of 10 euros.
And when the bill had been brought Slava even didn’t move his
face - that’s me, I invited you. He was a man with good sense
and he never lost his dignity. Any situation connected with Slava
was always an exceptional story from any moment …already he was