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ExWeb Interview - Alexander Ruchkin: Big wall big man
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May 18, 2005 17: 15 EST
Previously published Apr 14, 2005 10: 22 EST
The first climb of Jannu’s North face by a Russian team last spring impressed the climbing community. The team has received (almost) unanimous applause and awards: The Piolet d’Or and special recognitions by Explorersweb, among others. However, some critics have voiced their concerns, primarily regarding the style in which the wall was climbed.

Explorersweb had a chat with Alexander Ruchkin, the team member who first reached the summit after climbing the mighty wall. On behalf of the entire “Russian Big Wall Routes Project,” Alexander recalls the climb with passion, while attempting to avoid all controversy. On the contrary, he offers advice and invites all climbers to tackle the route their way. For this St. Petersburg resident, there are more important things in life than getting involved in debates about style and manners.

ExWeb: Why did you choose Jannu as your goal?

Alexander: We chose Jannu because its northern wall is difficult and beautiful. Nobody had climbed the mountain at all in 29 years.

ExWeb: Now, after several months, what are your most vivid memories?

Alexander: The biggest impression was climbing a steep, difficult section above 7000 meters. That was a major obstacle, with the technical difficulty adding to the challenges posed by the height and the cold. It was like climbing El Capitan at 7000m. Certainly, I also remember the pleasure and sense of victory when we reached the top after having climbed that wall.

ExWeb: To achieve such a goal you need to be a very well organized team. What was your strategy?

Alexander: We worked as good team, just like clockwork. Without that coordination, we would have never succeeded in such a wall.

ExWeb: In any moment of the climb, did you consider aborting the expedition and returning home?

Alexander: There were some moments when we climbed only 25-30 meters a day. It seemed impossible that we could ever make it at that pace. Cornices hanging over us at 7500m were frightening, and we had to bear that fear too. Icefall, flying stones, and human failures knocked out some team members. As days went by, our hopes to ever reach our goal became less and less. But we kept on climbing.

ExWeb: You have been awarded the Piolet d'Or. That has caused some controversy. Some climbers say that the prize should go to an “alpine style” climb instead of expeditions involving fixed ropes and long stays on the mountain. What is your point of view on the subject?

Alexander: In my opinion, the Piolet d'Or idea was born to award the achievement of difficult ascents. As years went by, factors such as the climbing style and the characteristics of the route became much more appreciated. Therefore, the essence of the prize may have changed, and there is nothing wrong with that!

I think the organizers should set clearer criteria, so that the judges can know which climb deserves the Piolet d’Or. They should define the importance of style, adventure, speed, number of members, etc… in order to award the best.

The fact is that we haven’t made the ascent on Jannu to receive the Piolet d’Or. We went there because we wanted to climb that wall. There are many ways of climbing. We summited our way, and now it is other teams’ turns to climb Jannu’s north wall solo, in alpine-style, in one day, or free-climbing the route.

ExWeb: Do you honestly think that the Jannu North Wall can be climbed in Alpine style?

Alexander: Yes, I think it is possible. Someone could even free-climb our route. However, those interested have to be physically and mentally prepared, set an intermediate camp, bring along supplies and gear enough and belay properly in the difficult sections. Besides, before launching the bid they would have to be perfectly acclimatized and rested. It can be done, but it is not unrealistic that such a feat may demand 20 previous attempts.

ExWeb: Jannu was part of the "Russian Big Wall Routes" project. Will you be involved in the Russian Big Walls project again?

Alexander: I hope so! I am involved in the next expedition project!

ExWeb: What can you tell us about these upcoming plans?

Alexander: We are now actively searching for a mountain and a wall to set as our next goal. In June we are going on a research trip to Pakistan. It could be Masherbrum…

Alexander Ruchkin led the pair that finally summited Jannu North wall. He used his last reserves of energy to complete the last meters. “I was falling in snow up to the waist, losing balance, sliding off in blunt crampons,” he reported back then. “Having got out on a sharp crest and shifted to the south I screamed! We made it!! It has ended!!”

A day later Nick Totmyanin, Sergey Borisov and Gena Kirievsky summited Jannu too.

The Jannu climb was awarded by Explorersweb as one of the best climbs in 2004. The team has also been awarded the prestigious Piolet d’Or.

The Russian Big Wall Routes project was born 10 years ago. The Russian dream-team lead by Alexandre Odintsov, aims to establish 10 new routes on the hardest Big Walls – defining a big wall as vertical mountain formation more than 1000m long and 70° steep. Seven of them have been completed.

Top image of Alexander during the Piolet d'Or award ceremony and middle image on the summit of Jannu courtesy of Mountain.ru. Bottom image of the route at 7100 (like El Capitan over the clouds) courtesy of Alexander Ruchkin.
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