The 1974 Russian womens' tragedy on Peak Lenin
12:46 p.m. EST Oct 28, 2003
In 1974, 8 Russian women died on Peak Lenin. These deaths had a lasting effect on the Russian climbing community as well as the world community. This expedition had so much of an impact that it inspired books, paintings, poetry, and movies. This is the second installment of a two part series about Peak Lenin and its two biggest tragedies.
An all-women's traverse of Lenin
In 1974, Elvira Shateava, along with seven other women climbed Peak Lenin in the hopes of completing a traverse – Up the Lipkin Ridge to the 7134m summit, and then down the Razdelny. The idea of the expedition was to prove that women could do this without the help of men.
Eight of them did reach the summit on August 5th while engulfed in a storm and radioed Base Camp for approval to sleep up there. Eventually they did start to descend down after their cotton pup tents were destroyed by the winds and they had no shovels to dig a snow cave. For 22hrs, while attempting to descend in a horrible storm, one climber after another perished from exposure, until they had all died.
What went wrong?
Previous to this expedition, some of the women on the team had been with Elvira on an all-women’s 7000m expedition on Korzhenevskoi, 7105m. Was it that they weren’t prepared or had enough experience? Did expedition members refuse to leave behind a sick member, slowing everyone down? Was the women’s equipment, which was inferior even by Russian standards not up to the task? Were they so driven by the pressure to succeed and prove the nay-sayers wrong, that they pushed beyond their limits?
This expedition left behind a lot of ‘whys’ and a lot of ‘what ifs’. Perhaps the most talked about aspect of this is not so much what exactly happened on the mountain, in reality both men and women climbers alike have gotten caught in storms. One of the biggest issues is about gender; the fact that this was an all-women’s team, and that was the first criteria for the expedition – completely without men. ExplorersWeb interviewed Pavel Rezvoy, a Ukrainian geologist who was in the area about the time the women died.
Mountains don't discriminate
Pavel brings up interesting points and they highlight the problems that the women faced at the time. However, Pavel also brings up the idea that climbing a mountain is not like going to the Olympics where men and women are judged separately and under different terms. Climbing a mountain is not about being a man or a woman, and not about proving that one gender can hold their own – it’s simply about climbing a mountain, and choosing a team is about choosing a good group of climbers that work well together – male or female. Mountains don’t discriminate.
ExWeb:Pavel, where were you when this all went down?
Pavel: I am not a mountaineer, I am geologist. For 25 years I was working in the Pamirs and Turkestan-Alay mountain system. Lenin Peak is situated in the Northern part of the Pamirs, almost at its boarder with the Alay. In August 1974 I was working in the mountains and learned about the tragedy of “the girls” ...that’s the way mountaineers used to call the team, from my friends-mountaineers of the city of Osh.
ExWeb: What was the reaction when this happened? It seemed that there was a lot of pressure for the women to succeed because many had counted them out, that they wouldn't be able to do it.
Pavel: Talking about our reaction, of course it was a shocking tragedy, but all of the geologists who were men were absolutely convinced that an entirely women-team should not be allowed to go alone. We felt strongly against that experiment. They had to start not with such an ultimate task as Lenin Peak was. The women really wanted to demonstrate that they are equal to men, that they can do it on their own. So the main goal was not just to assent the summit, but to do it without men - that’s my opinion.
ExWeb: What do you think went wrong? Did they ignore the meteorologists who said there would be bad weather? Not start their decent soon enough?
Pavel: Talking about meteorology we got used to not relying on the reports we got and had to be ready for any surprise or change in the weather. I cannot restore in my memory that anything like a hurricane occurred, but weather conditions in the mountains differ from area to area very considerably. I don’t know what really caused the tragedy, but on my opinion the main reason may lie in the psychological aspect.
ExWeb: What could have been done to prevent this tragedy, anything?
Pavel: Alas, in those conditions and circumstances I am afraid nothing could be done.
ExWeb: Some say this left a lasting mark for women climbing in Russia - Elvira Nossanova, a Russian woman *'snow-leopard' said that women's teams were banned for 15 years after the tragedy. What do you think the lasting effects were?
Pavel: In most kinds of sports which can be divided into categories for men and women, they do not compete against each other. Records for women are lower. And Lenin Peak is one peak and should not be divided into men and women climbing.
ExWeb: How did you feel when this happened, and how has it effected your lives? Did it change the way you evaluate and judge different risks?
Pavel: From the first day of my becoming the chief of a geological party and for eight running years I had no women-geologists in my group when I was working in the highest part of the area, which included Lenin Peak as well.
To have women would mean more problems. Think about loading a horse, going alone up a glacier like my men and I used to do, and a cold night in a sleeping bag on the ice. It is our custom to protect our women; you have more problems if they are left alone. You worry about them and you must rescue them when needed. The Pamirs, it’s serious.
ExWeb: Do you have any final thoughts?
Pavel: Lenin Peak is considered to be one of the most stable peaks regarding weather conditions. But, it brought a lot of disappointments and unexpected deaths. It was nearly always a result of stupidity and bad preparation. In the 1960’s when a group of ill-equipped para-trooper soldiers were dropped by plane onto the peak, they were blown into inaccessible spots and ALL were frozen to death, some are still there. There were many mountain-hikers’ groups not registered and amateurs’ teams on the mountain. Peak Lenin has victims of which are not known on the official statistics.
For many years I was working on Korzhenevsky glacier, a popular route for assent on Lenin Peak. I was witnessing a non-stop flood of ill-prepared groups, some of them were going up to take down bodies of dead friends – those who did not enter the official book of deaths of Lenin peak. Mountains have hardly any mercy to amateurs. Though some of ‘girls’ were experienced mountaineers, to build a team on the basis of being a woman was an amateur approach; it weakened the level of their team.
Degrees of Difficulty. A book about the 1974 tragedy written by Vladimir Shataev, Elvira's husband.
Qui Elja, mi sentite? - A book about the 1974 tragedy (in Italian)
Images of the women's team and their memorial courtesy of Ian Mclagan
*Snow Leopard - When someone completes all 5, 7000m peaks in the territory of former Soviet States, they are donned a 'Snow Leopard'