In Memory of Friends
Serguei Arsentiev, Francis Distefano-Arsentiev
...In the month of May this year Serguei Arsentiev and his wife, Francis, had not returned back from Mt. Everest.
In the 80s and the early 90s Serguei was considered to be one of the strongest climbers in the Soviet Union, and before his leaving for the United States, he was very popular personage in our Petersburg climbers' company with a strange nickname "Mafia". Also his third wife, Francis - Fran, had heartily been adopted by this community.
Serguei had already been on the top of Mt. Everest, in J. Whittaker's Peace Climb American-Russian-Chinese expedition 1990, with no canned oxygen and from the same northern side as this year. When preparing to her new rendezvous with Himalayas, Fran dreamt to become first Everest summiter among American women and also wished to realize the oxygenless climb. Her excellent physical conditions, successful ascents of Pamir seven-thousanders, her husband, strong and skilled climber, who supported her intentions - all these made her dream realistic.
...By the middle of May, the skidding before Russian expedition began accelerating again (see publications in Risk Online and on our site. It was a team of four climbers from Ekaterinburg, very experienced "himalaistes", who could struggle up to the top first. On May 19 it were Serguei and Fran who made the next shot: they had come to the upper camp at 8200m. What had been remaining for them to be done was to spend a night there, to reach the summit on the next day and to descend down.
First unsuccessful summit attempt, the second one... Two nights without oxygen above 8000m... In that day Anatoly Moshnikov, who had been on Everest together with Serguei in 1990, climbed up the summit with his French client successfully and in the evening returned down to the Arsentievs' tent. Believing that a further stay on that altitude would be extremely dangerous, he proposed Serguei to go down together on the next day. But Everest, it had them captured already and did not allow objective estimating the situation. It always lures each genuine climber for whole his life and in that moment, when its top was so close, it had wholly taken Serguei and Fran's will to strive for their lives. On the next day they started up again... Now, after already three nights at 8200m...
They were ascending slow, very slow... However, at the stratosphere border nobody goes fast. Rustam Radjapov, Uzbekistan team member, who that day distanced them on the summit crest, witnessed later that Fran was walking with difficulty, frequently sitting down to have a rest. At the foot of the summit pyramid he tried, also vainly, to convince them to turn back... On his way down from the summit... on their way up... They reached the top barely by 18:15.
In the last rays of the setting Sun they were standing right there where they yearned to and where they had come at last... But what would transform their victory into the defeat had already overtaken them. Were they aware of it? Did they understand their situation to be already hopeless? However, in the thin atmosphere, where was only a third of the oxygen that humans breathe usually, thoughts shifted very slowly as well. Perhaps, in that moment they pondered nothing important.
The darkness had drawn quite nigh from below when they began descending. But they failed to return to their tent on "8200m" that night. The fourth night at that altitude, but on that time they bivouaced in the open: with no tent, with no sleeping bags, with no hot meal, and of course, with no oxygen.
On the next day, May 23, group of Uzbekistan climbers who were on their way from "8200m" to the summit knocked against lonely Serguei who asked them if they had met his wife. How could it happen that they missed, lost one another that night? Serguei continued going down, the Uzbekistan members got on ascending and by one hour later, on 8500m, they discovered Francis almost unconscious and having lost ability to climb down unaided. They made all their best for her: gave her one of invaluable for them oxygen bottles, having set the maximum gas flow of 4 liters per minute, made injections, massage and... carried on their ascent. Later, on their return way from the top they even attempted to draw her down but it turned out to be beyond their forces.
In the same night, returning back from the summit, Oleg Grigoriev, the Uzbekistan group leader relegated their people down to the Camp "8200" to inform Serguei about what occurred, himself having remained at Francis. He stayed there till twenty and only then left her. Soon Arsentiev appeared on the path to meet him. In the world above 8000m words do not frequently sound: he sat down on a rock with eyes riveted to Grigoriev - "She is still alive" - replied Oleg, unquestioned, and Serguei resumed his movement upward. For already four days he was walking up and down between "8200m" and the summit, and now, on the fifth night, he went up again.
To accounts of all those who had seen Fran on the next day, Serguei must have spent that night together with her. He turned off the exhausted oxygen canister, removed useless now mask from her face and fastened it to fixed rope, then got out her frozen hands from arms of her down jacket and tucked them in, beneath it.
Yes, they were only double that night, unthinkably far away from the warm world of humans, on that terrific altitude, beside dark, silent Everest. She was quitting this world and nobody could keep her back... He wanted her to be warmer, more comfortable - in the last hours of the life, leaving her, he continued to take care of her as well as he did that for whole their short life together.
Francis died on May 24, probably, about 11 a.m.
Nobody has seen Serguei after his night meeting with Grigoriev. Only rope and ice axe, left by him on the Everest's crest, a little below the place where Fran rested, have been found out. What minds could come to him, who had buried already two women whom he loved? May be, he thought that the third, the friend who shared his joy, difficulties and dangers of mountaineering, had been brought to her world highest Golgotha by his own arms. But perhaps, he perceived that now no place had remained on the Earth where he could return back from Everest. Of course, nobody knows it but this is our world, the warm world of human beings, where Serguei Arsentiev has not come back.
But in the camp on 6400m, Moshnikov was still waiting for his return. Gone down were all the expedition people but only his lonely tent continued standing. Even in June when we were meeting him in Pulkovo airport he told me: "...You know, I'm here with only a half of mine. Kind of dreaming... But I'm still hearing their voices, I see Fran smiling!" Barely in September, after the summer season spent on Pamir, on Peak Lenin, he confessed that had recovered a little...
All photos presented here are allowed by A. Moshnikov.
P.S. In the fall 1999 a news has come about possible finding of Serguei's body...
The latest days of the last year (1997) brought sorrowful news: Internet magazine "Risk Online" informed of disappearance in the Himalayas of Anatoly Bukreev, the outstanding climber from Kazakhstan. December 25 Bukreev, his constant cameraman Dmitry Sobolev and Italian climber Simone Moro were caught by an avalanche on the southern Annapurna mountainside at an altitude about 6100m. Moro was the only who could get out of it...
Some of the CET "Neva" team were personally acquainted with Bukreev but we all followed his amazing hymalayan climbs with interest, pleasure and sympathy.
"Risk Online" remarks: "The past 1997-year was a year of a loss for Russian mountaineering. The Himalayan history did not know as many our compatriots and friends died there as in the past 1997".
In August 1997 during ascent of Mt. Khan-Tengri (7010m, Tian-Shan) Yury Krasnouhov, climber from St. Petersburg did die. In CET "Neva" all of us knew very well him, veteran and one of leaders of the Petersburg University mountaineering club, but some made their climbs together with him. He did not surrender to his years (in 1997 he was 55) and climbed routes of highest grades on the ex-Soviet seventhousanders in company of his younger friends and progeny. That night he seems to overestimate his capabilities...
That time Yury undertook his ascent in a group of four members which was not a team of the University. They came to the foot of the mountain and after acclimatization ascent started climbing on the classic way from the west in alpine style. The highest bivouac was set up at altitude of 5800m. Further the members climbed separately. Yury was slow and went behind. At the extinction of the daylight he was still continuing to climb up planning a night bivouac solo and with no tent. One of his teammates, descending from the top, promised Yury to set up his tent for the night bivi at 6400m and wait for him there. The last group among those climbing down from the summit that day - the Spanish one - met him at 10 p.m. on the place where he decided, on his way down from the top, to stop for the night. This occurred at altitude about 6850m. He declined their proposal to go down together, they gifted him a bivi sac of aluminized mylar and continued descending, having reached their camp no sooner than by 5 o'clock morning... Vainly at that night the lonely climber was waited for on 6400... on 5800... Settling down on the bivouac site, he appears to slip down, not having belayed himself with a system of ice axe and ice screw already prepared...
The search had been begun with a prompt climb to the summit undertaken by Nikolai Totmianin, presently CET "Neva" guide but the University club fellow formerly, who, together with his client group, was performing ascents of Khan-Tengri and Victory Peak in this region. Having started from the Base Camp at 4100m, for nine and half hours he reached the summit and on the same day descended for four hours. During the ascent initial point of Krasnouhov's fall had been found out and its approximate trajectory had been defined. But the body had been discovered only on 6th day after and by a kilometer lower...
In the end of the September a seven members expedition had been organized by Igor Stepanov, another Petersburgian veteran of climbing and personal friend of Krasnouhov, to bring the body from the Khan-Tengri slope. Totmianin took part in it as well. In ten days the expedition had the task accomplished. Yuri Krasnouhov is buried in Petersburg, Smolenskoe cemetery.
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