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 Of Friends and Romans: An Ascent of Everest, by Daniel Mazur

signed team pennant

Many dream of climbing Everest. Others spend years planning for it. In September and October of 1991, I climbed it by accident with a group of Soviets and Americans. Daniel Mazur

photographeręDaniel Mazur on all pictures

Click on the pictures for the full sized versions.


Dan Mazur

After 6 weeks of scaling 7,000 meter peaks during July and August in the Soviet Central Asian Pamirs with some of the USSR's strongest climbers, I traveled to Nepal. In early September while visiting a Kathmandu climbing shop I met a 53 year old Russian climber named Roman Giutashvili. Roman had the "Soviet" look; a clean shaven weathered face, white T-shirt, and tight jeans. In halting Russian I asked where he was going and he said: "To Everest". I had come to Kathmandu hoping to climb a peak so I asked about joining his team. He said it  might be possible. 

Anatoli Boukreev and Vladimir Balyberdin at Basecamp

20 days later Roman and I stood on the summit in high winds watching the sun set on the surrounding peaks far below and wondered if we would return to the South Col alive. I was allowed to join the team in Kathmandu after one day of frantic negotiation with the team leader Vladimir Balyberdin and team members, including Anatoli Boukreev, and numerous bureaucrats. My name was placed on the official permit, bringing the trip roster to 10 members; 7 Soviets and 3 Americans. We set off for Basecamp and arrived after 4 days of hard hiking behind 30 yaks and 21 porters. 

Dan on South Col of Everest

Upon arrival, the Nepalese/French expedition told us there was a US$300 per person charge for access to the ropes and ladders in the Khumbu icefall. Being short of cash we decided to fix a route along the northern perimeter of the glacier and had the task completed in two days. On September 30th at 6:15 am an explosion thundered from the hanging glacier above our "Russian Route". I popped out of the tent just in time to see a massive avalanche obliterate the path. Fortunately, we had been late waking up and no one was on the route. From this point onward, our party used the standard trail as we established camps 1 through 4, though some members chose not to pay the fee. 
For the final assault we split into two groups. On October 5 Anatoli Boukreev and Vladimir Balyberdin summited without oxygen while Kevin Cooney made it to the south peak. After a sleepless night on the South Col, at 5:15 am October 10th, Roman and I exited a snow plastered tent and went for the top in high winds and good visibility. Roman was slow, but we stopped often and I made him eat chocolate bars and drink water throughout the day. The breeze mellowed by midday, but became an icy blast on the arduous Hillary Step, making the final rock-snow pitch doubly difficult. It was so cold on top at 5 pm that we did not remove our stiffened oxygen masks while lingering to absorb an incredible panorama of the Himalaya stretching in all directions. 

View from the Summit

Perhaps we stayed too long because on the descent Roman collapsed at 8:00pm in total darkness. We were in a ground blizzard, still about 1 hour above the South Col. I tried to carry and even drag him, but I was not able to summon enough strength. I dug a snow hole and put my partner in it with all of our oxygen and a ski pole for a flag. I promised to return or find help. Roman cried, and I worried as I left. My head was spinning but I knew I could not stay in the hole or I would die.

Roman coming down from summit

I stumbled and crawled through darkness in a howling ground blizzard, with wind blown ice grains sandblasting my now unmasked cheeks, down a never ending ice field toward a flickering distant light with hands covering my face and a dead headlamp. When I came to the tent I collapsed on hard icy snow and cried out. The door zipped open and I rolled in, crampons and all. Inside were two very surprised Russian teammates, Aleksey Klimin and Gennady Copieka. After pouring warm tea down me and trying to understand my nearly incoherent Russian-English babble, Aleksey went to look for Roman and came back in two hours alone. I wept, knowing my friend was dead. Gennady went next, this time with a very bright headlamp. In three hours Roman was in the tent, alive and uninjured. Gennady, being well rested and an incredibly strong climber, had somehow managed to find, carry, and lead/drag Roman back. 

Gennady Copieka the man who ultimately saved Roman's life at Lukla

Roman at the 8,400 meter mark

During the next two days, Roman and I made our way down to Basecamp glad to be alive and stunned at making the summit. Back in Kathmandu the group was celebrating at a hotel banquet when Gennady pulled me aside to say Roman was the first Soviet Georgian and the second oldest climber ever to reach the top. He also said that because of childhood tuberculosis, Roman had the use of only one lung since age 10. Roman and our team doctor had kept this a secret from me, and now I understood one reason why the leader and Boukreev had put Roman and I together, because they thought our chances to succeed were minimal. They had been very surprised when we reached the top. I later went on to form lasting relationships and climb again with Anatoli Boukreev and expedition leader Vladimir Balyberdin (the first Russian to climb Everest and K2), although both are now dead. I never heard from Roman again, however, sometimes when I am climbing in the Himalaya, I meet Georgians, and when I introduce myself, they all seem to know my name already! They tell me that Roman has moved to Moscow, to be near his son, and that Roman works in the travel business there. 

Roman making the traverse from the south summit to the Hillary step

Roman on the Hillary step

Roman under the south summit

In retrospect I find it hard to believe that this "accidental" climb occurred. Mostly, I am in awe of Roman Giutashvili's courage. To attempt such a difficult peak at his age under such circumstances takes real guts. He is an inspiration to us all. 

Thank you, Daniel Mazur 

Dan on the Summit of Everest

Everest 2001

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