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Three Ukrainian climbers complete first ascent of fabled Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III

Three Ukrainian climbers–Nikita Balabanov, Mikhail Fomin and Viacheslav Polezhaiko–have just completed the first ascent of the fabled Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III (7555m).

Until now, no one had surpassed the high point of 6500 meters that was first attained by British climbers Steve Bell, Nick Colton and Tim Leach in 1981. In 2016, Austrian climbers Hansjorg Auer, Alex Blumel and David Lama arrived at a similar elevation, perhaps slightly higher, but like their predecessors they were also turned around by a stormy forecast. The ridge is about 2300 meters long and technical. There are numerous accounts describing the exfoliating rock and difficulty of retreat, and the dread of the long and complicated descent that would follow if the summit were reached.

According to a Google-translated post by Yana Rostem on November 11 that appeared on the climbers’ Facebook pages, the trio took 18 days for the ascent and descent. Their 40 kg loads contained just 12 days of food, and for four days each man’s rations consisted of 1.5 energy bars. Their food and gas ran out on the “penultimate day,” according to Rostem’s post. Meanwhile, wind and snow thwarted progress every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On the descent, “they planned to go down towards Manang, but realized that in such a wind, the strength to walk 3.5 km on a comb at an altitude of 7300+ [meters] will not be enough. So they descended towards Annapurna southern base camp.” A helicopter picked them up at 5000 meters. “A little frozen fingers on their hands, but not critical–nothing will be cut. The whole body hurts…but it will pass.”

A screenshot of a publicist's Facebook post announcing the upcoming media briefing for Nikita Balabanov, Mikhail Fomin and Viacheslav Polezhaiko's first ascent of the Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III (7555m). [Photo] Derek Franz

A screenshot of a publicist’s Facebook post announcing a media briefing for Nikita Balabanov, Mikhail Fomin and Viacheslav Polezhaiko’s first ascent of the Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III (7555m). [Photo] Derek Franz

The Himalayan Database posted on Facebook:

The Himalayan Database team would like to congratulate Nikita Balabanov Mikhail Fomin and Viacheslav Polezhaiko for achieving the last “great goal of alpinism.” On 6 November 2021, they stood on the summit of Annapurna 3 at 7555m, which they reached via the technically difficult and so far unclimbed SE ridge. Thanks to the Ukrainian team for taking the time to tell the The Himalayan Database about their harrowing climb, their amazing endurance, the nights they spent on the smallest ledges in their tiny two-man-tent, Viacheslav Polezhaiko’s ability to “feel” the snow when he descended into something that seemed like nowhere, their precise timing with food and gas and their intuition to take the only possible descent line towards Annapurna South base camp!

We’re waiting to hear how the Ukrainian team approached the mountain. An approach on foot involves several days and objective hazards, which Nick Bullock described in an account of his first attempt on the Southeast Ridge in spring 2010. Bullock and his partners returned in the autumn by helicopter, which is also how Auer, Blumel and Lama reached the base of the route in 2016. (A 12-minute video of their climb can be found here.)

Bullock wrote:

It only took a few days to realise that the Southeast Ridge was an incredibly dangerous, if not suicidal objective for an alpine style ascent. The initial snow slope/glacier runnel, that after talking to Nick Colton, I can only presume is the same one that Nick and Tim Leach climbed in their 82 attempt, has a massive serac towering above which carves fairly frequently. Above this serac are a further two massive seracs. Even if the initial runnel was not seriously threatened there appeared to be several overhanging ice sections in the runnel with big holes. To the right of the ridge is a rock band of smooth glaciated slabs and above this the snout of the rapidly receding glacier carves constantly, day and night, and without interruption. The rock on the ridge, exfoliating shale that rattled around the cirque as regular as the ice, gave us no-doubt that we would not be climbing it. Finally on the left of the ridge some ice lines that we thought may go, lead to nothing and melted out quickly. Given the dangerous nature of the rock and ice on the Southeast Ridge it was an easy decision to look elsewhere….

In a feature for Alpinist 39 (2012) titled “The Magician’s Glass,” Ed Douglas interviewed Colton, Leach and Bell about their 1981 expedition, observing that all three never returned to climbing with the same zeal in the aftermath. He wrote:

No doubt someone will one day climb the southeast pillar…. The next [Voytek] Kurtyka, perhaps, or the next Steve House. I hope they do it in good style. No doubt they will be admired and praised. It is a year since I stumbled awkwardly in Nick [Colton’s] footsteps, a year thinking about what he and Tim, and also Steve, had achieved. I remain full of respect for their decision, and for their half-route. They went out and found the line. Then, recognizing their limits, they stepped back.

Alpinist will update the story about the Ukrainian ascent with more details as they become available.