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"Unfinished Sympathy": An interview with Dmitry Golovchenko and Sergey Nilov about their new line on Kumbhakarna's east face

Posted on: April 25, 2019


[The following interview has been translated by Monika Braid and Dmitry Golovchenko. It has been edited for length and clarity. The transcript has been provided by Eliza Kubarska, who accompanied Golovchenko and Sergey Nilov to base camp during their first ascent of a new line on the east face of Kumbhakarna (Jannu, 7710m) from March 16 to April 2.

The men recently decided to name their route "Unfinished Sympathy" after a song by one of their favourite bands, Massive Attack. Golovchenko and Sergey Nilov are both double laureates of the Pilot d'Or award and four-time winners of the Russian Golden Axe award.

The interview was conducted April 6 as part of a documentary that is slated to premier in January 2020. Kumbhakarna was featured in the Mountain Profile of Alpinist 57 (2017).—Ed.]

Sergey Nilov. [Photo] Dmitry GolovchenkoSergey Nilov. [Photo] Dmitry Golovchenko

Dmitry Golovchenko. [Photo] Sergey NilovDmitry Golovchenko. [Photo] Sergey Nilov

The East Face of Jannu/Kumbhakarna. The actual route is shown in red, while the intended route is shown in orange. [Photo] Courtesy of Marcin TomaszewskiThe east face of Jannu/Kumbhakarna (7110m) with the route of Unfinished Sympathy drawn in blue. [Photo] Dmitry Golovchenko [This photo has been updated from the original route line that was posted.—Ed.]

Eliza: How would you describe Jannu [aka Kumbhakarna, 7710m] in few sentences?

Dmitry: It's a very interesting mountain, but the approach and descent are very difficult. I never experienced such difficult retreat from the mountain. But also the approach is not easy: first, you need to climb seven pitches up on the rock, not even to mention getting to the [base camp] along a very interesting, huge Yalung Glacier, where it's not easy to find a place for the base camp. And then, there is the east wall with its very impressive headwall. For a good team it's an excellent goal.

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When was the first time you came up with the idea of climbing Jannu?

Dmitry: The idea appeared in 2015. Two Ukrainians, Nikita Balabanov and Mikhail Fomin, made a new route on Talung, which is opposite the south-eastern wall of Jannu, so they had very good photos. We met with them in Moscow, we talked, we looked at these pictures and thought that it was a very interesting mountain, and that we could climb it. And then, in 2016, we tried to organize a commercial expedition; we were going to take a group of people who wanted to see the third largest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga, and then they would go back with guides and we would start climbing. Unfortunately, weren't able to collect enough people. Then last year you and your film project appeared.

Your original plan was to climb the headwall. Why did you change the plan?

Dmitry: Because the team changed. We planned to climb in a team of three, but it ended up being only two of us....

[Marcin Tomaszewski, of Poland, chose to stay in camp when the other two wanted to commit to the climb before they'd all completed a formal acclimatization period.—Ed.]

Nilov leads a traverse at around 6200 meters on March 18. [Photo] Dmitry GolovchenkoNilov leads a traverse at around 6200 meters on March 18. [Photo] Dmitry Golovchenko

How would you like to summarize it: what was the most difficult on this trip? And what surprised you most?

Dmitry: The size of this mountain. It is huge. You think you will get somewhere soon, e.g. the next day, meanwhile it takes you three or even four days to get to this place.

Sergey: The most difficult was the retreat. Usually, you do not expect the descent to be so difficult. Here we had to climb up again many times, then go down and climb up again.

You said that firstly one needs to climb the 300 meters of granite wall (that ends at 5200m), and then the icefall begins. I remember that at the very beginning you told me over the radio that you wouldn't be able to retreat the same way.

Dmitry: First of all, the icefall is very cracked, secondly the weather was bad. We managed to find places for the tent but sitting inside it, we could hear avalanches coming down left and right. It was difficult to find the way up, so to get down it'd be even more tricky. But at that time I didn't know that the descent to the other side would be equally difficult. Normally, the retreat takes about one to two days. Today, I know that descending the way we climbed up is no more difficult to what we had to do on the SW side of the ridge.... I don't think it would've been any quicker but at least I would've known what to expect.

Was it your most difficult expedition if you compare it to earlier ones like Muztagh Tower, Trango Tower or Thalay Sagar?

Dmitry: Today my answer is: yes. Perhaps it was our most difficult expedition. But really, I can only answer it after some time, when I get some rest and clear it all in my head. Surly, we can compare what we've done now to what we did on Muztagh Tower. The main difference is that there we climbed in a team of three and here only it was two of us. Also, the descent from Jannu was far more difficult than anywhere else before.

Sergey: Yes, we never climbed so high with only with two of us. It was a big problem, because the wall was very steep and it was difficult to use big-wall techniques, where the leader is climbing and the rest of the team haul the bags. Here, I had to climb and then to pull the stuff up and climb again. It was especially difficult to do at such a high altitude.

Nilov, morning after a bivy at around 6400 meters. [Photo] Dmitry GolovchenkoSergey Nilov, morning after a bivy at around 6400 meters. [Photo] Dmitry Golovchenko

Were you aware that the line you chose would be so steep?

Dmitry: No. At the beginning, when we considered a possible line, it seemed to be less steep, because we could see snow there.

How about the climb above 6000 meters?

Sergey: That part of the wall is relatively easy. But the farther one goes that wall becomes more vertical. On most of the pitches we climbed with ice axes and the beginning of the pitch seemed to be easy.... But farther up the snow became looser and underneath it there was crisp ice, like a cheese. There was nowhere to put in protection, and I felt that at any moment I could fall down to the belay. I even tried to hold onto this ice-cheese with my hands. It's typical for a high altitude climb that it's not easy to put in good protection. It was hard. Sometimes even too hard.

Did you have problems with setting the belay stances?

Sergey: It happened once that at the end of the pitch I fell and I was again at the stance with Mitka (Dmitry).... During the fall, my crampon was caught on the ice so I hung for a moment horizontally at the waist....

From BC we could see sometimes it snows and blows quite badly up there?

Dmitry: We had longer periods of bad weather, but we were already quite high up and the gradient of the wall was quite steep, so the snow did not accumulate much. The small avalanches fell, which were not dangerous for us. We were lucky that the bigger snowfall began when we crossed the icefall. We only had one day when we had to stay stopped on the icefall in a very safe crevasse, because we could see nothing in the snow.

Did you often have problems with visibility?

Dmitry: Yes, quite often, more than every second day, I'd say.

Nilov leading, ca. 6750 meters, March 21. [Photo] Dmitry GolovchenkoNilov leading, ca. 6750 meters, March 21. [Photo] Dmitry Golovchenko

What happened later with your sleeping bags?

Dmitry: Well, at some point they became wet and horrible. Let's say in the second part of climbing they were completely soaked, so they didn't give any warmth, only protected us from being even more wet. They were more like bivouac sacks than sleeping bags.

Sergey: We had no time to dry them. The only thing we could do is to join the wet bags together and hug each other to get some warmth. It was cold.

How many days you plan this expedition for?

Dmitry: For 14 days.

How many days did you stay on the mountain?

Dmitry: We began on March 16 and finished on April 2.

That means you were in action for 18 days. How was the food situation at the end of it?

Dmitry: At the end it was hard but we still had some food left. But of course, during the retreat we ran out of everything. We just had some walnuts left. The tea ran out unfortunately in the middle of the action and we didn't know what to drink. It's not nice to drink just water, so we cooked dry apricots and drank some kind of compote. We tried also with raisins but they didn't give any flavor. I even tried to find something in our first aid kit that could be interesting to drink. For two days we drank water with something made with glucose.

And was it tasty?

Dmitry: Well, you wouldn't drink it at home, but at least it tasted of something. It was even a bit sweet and had a yellow color (laughter).

Tell me about your relationship with Sergey. How long have you known each other?

Dmitry: We met in 2001, and in the winter of 2002 we went to the mountains together for the first time. It was a coincidence that we started to climb together. We went to Caucasus with our alpine club and everyone had a partner except me and Sergey. We became one team....

You were very young then.

Dmitry: Yes, I was 19 and Sergey was 25. He also was young. We did one route together and later went to Elbrus. It was apparent that we understood each other well. It works!

How do you split your work?

Sergey: When you know someone for so long you don't have to talk about what each person needs to do, everything is obvious. We both know who is good at what and we do it....

Dmitry: Presently I do more before and after the expedition: the idea, gathering information, preparations, buying flight tickets, collaboration with sponsors. Naturally, when I find a project I discuss it with Sergey and if we both agree, I start to organize it. During the expedition such things as contact with an agency, porters, meals, all logistics, everything except climbing, is my sole responsibility. The climbing is Sergey's task and his strength.

Would you say Sergey is a "climbing machine"?

Dmitry: Uli Steck was a "climbing machine." I don't compare them, because each one has a different style of climbing. But Sergey Nilov, in what he does, is the best in the world. This is my opinion. Everyone who sees him climb can see this. At the same time he is very confident when he does it, and moreover he gives you a sense of security.

Going back to Jannu—once in our radio conversation you said that the avalanche broke your tent.

Dmitry: We set a tent under a large rocky wall, but even there the avalanche reached us and that time it was big enough that it broke one of our poles. We managed to fix it later, but that night was hard. There was a big snowfall. We were sitting and supporting the tent with our shoulders and heads under the snow that was getting heavier and heavier....

Bivy at around 6300 meters, March 19, where small avalanche during the night broke one of the tent poles. [Photo] Dmitry Golovchenko and Sergey NilovBivy at around 6300 meters, March 19, where a small avalanche during the night broke one of the tent poles. [Photo] Dmitry Golovchenko and Sergey Nilov

Why didn't you go to the summit?

Dmitry: A day before we reached the SE ridge, we talked about if we should go in the direction of the summit or not and we decided that it'd be too risky. We'd been too long on the wall that proved to be more difficult than we expected. Also the summit seemed to be much farther away than we thought.

Sergey: We spent a lot of time climbing at the high altitude and, at some point we realized that if we go to the summit it will be very difficult to come back. There was still a lot of climbing ahead of us although we were already at 7400 meters. We had the first signs of frostbite on our feet. And the weather—every day in the afternoon there was a massive snowfall. And if you add a risk of serious frostbite—and the risk was growing—it would mean for me the end of my ability to do my work at home where I need my hands and legs—then you realize that you cannot go to the summit and you must start rappelling down. There was no strength in us, both physically and mentally, to go farther up. I'm sure it was a good decision.

The beginning of the descent on March 28. [Photo] Dmitry GolovchenkoThe beginning of the descent on March 28. [Photo] Dmitry Golovchenko

Tell me about the retreat.

Dmitry: Jannu is bigger than any other mountain in the area, except Kanchenjunga. All other peaks around are considerably smaller. The retreat form Jannu is not that you rappel or walk down, how it normally is. Here you must to cross other mountains, ridges, glaciers. It's not easy to find the route. Even when the visibility was good, we had to waddle through the snow up to our knees and that takes time. Perhaps if the conditions were good and we knew the way, it would've been possible to retreat in two full days....

Sergey: It was the hardest descent in our lives. Everything is very far away from each other and is difficult. It seems to you that you will reach another place while walking, meanwhile you have to rappel and then climb up again.

It took you almost six days. But do you know that you were the first team that retreated that way having not climbed this route on the way up, without knowing it? I received many messages on my satellite phone that this descent route is so complicated, that you would never be able to make it.

Dmitry: I'm happy they were wrong.

The everlasting descent continues, March 30. [Photo] Sergey NilovThe everlasting descent continues, March 30. [Photo] Sergey Nilov

How much equipment did you leave on the wall? (Besides the stuff, which we left on the 300-meter granite wall on the approach)

Dmitry: Three [hooked Russian pitons, similar to bird beaks] with a carabiner. That's it.

Tell me about "no fear" philosophy which you follow and which came from Alexander Demchenko in the early 1970s.

Dmitry: For us it is kind of way of thinking in the mountains. There were two mottos: "army climbs in any weather" (Demchenko was a soldier) and "no fear." They also had a rule: approach the mountain in the bad weather so later, during the climb, the weather should be better. When we started our climbing life we did a couple of easy climbs in very bad weather to be prepared for the future.

What are your plans now?

Sergey: For a moment, you must live a normal life, in order to want something else again. When you experience something like this now, you think it's over, that you drop it now and never would want to do it again. Because what's this for? Pointless record breaking. And then you live at home for some time, you get bored and leave again for another trip. So you have to go back home, survive for at least half a year and then new ideas appear again. But at this moment I have no desires or new ideas.

Still on the descent, March 31. [Photo] Sergey NilovStill on the descent, March 31. [Photo] Sergey Nilov

—Eliza Kubarska is a documentary filmmaker and alpinist who has completed big wall first ascents in Greenland, Mali and Morocco. Her film "K2 Touching the Sky" won 17 international awards, including Best Feature Film at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival.

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