Valery Babanov has spent his career facing down death and confronting the fears most people try to bury in their daily activities. At 36, Babanov is one of the world's leading solo mountain climbers, having reached over thirty peaks by himself, three of which rank as the highest complexity, including Kangtega in Nepal and El Dorado in the French Alps. Yet Babanov readily admits that he has had his share of failures. For example, last April he tried to storm the 6800 meter Meru peak (in the Indian Himalayas), known as Shark's Fin. He was "dueling" two Americans, who were trying to reach the peak via a different route. All three failed, but Babanov was to try again in July.
Babanov discovered mountain climbing in secondary school, in his hometown of Omsk. "Frankly, I have dreamed of the mountains since childhood. But I never thought I would become a climber," he said. "My life history taught me that freedom of choice is a myth. If I had had my choice, I would have become a cosmonaut."
Indeed, Babanov graduated from an aviation school, and a love of astronomy paralleled his love for the mountains. However, he was plagued by ear infections in his childhood, ruling out a future in the sky.
At age 15 he scaled a class-4 mountain with a group of professional adults, and, by the late 1980s, had mastered all aspects of team climbing, both technological and psychological, having reached seven 7000 m peaks. "I had made more than 200 ascents as part of a team. And when I realized I needed more, there was only one option left: to go solo."
There was “just” one problem. Solo climbing was a taboo sport in the former USSR at that time--it went against the state's collectivist credo. Solo climbing was practiced only secretly, and if a climber was found out, he could be stripped of all his previous sports titles and awards for “setting a bad example.” As a result, Babanov had to develop his solo technique on his own.
His first solo ascent was in 1993, of Free Korea Peak (4740 m) in the Tian-Shan region. He recalls sitting in his tent at the foot of the mountain, debating whether or not he could make the ascent alone. He discovered that one of his friends had packed a copy of Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and read it straight through in one sitting. "When I was done reading it,” he said, “I turned to the title page and saw the epigraph: ‘To the real Jonathan Seagull, who lives within us all.’ I knew it already, and when dawn was breaking, I went to climb up the mountain solo."
Babanov says the mental journey up a mountain is almost as hard as the physical test. "It is very scary, being left alone with yourself, one on one. It seems as if everyone has forgotten you. You feel abandoned by the whole world, by your relatives … you feel almost betrayed ... Plus, each of us has some things that we want to escape from: some events, memories, sorrows. And in normal life, all of this is hidden deep inside--we are great at that! But up there in the mountains, all of this inexplicably re-emerges ..."
But of course there have been physical trials. Babanov has survived five burials in avalanches. He has been trapped for days on a rock face, waiting out a storm. He has climbed with such concentration on not crashing through the ice he was traversing, that he has forgotten to breathe. But, in the end, he said, the rejuvenation of his soul justifies the physical and emotional strain. "I mostly keep silent up there, and it fills you up--it seems that if you don't say anything to yourself, you will take off into the skies! This is why I call the solo-ascent an active, lengthy meditation."
Babanov is sponsored by two French companies--Simond and Petzl--and the Moscow company Bask. He enjoys the arrangement, he said, because everyone wins: he gets to work with the finest equipment, while the companies enjoy the publicity of a world-renowned climber testing their products. This is not to say he is getting rich off his climbing, but he does earn a living—enough to eat and pay for his studies at the French ski resort of Chamonix, near Mont Blanc. He is studying to be a mountain guide—for the days when his solo career is behind him. His wife and thirteen-year-old daughter live in Omsk, but often come to visit.
Babanov describes himself as a sociable man who enjoys the company of his many friends, but a person who always remembers the power of the heights. "Down the hill, there is the socializing, the coexistence,” he said. “And when you need your solitude, you go up ... In so doing, you make your solitude bearable and meaningful, and your daily life becomes nicer and merrier. Life based on contrasts is always full and interesting."
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