A trio of Russian climbers pulls off a daring midwinter ascent of Mount McKinley

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, April 1998

As Cold As It Gets
A trio of Russian climbers pulls off a daring midwinter ascent of Mount McKinley
By Todd Balf

When Russian mountaineers Artur Testov, Vladimir Ananich, and Alexandr Nikiforov reappeared in Talkeetna, Alaska, last January, they were — to the disbelief of locals — neither sick nor frostbitten nor ready to kill one another. Rather, they were freshly shaven and ready to celebrate, which is hardly the outcome park rangers anticipated when they gave the little-known trio 50-50 odds of surviving their monthlong assault on Mount McKinley.

If such high spirits were a little hard to fathom, it's understandable. The trek, via the popular, moderately technical West Buttress Route, marked the first successful ascent of the 20,320-foot peak in its coldest, darkest month, when temperatures frequently plummet to minus 50 degrees, winds howl to 100 miles per hour, and the sun is above the horizon for a mere four and a half hours a day. Despite the Russians' relative obscurity in mountaineering circles — they've logged dozens of climbs in the Caucasus Mountains but have only recently started to venture abroad — they responded to the harsh conditions with the steel will of seasoned mountaineers and the zany pluck of eager novices. They fastened blinking bicycle lights on their simple, felt-lined boots to help them see their feet. They patched their 14 wind-tattered snow caves with clothing. They fashioned cigarettes out of Lipton tea.

But though they may be little known, the three aren't exactly averse to high-risk situations. Expedition leader Testov — like his teammate Nikiforov a construction worker who routinely scales tall buildings and church steeples in his hometown of Ryazan — attempted the same feat in January 1997, only to be turned back at 12,200 feet by a blizzard and an unpropitious fall into a crevasse; six months later, he and Nikiforov battled harsh weather during a late-season traverse off McKinley's summit. On their most recent foray, however, the Russians were graced with with an unseasonably balmy summit day — even for January. "They got lucky with the weather," says Denali National Park ranger Daryl Miller,"but I'm not sure they wouldn't have gotten it done anyway. Obviously, those guys don't have a problem with cold."

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