Top 10 Expeditions of 2021, #1: Annapurna III

Over the last 12 months, ExplorersWeb has documented incredible adventures in climbing, cycling, running, walking, skiing, and anything involving force of will and dedication to a dream in the outdoors. As this year comes to a close, we present our countdown of the Top 10 Expeditions of 2021.

So, there you go. ExWeb’s #1 this year goes to three unknown guys from a troubled land (geopolitically speaking), who climbed a peak below 8,000m that is not even the main summit of its massif. What’s so special about that?

Well, take a look at the featured picture above, or the one below.

Crappy rock, steep and exposed. Photo: Ukrainian Expedition Team

 

The atmosphere is wild. No one before has stood where they took that lead picture. And just above, the rotten rock flakes off, as the cutting wind compounds and clashes with the difficulty of breathing that thin air.

This could be Messner on Nanga Parbat, Kukuczka on the South Face of Lhotse, Bonatti on Gasherbrum IV. All legends, all determined to solve a problem that had long vexed the climbing community.

Such was the case with Annapurna III. Expeditions had attempted the nearly 3,000m-long Southeast Ridge for the last 40 years without success.

How it began

In December 2018, Viacheslav Polezhaiko, Nikita Balabanov, and Mikhail Fomin gathered in Fomin’s kitchen in Kyiv, Ukraine. It was his birthday. The other guests had all gone. “We had several options to choose from, but Annapurna III looked the most attractive and logical next step in our climbing careers,” said Fomin. “We all wanted a big challenge and real adventure after several years of failure.”

The Ukrainians are strong contenders for their second Piolet d’Or next year. Photo: Cherkasy Mountaineering Federation

 

They first tried in 2019. Although it didn’t go well because of the rough conditions, they looked at it as the first round in a long-term battle.

“Annapurna III’s SE Ridge is such a tactically complicated route that any team should consider their first expedition there only a reconnaissance,” Fomin said.

The mountain taught them many lessons that they were smart enough to learn. Two years later, in October 2021, they returned.

The going was even tougher than they had expected. They assumed huge risks. Their alpine-style push up the mountain lasted 18 days, but they had food and fuel only for 12. They had acclimatized elsewhere, and the only info they had is what they remembered from their first attempt.

Annapurna III SE Ridge. Photo: Ukrainian Expedition team

 

Pure alpine style

But those are, after all, the rules of pure alpine style, as Fomin told Explorersweb.

“We didn’t make any food or fuel deposits ahead of time on the route,” he said. “And there was no preliminary reconnaissance, except for our 2019 attempt. [We wanted to climb in the] cleanest possible style and the fairest means.”

In their favor, all three knew each other well. They had also that old Soviet capacity for endurance and suffering. “On that route, this was crucial. We had to stay patient, to fight constantly with uncertainty, to eat little but climb fast.”

They were used to working together and respect each other’s different approaches. Fomin admitted that he is the assertive one, while Nikita Balabanov has a more weighted and conservative approach to decisions. Viacheslav Polezhaiko usually ponders options and facilitates discussions. “He also has that snow feeling,” Fomin said. “I have not seen any other alpinist who has such a fine feeling for different snow conditions that he has.”

Wind and crumbly rock

The rock was loose, the snow was funky, and the weather didn’t cooperate either. Despite optimistic forecasts, high winds pummeled them virtually every day.

On the lower, snowy slopes of Annapurna III. Photo: Ukrainian Expedition Team

 

On the first sections of mixed and snowy terrain, they had to climb by night in order to take advantage of firmer snow and less rockfall.

At 6,100m, they mounted a rock buttress, the crux of the climb. This led to a chimney of rotten rock at 6,250m. The quality of the rock was bad that entire section. It ended at 6,500m, at a snowy, knife-sharp ridge.

Fomin deals with the chimney on Annapurna III. Photo: Ukrainian Expedition Team

This is the highest point previously reached by other climbing parties on that route. We spent a night on the snow mushroom on top of this knife. The next day, we approached the rock buttress above it and continued climbing this terra incognita. It took two days to climb the rock section (about 200m) and another two days to climb a 400m mixed section. Finally, we topped the buttress and reached the summit ridge.

“We all felt a bit sleepy.”

It was also the last decent bivy they found. Resting at night stopped being an option.

“The last night before the ridge was really bad. We had to chop a ledge on a 50˚ ice slope and build it up with a snow hammock. In the end, we had room only to sit, so the next day, we all felt a bit sleepy. It took us nine days to cover this section.”

Finally, they reached the summit ridge. A 70kph wind made the going extremely tough. “It was very hard to move, so it took us 1.5 days to reach the summit from 7,100m,” Fomin recalled.

Finally, the summit. Photo: Ukrainian Expedition Team

 

Once on top, the team started down a different side of the mountain, with no information or maps of how to proceed.

Nightmare descent

Ensued a three-day nightmare in high winds. In the end, they successfully descended to the base of the ridge at 5,000m. There, a helicopter took them to Kathmandu, exhausted and suffering from frostbitten fingers. Each of them lost 12 to 15kg.

After their airlift back to civilization. Photo: Ukrainian Annapurna III team

 

In a world of self-promotion, where the word ‘record’ is vastly overused, amid filtered photos and boastful messages, the three quiet Ukrainians considered patience one of the main virtues in alpinism. That is what they named their route: Patience.

“It felt like each day the mountain was presenting us with new intricate puzzles that we had to solve carefully, one by one,” Fomin said. “Moreover, each fresh puzzle extended your journey by another day. You had to be patient and find the inner resources to move on. So our initial estimate of 12 days round trip turned out to be 18 days.”

A vertical ice pitch on Annapurna III. Photo: Ukrainian Expedition team

 

A mountaineer’s soul

Best of all, the three climbers gathered again on Fomin’s birthday a couple of weeks ago. They have another goal in mind, and this time it soars above 8,000m.

Overall, this climb brings back memories of earlier mountain adventures. Maybe sponsors and mainstream audiences prefer something “higher, faster, cooler”. But simple stories like this one of humans facing mountains have for generations inspired anyone with a mountaineer’s soul. Such brave stories make us dream again, of Messner, Kukuczka, Bonatti…and prompt us to seek our own adventures.

Hunger games. Photo: Ukrainian Expedition team

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!


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Apy
Apy
4 months ago
jerry
jerry
4 months ago
Reply to  Apy

thank you! this is fantastic. Happy New Year to all!!!!

OldHikerDude
OldHikerDude
4 months ago
Reply to  Apy

Thanks for posting that link. I love Google Translate! The report is very detailed and interesting, and the images are breathtaking. It’s easy to see why they deserve the #1 spot on the list, although I’d bet that it was a hard choice to make over Winter K2.

chris
chris
4 months ago

Nice! I do a little hill walking myself…

Hugo Torres
4 months ago

Fantastic!!!

Rowan
Rowan
4 months ago

Fantastic!!