18 January 2023

Photo courtesy of the press service archive

A sculpture of a resting man in a relaxed pose with his shoulders slightly down, looking softly and a little tired, has appeared at the high-mountain skating rink next to the bas-relief of vigorous speed skaters. It is probably only his teammates and close friends who saw Anatoli Boukreev, a famous Kazakhstan mountaineer, like this. Thanks to their memoirs, the initiative of businessman Nurlan Smagulov and the talent of Nurlan Dalbai, the “Snow Leopard” came back to Almaty, though made of bronze…

Almaty residents see the ambitious project of the well-known Kazakhstan philanthropist roll out in the city: sculptures of famous and beloved citizens appear one by one in iconic and memorable places.

The sculpture of Shaken Aimanov was put in 2019 near the Almaty Hotel – this is where the creative community of those times gathered and where The Angel in a Tubeteika movie was shot. The second sculpture – Gerold Belger – was unveiled in 2021. It is located not far from the house where Mr. Belger lived in his later years. A bronze bench replaced the real one, the one that the maitre liked to rest on. According to Aidyn Sultanov, Director of the Nurlan Smagulov Foundation, a sculpture of “our lovely doctor” Yuri Pomerantsev is now being worked on. The sculpture will be put near the Lermontov Theater this year.

Aidyn Sultanov
Photo courtesy of the press service archive

The city sculpture format is chosen on purpose. “The history of the city is the history of each of us. Our teachers and heroes lived here, people of name grew next to us... We should remember it and we can touch it,” Nurlan Smagulov notes.

Actually, one does not need to stand looking up now to feel the greatness of the legend: The Anatoli Boukreev made of bronze is just 2 meters high. However, he ascended the mountains eight thousand meters high...

Mountaineers are not public people, with few photos and videos of theirs. According to Nurlan Dalbai, when he started working on the sculpture, he consulted with Ervand Ilyinsky, Galina Mulenkova, Rinat Khaibullin. And all of them tried to recollect Anatoli as best as they could, to convey the memory of that time and Boukreev himself as accurately as possible.

“When I work on any sculpture, I deep-dive into the material: I read books, see photos, watch movies – everything that is available. If there are people who were closely familiar with the person, I meet them and talk to them to have an image, gesture and movements shaped in my head and fingers,” Nurlan Dalbai says. “And in this case, I myself immersed in the past, in my own past... I used to do mountain skiing and knew Anatoli Boukreev, Dmitry Sobolev, Rinat Khaibullin, many mountaineering club members, though not so close. After his expeditions, Anatoli often gave away his belongings to his friends. This is how I got his backpack and letters. I was collecting all of his books... Back in 1997, I made a small portrait of Boukreev, just for myself, and did not show it to anyone.”

Photo courtesy of the press service archive

Frank and legendary, Anatoli Boukreev is a holder of the Order for Personal Courage (1989). He was honored with the David A. Sowles Memorial Award by the American Alpine Club. The award is given to mountaineers who saved people in mountains while risking their own life. He was posthumously awarded with Kazakhstan’s Medal for Courage. Anatoli Boukreev is the man who was able to seize three lives from Everest. This fantastic story inspired two film directors and two writers. Anatoli himself, however, was inspired by mountains only. He planned to climb his eleventh eight‑thousander.

“Anatoli came to Kazakhstan in 1979. Before that, he was big on сross-country skiing, so he joined the elite division – the sports army club of the Central Asian command led by Ervand Ilyinsky. He formed his powerful team in early 1980s. A top athlete, Anatoli was enrolled in the second Soviet Himalayan expedition to Kanchenjunga, though the screening was tough. The mountaineers believed that was the way cosmonauts were selected,” Galina Mulenkova, who wrote a book on Boukreev, says. The life of this man seems to be a very rich theme.

The list of Anatoli’s climbing wins is surely impressive: 11 eight-thousanders, four Everest climbs. Boukreev made it 21 times above 8,000 meters above sea level without oxygen and was preparing to ascend Annapurna, a massif in the Himalayas with its main peak having a glory almost as grim as that of Everest. Anatoli wanted to be among the first ten mountaineers who climbed the 14 highest peaks in the world.

“While I was writing the book, I often thought what would have happened if Anatoli had joined another team, had had another coach. Could that change his future? In 1997, Reinhold Messner, a world star of mountaineering, who was the first to summit all eight-thousanders of the Earth, came to Central Tian Shan. It was possibly Messner who set the bar high for the Annapurna winter expedition. “Just to climb several eight-thousanders more? And spend another two-three years for that? It is more interesting to have an extraordinary sport climb that Kazakhstan’s team used to make. Indeed, our mountaineers ascended technically complex routes on high mountains,” Mulenkova says.

Nurlan Smagulov has also been to Nepal several times and says that the ascent to such summit and the horizon line that can be seen only from the peak give the feeling of a real victory. After that you will never fall down again, neither will you feel yourself defeated. It is probably this feeling that gave rise to a big friendship: the businessman has done much for the development of mountaineering in Kazakhstan. He has been a sponsor of Kazakhstan’s mountaineering team many times, helped to organize several expeditions to the Himalayas and Karakoram, and helped our team to progress in their World’s 14 Highest Peaks program.

Galina Mulenkova
Photo courtesy of the press service archive

Galina Mulenkova says, “The contribution and assistance of Mr. Smagulov are invaluable. However, the sculpture of Anatoli Boukreev is most outstanding. An outstanding event for Almaty! As far as I know, there are very few personalized monuments to mountaineers. I can only recall the monument to Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard, the first climbers of Mont Blanc, in Chamonix, the monument in Lhasa dedicated to the Chinese climbing team – Wang Fuzhou, Gongbu and Qu Yinhua, who ascended Everest in 1960, the monument to Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the first climbers of Everest.”

On January 18, 2023, Anatoli Boukreev finally came back to the Medeu gorge. His bronze copy now blesses new climbers in love with mountains to have a successful climb.