The Abalakov thread: early mountaineering and historic climbs

by ROSS BALLARD

“How the hell do you get down from there?”

It’s a question a few folks have asked me when commenting on my ice climbing articles. The answer scares the crap out of most people.

Taking my two longest ice screws (23cm) I place them on a 45 degree angle so they intersect forming a triangular tube in the ice. Removing the screws I push a piece of anchor cord through one tube and pull it out the other with a long wire hook. Tying the cord together with a double fisherman’s knot I hang my ropes through the anchor cord. Then I trust my life to a piece of ice no bigger than a loaf of bread. Sounds insane right?

Well it’s actually a whole lot stronger than you would think. Properly made, this anchor dubbed “the V-thread” can hold over 1,100 Kilograms! So how is this possible? And who thought of this crazy idea?!
Enter Vitaly Mikhalovich Abalakov; born on the Siberian river lands of Eastern Russia Vitaly (1906) and his younger brother Yevgeniy (1907) were two of the former Soviet Union’s proudest climbing heroes. An alpinist and inventor by trade, Vitaly made the first Soviet ascent of Lenin peek in 1934. At 7,134 meters this behemoth borders the countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia and was thought to be the highest peak in the former Soviet Union until the year before (1933) when younger brother Yevgeniy climbed the nearby Gormo peak and found it to be over 300 meters higher. At 7,495 meters the mountain was renamed Stalin Peak. Then in 1962 just a few months before the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nikita Krushchev renamed the mountain Communism Peak as part of his de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union. Then in 1998 the government of Tajikistan Re-named it Ismail Simoni Peak after the greatest ruler of their oldest dynasty, but To this day it remains “Pik Communizma” to most Russians.

The brothers joined the military and spent most of their careers climbing for their country. Yevgeniy was a member of the 26th detachment of the Tajik-Pamir Sovnarkom; he was tasked with climbing peaks and ice fields to remove Nazi flags, replacing them with the colors of Soviet Russia. In 1938 both brothers were arrested by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) for embracing Western mountaineering techniques, diminishing domestic alpinist’s achievements and supposedly being German spies. They were held under suspicion until 1940, the entire time serving in the war effort against Nazi Germany. Yevgeniy would eventually go to the front lines and survive several years of brutal fighting and horrible living conditions. He died mysteriously in 1948 while preparing to climb the 7,439 metre Victory Peak on the borders of Kyrgyzstan and China. Not much is known about Vitaly for this period, other than a spectacular ascent of the most northerly 7,000 metre peak on earth. At 7,010 meters, the brutal cold and thin air of Khan Tengri took several fingers and part of Vitaly’s foot!

The reader should keep in mind that there are only 14 8,000-metre peaks on earth; the mountains I’ve written about fall just short of that and these days see hundreds of climbers a year. Even today with all our fancy equipment, and the help of porters and supplemental oxygen, these mountains are still a brutal test of will and endurance and a must-do for any climber who wishes to get on an 8,000 metre peak such as Everest or K2. To climb these mountains in the 1930s is nothing short of legendary and it seems the rest of Russia felt the same for Vitaly is touted as “the father of Russian alpinism”. In 1943 he was named honored master of sports for the USSR and was given the order of Lenin in 1957 along with several other titles in years to come. Abalakov passed away in May of 1986 at the age of 80.

It is unclear who invented the first ice screw, but history shows a wide variety of design concepts were put to the test throughout the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds; first in the mountainous terrains of Western and Eastern Europe and eventually here in the Rockies. The first hollow screws were developed in the 1930s and were much faster to place than their predecessors; their hollow core allowing for relief of pressure as chewed up ice could spit out the end of the screw. It wasn’t until the 50s or 60s that thicker screws were made with a larger core. It was sometime during that period that Abalakov invented the V-thread and dramatically changed what climbers thought was possible on steep ice and alpine routes.

My partners and I make dozens of V-threads each season and each time it still feels a little odd to be hanging my ass off of a big ice cube, but the truth is ice is strong stuff. A one metre squared cube of solid ice weighs one ton! The triangular shape of a deeply placed V-thread allows weight and pressure to disperse throughout the entire surface of the ice, meaning each cubic centimeter is only holding a small fraction of the weight.

Today this anchor is a must-know for any serious ice climber, but I can’t help wonder what it felt like to be the first person to trust your life to one. Further, I can’t imagine being arrested on charges of climbing smarter and safer than others. Can you imagine… “You are under arrest for not being as dumb as us; and while you were climbing those 7,000 metre mountains, you were spying on us!”

This is Ross Ballard inspired and humbled by the efforts and sacrifices of these two climbers; and ever thankful for living in Canada!