Ukrainians succeed with a bang on Annapurna III

Viacheslav Polezhaiko, Nikita Balabanov and Mikhail Fomin (from l. to r.)
Successful trio: Viacheslav Polezhaiko, Nikita Balabanov and Mikhail Fomin (from l. to r.)

This goal was almost never missing from anyone’s list of remaining ultimate alpinistic challenges in the Himalayas and Karakoram: the Southeast Ridge of the 7555-meter-high Annapurna III in western Nepal. Now this project can be crossed off the lists. According to Ukrainians Nikita Balabanov, Mikhail Fomin and Viacheslav “Slava” Polezhaiko, they climbed the route completely and reached the summit. In the meantime, the trio returned safely to Kathmandu.

For the three Ukrainians, it was the second attempt on Annapurna III. In fall 2019 they had turned back at an altitude of just over 6,300 meters because Balabanov had suffered from frostbite. Even then, the Ukrainian called it a “unique line”: “because it’s three vertical kilometers, packed with absolutely different types of difficult terrain: waterfall ice, vertical snow, openwork snow ridges, a steep mix.”

Piolet d’Or Award Winner

Annapurna III Southeast Ridge
Climbing the ridge

The Ukrainian trio is among the crème de la crème in mountaineering on the world’s highest mountains. In fall 2014 they made the first ascent of the Northwest Pillar of the 6,427-meter-high Langshisa Ri in Langtang, Nepal. A year later, Balabanov and Fomin climbed the North-Northwest Pillar of the 7,348-meter-high Talung, located near the eight-thousander Kangchenjunga, for the first time. In 2016, they were awarded the Piolet d’Or, the “Oscar of mountaineering” for their route, which they mastered in alpine style.

Many failed attempts

Southeast ridge of Annapurna III
Southeast ridge of Annapurna III (rising from the center of the picture on the left)

In the past 30 years, some top mountaineers had cut their teeth on the Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III. Already the approach is so difficult that some early expeditions did not even reach the base camp. Today, climbers usually fly there by helicopter.

The first to attempt the Southeast Ridge in vain were the British Nick Colton and Tim Leach in 1981. According to their own account, they reached an altitude of around 6700 meters before turning back because of too strong winds. “Route is possible, but alpine-style difficult above 20,000 feet (about 6100 meters),” Tim Leach judged afterwards. In 2010, a British trio led by Nick Bullock made it to 6,100 meters before the climbers threw in the towel. Again, the wind was blowing too hard.

In 2016, Austrians David Lama, Hansjörg Auer and Alexander Blümel made it to an altitude of around 6,500 meters, but they too were stopped by bad weather. “On almost all pitches, difficult mixed climbing forced us to hang our ice tools on our harnesses and resort to direct aid,” Lama later wrote.

Their film, “Annapurna III – Unclimbed” (see below), about the failed expedition, was awarded the Best Climbing Film of the Year by the UIAA, the world mountaineering federation, in 2017. Lama and Auer died in an avalanche on Howse Peak in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in 2019.