There are legends told about Israfil Ashurly among his fellow climbers, social networks explode from enthusiastic comments under his photographs from the highest peaks of the world, his “track record” is read like an adventure novel. I had literally several hours to prepare for an interview with the first Azerbaijani “snow leopard”. But to prepare for what was waiting for me the next day was impossible: it was a real climb to the cliffs near the Bibi Heybat mosque, where, overlooking Baku as if from a bird’s flight and shouting howls of Khazri, we talked about who according to the height of the mountain…
Dialogues with mountain
We climbers are sublime people – because we walk along the hills. Bravura literary revolution "to conquer the mountain" – not for us: it is impossible to conquer the mountain, it can only go up. The peaks are self-sufficient, they do not care if there is a little man on their slopes or not. They stood before us and will stand when we are no longer on this earth. And we can climb them only in certain periods: under favourable weather conditions, with successful acclimatization, with physical ability to lay a route to the top... The ascent process is a philosophical, spiritual process, associated with the awareness of one’s goal, one’s place in this world, internal dialogue, and even dialogue with the very top… The cultures of many people, especially those living in the Himalayas, are characterized by the deification of the mountains. For example, Nepalese Sherpas – alpine porters – do not go on the route until a religious puja ceremony has been held and a blessing from the mountain has been received. And depending on how often the smoke from incense changes direction, they decide whether to climb or not. It’s not enough to climb a mountain – you also need to correctly calculate the forces in order to get off it and arrive at the base camp unharmed. Therefore, among climbers, it is superstitious not to congratulate each other while standing on top.
Stay in the flock
At an altitude, the body experiences physiological discomfort: a low oxygen content, changes in temperature and pressure, difficult weather conditions – all these are serious tests. But frequent ascents, constant training, natural acclimatization without medication, of which I am an adherent, train the body and make the process of adapting to height quick and less painful. And after twenty years of climbing, I can confidently say that the most difficult thing in the mountains is not physical deprivation, but the ability to endure. In particular... endure teammate on an expedition. At certain heights, all colours fade: everything that is accessible to the eye is painted in grey or white, not counting the blue sky, coloured tents and clothes of the expedition members. This is very tiring and generally hard for the psyche. Untrained people, who have been living in Spartan conditions for weeks, with a group of strangers, sometimes lose their nerves. And one must be able to tolerate such people in the team: not to give vent to emotions, to avoid contentious issues, to seek compromises, to come to the rescue in time, to help adapt. And then, believe me, when the climb is completed, everyone will remain great friends, they will correspond, chat...
Climbers who have walked together for years form specific teams. We can calmly communicate without even talking, understanding each other with a half-word, half-view. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses: someone is good on ice, someone can easily endure the burdens... We learned how to live, work, interact with it, and it brings good results. But, no matter how strong the participants, there will always be someone with the greatest charisma, outstanding leadership qualities, who will lead the guys along the route. And different people can lead in different areas: someone is a virtuoso on the rocks, another is beautiful on a mixed terrain...
Revealing the Essence
We go to the mountains for pleasure, for courage, for euphoria, for the feeling of romance that does not get lost over the years, for all that is difficult to find in ordinary life. Standing on a beautiful peak, admiring the clouds under your feet and watching the flight of eagles from above, you get a surge of emotions that will not let go for a long time! But mountains, by definition, are a place where lies do not live long: they reveal the very essence of everything, and for this I especially love them. In the mountains, you see what the city carefully conceals under various guises. Mountains tear off all masks, calibrate and filter people. And those who have passed the test of time and mountains belong to the chosen brotherhood, one of the smallest communities in the world – through two handshakes we know climbers from almost the whole world! For example, having greeted Valery Babanov, in his person you say hello to almost all the leading climbing community. After all, mountaineering – for the most part, it is still a team sport, where the efforts of several give amazing results. Even if the work of five has led to the fact that one of the team was able to reach the top, it is the success of the whole team.
Gradually, from a freshman, who was accompanied by more experienced comrades, guides, I moved into the category of athletes. Received ranks, titles, technical expertise. The mountains have developed certain qualities in me: the ability to calmly analyze the situation and make immediate decisions (the mountains don’t like when they are in a hurry, but they don’t tolerate when they are slow), the ability to guide, lead, listen, help, be a mentor... All this applies to business, and in life. And this freshman stands at an incredible height, seized by a sense of depth, and the instructor catches fear in his eyes. Fear is normal, "nothing is scary only to a fool," and we are all afraid. But the question is how we deal with this fear. And the moment of fear is the very moment when the beginner realizes that he doesn’t know something, and is ready to trust the experience of another, to open up to receive this new knowledge: do not be afraid, do not panic, keep calm, overcome yourself, follow the correct algorithm of actions .
"The mountains are the names of those whose soul is their growth"
“When are you finally going to smile?” – Mom is sad when she learns that I’m going to the mountain again. But mountains are my life, this is a place of a certain strength and energy. I get a lot in the mountains, which then helps me realize myself in life. The mountains give so much that it feeds me for a long time, even when I left them a long time ago and are in the city. Mountains crystallize certain character traits: this ability to endure, overcome, fight, come to the rescue - the most important, in my opinion, human qualities. It doesn’t matter who you are – a man or a woman, a teenager or an elderly person – the mountains will always build a special, deeply personal dialogue with you. The main thing is to correctly understand their messages and soberly assess your strength: often a person’s ambitions exceed his real capabilities, can lead to tragedies... I had more than 107 successful ascents and 17 unsuccessful ones, but these unsuccessful attempts gave me an indispensable survival experience and even saved my life in the future.
“Mountaineering is an inoculation of courage for the whole nation” is a quote from the famous book “Category of difficulty”, on which several generations of climbers grew up, by the legendary Vladimir Nikolayevich Shabaev, who by fate became my first instructor.I dream that this book will also be published in the Azerbaijani language: our children need to read literature that instills a love of mountaineering, fosters qualities that are quite difficult to obtain in the modern world. I always took with me to the heights the one and only – the flag of Azerbaijan and nothing else, even I did not take the flag of my company. Just over a year ago, it added another flag- the Azerbaijan Mountaineering Club. The flag of Azerbaijan, in my bosom, traveled with me to Everest, Kanchenjung, the North Pole, Antarctica, all the highest peaks of all continents and almost all mountain systems of the planet. In 2014, it was this flag, ripped in places, with traces of blood, I deposited for storage in the Museum of Azerbaijan flag.And now, when I’m on my way to some expedition, I’m going to the museum and picking up this flag for a receipt. A rare museum boasts such an exhibit with such a story! And I really hope that in the future, someone else, when it will not be possible for me, will take this flag with him and continue his glorious history of ascents.
Pass on the torch
A year and a half ago, I decided to start coaching. The trigger was the tragedy in our mountains that happened at the end of 2017, when we lost three young climbers at once. This is very painful... One of the reasons for the tragedy was the fact that by that time our system of education and training of climbers was almost completely destroyed. Mountains require knowledge, experience and concentration from us. Mountains make us higher, learn to achieve our goals, going through difficulties. But we must not forget that the mountains, with all that has been said, are dangerous and do not forgive mistakes. And when there is no mentor with the appropriate training nearby, it seems to youth that one can embark on an adventure in the mountains, not understanding the severity of the consequences. Two years before the tragedy, when I retired from social activities, I had a conversation with Elbrus and Namin Bunyadzade, who died later. He then told me: “You are retired, and we live and survive as much as we can, agree to the rules of the game that are being imposed on us.” I remembered these words after the tragedy, and I felt uneasy...Therefore, my partner and I, after analyzing the situation, graduated from the Central School of Instructors abroad and, having completed an internship, received the title of instructors in order to be able to pass on part of our experience to those who want to climb mountains in our country.And for these purposes, we organized the Azerbaijan Climbing Club. As an athlete must have done a lot on the personal path, but I would like that there was continuity to grow new staff who will carry our torch on.
Clean paths to the peaks
We need mountains in order to know the world, to become stronger and better. But, unfortunately, while in the mountains, not everyone thinks about the damage that a person causes to the ecosystem of the mountains. We must remember that coming to the mountains and enjoying their beauties, satisfying our ambitions, we must protect the nature around us. In particular, not only do not leave trash behind, but also pick up left by others. Regardless of whether I go to the top myself, drive clients to the mountains as a guide, or work with athletes as an instructor, I always try to clean the camp grounds and mountain trails from debris. Returning home with the consciousness of a fulfilled dream, we should leave for ourselves, in the mountains, only the routes traveled – and nothing more.
Interview by Leyla Sultanzadeh
Photo: Elchin Quliyev, personal archive