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Culture, Climbing, and Competition in Russia

Posted on: July 14th, 2009 by admin

Siberia: a cruel place of exile, unimaginable cold, gulags, emptiness.

In 1982 Russian geologists exploring a remote region of Siberia discovered a family of raskolniki (Russian Orthodox Old Believers) who had been living in hiding since the early 1900s. They weren’t aware of the fall of the tsar (at the end of WWI), nor the rise of Soviet rule. Such is the vastness of the great Siberian plain. If you dug a hole straight into the ground in front of Boulder’s Trident Cafe, and popped out on the other side of the earth, you might just end up near my tent here in Ergaki National Park. The name Siberia comes from the Mongolian sibi, which means “sleeping land,” and I traveled 77 hours from Boulder to arrive in this world away: 19 on a plane, 16 in a car or bus, and the rest just waiting… in airports, a hotel, and on the side of the road. On the final leg of the journey to this remote camp I jostled in the back of a high-clearance Russian military jeep for two hours on an abandoned road, through two swift rivers and a dozen pitfalls that civilian vehicles (including the SUVs parked at Vic’s) couldn’t manage.

Here, in the middle of Siberia’s wilderness, vibrant orange, yellow, and purple wildflowers thrive among the rich greens of the marshy taiga. Mosquitoes swarm so thick that when the air is still, it’s hard to focus on anything but moving and swatting. This is also where the 3rd annual Ergaki International Mountaineering Festival is taking place, and it’s the first time that foreign climbers were invited. My friend Alex Honnold and I are the token Americans among a mixed bag of representative countries including Sweden, Hungary, Serbia, and Israel.

I’m still trying to understand what this festival is all about. I have zero knowledge of the Russian language (unlike Spanish or French where I understand tidbits and can occasionally say something intelligible), so 99% of what I hear around me is gibberish. Nikolai is our appointed Russian-English translator, but so much is happening that it’s impossible for him to keep us completely informed. In addition to us foreigners, over 100 Russians are camped here: wiry sport climbers, families of hikers, journalists and media specialists from Moscow and Krasnoyarsk (the closest city, 360 miles away!), and many who apparently just came to watch the climbers – and the competitions.

For the past two days we’ve been sport climbing at “Stone City,” a collection of small granite crags that were bolted last month specifically for this event. I thought our first day would be a fun introduction to the area, but it turned out to be a formal competition with scorecards, judges, and rules. I partnered with Andreas from Sweden because Alex hadn’t yet arrived (due to some major travel complications). At 10:45am I started climbing but was abruptly ordered down by one of the officials – the festival didn’t start until 11:00.

By late afternoon Andreas and I heard a cheering crowd on a granite tower next to us. There was a speed aid climbing competition in full swing, and it was all the rage. I’ve never seen anything like it: climbers and ropes in a confusing mess on the wall, a series of judges hanging at different intervals above the ground, and Russians using makeshift ice tools to climb rock. One of the most unusual (and inapplicable to real climbing) speed techniques we witnessed involved a Russian team who dropped their cams to the ground after taking them out of the cracks – it was ostensibly faster than clipping them to their harnesses!

In a few days the festival will move into the Western Sayan Mountains where “multi-pitch and mountaineering” competitions will take place. I’m not sure what that means, or how many people will be there, or how long we’ll stay, or what the climbing will be like, but it doesn’t matter. After all, I’m in a place where nature has the final say, where 75 years can go by in isolation, and where climbing bears a mere pinprick of significance: Siberia.

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