"What's a crisis, Daddy?"
My father, a sixth-grade teacher, patiently explained, "President Kennedy means that our country is in great danger; we are close to a war with the Russians because of missiles they have shipped to Cuba."
"Why is Mommy crying?"
"Because in a modern war, atomic bombs can destroy most of our country. No one could win a war like this."
I'll never forget that frightening evening at my grandparents' house, when all the grownups were riveted to the television watching the President address the nation. It was my first realization that my father could be scared. My grandma, a tough, no-nonsense woman who'd never been at a loss for words, sat pale and quiet after the broadcast. Even as an uncomprehending first grader, I knew that this ultimate evil threatened our very existence; and its name was COMMUNISM.
At the tender age of seven, I was forced to think not only of my own death, but the death of my planet- a senseless, violent death, the threat of which has hung like the Sword of Damocles over our heads for thirty years. I lay awake, night after night, listening to the sound of approaching jets. The closer each came, the more I tried to convince myself it was just taking off from Sea-Tac International Airport, but I couldn't relax until it faded into the distance. Startled by the occasional sonic boom, I would wait for the blast to blow our house down, like the test buildings I'd seen on civil defense movies. After a second or two I would lay back down, my mind burning with images of white-hot death and destruction. The fact that my basement bedroom was stocked as the family bomb shelter exaggerated my fears. During the hottest years of the Cold War my sleep was rarely sweet or sound.
The source of this terror Inspired a morbid curiosity about "The Enemy" that was readily fueled by a steady stream of Cold War propaganda. Through it all I wondered about the "normal people" in the Soviet Union. Did they hate me? Were their children as afraid as I was? What, were their lives really like? I imagined a mass of downtrodden automatons, whose gray days, totally controlled by The State, were devoid of freedom or pleasure.
When I moved to West Germany seven years ago to work for the Department of Defense Schools, visiting the Eastern Bloc was one of my top priorities. I subsequently visited a number of the satellite countries, but only as a tourist. I wanted more from a trip to the Soviet Union. I was disheartened, however, to hear friends, who had visited the USSR with Intourist (the official tour agency), say that they had very little contact with the local people. Since my trips to the Alps had proven the value of mountain climbing as an avenue to meet people from other countries, I was determined to climb in the Soviet Union.
An entry in the 1987 American Alpine journal captured my imagination. A Czechoslovakian group had spent 15 days in the Ak-Su region of the Turkestan Range (a sub-range of the Pamir Alai near the Afghan border) and returned with rave reviews: ". . . it can be considered one of the best rock-climbing areas not only in the USSR but in the world."
When I wrote to the Soviet Ministry of Tourism for information on their international mountaineering camps, this area was not included. I was surprised then to see an article in Mountain magazine describing a Seattle group's visit to the area. Due to poor weather, they didn't make a major ascent, yet were impressed with the area's potential. Their visit was part of an exchange with a Leningrad Alpine Club, and was endorsed by a sister-city program between Seattle and Tashkent. I expected this visit might open the area to Westerners, especially in the era of glasnost, but didn't find it listed when I wrote again .
I got in touch with another Seattle group traveling to the Ak-Su valley with the help of the Leningrad Alpine Club. This trip would be coordinated by REI Travel - I simply paid and planned to meet the group in Leningrad. My fiancee, Debbie (not an alpine climber), and I made arrangements with a German travel agent to fly to Leningrad for a two-week group tour prior to the expedition.
The Soviets had some of the strictest travel regulations in the world. You had to have a stamp documenting where you spent each night. They would only issue my initial tourist visa to cover the specific days that my German tour group was in the country. During the five days before the Seattle group arrived with my special sport visa, I would have to stay in Intourist hotels (where they will extend your visa daily at room rates near $l00/day) or stay illegally with my Alpine Club hostess, Seveta.
Our tour visited museums, churches, and historical sights in Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad. We could wander off on our own, but I only caught a glimpse of the "real" Soviet Union. This changed in Yalta when our tour visited the Black Sea resort, famous for the conference where Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill divided up Europe at the end of World War II. The rocky beaches are now jammed thigh-to-thigh with walrus-like women and pot-bellied men, beet-red from trying to absorb a year's worth of sun in a week. I didn't realize until later that their burns resulted as much from their economic system as from overindulgence. Because it is nearly impossible to find sunscreen, Soviet climbers wear shawls and face masks of white cotton in the high mountains; I nevertheless saw a lot of climbers with terrible burns.
Recalling articles I'd read about sport-climbing competitions held near the city, I spotted a small limestone crag on our drive to the hotel. In the heat of the following day I walked over to investigate. My feeble attempts at bouldering had just sputtered out when two Soviet climbers walked up. I was surprised to see them because I'd tried to get in contact with the local climbing club, but was told everyone was out of town on expeditions.
My new Ukrainian friends, Slav and Vlo, were in Yalta to train for an upcoming speed championship. I was the first foreign climber they'd met. Slav was studying English on his own with a basic phrase book. His first question, "How old are you?" made me pause for a moment, wondering if my 34 years set me too far apart from these young tigers. Then I realized it was one of the few questions he had memorized perfectly.
They invited me to the funky old gym where they were crashing. Typical of all the Soviets who befriended me, they insisted on paying for the taxi and the food we ate. After tea and apples for dinner, we walked to a 200 foot crag for some cool evening climbing.
I helped Slav set up the top ropes through rusty fixed equipment. The stiff old braided ropes he lowered didn't inspire much confidence - I'm sure they would not have held a single leader fall! No modern climbing ropes are made in the Soviet Union, and only one carabiner is manufactured there for military use. Climbers make most of their own gear, or trade lightweight titanium pitons (made from pilfered submarine materials) for Western equipment brought into the country by tourists. The lack of decent gear explains their top roping of difficult rock climbs and their emphasis on speed over leading difficulty. It also explains, in part, the rigid hierarchy in their club system - only the most experienced climbers have access to the best equipment. REI paid the Leningrad club for our expenses with gear.
At the bottom of the crag, Slav slipped on his goloshkis (rubber overshoes bought small and tight) while Vlo clipped the rope through an anchor of heavy steel wire wound around a tree, then grabbed it barehanded to belay. When I showed them how to use a Munter hitch, they watched politely, then returned to their simple set-up. I was afraid to trust their hand belay on the difficult route, so I watched Slav cruise it and get lowered smoothly. The friction of the long ropes over the rock made it easy to hold a climber's weight. Nevertheless, I worried that a momentary lapse of concentration, coinciding with a fall, could whip the rope through their hands. I climbed very cautiously, in marked contrast to their speedy style!
For the rest of the week I alternated cragging with the boys and lazing around on the beach with Debbie. The highlight was a birthday party for Slav on our last night in Yalta. Six of their friends arrived that day, Slav's girlfriend bearing a homemade cake, apples, and a bottle of champagne. One lady spoke English quite well and acted as translator. Politics took a back seat to more important matters - like the prices and availability of equipment they'd seen in an old Climbing magazine. An electrical engineer was I openly envious when I told him I planned to buy a personal computer. When I tried to emphasize that many things were expensive and frustratingly out of reach for many Americans, my argument sounded hollow, a loaded camera bag (the equivalent of a years wages for a Soviet teacher) at my side.
We flew back to Leningrad, and | Debbie returned to Germany with the rest of our tour group. Seveta, my host from the Alpine Club, met me at the hotel and helped carry my packs as we rode the trolley cars to the apartment she and her husband shared with her family. Her husband was climbing in the Caucasus, and her brother was serving in the army, so the small three-bedroom apartment wasn't crowded. Her parents' bed folds into a couch so their room doubles as a living room, but Seveta and her friends spend most of their time in the kitchen drinking tea, giving her parents a little privacy to watch TV or read. Fortunately, Seveta was on vacation from her graduate studies in psychology and had time to show me around. She had visited the States the previous summer on a climbing exchange and her English was excellent. Her most interesting revelation was how glasnost and peristroika had lifted the veil of secrecy in the USSR, and left her feeling she had been duped by the propaganda that had once indoctrinated her into the communist faith. She was angry and anxious for change.
We trained each day. Because the closest rocks are three hours by train (and very few people have cars), buildering is very important for Leningrad climbers. The university climbing club has use of the back side of a five story building. This was my introduction to Russian speed climbing - you stand at the bottom with your arm raised - the clock starts when you drop it. The basic route was quite easy (5.6) with large protruding brick handholds. I quickly flamed out my first day, trying to monkey up on arms alone. Watching Seveta, I learned to use my feet without looking at each hold. I managed to get my time down to 1:46. Like many modern climbing feats, the record of 32 seconds was beyond my conception!
On July 21, the REI group arrived and were divided among the members of the Alpine Club. The next day we toured Leningrad and ate the best meal of the trip at a cooperative cafe - an example of the first steps toward capitalism. The proprietors rent a location, then operate for a profit on their own. The prices are higher, but the food, service, and atmosphere are infinitely better than in the state-run establishments.
USSR II / USSR III