American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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International Training Camp, Crimea, USSR

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  • Publication Year: 1974

International Training Camp, Crimea, USSR

John Waterman

JOHN Griffith, Jineen Janetsky and I represented the American Alpine Club in the gathering of young mountaineers from Japan, Holland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, the United States and Russia, which took place near Yalta in the Crimea from October 2 to 9. The purpose of the gathering was to foster better international relations among the world’s climbers and to enable other countries to witness the Soviet National Championship of Climbing. Besides seeing the competition and learning about their complex system of climbing, we were also able to climb on their cliffs. We also participated in the speed competitions, though not as formal contestants.

The Yalta cliffs consisted of a light-colored limestone, parallel to the Black Sea coastline. They were formed where the higher inland plateau of 2000 feet chopped abruptly to the sea. Pinnacles frequently dotted the coast, just off the rocky shore. Here were cliffs of all sizes and descriptions, myriads of smaller ones for top-rope climbing as well as some rather large faces. Ai-Paitre (St. Peter’s Peak), the area’s highest summit, has a 2500-foot face and offered some of the longest climbs. Crimean climbing probably resembles most the climbing in Yosemite, though the limestone has totally different characteristics from granite.

At the Federation’s clubhouse in Yalta the organization of their system of climbing was more fully explained to us. (There was always something of a language barrier, which made it difficult to clarify points.) There are five categories or levels in Soviet climbing: Levels 1, 2 and 3; Candidate for Master of Sport (4); and Master of Sport (5). There are two branches of the sport: rock climbing and mountaineering. The Crimea is strictly rock climbing. A certain number of beginners are chosen from each Trade Union and sent to the training camps in the summer. There they are under the supervision of experienced climbers, who guide them in their development. The Union pays the bulk of the expense, usually about 70%, but individuals must supply a share. The yearly competitions are part of the measurement of a climber’s advancement and are a strong factor used to determine a climber’s rank.

There followed descriptions of some of the bigger climbs. We were introduced to a Soviet climber who had been to Yosemite, one of their stronger men. He described his two-day ascent of one of the area’s blanker walls, but we had difficulty understanding details of a technical nature. Aid climbing must be fairly well developed, as many of their routes ascend quite steep walls. As everyone was concentrating on free climbing, as preparation for the competition, we were never able to witness their aid style.

That evening we finally got to a cliff near camp. We could see the Russian climbers in action at first hand and also climb ourselves. The main cliff was 400 feet high and steep with a 200-foot cliff with more routes by its side. Long ropes hung down the cliffs at many points, set up as top ropes. The rope ran from the ground up to an anchor and then back down, so that you were belayed from the ground. On reaching the top, you were then lowered on rappels, an exhilarating experience on the longer routes. You were free to take any way on the climb, but as speed was important, the easiest way was desirable. If you got in a bind, you could either climb down and go another way or force it. But falling off meant being lowered to the ground. Speed climbing was demonstrated for us. On steep, difficult terrain one had by necessity to employ good form to climb fast, but on easier sections it made for humorous scampering. All three of us did a climb (mostly 5.7). We did not push the speed element as this was still new to us. The Soviet climbers we watched were very fast, with good form and incredible stamina to do one route after another.

Most in the foreign group were eager to do a longer climb of not so high standard as the short routes. Our objective was settled on a climb of Ai-Paitre by a suitable route. Though we had hoped to be in smaller groups, we ended up a mass of twenty climbers at the base of the rock. I climbed with John and Jineen with Gert, one of the Dutch climbers. The lower cliff was broken enough, so we took lines of our own and joined back with the main route higher up where the wall steepened, to avoid waiting in line. The main route was marked with dots of paint and all the belays had fixed anchors, easy to find. Chrome-molly pitons tended to fracture the limestone and were not of much use. We did find the oddest pitons, resembling stakes, but they seemed solid. A number of Russians were with the others, and they made good progress; we were never in for too much waiting. The nicest pitch went up steep flakes and chimneys where the wall steepened. There was a 20-foot shinny up a tree in the middle of the pitch. Higher up the cliff was more broken. We encountered two more separate barriers. The last led to a craggy top, which was reached after descending from a lower pinnacle. The hardest bit was just below the false summit, approximately at the level of the plateau, which was a few hundred yards away. After a short rappel and some scrambling we reached the plateau, where Yuri, a Master of Sport, took our names down in a book.

The next day, the fifth and last before the competition, we were off to tackle some short cliffs for practice. After some bouldering, which we were encouraged to do to warm up, we were unleashed on the routes. We stayed the morning there and did many routes (eight myself). The Russians wanted us to participate the next day but let us know it was our choice. They realized that we, who had had only a few days’ practice, could not seriously compare with their climbers, who had been training for months. But they were eager for us to see what it was like first-hand and hopeful that we would carry a good impression home. Fifteen of the twenty foreigners decided to enter. In the evening we attended a meeting to determine our order and partner.

October 6 arrived and we were taken to the unknown cliff, site of the races. We went to a section of the cliff close to the road, with suitable places below the wall for a large gathering of people. There were seats for the judges, many flags and even a little pavilion and first-aid area. Sections of the cliff had been partitioned off with ropes to form courses. There were always two, side by side and the route lay within the limits of the rope. The end of the routes, approximately 150 feet up, were marked by a huge square of red paint. There was a stance, and a rappel rope hanging down each course. For the belay they used steel cables. The belayer sat in a chair and reeled the climber in with a special sort of machine. It was a relief to have a cable and not their usual assortment of old ropes. The cable would run freely when the climber rappelled. One climbed side by side with one’s partner, rappelled and then switched routes. All this was timed.

At noon the event started. Soviet climbers went first and so we had the advantage of seeing how the route went. The same two routes were used by all. The girls’ route was close by and activity there started about two o’clock. It was shorter, perhaps less steep, but looked of similar difficulty. The Soviet climbers were all very fast with immaculate form. This was the culmination for them of months of practice. The display of the foreigners was not much by comparison.

Finally, the time for us came. John and a Hungarian were the unlucky first pair. Of the fifteen foreigners who entered, only three completed both routes. None of us three made both routes, but we did participate. None of us particularly enjoyed the race element, or the large crowds gaping below. Still the Russian attitude was very good. They appreciated our showing. Crem, the Russian I climbed with, shook my hand after I had been lowered from my high point, and I could see there was no ridicule in his smile; rather it demonstrated a sort of camaraderie of the rope and routes we had shared with each other.

The rest of the competition was to be conducted differently. It would be individuals climbing a longer route (250 feet), still for time. This was for the second day; the third had the element of piton placement involved, though still done with a top rope, but how was not clear to us.

That evening we met some older climbers who filled us in on the history of speed climbing. The annual event has been going on for many years now, but it is only within the last decade that such large numbers have been involved. There was much resistance to this development of pure rock climbing at first, as the ascent of high peaks and expeditions were regarded as more important.

The 8th dawned with clouds moving in and by noon it was a washout, a little anticlimactic, but I think the foreigners secretely welcomed it.

That evening we were given a farewell dinner. Most of the older climbers attended, and one or two gave little speeches, thanking us for coming and hoping we would encourage the development of speed climbing in our home countries. Prizes were awarded and gifts given out. We gave out copies of the American Alpine Journal to all delegates present. After dinner farewells were made, we retired in an air of friendliness. The next morning we would be on our way to Moscow and home.

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