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Crimean Safari

I have finally accepted the fact that I, occasionally, love to hate myself! Hate for the precarious situations to which I routinely take myself, and love for the intense pleasure of the memories that inevitably result. This is not the first time that this thought has occurred to me, in fact it has a tendency to manifest itself in my conscience quite regularly – usually while trying to harness a sense of mild panic threatening to spiral, rapidly, out of control!

The current cause for concern was the belief that the hand-jam that was supposed to be as "safe as houses", was in fact NOT and that I would once again be testing the dynamic properties of my rope (in fact they were Malcolm's brand new ones) – the big difference being that I was learning the pleasantries of Granite crack climbing sans the African surrounds to which I am accustomed, but rather surrounded by a plethora of picturesque snow-capped spires high above the Vallee Blanche on the South East Pillar of the Aiguilles du Midi. Chamonix, France. It is actually my dogmatic belief that anything is possible (provided you take someone to lead the crux pitch!) that I hate, as it is this character trait that caused me to find myself wrist-deep in the current mind-racing predicament! Admittedly the supports from the Mountain Club of South Africa along with a little help from my friends need to shoulder some blame as well.

My travels started with me attending a U.I.A.A youth meet, held in the Ukraine rock Mecca of Crimea – a peninsular on the Southern tip of the Ukraine. With massive stretches of Limestone, reaching 500m in height, rising from the pristine, warm, waters of the Black Sea to form a plateau atop which fertile plains roll northward until they meet the Siberian Plains themselves, this truly is a climbing haven. The plains are genuine prairies, consequently there is very little climbing elsewhere, forcing attention to Crimea where there are literally hundreds of routes of such diverse character and grade as to assure amusement for sport and adventure climbers alike. In fact, considering some of the bolts (read "rivets") that I clipped, even the Sport climbing offers an abundance of adventure along with some deeply spiritual experiences.

I had arrived in the capitol, Kiev, two days before the Euros did and thus was afforded a comprehensive tour/acquaintance of the city – admiring the beautiful Russian Orthodox churches (dating back to the Tsars), quaint surrounds and abundant parks juxtaposed with the harsh Soviet era styling that is still very imposingly prevalent. We strolled amongst the pigeons of the central square, shared overcrowded trams – relics of a formerly impressive transport system for the "people" – with people going about their daily routine and we wandered amongst the tourist traps of old Kiev all the while I was embodied in amongst a different world, different mindset and a refreshingly different culture. Everywhere we went, at every market, every street corner or every lane down which we ambled, the folk appeared genuinely happy. They were contently alive and it was difficult not to notice the almost tangible zeal that seemed to infest the population – it was positively energizing.

- routes ranged from 12m to 300m and a variety of cross-cultural "events", ranging from hilarious introductions, a variety of local games and an evening or two of open air dancing, to possibly the most well known national sport: drinking Vodka.

The Euros duly arrived and thus our collage of young climbers left Kiev. We traveled by train to Sevastopol the southern most point on the line and, incidentally the headquarters of the "Black Sea Fleet" - another Soviet relic. We were then bundled into some pre arranged buss taxis (which true to third world form suffered mechanical failure!) en route to Foros, a forty minute drive East. It is a surreal place to visit, as the scenery changes from monotonous rolling meadows to a spectacular world that implicitly draw's your attention to the vertical plane, with majestic Limestone cliffs competing with the equally inviting sea for your gaze. It was thus amongst these surrounds that the Mountaineering Federation of The Ukraine played host to twelve of us "youth", together representing four countries – namely Spain; Austria; Switzerland and South Africa. For seven days we were treated to some spectacular climbing by daylight (routes ranged from 12m to 300m) and a variety of cross-cultural "events", ranging from hilarious introductions, a variety of local games and an evening or two of open air dancing, to possibly the most well known national sport: drinking Vodka. All of the events brought us closer together both international and local competitors alike, bridging the gap and facilitating a medium for greater understanding, appreciation, respect and tolerance (both to different cultures and to alcohol). Squeezed into the schedule was a whirlwind historical tour along the Crimean coast ending in the spectacle of Yalta and encompassing many other historical sites including a visit to the very room that housed the presidents of the United Kingdom, The United States of America and the Soviet Union when they signed the co-operation agreement of the Second World War.

This being my first extended climbing trip abroad, I had taken the precaution of preparing myself mentally for a myriad of conceivable scenarios that I thought I might find myself in, however it became clear that I was totally unprepared for some. The most glaring chink in my mental amour was my farewell technique. Having first to bid our adieus at the end of the festival to fellow attendees and then saying goodbye to some of the Ukrainian climbers that I had got to know, admire and appreciate in a manner that only climbing companions can. The second occasion was saying goodbye to the small group of climbers that were so hospitable as well as helpful during my extended stay in Crimea, when I spent a week living the life of a local Ukrainian climber – roughing it in the forest, skimping on daily rations (Vodka and Sherry not included) but climbing as a happy group all day every day. It was very difficult to suddenly get on to a train heading toward Kiev where I was to board an airplane destined for Mainland Europe where I would continue my climbing, and deal emotionally with the knowledge that the friendships that I had cultivated had a very static place in time and space, and do so knowing that the very people I was leaving were intensely envious of my perceived lifestyle of an endless climbing pilgrimage.

Alas by the time that I arrived in Europe proper I had successfully convinced myself, rightly or wrongly, that "bye gone's are bye gone's" and that morbidity was an acceptable and predictable bye product of an intense and emotional climbing trip. Regardless of the successfulness of the trip. Two days later I find myself in Chamonix enjoying two (exceedingly expensive) Beers in the rejuvenating company of Malcolm Gowans and re-energizing off the positive aura that naturally exudes from his person in endless waves of absorbing optimism. It was evident that the forthcoming fortnight was going to be a new experience that promised to be filled with memorable up's and down's (not only regarding altitude) that in effect would leave me with exactly the same morbid feeling when the time came to part. It was a sobering yet ironic thought.

We spent the following day acquainting ourselves with the surroundings, deciding on a plan of action and of course ogling over the abundant amounts of superb climbing paraphernalia that was on offer in the many climbing stores. Many a tale has been told about Chamonix and its undeniable collaboration with mountaineering (old and new), all of which describe the town and its surrounding peaks as the epicenter of world adventure sports in a charmingly friendly and convenient setting. Well, touring the streets, Bistro's and "conveniences" at the end of season without the expected Platinum Amex Credit Card, I failed to find any of the famed attributes of Chamonix. So we went looking elsewhere for contentment. Well, the Frendo Spur to be exact.

The idea was to introduce me to Alpine climbing on a classic mixed route, that for a brief period in history held the esteemed title of "Worlds Hardest", and then to climb some more classic rock routes on the South East Pillar of the Aiguilles du Midi – which happened to be a short walk from the top of the Frendo. As it happened we ended up climbing a Frendo Spur that was somewhat out of condition – while the days were and had been splendid, it was apparent that a fair amount of fresh snow had been layered upon the entire length on the Alps, including the Frendo. This of course did not dissuade us, in fact not even the lack of fresh, preceding footprints were of any concern to us. The result was a predictable (in hind sight) epic, immensely rewarding nonetheless. We missed the "obvious" iced chimneys – the signal to head up onto the ridge – and spent an entire day forging our way onwards and upwards, passing many other parties Rapp anchors along the way – I couldn't help wondering if this meant that the going ahead was to tough or were they weather induced retreats? We zigged and zagged, alternating leads on demanding mixed terrain with some sections of two inch thick "plastic" ice which Malcolm calmly disposed of – all be it delicately – and some genuine mixed sections as well. I vividly remember climbing (read thrashing) some strenuous rock that I in fact could not see, using my ice tools to dry tool as well as hack out some gear placements while simultaneously trying desperately to keep one crampon smeared to the rock and the other from being loosened by vibration which was originating from an uncontrollable leg shake! A number of similar rope lengths, a devious dogleg right and an unstable, unprotectable snow ramp later found us at the base of the crux rock pitch (which of course was plastered in snow and ice) – late in the afternoon of our second day!

Electing to bivi on the neck, we used the remaining light to seemingly good use by fixing the said pitch so that we would be faster the following day. Malcolm, seeing how much fun (?) I had had on the previous mixed terrain, generously afforded me the opportunity of getting well and truly gripped in the lead. The pitched appeared to be a system of cracks (which I again couldn't see) that were now iced and covered in snow. The ensuing problem was that I couldn't rock climb the pitch because of the conditions, but the ice was not sufficient to ice climb. There was also the added challenge of ferreting out any semblance of good gear placements, while being mesmerized by the flurry of sparks being emitted by crampon points meeting Alpine Granite in a forceful yet out-of-control manner. It was and is the most fun (?) I've had – also the most gripping pitch I've lead.

Well the weather then decided to complicate matters, as only the weather can, by raining during the night instead of snowing. By the time we woke the conditions were such as to force us to descend. It was a miserable morning – the stove refused to cooperate, my sleeping bag was drenched and it was still raining! The descent took all of a day, with multiple anchors of questionable standards (you know things are dicey when your partner unclips from the entire anchor and backup just as you weight it!) and we finally arrived at the Plan de Aiguilles cable station to find it closed. By the time we burst through the door of our accommodation, the apprehension and frayed nerves had been replaced through the two-hour walk down, with mind numbing exhaustion.

Some days later Malcolm and I found ourselves on the Valley Blanche beneath the monolith of Mont Blanc Du Tacul and further off Mont Blanc itself where we shared a dilapidated hut with two Dutchmen. In the evenings we were treated to some spectacular views of the surrounding peaks basking in smooth Autumn light – of the Grand Jorasses; El Capuchin and in the distance the Matterhorn as well. We spent two glorious days climbing both the "South Face" and the Rebuffat route on the SE pillar of the Aiguilles du Midi, and somewhere in between I had that unnerving sensation of a rapidly deteriorating hand jam. It truly was awesome climbing in an equally awesome surrounding, and to have had the pleasure of climbing them with Malcolm (who was as solid as the very granite we were climbing!) is something that I'll cherish for years to come. My sojourn in Western Europe ended with a few days climbing on Limestone in central Germany, among other friends and amidst the splendor of a German Autumn.

I am not the first to have grasped the opportunity of using an international youth meet as a springboard to a greater arena and I, no doubt, won't be the last. But I feel it important to stress to those to come, that it is imperative not to loose sight of lessons learned at the "meets". More often than not it is the more ambivalent sectors of climbing that are imparted to the participant on such meets. The human and personal nature of climbing that so often gets overshadowed by the brutal severity of climbing itself springs immediately to mind and in retrospect broadened my sense of appreciation for the remainder of my trip - for that I am most grateful.

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