Alpine Marathon at Svetogorsk in Russia
Diego Pezzoli talks about the Alpine Marathon, the particular aid climbing competition which took place from 14-16 June at Svetogorsk in Russia.
Alpine Marathon (AM) is a competition which came to life thanks to an idea by Andrey Varvarkin and with the help of Sergey Belyaev, Alexander Ivanov e Maxim Torganov in 2009. They decided to organize a competition for strong mountaineers and climbers from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. They created a new format and new rules: the main focus of the competition is on the technical aspects of climbing big walls and its main purpose is to prepare for aid routes.
Maxim: Hi Diego! How are you? Have you managed your trip to Russia for the Alpine Marathon? Try to find cheap flight to Finland. Maybe Ryanair through Lappeenranta. I can pick you up there...and don't forget about the Russian visa!! :) I found a partner for you if you need... a strong guy! :)
The airplane landed in Lappeenranta on the 12th of June at 11.30. Maxim and Roman were waiting for Roberto “Gara” (my fellow traveler who will take me through the dens of iniquity of S. Petersburg!)and myself at the airport.
During the three-hour drive we get to know them and we soon feel at ease; the only constraint being the language. At times, having never studied English, I had some difficulties in making myself understood.
So there we were, in in S. Petersburg! I had just a couple of days to familiarize with the new environment, whilst Gara showed me around this wonderful city. Daylight here lasts till very late in the night, giving the sensation that you’ll never need to go to sleep. We visited the landmarks and were overwhelmed by the beauties of the city of ‘Peter the Great’. A lot of short drinks and a lot of unceasing dancing hours later and I found myself ready to leave for Svetogorsk, a “jungle” in North Karelia on the border with Finland, on the rocks called "Сторожевой". I left Gara to himself for three days in the hope the city wouldn’t swallow him up and give me back just his bones!
It’s Friday, I meet other great people such as Alexey and Yura, and I help them prepare the routes, fixing the banners of the many competition sponsors. The day passes swiftly and I look forward for lying down in the tent, as a matter of fact it’s 7 pm and I’m already asleep.
I the background I hear clinks, hammering and the voices of the other participants of the competition which, in the meantime and in the middle of the night, had started perfectly. From this moment until 5 pm of Sunday the battle for victory is underway and there are many internationally renowned mountaineers who obviously will distinguish themselves by placing well in the final ranking.
I wake up in a good mood and willing to share the passionate atmosphere that binds us all together in this event. After breakfast comprised of Russian Coffee and delicious chocolate sweets (I must have eaten a dozen) I try to understand the rules of this unique aid climbing competition. I approach the rock face shyly, study the routes and the climbers going up, I try to study how they climb and figure out if their style is similar to mine. I soon realize that the most popular piece of equipment is the fi-fi, a sort of ice axe they happily use, hooking every crack much like a big Sky Hook.
The competition is climbing six routes of different length and style. The teams trie to climb from the lowest anchor to the highest in the shortest time possible. The leader has to place an his own protection between a safety bolt, with pre-placed quickdraws, to the other. An energy absorbing quickdraw is clipped to the bolt and this represents, in case of falling, the “lives” available which are two in total. The points of protection cannot be used in as climbing holds. Also, the second has to jumar quickly and remove all the pro placed by the leader. To make the competition even more fun a weight (two tree trunks) have to be hauled up and while for this year I’ve been saved, next year I'll certainly try and this makes seconding far more difficult. Each broken rule results in a time penalty.
OK, I understand the rules more or less but it’s Saturday and I have to compete at 6.00 the next morning! In mid-afternoo the moment comes for me to get to know my climbing partner: Kirill “Kira” Ivanov. We introduce ourselves and I immediately feel a good feeling between us; Kira is a quite person who transmits peace and security, crucial characteristic for a climbing partner. It’s 19.30 and we decide to drive for about 30 kilometers because he wants to show me another crag they use to climb and some beautiful, isolated lakes. We get into the car, a Fiat Punto, and we drive the few kilometers along a unpaved road full of potholes at excessive speed, mind you, not that the Fiat Punto would allow us to emulate Colin Mcrae.
The place is just like Kira has described it, and the feeling of peace and quiet can be felt everywhere. He doesn't resist and, like a Hindu in the River Ganges, dives into the lake and joins this harmony. I don’t, I haven't got such a great affinity with water. He puts on his clothes again and we enter the forest and we head towards another lake and after about half an hour we meet a bunch of his friends huddled around a fire on the lake shore. We're welcomed by a funny dog called “siupa” - or at least this is the verbatim transcript of what I could understand from Russian - which jumps from one root to the next, barking
excitedly barks and signaling the intruders. Water boils in a pan on the fire. If you are wondering about what is drunk most in Russia, it’s not vodka but tea… during every moment of the day, breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner, tea is always on their table! And so a full cup of steaming tea is soon in my hands. Kira and his friends talk amiably and I find myself surrounded by fire smoke, blown towards me by the wind with a cathartic effect. They also give us a delicious pasta and meat soup, this too is a traditional dish, quite different from the typical borsch made of beef. Suddenly a familiar sound takes me back to Italy, an instrument similar to the Sicilian harp, which the Russian friends play naturally, I try too but with poor results. So they start to sing, for almost half hour, an hypnotic melody accompanied by a third party who plays another clay instrument like ocarina.
"It's time to go", Kira repeats.
We say hallo and we go back quickly to the car, so we proceed back to our base-camp, and a moose will cross us the road too, and we get there at about 00.30.
Greetings to the aftermath and we put the clock at 4.50, few hours sleeping separate us from the competition.
"Diego, wake up!", I feel like I have not slept but in some way I have to mask it and go out from the tent.
The usual breakfast with coffee and sweets make me resume the body and my mind, we are ready and we put on every useful object to climb the routes.
Fundamental in the aid climbing are the stirrups. This is an important factor, as they are completely different from our standard line-up ladder ones, which I have now dismissed.
The so called Russian Aider are webbings of two different lengths with four or five rings which have to be hold by a cliff placed on the knee.
Well, after having held our body of junk we go under the first route that goes to the strong Kirill.
Alexey, referee of the race, declares that there are 5 minutes to the start scheduled at 6.00.
We are on the first step knowing that from this moment to the end we will touch the gorund only for a shift from the forth to the fifth route.
“Go, go, go” sais Alexey.
Kira starts like a shot and I belay him sitting at a wooden seat that we will bring with us guarantying us a minimum of comfort. He finished the first part, which is quite simple, and he has fun where the use of fi-fi rock becomes obliged, winning the most challenging section and reaching in this way the first belay anchor.
In the meantime I’ve already prepared jumar on the rope and put on my pack back with the exceeded material, I cannot be outdone and I run literally up removing all the protections left by my mate, remind me that the time is essential.
We get over the belay anchor using fixed ropes pre-allocated and we prepare the rapelling to the second step.
It’s my turn!
We exchange the bib for the material and we exchange the ropes, an easy length is waiting for me and it will help me to become confident with rules and climbing techniques.
After a free traverse and a short come back I use too, in order to be faster and to feeling a little bit like a Russian, the fi-fi rock, first time that I use them and I may say that is like making dry tooling but omitting fatigue. They allow me to hang easily a little crack and gain yards, coming soon to the top. I don’t wait too much and Kira is already at the belay station and we go on for the third step.
Here I find Yura as referee in company of a bottle of Finnish berries liquor, I’m curious to taste it and I ask him to have some, dehydration doesn’t help me and I abuse of it, so much that belaying my mate I am forced to sit down because of dizziness.
I don’t even realize that he’s arrived at the belay anchor and I have to climb up the ropes, I get ready, go up, reach the traverse, and with a proven technique I go quickjly from one protection to the other, Yura from the ground says “a great technique”.
And also the third route is done, another route following the fixed ropes.
From the top of the wall we have an awesome view on the surrounding plains, but I’ll have time, after the competition, to climb it quietly and watch it.
In a hurry we rappel down to the next step always being hanged on.
We swap and it’s my turn for a wonderful little crack, where I won’t make any effort as I’ll use just cam to go over it, few minutes after I find Kirill next to me, we rappel down again and this time we get our feet on the ground.
Time to wrap up the ropes, feet the shoes, drink a cup of tea and we get under the fifth route, the most beautiful length in my opinion.
The central part has been shown and here it is needed to use anchor hooks, that is thin piton for cracks and go towards the next crack which instead admits cams, it doesn’t require a lot of effort to my mate who climb it very well and call me up.
This time, being the wall partially overhanging, I do a little hard to clean from the material in the traverse, ensuring in this way to everyone present a show worthy of the best Orfei’s Circus; after a lot of acrobatics and evolutions I find myself at the rapelling to reach the new and last step through a tight rope at an angle which I climb up like a monkey.
Here we are at the last decisive route, a section on sky hooks and anchor hooks.
But it rises a little problem, in the hurry we get dressed in the morning we forget sky hooks, to Kira it doesn’t seems a big problem and I left him climb up using fi-fi rock as replacement! I’m not confident with them and I don’t want to look bad, what a pity! Because I like to use sky hooks
From the ground Andrey, the main organizer, complains our forgetfulness but in the same time he’s exited seeing him climb up like that, with those materials.
It takes longer that it should but he doesn’t miss anything and reach the top belay station, I’ve got few time to climb up, I go as fast as I can without clean the route which will be turned into penalty, but time is expiring at some protection from the belay station.
Our competition is finished.
At the end we rappelling down to the ground and we congratulate each other, we had really fun and we gave the best, we place sixth out of 38 couples.
Throughout the rest of the day I remain to watch and take pictures the other climbers in order to try to understand any hidden secrets.
It has really been a wonderful event, it can be felt also in the fellowship and encouragement that climbers who has finished the competition never cease to make, included the mountaineers “at a certain level” who stay there in support of others.
I have omitted until now the hardest obstacle of the climbing: the mosquitoes! Clouds of insects enveloped people taking huge amounts of blood and leaving us continuos and inevitable itching as gift.
The three day of full-immersion in the Russian jungle came to an end, instead of the roll of the drums a thunderstorm and a abundant rain go along with us during the first part of our trip back to Saint Petersburg.
I start again to think at what has happened to Gara and I start imagine him with a tattoo on his face or something like this like the movie “The Hangover”; instead I find him in a good fit, so much to go out that same night and celebrate properly till the day after.
We spent also the remaining two days very well and the pass quickly, so much that we are already on the flight back, I cannot forget the welcome received from all the friends and I promise to make all the possible next year to come back and renew the fellowship.
Thanks everybody, in particular to Maxim Torganov (Krukonogi.com), Andrey Varvarkin (Krukonogi.com), Kirill Ivanov, Anna Nikitina, Jura Pavlov, Aleksej Kiselev e Roman Semenov.