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Winter climbing in Crimea. By Alex Trubachev (Alexclimb)
This project was supported by C.A.M.P. (Italy), manufacturer of high quality climbing equipment.
Everybody is crawling, so you too should crawl carefully,
It can't be helped, the ground is covered by ice - very slippery,
Wanna a peninsula? Well, that's possible.
Though the Crimean is far, the Kola one is near!
Early on the morning of January 1st the expressions on the faces of the passengers of train # 26, going from Moscow to Sevastopol, were not characterized by a particular friendliness. Everybody was sitting gloomily, sucking slowly at their morning beers, and trying to avoid looking in each other's eyes. The overcrowded passenger car was stuffed with bags and striped duffels - people were returning home from their seasonal jobs. My mountaineering Lowe Alpine backpack was viewed by the fellow travelers with perplexity. Finally, the shrewdest one inquired about the purpose of my trip - was I not going to do some kind of industial climbing, may be to paint the harbour cranes? Well, you can call it that - agreed I, having decided not to go into the unnecessary details and not to explain the difference between rock-climbing and 'industrial climbing'. It is quite hard for an outsider to the possibility of winter climbing in the Crimea still remains to be something within the category of science fiction.
Having chatted a while for politeness' sake on general topics, I decided to cease the New Year harassment of my own body and climbed up to sleep on the upper bunk. A few hours later, when I was woken up by the increased excitement among the passengers, all the unpleasant consequences of the New Year night remained so far behind that I will not return any more to this difficult topic, thus freeing some space for brighter impressions.
Judging by the general anxiety, I made the conclusion that we had arrived somewhere. Right, it was Belgorod, or, as this station is also called - Fleecing-station. It follows from the name that this is a place where one has the opportunity to leave behind a certain indefinite amount of monetary funds. Officials dressed in blue uniforms passed along the passenger car with severe expressions on their robust and healthy-looking faces.
- Grivnas? Roubles? Dollars? - the customs official bellowed in a terrible voice at a flimsy fellow pretending to be asleep on a side bunk and poked his finger into the guy's back for greater persuasiveness.
- No-othing, - sang out the poor guy lamentably in quite a false voice, - surely he had some overlooked pittance in his worn-through pockets. The strict guardsman of the powerful country's financial interests, having assessed the material appeal of the given victim with his professional glance, apparently considered it unworthy of his attention and went on to hunt for larger game. The customs officials were followed by less plump border guards. Due to a more meager nutritional state these guys were characterized by a greater voracity. Besides, they had many more opportunities to peck and nibble: two thirds of the passengers in the car were going with some violations of the passport regimen or other - some had expired registrations, others had migration charts without the appropriate seals.
Forty minutes later the officials with bulging pockets left the train which they had so promptly lightened from excessive monetary aggregated. The procedure of lightening was repeated at the station Kazachya Lopan - all the same, except for the cockades on the service caps bearing different symbols.
By the way, my life was significantly simplified by the availability of a foreign passport. It is possible to go also with a regular Russian passport, but in this case one has to fill in the migration chart distributed by the train conductor before the border. And upon seeing the foreign passport the interest in the eyes of border guards on both sides of the border fades out immediately, - at best a stamp is placed into it to confirm crossing of the border. A still easier way is to go by airplane.
Early morning. The capital of the Crimea - Simferopol. It is dank and nasty outside. The people, having disembarked from the train, are huddled up chilly in their furs and coats. January is definitely not the month of August. Nor even May.
The passers-by regard people carrying backpacks with mistrust, - they are used to see rock-climbers here, but not at this time, and as for backpacking tourists in winter, people just dash aside from them in fear, considering this enthusiasm to be a dangerous form of mental disorder. Walking over the frozen puddles of the Simferopol railway station, I felt some uneasy doubts - will it be possible to climb at all? But what's the point of having doubts, having already done it, as I had already arrived? The return ticket was for a week later, so I had to do the best in order not to waste this time.
Having politely refused a courteous offer to give me a ride to Yalta for 50 grivnas and the subsequent offer to exchange my money at a 'profitable' rate, I headed first towards the exchange office and then to the ticket office of the bus station, where I bought a ticket for the route taxi standing nearby. The ticket cost 8 grivnas.
Half an hour later, still suffering torments from the doubts regarding the expediency of my arrival, I was speeding southwards. Beyond the window of the route taxi dismal-looking landscapes of winter continental Crimea were drifting by - grey dilapidated buildings constructed in Soviet times, entwined by black ivy skeletons, naked vineyards, a leaden-colored low sky. Tired by the gloomy monotony of the landscape and the similarly monotonous mumbling of the radio broadcast in Ukrainian, I fell asleep, having thrust my nose into the cozy warmth of the collar of my fleece jacket.
Having woken up and looked out of the window, I could not believe my eyes. The sun was shining so brightly that I wished at once I could put on my sunglasses which had been left behind in Moscow. The turquoise-coloured sky and the blue sea were merging in the south into a clear line of the horizon, a feeling of spring freshness penetrated the stuffy passenger compartment of the route taxi. The grass was cheerfully green on the sides of the road. Perhaps this is what bears feel when they fall asleep to hibernate in autumn and wake up in spring. It turned out to be hard to believe in such a rapid and striking change, even though I was well aware of the difference in weather and climate conditions on the South coast and on the continent.
Somewhat crazed from delight, I nearly missed the stop I needed. Once outside, the first thing I did was to shove the warm jacket into the backpack and, dressed only in a T-shirt, to go check how the rocks were doing.
The Nikitsky rocks displayed a fairly large number of rock-climbers - they were from Kharkov and had arrived a day earlier. It was really astonishing - the 2nd of January, seemingly the dead of winter, but the temperature was + 20 C!! The rock-climbers were basking in the sun and climbing over the hot rocks topless. That is, T-shirt-less, do not misunderstand me :). The female rock-climbers were dressed decently!
Having enjoyed this sight and reported about everything to Moscow (of course, they did not believe me), I set about to fulfill my mission - to get ready for the arrival of my friends, who were leaving Moscow one day later than me. Renting a house in the village closer to the rocks, taking a ride to Yalta to exchange money (there is no exchange office in Nikity, and the rate in Simferopol, as it turned out, was better), to purchase food - seemingly trifles, but they took up the whole short winter day: by three o'clock the sun was already beginning to set, and by four it started getting dark abruptly.
In the morning of the next day the main group came, for whose arrival it was necessary to prepare everything in advance so as not to waste the precious time together for dealing with minor household affairs. And right in the morning, having had a brief rest after the trip, all our team set out to master the rocky routes of the Nikitskaya cleft. It was especially comfortable on the southern side, where the rocks are well warmed up by the sun. The impressions from the routes were exceptionally pleasant - pierced perfectly by new bolts, various marked new routes, the overall well-groomed appearance of the training routes - absence of garbage and 'living' stones on the routes. The only (to my mind) disadvantage was the fact that there is no accessible classification of the routes. The signed names of the routes do not say anything about the rates certain inconveniences.
That same day did not go without surprises. While climbing on a route I found a very convenient hold which was located deep inside a rather wide crack. Holding on to it, I prepared to hang the next quickdraw, as suddenly I heard a very strange sound. The first thought that came to my mind was that the person who was belaying me decided all of a sudden to refresh himself with a spray deodorant. I looked down in surprise and ascertained that the first impression turned out to be deceptive, - not only my partner but also the fellows who had been practicing on a nearby route were looking up at me with curiosity, attracted by the strange whistle-hissing sound. That was when it finally dawned on me that the hissing was coming not from below but right from the crack in the rock where my arm was all the way up to the elbow. Of course, jump down to the shelf - a questionable way out of the current situation. But the creature hissing in the hole had evidently appreciated my predicament and did not resolve to extreme measures. Hanging the quickdraw, grabbing hold of it, popping the rope through it took only a few seconds - I carried out all of this all right and, once the safety was ensured, I decided at once to determine the size of danger threatening me and carefully stuck my head into the crack. Unfortunately all I managed to spot was a snake's tail which could be glimpsed for a moment in the depth. In short, it remains a question as to who was scared more!
The next seven days of our sports program, like everything in this world, passed very quickly. An early rise, morning exercises, swimming in the sea (the temperature of the water was about 10 degrees - sportive!), breakfast and climbing the rocks - in spite of the fact that beginning from the third day of our stay in the Crimea the weather became gradually worse, we did not lose a single day. The rock-climbing part of the daily program suffered only once because of the rain. Instead of climbing, on this day we ascended the top of the Forossky Kant along the path. The wind was howling there, speeding along lacerated patches of clouds, and it was very cold. Visibility appeared and then disappeared, creating the impression of something unreal, of a strange perturbation of the elements - it is very reluctantly that the actors perform at such a show for the spectator - man.
Having come out to the summit, where unbelievably sheer walls, pitch-black from wet runs, drop down half a kilometer to the south, we received our reward - the opportunity to admire the panorama of the Crimean southern coast - a sight especially thrilling due to constantly changing lighting: the sun now disappearing, now appearing again among the clouds, lighting up spots sometimes of the sea, sometimes of the shore. A strong cold wind significantly shortened the time for our contemplation of the landscapes. Having taken several pictures we started on our way down, considering our program fulfilled - the impressions received on this hike were worth getting a bit cold.
Next day there was no more rain, but it became much colder, and there was a snowfall. And again we were lucky, as between the snow charges the sun regularly glimpsed out and within several minutes it managed to warm up the rocks to a comfortable temperature. It became cheerless in the Nikitskaya cleft, - the sun does not penetrate the cleft itself, and on the southern side many routes were dampened. The Krasnokamenka site proved itself to be much better in this respect - there the whole wall is well lighted and warmed up by the sun, and there are many more routes on the southern side than in Nikity.
So who goes to the Crimea in winter? When answering such questions one usually feels very grave difficulties. Crazy backpackers which are few and far between, and that is probably it. The Southern coast during the period between October and May becomes empty, returns to its own slow rhythm of life, far from the incursions of insane holiday-makers. But as for rock-climbing, I believe that this season is quite reasonable. The factor of luck, of course, is very important, for if you have that special stroke of luck - incidentally, the Russian word sounds very similar to the English 'fart' :) - the weather may turn out to be bad even in May and October, so why shouldn't it go bad in January? However, if this does not happen, the impressions of the Crimea in winter will remain in your memory as a sunny spot, and they will warm your soul throughout the rest of the winter with the warmth of the gentle sun and the salty smell of the sea.