The Walls, The Walls

Posted on: March 1, 2007

Four of the walls of the Russian Big Walls Project, showing the routes pioneered by Odintsov and his teams. 1. The Russian Route (6A A3+, 1700m, Odintsov-Ruchkin, 1996), north face, Ak-Su (5217m), Pamir-Alai, Kyrgyzstan. 2. The Russian Route (VII 5.11 A4, 2675m, Koshelenko-Odintsov-Potankin-Samoilenko, 1999), northwest face, Great Trango Tower (6225m), Karakoram, Pakistan. 3. The Russian Route (VI 5.11 A4, 1110m, Kachkov-Koshelenko-Lukin-Potankin, 1998), west face, Bhagirathi III (6454m), Garwhal Himalaya, India. 4. The Russian Route (VII 5.10d M6 A3+, 3100m, Borisov-Kirievsky-Mikhailov-Pavlenko-Pershin-Ruchkin-Totmjanin, 2004), north face, Jannu (7710m), Himalaya, Nepal. [Photo] Alexander Ruchkin

Imagine a man traveling a difficult road to a far destination. The path is hard; his burden is heavy; and with the midpoint before him, it is time to pause and think. The second half of the journey will be no less arduous. Like conspirators, words of advice circle his head:

"Forget your goal!"

"Don't torture yourself and others."

"Think about the risk. You have children."

The comments are reasonable, sensible and tiresome. Bury them away someplace deeper! If the world were as rationally ordered as the persistent chorus of advisors would have it, yes, life would be more comfortable... but also unspeakably boring.

I scrawled these lines in 2001 for an alpine-climbing journal that had requested an article from me. My friend Igor Barikhin had just been killed on a Russian expedition to the west face of Latok III in Pakistan. As the expedition leader, I had to look into the eyes of Igor's widow and his children, and I had to respond to the journalists who were so eagerly asking questions the answers to which no humans can know. I read what I'd written and was unable to write any more. The article remained unfinished, and the editor has resented me ever since.

Sooner or later every young person faces questions about the meaning of life. I was no exception. By the time such problems had begun to worry me, I'd devoured an unimaginable amount of classic adventure literature—James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott, H. Rider Haggard—and I could recite whole passages by heart. Of these, Haggard's novel Montezuma's Daughter made the most lasting impression. The main characters were two brothers; although both of them lived to an old age, Geoffrey's life was summed up by the dash etched on his tombstone between the years of his birth and death. Thomas, on the other hand, had crossed the sea to explore Mexico when it was still (to Europeans) a mysterious new world. Even then, I knew I wanted to be Thomas, not Geoffrey.

Other classics came into my life, by Russian authors like Ivan Goncharov and Alexander Ostrovsky, and while their characters didn't journey as far across the world as Thomas had, that same restless searching appeared in their inner lives. If you want questions that will turn a human life into a process of seeking, become acquainted with our literature. Why are we here? Who is guilty and of what? Is man the victim or the author of his fate? But in the end books cannot give you any of these answers. They can only induce you to think.

My friends and I had acquired this bad habit of thinking. In the 1970s and 1980s our nation's leaders (most notable for their ability to hold discussions in the form of monologues) told us we were at an intermediate stage of social development on the road to an ideal Communist society. Yet the shelves in our stores were empty. Given such contradictions between rhetoric and daily experience, we were incapable of taking our leaders seriously. Although we didn't realize it, the collapse of our rigid world was already beginning. It is with irony, as the French author Victor Hugo pointed out, that freedom begins.

We lived in the era of whispered jokes. ("Why did the former general secretary meet international delegations at the airport, while the current one meets them in the Kremlin?" "The former ran on batteries; the current one has to be plugged in.") Though our propaganda insisted that we all had our hands full building socialism, in truth, most people had one hand raised in salute and the other hand hidden in their pocket giving the finger to authority.

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