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Ukrainian alpinists share stories of life amid the Russian invasion
Posted on: April 20, 2022
On February 24, 2022, Russian troops invaded Ukraine, launching the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II. As of April 12, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had recorded 4,450 civilian casualties in Ukraine, yet, the report adds, the actual figures could be "considerably higher" as information continues to trickle in from the war zone. Meanwhile, investigators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe continue to gather evidence of war crimes committed by Russian military forces against Ukrainian civilians.
In many instances, the highly interconnected international climbing community has banded together to support Ukrainian partners, colleagues and friends. But for those of us in distant places, it's hard to get a glimpse of what things are actually like on the ground.
I spoke with Ukrainian climbers dealing with a variety of circumstances: from fighting on the front lines, to being trapped at home, to volunteering on the road. Here are a few of their stories.
Ukrainian mountaineer Alina Kosovska during her trek of the Transcarpathian Route in 2022. She finished the route on February 14, becoming the first person to complete it in winter. [Photo] Courtesy of Alina Kosovska
On the Front Lines
Alina Kosovska has been a soldier in the Ukrainian army since 2015. For the past few weeks, she's been serving in combat on the front lines in Eastern Ukraine.
"This day, and this week, and last week. We have active battles," she said in a message exchange via Instagram. At the time, she was taking shelter in a basement.
This past February Kosovska, now 23, became the first person ever to complete Ukraine's mountainous, nearly 400-kilometer Transcarpathian Route in winter—just before the start of the war. She says she first fell in love with mountains as a child, but it wasn't until she became a soldier that they started to play a bigger role in her life.
"The mountains help me to recover...after battles," she says.
As a career soldier, Kosovska says she sees war differently than a civilian would. She is doing her job, she explains. Still, she says, the fighting has affected her. "Maybe I feel a little stronger that I love my life and want to stay alive."
It's also affected her mother, who currently lives in Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, where Russian forces have heavily bombed residential areas.
"[My mother] stayed there during all military operations. She is a volunteer, helping with military and local medicine. I wanted to take her to a safe place, to the mountains—I had friends there who could accept her—but she decided to stay and help people," Kosovska says. "When I was a child and before the war, we had very different views on life.... She was not [brave] like that until 2022, but war always changes us all."
When asked if she has goals or dreams she's looking forward to pursuing after the war, Kosovska responded, "I never announce my sports plans. If all goes well, you'll see."
Ukrainian climbers Oleg Ivanchenko and Vladimir Klebansky during an expedition to Aconcagua. Ivanchenko's guiding business, Extreme Guide had to cancel every one of its 2022 expeditions. [Photo] Courtesy of Oleg Ivanchenko
Trapped at Home
"In Odessa, most of the time it's quiet," says Oleg Ivanchenko. "Other times there's bombing."
Ivanchenko is a Ukrainian alpinist and guide who has made more than 20 ascents of Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia. He has also soloed 6814-meter Ama Dablam in Nepal and guided many of the world's highest peaks. He'd hoped to spend this summer in the Himalaya, climbing Lhotse and Everest (Chomolungma). Then Russia invaded, and the Ukrainian government prohibited all men of conscription age (18 to 60) from leaving the country. Any day, Ivanchenko could be called to fight. Regardless, he says he would have canceled his Everest bid anyway.
"I could not go to a mountain because all my mind would be on my native land," he explains. Instead, Ivanchenko stays at home in Odessa, doing what he can. In the mornings, when curfew lifts at 6:00 a.m., he runs from his apartment to the sea coast. Then he spends the day meeting with volunteers, connecting with foreign aid foundations, and collecting money and equipment for the army and food for civilians who are out of work. If he has time, he visits with his relatives who are still in Odessa. His wife brought his eight-year-old son to the western part of the country to try to take refuge when Russia first invaded Ukraine. As of publishing, he hasn't seen them in nearly two months.
Ivanchenko says one of his sources of hope is the support he's received from the international climbing community.
"A lot of people from our company who are past customers try to help and send money," he says. "I also know of one company from Nepal who decided they don't want to work with Russians and won't allow Russians into their groups [for 2022 climbs in the Himalaya]."
Ivanchenko appreciates the solidarity—and wishes more Nepal-based guiding outfits would follow suit. This spring, the Ukrainian embassy in Delhi, India, penned a letter to the Nepal embassy requesting that Nepal ban Russian expeditions from participating in the 2022 mountaineering season. (Although Nepali officials told the BBC in late March that they hadn't received the letter, Ukraine embassy representatives have since written to Outside journalist Ben Ayers, confirming that the "request was initiated by the [Ukraine] Embassy." In response to Alpinist's query, Nepali embassy officials said that they "didn't find any request from the Embassy of Ukraine in New Delhi on the...subject [of a ban].".)
Several Ukrainian alpinists, including K2 and Everest summiter Irina Galay (the first Ukrainian woman to climb those peaks), have shared similar requests on social media under the hashtag #NoPeaceNoClimb. While plenty of other international governing bodies have canceled Russian sporting events, some argue that, unlike competitive sports, the mountains are outside of politics.
"I think in this situation the mountains are not outside of politics," Ivanchenko explains. Planting a flag atop a peak, tagging an internationally watched summit, and trying to make history are all, ultimately, acts of nationalism, he says.
"A lot of climbers from Ukraine now stay in Ukraine to fight our enemy," he adds. "Russian climbers should do the same: they should stay in Russia to try to improve this situation from within their own country."
While many Russian climbers have spoken out against the war, risking arrest and imprisonment, Ivanchenko says he hasn't seen much from his own Russian acquaintances.
"Before, I had a lot of friends from Russia, but now they prefer to keep silent and not to talk about this situation," he says. "They decide that Russia has the right position and that Russia should fight to save us from Ukrainian language and culture and make Ukraine a part of Russia. We had a deep relationship, before, but now I can't talk with them at all."
Ukrainian climber Valentyn Sypavin has spent the last two months driving around Europe, volunteering as a logistics coordinator to ferry food, medicine and supplies to the Ukrainian border. [Photo] Courtesy of Valentyn Sypavin
[Photo] Courtesy of Valentyn Sypavin
On the Road
Valentyn Sypavin hasn't been home since December. The Ukrainian guide and decorated World Cup ice climber was on the other side of the world when Russia invaded his home country.
"We had a beautiful season in Antarctica and Aconcagua, and we [were guiding our] last group in Chile," he explains. "Two days before the summit push, I switch on my satellite phone and get a lot of messages that a war has begun." Sypavin's group, which was primarily comprised of Ukrainians, immediately started their descent.
Meanwhile, bombs crashed into Sypavin's hometown.
"My home in Kharkiv is only 40 kilometers from the Russian border," he says. "The first day of the war, this city was bombed very hard, and my wife took my son and got in a car with her friends. They first drove across the rest of Ukraine and then through Hungary and the Czech Republic." Eventually, they made it to Germany, where they now live as refugees. More than 4.7 million Ukrainians have likewise fled the country.
Since leaving Chile, Sypavin has been leveraging his international connections and driving around Europe to ferry donations and supplies to the Ukrainian border. With a full guiding season canceled and no job to speak of, Sypavin says it was easy to jump into volunteering. Now, he sleeps somewhere new almost every night. He says he's accustomed to stress from big mountains.
A few days ago, amid all the travel and logistics, Sypavin was able to pull off a rare visit to his family. It was his son's birthday. He just turned 14.
"His mother and I don't know what to do. Some Ukrainian climbers from London suggest I take him to college there," he says. "We'll see."
[For one list of aid organizations to donate to in order to assist Ukrainians as the Russian invasion continues, see this article by Time Out. And for other suggestions for ways to help, including attending protests against the Russian invasion and writing representatives and other politicians, see the list compiled by Razom for Ukraine: linktr.ee/RazomForUkraine.—Ed.]
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