ExWeb interview with Lena Laletina: the Russian view

ExWeb interview with Lena Laletina: the Russian view

Posted: Jun 18, 2009 01:12 pm EDT

(MountEverest.net) Weathered men flashing gold while chewing pickles in BC and lighting up on Everest summit. "It's a Russian expedition," said it all.

Or did it. Much has been written about western mountaineers. Less is known about the east; the Russians, the Kazakhs, the Koreans, or the Taiwanese. Maybe it was a language thing, politics, ignorance, plain arrogance or all of the above - what was made known was rarely correct or flattering, just ask Boukreev or Makalu about Into Thin Air.

With internet and crumbling borders, all that is changing and people such as Lena Laletina of RussianClimb.com are key in the process.

A bio-physicist and long time collaborator with ExplorersWeb; in this unique interview series Lena unveils the Russian take on climbing, politics, media, and awards. First up today; some history and the evolution from Soviet to Russian mountaineering.

ExWeb: When and why did you start RussianClimb.com?

Lena: I went trekking to Everest Base Camp in 2001 and met climbers such as the Russian National (Lhotse Middle Expedition) team led by Victor Kozlov, Simone Moro, Denis Urubko, Silvio Mondinelli, Edurne Pasaban, Mario Merelli, Ray Yeritsian and many others...it was an exciting adventure.

I listened to the stories told by the climbers, and looked at the real situation in BC. Back home, I began to read mountaineering sites for news about my new friends I read ExWeb, Planetmountain, Everestnews, Desnivel but found very little and thin info about Russian expeditions.

Russia has a long and unusual history in world climbing. The climbs made by Russia in Himalaya today are a result of this culture and I thought they may be interesting to the world climbing community. I launched the English version first, and followed up with a Russian version 6 months later.

ExWeb: Are you a climber yourself?

Lena: I began to climb in 1977 and stopped in 1989 with the arrival of Perestroika in USSR. I and many of my friends were forced to stop climbing for about a decade, all our climbing clubs were closed and our entire mountaineering system broke down.

The new reality brought on a number of difficulties, and not only financial ones. Years later I returned to the mountains; trekking and organizing the annual Elbrus Race with Nickolay Shustrov; an old friend who used to belong to the same climbing club. This September we'll run the fifth international Elbrus race.

ExWeb: How has Russian mountaineering changed from the Soviet times?

Lena: USSR had a world-unique, state-supported mountaineering system. It was a centralized structure, consisting of clubs led by the Russian Mountaineering Federation.

Mountaineering clubs were formed everywhere; in big cities and rural areas, in universities as well as in factories. Members could train for free with experienced coaches. Climbing developed into a military like sport with high quality, army-style education: training camps with hard discipline, strict rules, and hierarchy

Instructors were educated in a special school, with mandatory exams in mountain rescue. More than 40 fixed mountaineering camps were set up in the different mountain regions.

The system was based on significant financial support from Trade unions. Students, workers or young scientists could train in local alpine clubs, take mountaineering courses and even join mountaineering camps for 20-30 days per year free of charge or at a very small fee. Also wholly sponsored by the unions; high-experienced athletes could go on expeditions and competitions.

The system was totalitarian of course, but the financial support and properly structured education allowed a lot of people to become highly skilled and made alpinism very popular in USSR.

The sport angle was key with plenty of high-level competitions between the Universities; the cities; in every Republic; up to Russian Federation Championships and USSR Championships.

Russia got very strong and excellent climbers in huge numbers, all with good technical skills...but nowhere to go. The Iron Curtain prevented climbers to travel and so the highest altitude available was Peak Communism (7495 m). Because of this, more than 500 climbers completed the Snow Leopard program; climbing all the five tallest peaks in USSR. The technical standard rose considerably by each year, as winning the championships commanded more and more difficult routes by each year.

The first Soviet Himalaya expedition was organized in 1982 - targeting Everest - with cut-throat competition among truly excellent high-altitude climbers for a spot on the team.

All great Russian climbs since - such as Jannu North Face, Everest North Face and K2 West Face - were results of athletes bred by this old Soviet system.

Now the times have changed. Our young mountaineers don't have to prove themselves in competitions anymore in order to go to Himalaya, or anywhere in the world. The straight-forward incentive to improve their skills is gone and the number of mountaineers in Russia has diminished greatly since the Soviet period.

There are roughly 9,000 climbers in Russia today - compare to the 700,000 in Germany, for example - and most of them do not perceive climbing as a sport. These days climbers can choose to either play by the Russian Mountaineering Federation rules or climb independently and organize their own projects. So I think we are headed to the European-model; with plenty of climbers but few real explorers.

The facts are there already, such as the very interesting climbing areas in Pamir, for example, where nobody has been since the early 90s. Routes there are more interesting than most of the popular routes in Caucasus or the Alps, with plenty of chances for new lines but no takers. These days, most prefer to live by familiar recipes.

ExWeb interview with RussianClimb.com, part 2: Orwell vs. Brave New World

ExWeb interview with RussianClimb.com, final: the internet and old vs. new media


2003 image of Lena Laletina on the northern Inylchek glacier at the base of Khan Tengri (click to enlarge).