How Ukrainian Climbers Traded Mountains For War

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Like most former Soviet cities, Kupyansk has its share of dismal concrete, but the town's cultural administration center had long been an exception. Built as a theology college in the 1890s, its handsome brick facade featured arched windows and tall columns. But during the night of December 8, 2022, as I sleep in a bunker down the street, Russian guns blow the facade to rubble, exposing the rooms behind: a building with its pants down.

The next morning someone drapes plastic tape from trees out front to keep onlookers from getting too close, so that's where I stop, shivering inside my body armor and insulated jacket against the bitter Ukrainian winter.

"Don't go any further," Mykhailo Poddubnov warns me.

Misha, as his friends call him, is among the most widely respected and influential mountaineering instructors in Ukraine, a nation that a little more than a year ago secured its place in mountaineering history. In early November 2021, Ukrainian climbers Mikhail Fomin, Nikita Balabanov, and Viacheslav Polezhaiko stunned the climbing world with their first ascent of Annapurna III's vast and perilous southeast ridge.

Their line, described as "an incredibly serious undertaking" in Climbing, had repelled many of the world's best climbers over four decades. The Ukrainians spent two weeks on the mountain, overcoming tenuous snow conditions and rock with all the solidity of a pastry. They ran out of food, endured temperatures of -31deg F with 40 mph winds, and found themselves crawling up the summit ridge on their hands and knees. They joked that between them they'd lost enough weight to flesh out a fourth teammate. Their climb was hailed as among the Himalayan ascents of the century, or any century; but it would prove a small moment of light in Ukraine's gathering storm.

When Russia invaded on February 24, 2022, Ukraine's alpinists, Misha among them, put aside dreams of the high mountains to help defend their country. Ukraine's entire climbing scene turned itself into a network at war; some raised funds and sourced equipment for members of the community fighting on the frontlines; others used lessons learned in one hostile environment to survive another that has proved far more dangerous.* Misha offered to introduce me to these climbers and, like any good guide, has proved a reassuring presence on my 10-day trip through eastern Ukraine, where the threats have not been falling stones or avalanches but shellfire and icy roads.

"What makes a hole that big?" I ask Misha, looking at the ruined building.

Misha purses his lips.

"Maybe Pion 203mm," he replies, referring to the Russian army's colossal self-propelled cannon.

Kupyansk's cultural center had survived a century of wars. The Nazis occupied the town for six months in 1942, executing dozens of partisans before the Soviets counterattacked. Now Russia is back, not to fight fascism again, as President Putin claims, but to reduce Ukraine, independent for 30 years, to the status of vassal. Russian troops captured Kupyansk, located just 30 miles southwest of the border, early in the war but were driven out in September. Last night's shelling was a reminder that they are still nearby.

Turning our backs on the ruined cultural center, we cross an open square, newly sprinkled with clumps of dirt, and stop above a steep hillside overlooking snowy plains spreading to the east. Below us the Oskil River flows north to south from beyond the Russian border. On its far side are the railway yards of Kupyansk-Vuzloyi, a strategic objective for both sides. In the distance, plumes of gray smoke rise from Russian artillery strikes and new ones puff into life. Europe has not seen anything like this since 1945.

*Editor's Note: With Misha Poddubnov’s help, Climbing has identified 11 Ukrainian climbers who’ve been killed in the war. We will be releasing their obituaries in the coming weeks.

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