Climbing Morcheka

As Sashka had predicted, we climbed the route in two hours without breaking a sweat. We alternated the lead position and made the ascent in good style. Most climbers love to lead. The second climber misses the chance “to solve the rock”, has much less risk and exposure, so for him, the climbing becomes just hard work. Yet, there are many folks who do not dare to lead, fewer in the mountains than in the city, or “down in the valley” in mountaineering jargon.

As for Sashka and I, we both wanted to lead, so we alternated. One goes one rope length up, fixes a point and belays his partner, who goes up to him and then continues climbing for another rope length as the lead. Then he fixes the point and the procedure repeats. This way, lost time in swapping roles is minimal. There is no need to clip and unclip the harness at every fixed point and to pass to the lead the collected pitons and nuts. We always climbed in this manner with good rhythm and never felt bored.

The only exception was in case we encountered a particularly difficult spot. Sashka climbed much better than I, so sometimes I asked him to lead again even if it was my turn. More often, though, at the beginning of the route, we calculated who would be the lead first, so that Sashka would have his turn on the toughest section.

We had not been climbing together very long. Before that, I practiced with a top rope until my skill level allowed me not to be a burden on the routes that were “interesting” to Sashka. It also coincided with his old partner quitting climbing because of some family matters. That partner, by the way, never wanted to be the lead, so Sashka got a chance to change his climbing style with me. To always be the lead is interesting, but can be tiring too. The need to always be the one who goes first exerts a substantial psychological pressure. By contrast, the swapping of the lead role allows you to give your partner a bit more load in case you are not feeling well or do not feel like leading for other reasons.

“Two hours is not bad,” said Sashka taking off his safety harness.

“I think we could move even faster,” I replied, “if we wanted to.”

To take off galoshes and put on the sneakers from our backpacks felt so good. Usually, we bought galoshes one size smaller, so they would be tighter and provide better support on any tiny foothold. The toes were jammed very painfully at first, but then you get used to it and appreciate the ability to load the very tip of the foot with all your weight.

Sashka started to coil the rope while I stowed the rest of the gear in the backpack – our safety harnesses, galoshes, hammers, pitons and other devices for fixing points. The latter – all the metal gear together – we called “iron.” Each of us carried quite a heavy set of iron for all possible configurations of a crack – thin, wide, deep, shallow and all types of rock – soft, hard, crumbling, solid. We also carried several bolts, in case we got stuck in an area without a crack.

I packed the gears and thought that we would forget such an uneventful ascent. It is nice to feel confident on a route that quite recently seemed way beyond your climbing capacity. But it does not excite you as much as when you are pushed to the limit and when unexpected danger lurks, and you overcome the challenge by pulling yourself together or by sheer luck. That’s why we go to the mountains – to experience such emotions. Otherwise one can exercise without ever leaving his home.

Mountains provide as many challenges and danger as you would like. Not too dangerous and dangerous enough – whatever you feel like this moment. If you get used to a certain level and feel bored, you can always bring it up and get excited again. That’s how the guys push themselves to greater risk. Some just cannot stop until it is too late. Those who were lucky for too long often get into the worst predicament. We attribute success to skill even in the case of a lucky resolution and become overconfident.

“We can try and do this route quicker,” Sashka agreed. “Or we can try and climb Morcheka.”

Crimea, the red arrow points to Morcheka

Crimea, the red arrow points to Morcheka

Morcheka was one of the most formidable rocks in Crimea. Not all of its routes were of the highest category of difficulty, but it was a legendary place among climbers, like El Capitan in the US.

“Can I climb there?” I asked.

“We’ll find something,” said Sashka confidently. “What is the secret of success? To keep one’s hands from shaking.”

Sashka was a very good partner. If he held one end of the rope, I could be sure that nothing could happen to me. Always in a good mood and optimistic, he did not like to talk or even to think about sad things.

“All right then,” I agreed, “let’s do it!”

By the next Friday, we were in Simferopol, the main city of Crimea. From there we took “the longest trolleybus line in the world” and rode 84 kilometers towards the Black Sea to the town of Yalta. Then 27 kilometers by bus to the village Opolznevoe and a half an hour hike to the 400-meter high monolith of Morcheka. I had not been there before.

The closer we got to the wall the more excited and curious I became. Which route did Sashka have in mind? At first glance, there were no easy options. But I knew there were small cracks one could see only at close range and trusted Sashka that we could find a route matching my skill level. Not too much above my level, at least.

At the wall, we did not waste time before spreading the blankets for the night’s sleep, although the summer day was long and it was not dark yet at all. But we had to start climbing as early in the morning as possible, better even at dawn. The wall faced south, so the earlier we began, the more time we would have before the heat becomes unbearable. By noon the rock would become a skillet ready for frying meat, our meat for that matter. And the only escape would be to get to the top.

We were ready to lay down under the bushes when a voice called from the foliage, and a head with piercing eyes and untamed hair broke through the twigs.

“Who’s there?” the head asked, and we recognized Bantik, the most celebrated climber not only in Crimea but all over the Soviet Union.

“Bantik!” called out Sashka.

“Sashka!” responded Bantik. “What are you doing here?”

Bantik spent so much time climbing that he felt he owned all the rocks. It was he who established several of the most difficult routes on Morcheka. And not only there. He blazed new routes all over Crimea and the Caucasus and even some abroad. Several documentaries about him were shot. Many articles in sports magazines were written. But nothing in the Soviet media. Because he was a stubborn violator of all Soviet sports regulations. He climbed solo and often free, and such a style was forbidden in the country.

“Yegor and I would like to climb Morcheka tomorrow,” explained Sashka.

“Good idea,” approved Bantik and looked at me as if evaluating. We had met before, but did not talk much, and he never saw me climbing. When I came to the mountains for the first time, he was already a legend. “And I am going to try and break a new route in the center.”

We all looked at the wall. The center was smooth and almost without any cracks.. I had no business there.

Morcheka, overhang Eagle.

Morcheka, overhang Eagle Photo source

“Straight up through that overhang,” Bantik pointed to the overhang high up.

“Nice!” Sashka approved.

“But it is not clear yet how to do it,” continued Bantik. “I will just look around tomorrow and see what the options are.”

“It will be a hell of a route!” said Sashka still looking up.

“Do you want to scout it with me?” suddenly offered Bantik and looked at both of us.

He included me just out of politeness. Even if I were a much better climber, to climb a wall in a group of three was quite inconvenient.
Sashka glanced at me. To observe such a master closely, to see how he makes decisions is a joy and the opportunity to learn no climber would miss. Yet, Sashka was a loyal friend and probably would turn down the offer for my sake.

“No, this level of climbing is not for me,” I answered quickly for both of us. “You two go, and I will watch you just fine from the ground.”

“I will climb with you on Sunday,” Sashka immediately assured me. He wanted to go with Bantik very much.

“The mountain isn’t going anywhere,” I repeated the traditional saying, used by the mountaineers when they wanted to cheer themselves up after the decision to abandon an ascent because of bad weather or some other good reason.

They both smiled, and Sashka slapped me on the back, “Thank you, Yegor!”

We began trading news about who climbed where recently. Bantik had done many more routes than we had and of a much higher category. It was his life. The rest was just an interference with his climbing. His eyes were sparkling when he talked about his ascents. To listen to him was inspiring, but his determination and his passion were sometimes too much and even scary.

“Do you remember that big overhang on Foros?” he asked Sashka and continued without waiting for an answer. “I did it eventually! Five times he threw me off! My thigh was blue for a week. But I solved it! And did it in a clean style. Now I can go through it anytime and even free.”

Legendary climber Yuri Lishaev (Fantik) and the TV host of the

Legendary climber Yuri Lishaev (Fantik) and the TV host of the “Travelers’ Club” Yuri Senkevich.

I saw him the previous summer after he returned from the Caucasus, where he had made a solo ascent of a particularly notorious route on the famous mountain Ushba. Nobody had been able to complete it before. The weather had not allowed him to go down on the other side of the mountain, so he was forced to descend along the same route backward.

He was emaciated. His eyes were sunken, his face was dark, and there were patches of loose skin everywhere. He looked like Savonarola or some other fiery, uncompromising preacher. To lighten his backpack, he even threw away most of his food.

Now again he told us about his recent accomplishments and we listened to him with our jaws dropped and did not notice how the darkness fell.

“No worry,” Bantik assured us. “Tomorrow we will take it easy. It’s just scouting.”

So, the next morning we got up quite some time after dawn. Immediately after breakfast, Bantik and Sashka grabbed their gears and went to the wall. I found a spot where I could lie down and watch them comfortably. Looking up for several hours would be a major pain in the neck. So I arranged a comfortable pillow from a sleeping mattress and enjoyed the view dozing in and out in the shade.

They moved slowly, discussed options, then climbed up or to the side, sometimes retracing their steps. I heard their voices clearly and understood everything they said. Bantik was in the lead. He paused for several minutes at a time, trying to figure something out, then made a few more moves and paused again. By noon, they had not gained much height. They dropped an end of the rope to me, and I passed them a flask of water.

By noon, they had gone up only three rope-lengths; each length was forty meters. The heat there was probably raging, but they continued at a steady pace and did not even mention coming down.

I knew Sashka well. He never complained, no matter how long or how hard he worked. He just did what had to be done, day or night, cold or, in this case, heat. Somebody else would usually call for a rest. Bantik was probably the same way. They did not pity themselves, probably just didn’t think about how they felt. Why would one pity himself while doing something he loved to do? So they continued working.

They came down only around five in the afternoon. Bantik had to be in Simferopol the same day, so he packed his stuff and went to the road.

Sashka laid down and stretched on the sleeping mattress. He was obviously dead tired.

“Were you grilled up there?” I asked.

“Yes. It was hot.” He answered in a few seconds.

I decided not to bother him anymore with questions and busied myself with the cooking. Sashka dosed away. I had not seen him so tired before.
When the food was ready, I woke him up, and we ate in silence.

Then we prepared for the night almost in silence too. I was sure we were not going to climb the next morning.

Several years later, Sashka told me that he did not want even to open his eyes that morning. His body was aching. The eyelids were glued tight.

“I was lying with my eyes shut,” he told me later, “and thought that I had invited Yegor to climb Morcheka. He came here on my promise, and it would be such a disappointment for him to return home without a try. But I just could not open my eyes.”

In the morning, not too early, I started boiling water for the tea. Sashka was still sleeping. I decided to pack my things because we definitely were going home.

“Yegor,” Sashka’s voice suddenly broke the morning silence, “are you ready to go up?”

In his voice, I sensed an effort to sound enthusiastic.

His question was so unexpected that it took me several seconds to answer it.

“Are you sure you can do it?” I asked.

“You will have to lead.”

“And the route? Can I do it?”

“You will like it, I think. Bantik showed me one. There, to the left.”

“It might be easy for Bantik…”

“Yegor, what is the secret of success?”

“To keep hands from shaking.”

“Exactly! Let’s have tea and go up. It’s getting late already.”

We ate something, drank tea, then put on all the gear, trying to be as light as possible and taking with us only the essentials. The route might be close to our expertise. We even put on galoshes in order not to carry the backpack. Walking in tight galoshes was a bit painful, but I knew that I would not feel it as soon as we started climbing.

Morcheka, the left side.

Morcheka, the left side. Photo by Yuri Kruglov

We walked to the left side of Morcheka.

“Here,” Sashka said. “We begin here and exit there,” he pointed to the distant top of the rock.

I stepped away from the wall and studied the route and possible options. I tried to remember all the key points, so we would have better chance to stay on course during the climb.

“How many ropes total?” I asked.

“Ten, probably,” Sashka said. “But I have not climbed here, so I do not know for sure.”

“Yes, it looks like four hundred meters,” I thought.

I mentally walked along the route again, then again with closed eyes. Sashka did not rush me because I was going to lead.

“Seems clear,” I said and looked at Sashka. “Should we?”

“Sure,” Sashka answered and grabbed the rope, one end of which was attached to my safety harness and the other end to Sashka’s. The harness consisted of belts wrapped around the chest and thighs. The belts converged to the carabiner in the middle of the chest.

I stepped to the wall and started climbing, putting nuts with steel loops and carabiners in each loop. Using nuts allowed for a faster ascent than hammering pitons into the cracks. I clicked the rope through each carabiner so that in a case of a fall I would go down below the last nut and Sashka would try to “catch” me by pulling the rope. None of us had ever fallen, so far, but I was sure that Sashka would do his part better than anybody else. As I moved up, he allowed the rope slide through his hands, ready to jam it any moment.

The first rope-length was not difficult. I fixed a point with the nut in a crack and belayed Sashka. He came up quickly and clicked his harness into the carabiner on the nut too. I handed him the rope, clicked my harness out of the carabiner and went up again. After the second rope, I fixed another point, belayed Sashka again, and we repeated the steps. To always be in the lead felt strange at first, but after the third rope we got into the rhythm and moved up without a hitch.

After the fourth rope-length, I looked up and could not figure out immediately where to go. The wall there was quite smooth with small holds spread quite widely and unevenly. Also, in the middle of the section, the route turned left, but the wall had a belly there, and I could not see how the section ended. I looked at Sashka. Usually, to tackle such a spot, he would take the lead role.

“Tired a bit?” asked Sashka.

“No, not yet. I am not sure how to climb here. What do you think?”

Sashka looked up and advised me how to begin.

“There is a big shelf behind the belly,” he added. “Just after this traverse.”

It meant that while looking at the route from the ground, he noticed that belly and memorized the shelf location. I had missed the belly completely.

“You know what, Yegor,” Sashka said after seeing me doubting, “let me try it.”

I clicked my harness into the carabiner again and took the rope from Sashka. He clicked his harness out and moved up. After a few steps, though, he stopped, hesitating. I noticed the calf of his right leg was twitching uncontrollably. Apparently, he overloaded himself yesterday. After a few seconds, he returned and clicked his harness into the carabiner.

“No, Yegor, today is your day,” he said, quite cheerfully, though.

He leaned away from the wall, ready to belay me. I handed him the rope, clicked my harness out of the carabiner and moved up, repeating the moves Sashka had just made.

“Now look up and a bit to the left,” Sashka said. “I think you can reach a good hold up there. I could not, but I am shorter than you. Grab it with your right hand and place the right foot a bit up and to the left of you. Then pull and stretch your left hand all the way to the left and up. There has to be another hold. Grab them both and walk with your legs around the belly. You should be able to reach the shelf with your left leg.”

I followed his advice, and everything was exactly as he had suggested. Around the corner, I was able to reach an excellent shelf five centimeters wide with a crack nearby.

The sixth and seventh ropes were not that difficult. The eighth, though, was challenging again. But I already knew that I could not hide behind Sashka’s back, so I just climbed it without hesitation. By that time, I got a bit tired. The route complexity and the pressure of leading took a toll on me.

After the ninth rope, we hoped to see the exit, but there was no summit in sight yet.

“We swing left and right,” Sashka explained. “It adds to the distance.”
Staying on the straight line required greater climbing skills than I could muster. So, I moved a lot laterally, looking for an easier option. That made our route longer. The rope behind me zigzagged from one secure point to another like shoelaces in a sneaker.

“But we are close already anyway,” Sashka tried to cheer me up. “You are doing just great. Tired a bit?”

“A bit. But hands are not shaking,” joked I.

“That’s what we care about,” Sashka laughed.

We climbed two more ropes, but the summit still was not in sight. I got a feeling that this ascent never ends. Sashka, I noticed, was looking up often too.

To add to our worry, the weather started getting worse. We liked it at first because the clouds prevented the sun from baking us. But the sky darkened by the minute now, and at a distance above the ridge we were climbing, a heavy black cloud had formed and moved in our direction.

“Such a visitor is not welcome,” Sashka commented. “Let’s push, Yegor, before this step-mother cuddles us to death. We are almost there.”

I pressed and went through the twelfth section faster than through any of the sections before. Sashka moved very quickly too and pulled the nuts from the cracks with one swiping motion.

The cloud was closing on us, so we continued to maintain the rapid pace, but it moved very fast and soon was almost above us. If the rock became wet, we would be stuck for a long time. Suddenly lightning hit the ridge not far from Morcheka and thunder rolled along the wall.

“Go! Go, Yegor!” I heard through the rattle of the thunder. “We are at the exit already.”

Sashka, while belaying me, had a chance to look around. But I did not see anything further than an arm’s length and just climbed. Right leg up, right hand up, load the right leg and pull up, left leg up, left hand up, load the left leg and up. Right leg up again …

Several rain drops hit the rock and pricked my hands and face.

I quickened my moves. The rope was almost fully stretched, but we were still on a wall. If the rain starts pouring…

That was the moment I saw a small tree on the very edge – at the exit – just a few steps from me.

Raindrops started to fall one after another. The rock in front of my face was already covered with spots of water like a leopard’s skin. In a few seconds, a torrent of water will wash us away. From the corner of my eye, I saw the rain coming like a wall.

I rushed to the tree.

The rain was hitting me non-stop, and the rock was all wet. But I managed to grab the tree. It was strong. It had withstood innumerable storms over many years and had grown its roots deep into the cracks of the rock.

I pulled myself up and stepped on the wide and slightly inclined shelf, covered with grass, with a wide opening to the summit. I wrapped the rope around the tree and jerked it twice as the signal to Sashka that he could start moving up. He could not see me, and there was no point in shouting through the noise of the rain and the rattling of the thunder.

The rope was coming up slowly. The rock was slick, and only Sashka’s skill and strength saved us. Several times his feet slipped and he hanged by only his hands. When his head appeared above the edge, he was wet through and through.

“Unbelievable!” he said spitting out water. “I never thought one could be drowned on a wall. Let’s get out of here!”

Still tied to each other with the rope we hurried up away from the edge and sat at the base of a huge boulder. The wind blew from the other side, and rain did not reach there. But we were wet to the bones anyway. Nevertheless, the excitement from the lucky escape warmed us. So, life was beautiful no matter rain or even snow or hail.

“Congratulations, Yegor!” Sashka slammed me on my back. “That was a tough route to lead.”

“No kidding.”

The thunder was blasting already just above us and drowned our voices.

“On the last section you did not secure the rope with any of the nuts you had set,” shouted Sashka while untying the rope from his harness. “You climbed free like a lizard. The nuts with carabiners were there, but the rope did not go through them. How many nuts did you set?”

“I don’t remember. I moved as fast as I could.”

That's how it looked. The difference was that the rock color was not as red and the lightning hit the nearest rock.

That’s how it looked. The difference was that the rock color was not as red, and the lightning hit the nearest rock. Photo by Raul Touzon for National Geographic

Sashka said something, but the lightning hit the ridge so close that the thunder smashed us like a sledgehammer.

Out of the fear of attracting a lightning discharge we threw away all the iron we had – pitons, nuts, carabiners.

Sashka turned and touched the boulder. A thin stream of water was running down along its surface. If the lightning hits it, this water will bring the electricity to us as a copper conductor. We looked around for another place to hide.

“Let’s try that gap,” Sashka pointed with his hand.

We crossed the open space and jammed into the gap between two other boulders with the third boulder blocking the hole from the top. The inside was tight but dry.

The rain poured without slowing down.

“Quickly it came, quickly will it go away,” Sashka said. “And the sun will be back in no time.”

He looked at me and wanted to add something, but instead recoiled with such a horror in his eyes, that it scared me into a hot sweat.

“Hammer!” he shouted and pointed to my piton hammer still hanging tied to my harness.

The image of lightning striking us at any moment shattered me. I rushed to untie the knot. But the rope was wet; my fingers were trembling, and I could not loosen it. Meanwhile lightning was striking every few seconds, even before the previous thunder had stopped rattling. It sounded like an artillery barrage in a war movie.

Sashka tried to help, but could not do much without any room to move.

“Where is the knife?” he shouted.

“Left in the backpack!”

“Let me try with my teeth!”

He managed to coil around me, grabbed the knot with his teeth and after a few attempts loosened it. I pulled the hammer and threw it away with such force that we did not find it later.

The bombing continued for another half an hour. The lightning hit the opening in front of us twice, and we pressed inside the hole as deep as we could.

But everything ends eventually. The cloud moved further and, as it often happens in the summer, the sun started shining again. We collected our gear, did not find my hammer, left it behind and hurried down.

The trail was drenched, and we slipped all the time. But the biggest problem was caused by our decision not to carry our sneakers with us. It was the first and the last time we did it. The tight galoshes felt even tighter as the toes were pressed down and squeezed inside the narrow tip. Especially painful was walking on the loose rocks. We cursed and solemnly swore to always carry a change of footwear on an ascent of any category.

Lame on both legs, we eventually made it to our camp. What a joy and relief it was to pull off the galoshes! The toes were bleeding and hurt even in the sneakers.

We changed into dry clothes and started feeling that life was again bearable and enjoyable. We did not care that our fingers got so swollen that we could not close our hands into a fist. It had happened before too after other difficult climbs.

“We should practice more,” Sashka said, barely managing to tie his shoelaces.

We packed and went to the road. My body started aching, but the feeling of accomplishment made it not just bearable but even pleasant. The body exhaustion meant that we had pushed ourselves far enough and become probably stronger and more skillful. That was the goal of our coming here, wasn’t it? And without challenges and body ache, one does feel he lives to full capacity.

The bus arrived promptly. An hour later, we were already in Yalta waiting for the trolleybus of “the longest trolleybus line in the world” (that was widely advertised and one could see it written everywhere). The day was turning into the evening. The dusk was getting thicker, but our mood remained festive. After such an adventure, life on a flat asphalt surface could not have any problems.

When the trolleybus from Simferopol arrived, a man dressed like a worker stepped out, looked around as if he was lost or something, then turned to us.

“Guys,” he said not very confidently, “don’t laugh at me. What is the name of this city?”

Dumbfounded, we looked at each other. Then we got it. The man probably wanted to take a city bus in Simferopol on the way home but boarded the intercity line instead. Those buses looked the same. He probably also drank one too many or was tired and fell asleep.

“It’s Yalta, buddy,” answered Sashka.

“No kidding?!”

“No kidding,” assured him kind Sashka. “But don’t take it too hard. Just hop back on with us and we’ll go to Simferopol together.”

The man looked around again, scratched his head, muttered something, and followed us. The doors closed, and the bus started.

We slowly gained elevation along the road serpentine and at each turn looked at Yalta down there getting more distant. It basked in the night lights. The seafront looked like a bright garland. It ran along the dark sea, and the ships anchored in the harbor resembled Christmas decorations.

Finally, at the last turn, the spectacular view of the bay opened up for a moment and quickly disappeared behind the road edge. The bus drove into the darkness, and the windows started reflecting our faces back to us. The man was sleeping again. Sashka stretched his legs on the seat and dozed too, leaning against the window.

I was sitting on the other side of the isle and thought that we would remember this ascent for a long time because we had overcome challenges and escaped a big danger. Without experiencing such strong emotions, we would have forgotten this trip in a few days. We don’t value a well-prepared and well-executed plan. It does not excite us as much. Although, it should be the other way around. We should be embarrassed for using so much luck today. What would happen if the storm had come a few minutes earlier or the tree would not have grown exactly in that spot? We should stay low instead of bragging about our “heroics” in the bad weather and about our incredible luck. But we cannot help it. We credit ourselves in case of an accidental success and find an excuse in the unfortunate external circumstances when we fail.

Before falling asleep too, my last thought was that it would be nice to write it down. About Morcheka, Bantik, my friend Sashka and our getting credit we did not deserve.

Response

Alexander Petrov, my friend and climbing partner: Started reading and finished it in one sitting. Distinctly remember the storm and how we threw away all the metal gears. After I was hit by the car, it is difficult for me to recall all the details. Reading your story were the best minutes of my life! I am writing now and my hands are trembling! Not because I am sick or something. I am recalling our life. We had great time, we sincerely loved each other. On August 11, we celebrated Victor Gromko’s 76th birthday. He visited us from Israel, where he lives now. He had another surgery on his backbone, barely walks, but is full of his usual optimism. We got together, talked about the olden days. Your story goes straight to the heart. Well done! And keep writing!

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