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Gemma Woldendorp visits Bililbino, the new hot spot for climbing dissidents in northeast Siberia with comrades Nathasia Sebire and Chris Fitzgerald
WORDS: Gemma Woldendorp IMAGES: As Credited
We felt like criminals as we waited in a dingy little immigration office in the town of Bilibino, northeast Siberia. A fat official, not looking terribly official in shirt and pants, called me into an even smaller room. Through an interpreter he told me what we already knew – we didn’t have permits for entering the Chukokta Autonomous Region, and that furthermore we each had to pay a fine. I was finger-printed, hand-printed and then made to sign multiple pages of a document written in incomprehensible Russian. Natasha and Chris were made to do the same.
Just two weeks before we’d left for Russia we’d found out that visitors to the region required this permit – a propusk – and that because the application process usually takes three months we’d have to cancel the trip. Luckily, Evgeny, our contact in Bilibino, smoothed things out with the authorities, and we were allowed to enter. We were fined A$60 each, but it was a far better prospect than cancelling and losing all the money we’d invested in the trip.
A seven-man team of climbers from Europe – including the Basque brothers Iker and Eneko Pou – had arrived a few weeks before us. Considering that Bilibino had only received three visitors in the previous ten years, the locals must have wondered what the attraction was. It certainly wasn’t the antiquated nuclear power station, which was due to be decommissioned in 2004, but which (in typical Russian style) they’d decided to just keep going (a bit like the rattly old 1970s Antonov plane we’d flown in on). Apart from the nuclear power station, whose waste-water heats the town (and yes, apparently it is radioactive), the only other reason people live in Bilibino is to mine gold. With no real environmental obligations or protections, there are relics and signs of gold mining everywhere.
What we came for – as did the European team and, later, a two-man team from Scotland – were the big granite walls. Just the year before Chris Fitzgerald and Chris Warner had been the first to climb these walls after Evgeny had shown them photos exciting enough to entice them 12,000km north from the SoHem – all without knowledge of the propusk, or with authorities being any the wiser. The Chris’ had climbed in a valley where the highest and only named peak, Komandnaya (Commander) Peak, is located. They’d made first ascents on the Commander and on an adjacent peak they dubbed the General. While climbing a short route some 8km east of this area, they’d spied another valley with a huge granite wall that they didn’t have time to climb. Due to all the splitter cracks in the wall they’d dubbed it the Finger Crack Cirque. As soon as Natasha and I saw their photos we knew we wanted to go, and Chris Fitzgerald was keen to return.
After stocking up on expensive and often out of date food in Bilibino, we were taken by 4WD to a point about 6km west of the Commander and General peaks. The European team were being picked up after their successful trip climbing at the Commander area, and they told us about the vast, black clouds of mosquitoes they’d had to endure (we went a few weeks later to avoid them, although we still thought the mozzies were bad!). Several days of load carrying later, we’d cached some food near the Commander, and set up a base camp next to a lake in the Finger Crack Cirque.
Hiking along the ridge near the head of the cirque, we got great views of valleys at the eastern extremity of the area, which had more unclimbed walls and peaks. All the hiking helped us get an idea of the layout of the entire area. The granite walls and peaks (all under 1500m in elevation) are an anomaly in the vast Siberian tundra, a concentrated area of granite walls roughly circular in shape and extending 12km across. Most of the walls are steep on one side and easy-angled down the back, making descents from routes a walk-off, while the approaches to the base of walls are usually even easier. The Finger Crack Cirque is no exception. The wall is 500m at its highest and extends for over a kilometre in length, slabby at the bottom, generally steepening through the middle, and easing off again at the top. Cracks abound on the wall, from tight fingers, to hands, to off-widths, with a smattering of flakes, corners and face climbing. There are so many lines to choose from, we had trouble deciding. And to think, any line we chose would be a first ascent!
To get the feel of the wall, our first route was at the shorter end, and we alternated leads on a fairly continuous crack system. It was an amazing feeling to be the first to climb on this wall. The rock was excellent – cracks varied from clean and dry, to damp sections with a bit of moss or grass, with the odd loose rock to be trundled. After six pitches we reached a diagonal ledge of loose rock that we scrambled along for a couple of hundred metres to reach the top, resulting in The Propusk (18, 290m of roped climbing).
We often had a couple of days of good weather followed by some rainy days, during which we constructed a shelter out of rocks topped with a tarp to create a nicely protected space in which to cook and eat. It also made a great hide to observe pikas, lemmings and weasels that would dart between the rocks and fluffy lichens. We didn’t see bears, although they were around and the Brits saw one, but we did see deer. Hunting is popular with the locals, and deer meat is readily available in Bilibino.
On a cold, windy day waiting for seepage from cracks to dry from the previous day’s rain, we scoped out the wall near the head of the valley. There were plenty of continuous hand cracks on a sweeping wall below a big ledge, and although it was cold I couldn’t resist a splitter crack that was mostly dry. The crack went from fingers to hands for two rope-stretching pitches of grade 16 and, followed by Tash, we climbed to the ledge and abseiled off. The next day the three of us climbed another of these splitter cracks, but continued above the ledge following cracks and flakes for seven pitches of climbing up to grade 18, with some easy scrambling to reach the top. Vodka and Lemming (18, 500m) tops out at the highest part of the wall, and we scrambled around looking for the highest rock to stand on to enjoy the great views. At 10pm the sun was casting an orange glow on only this highest part of the wall. With 24hr daylight there’s no need to start early, but with another two hours to hike down we only rushed because we were hungry.
After our two first climbs we moved our attention to a very impressive and steep part of the wall in the Finger Crack Cirque, where it looks as though a giant orbital sander has scoured its way up the wall leaving great arcing curves. We chose an obvious crack that was unbroken from bottom to top. This route required a bit more effort, and so we climbed it over three days leaving fixed ropes in place to reascend each day. Chris led most of this route, which had some tricky spots where the crack fused, requiring some use of peckers and bolts. All other routes we’d climbed using only natural protection, but Chris got to use his power drill and placed four bolts on lead, while all the belays from pitch two were bolted. Although Tash and I had placed bolts on new routes for rappelling using a hand drill, the power drill was something we were in two minds about, as the ease of placing a bolt makes it tempting to use. Chris showed restraint as best he could, and the resulting eight pitches of Orbital Sander (22, 440m) were some of the nicest climbing we did, on some excellent rock, from bomber finger locks, to hand jams, and some delicate face climbing on chunky crystals and edges where the crack fused.
We had planned to spend the last couple of weeks climbing on the Commander and General peaks, but it was difficult to leave the Finger Crack Cirque with so many stunning lines waiting to be climbed. Our decision to stay where we were was made when the snow came early. Usually it comes in early September, but this time the first snow fell mid-August and the temperature plummeted. Cloud would often roll in from the direction of the Commander, and the ridges would sometimes hold it there, so that we generally received more sunshine in the Finger Crack Cirque than the Commander area. Along with the nice rock shelter we’d built, we figured if there was any more climbing to be done, the Finger Crack Cirque was the best place to be.
We hiked the 8km back to the Commander base camp to pick up our food cache, as well as some vodka that had been dropped off by a local Russian guys who had hiked into the base camp for something to do. Unbeknown to us, one of the unmarked plastic bottles was not vodka, but medical grade ethanol – 95% alcohol! Russians drink this stuff diluted with water because you don’t need to carry much of it when hiking into the wilderness to shoot animals and tin cans (when there’s no animals to shoot). After our first undiluted shot we thought it was nasty-tasting vodka, but the burning sensation in our throats didn’t dissipate. After the second shot, we decided it couldn’t be vodka, and realised it must be ethanol. By then it was too late (we’d also each had a shot of real vodka before that ran out), and we all found ourselves feeling a rather peculiar sort of drunk, laughing stupidly for no reason. With throats burning all night, followed by weird dreams, we decided not to drink anymore of this toxic stuff and gave it to the two climbers from Scotland who had arrived the day before the snow came. Although we warned them about it, with all the unclimbable days due to bad weather they dealt with their frustration by drinking it with boiled-down Haribo jubes.
We had our collective eye on a rock tower located in a valley behind Finger Crack Cirque. The Weasel Tower, as we named it, lay perched enticingly on a ridge. On a snowy afternoon we hiked around into the adjacent valley and crossed the col into the valley behind to bivvy and climb it the next day. There were more impressive walls, all unclimbed, but now encrusted in ice and snow. We found a big flat rock amongst the boulders to pitch our tent on. In the morning we woke to more snowfall. Despite this, we thought we’d hike up to the base of Weasel Tower and check it out anyway. As we were doing this, the snow stopped and it began to melt. Although Chris had trouble embracing climbing in the cold, Tash and I were keen – we were here to climb, and knowing our climbing options were running out, this pointy summit had appeal.
Tash took the first lead on a line going straight up the face from the valley. Chris and I followed in downies, gloves and approach shoes to stay warm. But when I took the next three leads to the top, I was in rock shoes and my feet soon turned to wood. At two points I had to pull on gear as my numb fingers just couldn’t pull the steep moves. What looked easy from the ground often turned out to be hard. With Chris and Tash following by any means to get up the route and stay warm, it was a test of willpower for me to try and free climb each pitch. By the time we’d reached the small summit, the sky had cleared and the sun cast a shadow of our pointed peak on the hillside opposite. It was still bitterly cold with a chilly wind and we’d been climbing on the shady side. We drilled some abseil bolts and made two rappels to the ground – glad of the power drill and its speed! Because of the unseasonal early onset of winter, we named the climb Siberian Summer (20/A1, 160m).
With regular snowfalls, the walls were plastered in snow, and any water seepage became ice. As disappointing as it was to see the possibilities of climbing diminish day by day, it was spectacular seeing the change of the seasons happen so quickly: from green alpine heath and sunny rock walls, to warm autumn colours and snow dusted peaks, all in a matter of weeks. Each day we’d see the sun cutting a tighter arc above the peaks, leaving less sunshine and darker nights. The season for climbing in Siberia is very short, and if you come too early you must endure infuriating mosquitoes, while if you come late you risk the cold and snow.
It was a lovely sunny day as we hiked for the last time down the broad valley to the road for our pick-up. It looked like shades of red and yellow oil paints had been splashed down the hillsides as the tundra went through its autumnal change. Back in Bilibino with the Brits, we enjoyed warm Russian hospitality with liberal amounts of alcohol, and finished off with a bunya – a backyard Russian sauna, which got up to a searing 120°C, and included a good thrashing with dried oak leaves and a dousing of cold water. It was a memorable finish to a memorable trip.