Siebe Vanhee tells us about the teams journey
into the elusive Chukotka region of Siberia
The North Face: Common Ground
Why Siberia and why the team?
It were Iker and Eneko Pou, two proud Basque oldtimers from The North Face team, who came up with the idea to make a climbing trip into the unknown tundra of Siberia. In the summer of 2014 they got inspired by the pictures they had seen of the Chukotka walls from an expedition of the Australian climbers Chris Fitzgerald and Chris Warners. Because of the big potential of first ascents on the moderate high walls the two Basques searched for more team members, which they found inside the international The North Face team. When they asked Jacopo Larcher as well as Hansjörg Auer, and Siebe Vanhee, they all didn’t hesitate. They knew each other from the international climbing scène and had a good feeling this trip would make a lot of fun, a good atmosphere and an exciting and challenging goal. On top of all that, it would make a team existing out of all different climbers, they all have their own background, own story and most of all own qualities. Each personality in this divers and international team would add a very different perspective on the main thing they all have in common, climbing and a vertical challenge into the unknown. So things were clear from the start, the thought of exploring new big walls in a country like Siberia simply triggered that need for exploration and challenge in them.
What made us decide to go?
First of all it was the environment of the Chukotka region which would add a bit more challenge to the expedition because it was unknown to the whole crew. We heard about three walls located in the middle of the remote and flat tundra of Siberia. Just the fact of remoteness motivated us because we would have to concur the organisation and travel through a country with other norms, values and habits to get to our main objective, ‘climbing’. Second, it were the walls that appealed to us. It are 500 meter walls with good looking rock, the slightly different types of rock and angles would offer us a lot of possibilities to search for the lines that could fulfil our expectations.
What was the main goal of the expedition?
Like on many of those remote climbing expeditions, the goal was to reach the top of a mountain, to climb a first ascent, or even several if possible. In this case, because we were a group of five climbers and the walls were around 500 meters high, we aimed for as many first ascents possible. Besides having a main objective, the way we would reach it was important to us. We would try to free climb our way up to the top, following the most logical and natural line trying not to leave unnecessary fixed gear. Once in nature, the Pou brothers were aiming for one push alpine style climbs while Jacopo, Hansjörg and Siebe were eager to search a challenging line that would require more then one day to free climb.
What were your favourite memories?
For all of them this expedition was something in particular, the area, the walls, the culture, the mosquitos, the days full of light and the multifunctional team. Climbing in two teams on these walls with the average height of 500 meter was great. Every possible climbing day the whole team split up in two for their challenges. At night, or whenever cause they had 24 hours of daylight, they would gather back to basecamp to cook there dinner and share there adventures and challenges of the day. They would discuss possible lines, ways to approach the climb and climbing styles and ethics. This last topic was subject of many basecamp discussions. Coming all from different ‘sub’ climbing community’s our values and points of views on climbing big walls and exploration where slightly different or had a different touch to it. Enriching for every one of them. Wherever you are, climbing, many times is a social experience, and that’s what also this team again discovered in Siberia.
What was the biggest Challenge?
The biggest challenge of the whole team was to get to the climbing area. Travelling through Russia isn’t an easy task. Not many people speak English, definitely not in a remote town like Bilibino where habitants are not used to see tourists, so communication wasn’t always easy. On top of that we noticed the culture differences were pretty big. While we, and definitely our Spanish part of the team, are more extravert and open, the Russians seemed more reserved. It was hard to tell to what extend we were accepted to be there or not. Unfortunately the answer on this question became pretty clear one day after we arrived in Bilibino. Let me explain. Bilibino is a remote town a four hours long flight away from the closest bigger city. In the past many people worked there in the goldmines, nowadays people work in the close by nuclear centre. As a group of seven foreigners we prepared our 25 days worth of food supplies doing grocery’s in the many small food stores in town with the help of our personal guide Evgeny Turilov. Apparently we weren’t discreet enough preparing our trip and the eye of the local as well as the federal police caught our actions. Fancy coloured and extravert persons as we were had to be caught in for interrogation. This is when the story of endlessly waiting sessions and Russian bureaucracy started. First of all we dealt with the migration centre of Bilibino. This is where we all got interrogated one by one in the small office of the migration head officer. I went in first and was placed in front of a big Russian man who looked at me like I was about to steal his wife. A little intimidated I started to explain him the reason of our trip and tried to make clear we were just there for climbing. Thanks to an English schoolteacher, they called in to translate, I could slowly explain them who we were and why we were in a place like Bilibino as tourists. For them it seemed unreal we came all the way from Europe to climb mountains in a - according to them - flat area with just tundra. One by one we went into the office and gave all the information they needed of us. Apparently we didn’t have a certain permit to enter the Chukotka area and we broke the Russian law. Not knowing what would be the consequences of our illegal action of entering the area, the police took us to the jail where we had to talk to the head police officer. Again a series of waiting and explaining followed, but this time they let us go more quickly. After another day of fingerprints and paperwork it was clear we had to pay a fine but luckily they let us stay in the region. There was a moment some of us thought they would sent us back to Europe, this could have happened knowing the area was strictly forbidden for foreigners a few years ago.
We were happy to continue our trip and escape the Russian civilisation heading towards our more natural environment… the mountains and the rock. Although, there was another surprise waiting for us at the basecamp. This time it wasn’t Russian bureaucracy or any other political danger for our trip. It were simply the many, many mosquito’s that would make the basic living a bit(e) harder. As soon as we got dropped of and committed the hike to base camp, the mosquito’s were omnipresent. Although temperatures were high, we all wore clothing that fully covered our skin. The mosquito nets and hoodies were on at almost all times. To our surprise, the mosquito’s didn’t disappear while climbing, also the rain wouldn’t scare them. Soon they realised they were doomed to accept and ignore this plague.
The routes and their stories, cause all climbs have their story...
The full team started off attacking the east face of The General. While Iker and Eneko attacked the most obvious dihedral system on the right, the team of three, Jacopo, Hansjörg and Siebe challenged themselves with the cracks in the middle of the east face. This first climbing day in the Chukotka area promised to be great. As well "Aupa!" (6c, 300m, 8pitches ) as "Wake Up in Siberia" (6b, 240m, 3pitches & 5+ of 70m) were opened in alpine style on 07/07/2015. Both routes are of great quality rock and didn't need much cleaning for free climbing.
From the day they arrived at their giant playground, The Commander (left wall) attracted Jacopo, Hansjörg and Siebe. They were eager to search for a challenging line on this more steep looking wall. From the ground they spotted an obvious red coloured cornersystem halfway up the wall. In bigwall/shortfix style they tackled the wall. Like they had expected, the corner offered them the biggest challenge of the route. After reaching the top of the route they returned to freeclimb the entire line. While Siebe focussed all his energy in free climbing the stemming 45 meter corner pitch, Hansjörg and Jacopo did the same with the upper corner/roof pitch. Despite their first impression of the two corner pitches - they assumed them to be very hard and even impossible because of the small protection - they managed to free climb both pitches on the third day. Overall they only placed five bolts in the entire route, despite the small and not always solid protection. Happy they were having found such a unique climb that challenged them in all possible ways; from getting up (sometimes using aid-climbing techniques), to placing protection, to climbing it free placing the gear. The "Red Corner" (7c+, 450m, 11 pitches) is opened and free climbed by Hansjörg Auer, Siebe Vanhee and Jacopo Larcher in three days time (11-12-14/07/2015).
While they team of three had their first day in the Red Corner, the Basque team jumped on The General. They started from an obvious ledge accessing on the right, the beginning of the route was perfect slab-climbing with difficult and little protection cause of the lack of crack systems. They protected mostly in sideways flakes. This style of climbing Jacopo, Hansjörg and Siebe also concurred in the routes "From Zero to Hero" and "Sketchy Django". In the upper part of the climb the Pou’s found a perfectly clean hand-jamming right-facing dihedral (65m pitch) which makes this route definitely a classic of The General! "Mosquito Rock Tour" (7a+, 450m, 9pitches) is climbed in one push by the brothers Iker and Eneko Pou on 11/07/2015. The climb thanks its name to the many, but really MANY, mosquitos the whole team experienced in the basecamp and even, despite the little breeze on the wall, did not disappear whilst climbing.
While the international three-team still focussed on free climbing the Red Corner challenge, the Pou Brothers were on fire climbing one push routes. They chose a line on The Commander that takes some obvious crack systems leading towards a very wide chimney at the end of the wall. Because of this never drying chimney at the top, the two brothers experienced some wet pitches (pitch 5,6 and 7), which made them consider the wide chimney wouldn't be a great end of a great climb. This is why they traversed out left to find multiple cracksystems bringing them to the top. "Into the Wild" (7a, 425m, 9pitches) is climbed by Iker and Eneko Pou in one long day of 11h20 on 14/07/2015.
After the team free ascent of the Red Corner, it was Hansjörg Auer that got the idea to climb the last unclimbed peak around basecamp, The Monk. As an experienced technical climber, Hansjörg got attracted by the slabby looks of the pillar. He convinced the two youngsters to join for a quick ascent. All three opened the most obvious line in the middle of the pillar which they called "Sketchy Django" (6a+, 400m, 7pitches starting up in the gully). This wall had a few slab sections without much good protection. Some run-outs on peckers and pitons were made by the Sketchy Django of the team, Hansjörg. The rock was amazingly structured and had very big crystals, which made the slabs easier then they looked. The difficulty of this line is definitely the protection.
For the ascent of the last two routes of the trip both rope teams struggled with the weather. "The Two Parrots" was Iker’s and Eneko’s last route on of the trip which they climbed in one push of 8h30 on 24/07/2015. Although this route is climbed in one push, the Basques had to intent two days before the weather allowed them to push in one time to the top. The line starts on the West side of The Commander and leads into an other obvious dihedral 50 meter to the right of the "Red Corner". They marked that the first few pitches were pretty wet and offered them some adventure, afterwards the rock was of high quality where they found four incredible and long crack climbing pitches in the big right-facing dihedral.
Chronological with the Pou’s tries and ascent of The Two Parrots, the other three motivation bombs tackled the left side of The General. They climbed "From Zero to Hero" (7a, 490m, 11pitches) in several days because of the heavy rain that stopped them from a one push ascent. The first two attempts a waterfall coming down the face forced them to retreat twice while climbing the third pitch. On the third day they were lucky the big amount of thunderstorms past the area closely but didn't hit them, so they continued on 24/07/2015 to the top. Halfway up the wall the right-facing corners where still wet and a hard to protect section challenged them. During the whole climb they often made use of peckers and pitons placing them while climbing because of the lack of better nut and Camelot placements. According to them, this climb was one of the most adventurous climbs they had done in the area.
What is the main difference between climbing in Siberia and climbing in more popular places?
The answer is very simple and quickly described in one word… adventure. Climbing in Siberia or any other unknown remote place is partly about the adventure of organisation, getting there, hiking your gear into base camp, unknown weather conditions and the search for the most obvious and attractive lines to climb. Peculiar to the word adventure is the challenge of dealing with uncertainty. When we decided we would go towards the Chukotka region we weren’t sure about the quality of the rock, the amount of potential lines and the weather. If the weather turned out bad, we couldn’t go home or to a bar for some beers. In stead we had to wait in basecamp where we read, wrote, discussed and of course… ate. This is part of adventure.
To me, it feels very natural to climb a wall and search my way up myself. It’s a lesson of feeling which way to go and having trust in your decisions. Whilst in popular places the routes are already climbed before and sometimes take a line that just doesn’t feel right to me.
So briefly, it is mostly the way we approach the climbing in a remote place like Siberia that makes the climbing there so interesting, and not in particularly the climbing itself.