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Standing in the shade of the cool cliff-face, my temporary shelter from the strength of the midday sun, I feel a slight tugging at the back of my shirt. It's one of the children; a little girl of perhaps 10 year's of age, whom I had just finished belaying not two minutes beforehand. She remains completely silent, shy and understanding neither English nor Russian (and I completely clueless about Kyrgyz), but gestures mutely to a top-rope currently hanging unused nearby; obviously asking me for another climb.
Affectionately nicknamed Lynn Hill, the girl is certainly the most determined climber of the entire group: tenaciously repeating every one of the top-rope routes over and over, until she of reaches their finish. It is an extraordinary display, one made all the more touching through the knowledge that ten years ago orphaned children in Kyrgyzstan - like Lynn – simply did not have the opportunity to use their own country's extensive and beautiful mountains resources.
In the autumn of 2000, American Garth Willis founded the Alpine Fund, a charity organisation that set out to address this unfairness. Its mission statement is beguiling simple; to “connect Kyrgyzstan's two greatest assets - its youth and its mountains.” Helping the country's underprivileged and orphaned youths stand on their own two feet. It is a honourable mission, one that can quite literally transform the direction of a child's life.
Imagine the change of perspective when an adolescent who has never left the concrete walls of the city has the opportunity to literally climb high above their perceived limitations and look down upon where they once were.
Alpine Fund Website
“In order to achieve this goal we do a number of things, “ explains German volunteer Frieder Schlecht. “We conduct English classes, take them to the mountains, teach team building skills, as well as outdoor, climbing and mountaineering knowledge. “In addition to these activities” he adds “We try to equip the children with 'soft skills' such as environmental awareness, responsibility and self-confidence.” Most of all, the Alpine Fund provides opportunities for outdoor fun and adventure to youths who may otherwise never have experienced it.
I was to see for myself just how beloved such trips were to the children when I, accompanied by friends (who were in the country as part of a mountaineering expedition to an area of the Tian Shan mountains called the Djangart), went with the Alpine Fund for a weekend excursion to Chong Kurchak gorge, not far outside of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital. A massive bundle of hyperactivity on the way out, the kids soon unleashed that energy on the climbs themselves, clambering up and down the walls in a state of mass excitement. I think it was my friend and fellow expedition member Mike Royer who summed up best why this enthusiastic display was so inspiring to watch:
“[It was because] they enjoyed the pure essence of being outside, away from the city. They didn't care about grades, style, or expensive gear. They weren't in it for the onsight, redpoint, or to send their project. They just climbed because it was fun.”
When not climbing, many played football, went for walks to a nearby waterfall, or chatted with friends, making the most of what might be their only weekend out this month (excursions are run on a rotational basis, so that all the children at the orphanages get a turn on a trip). By night we all sat around a campfire, under the bright Kyrgyz starlight, and sang moving songs until the small hours of the morning (well the children did. We were quite literally rubbish). It was all very beautiful, and it was evident to all of us there that these were moments that the children would cherish for long after we had left them, perhaps for their whole lives.
In essence, the Alpine Fund remains a small organisation, run by just two full-time staff members: Arianna the country director, and Salavat the Fund's program manager. They are also accompanied and aided by a small number of interns and international volunteers. The majority of the Fund's equipment comes from private donors, predominately visiting alpinists who generously contribute their kit after finishing their expeditions in the region. Accordingly, as can be imagined, the climbing is conducted with a somewhat eclectic collection of second-hand apparatus. Children gear up at the bottom of the crag, kitted out in ancient EBs, old ski helmets and other oddities from the early 1990s. Mike ended up leading his routes on a somewhat dangerous Kyrgyz army static line!
Yet, despite all these difficulties, the Fund continues to be a great source of inspiration and enjoyment for the children of Kyrgyzstan. As Garth Willis noted: “There [have been] a lot amazing stories... such as how the kids would come back to the orphanage, then the rest of the children that did not go would gather by their bedsides and make them describe what they saw over and over, into the late hours of the night.” At heart, I believe the Alpine Fund is a shining example of what we, as a community of mountaineers and rock-climbing enthusiasts, can give back to those just as keen, but sadly not as privileged as ourselves.
A Note from the Expedition:
“Besides the weekend clinic, we wanted to use our manpower, resources and expedition press to help raise awareness and funds for the charity. Through the generosity of our friends, family and complete strangers, we managed to raise over $2000, donated 10 sleeping mats, a new rope (justropes.com), and a set of 10 quickdraws (DMM). Because a considerable number of the donations were made directly to the Alpine Fund online, many of you remain anonymous to us (as does the actual total of our fundraising efforts). To both the anonymous donors and all of you who sent us cheques or gear: THANK YOU! In our fundraising letter, we expressed our sincerest belief in the mission of the Alpine Fund. After spending time with them and the kids, this belief is even stronger.”
Mike Royer, Matthew Traver, Dan Clark and Chris Parenteau