Climbing Never Die - A Film about Ukrainian Climbers in the Midst of War Article

© Matt Groom

IFSC commentator and EpicTV presenter Matt Groom writes about travelling to Ukraine during the Russian invasion to make the documentary 'Climbing Never Die' for the current Reel Rock 18 film tour. 

On the journey to Kyiv by train, I shared a cabin with a bearded bear of a man who spoke very little English. I woke up to find him injecting insulin in the pale morning light of the swaying carriage. I asked him what Kyiv was like and he shook his head in sadness, unable to find the words. As we got up to leave the train, he pressed an old, heavy head torch into my hand.

'Take it, you will need it…there is not much light,' he said.


Why did I go to Ukraine in the middle of the war to film a climbing documentary? I knew there was a story waiting there, that somehow climbing and war were intertwined. Where there is climbing there is always joy, but in Ukraine there is climbing, and war….how could death and joy exist together? It astonished me. 

In Ukraine, Matt Groom found 'a community held together by climbing and patriotism, but indelibly changed by war.'  © Matt Groom
In Ukraine, Matt Groom found 'a community held together by climbing and patriotism, but indelibly changed by war.'
© Matt Groom

Sport and politics are intertwined, however much we like to pretend they aren't. I have Russian friends and know many Russian athletes. I'm not against the people of Russia, but I'm strongly against what is happening in Ukraine. 

A series of puzzle pieces fell together to make this film. It started with a UKC article I had read about a new wall opening in the city of Odesa, which at the time was being heavily attacked. It set something ticking in my brain: why would a gym open during a war…and who would want to visit it?

The puzzle continued during the IFSC season as I commentated on Ukrainian athletes. I wondered how they kept training, travelling and competing, their minds split between two worlds. 

I found the last piece by accident. Summer 2022, in a baking hot stadium in Munich. The final of the European Championships, the biggest event of the year. I was commentating in a packed stadium for the Speed finals, which was being watched across the world.

Ukrainian Danyil Bolydrev was up against Marcin Dzienski of Poland for the gold medal. In a close race, as I watched the pair race to the top, the realisation that Danyil was Ukrainian hit me. He won.

Up until that moment he was just a competitor, but when he grabbed his country's flag, I realised he was making a statement to the world. He was celebrating a win, but also showing everyone what Ukrainian athletes and therefore the Ukrainian people were capable of. Danyil was fighting a different war than his fellow countrymen and soldiers back at home. It was nonviolent, but nonetheless impactful. 

Danyil Boldyrev of Ukraine jumps for joy following an emotional win in Speed.  © Dimitris Tosidis/IFSC
Danyil Boldyrev of Ukraine jumps for joy following an emotional win in Speed.
© Dimitris Tosidis/IFSC

I heard a rumour that Ukrainian athletes had been asked to travel back to Ukraine to compete in the Ukrainian National Championships. They were expected to return from safety in Europe to climb in Kyiv, the capital city under regular bombardment.I messaged Danyil to congratulate him on the win and to probe him for answers. During a whirlwind of exchanges, nothing was really clear. I didn't understand anything, which itched at me. I decided I needed to go to Ukraine. Danyil said he would go with me. I'm still not sure why he said yes.

Let me be clear that this idea was way above my pay-grade. I've learnt to film and produce content by working in the climbing media, but this project was much more complicated. I also had no idea what I was actually going to film. I just had an idea that something was waiting. 

I cold-called Pete Mortimer, one of the founders of the US production company Sender Films, whose number had been given to me by a colleague. He seemed intrigued and passed me on to his colleagues Nick Rosen, Zachary Barr and Josh Lowell. They were, I think, sceptical—and rightly so. I was an internet climbing commentator who was quite clearly winging it.

They listened to me though and focused the project. It had to be about the people and it was impossible to plan fully ahead. I might, realistically, find nothing. No characters, no story, no film. We agreed that I should go, they supported me and would help, but gave no guarantees that it would become anything. Once I came back, they would look at the footage and decide whether to pursue it.

I had no idea what to expect in Ukraine. It was December 2022 and the Russian army was concentrating their firepower on Ukrainian infrastructure in an attempt to limit the supply of electricity and water as the brutal winter approached. It was a volatile time. 

Danyil photographs a damaged apartment building.  © Matt Groom
Danyil photographs a damaged apartment building.
© Matt Groom

I arrived in Poland, where Danyil picked me up with his girlfriend and Olympian Ali Logvynenko. We drove easily across the border into west Ukraine. We drove into darkness: almost immediately there were no lit streetlamps, no house lights or traffic lights. Just blackness cut by the occasional beam of a car headlight. It was bizarre.

I think Danyil was nervous. The last time he had been in Ukraine was in the first few days of the war. As Russian soldiers approached Kyiv, he had made the decision to leave and had driven west to Germany, the couple's athlete status allowing them to leave. I think that decision sits uncomfortably with him. But by showing me his country, it was his way of fighting; an action that he hoped would have more of an impact than if he were to join the army and pick up a gun. 

A Speed wall which has been damaged by a tank missile.  © Matt Groom
A Speed wall which has been damaged by a tank missile.
© Matt Groom

Both Danyil and I became obsessed with the project, He had contacts everywhere. I would ask him an impossible question, set a crazy task and within moments he would be on the phone ringing everyone he knew, lying on his bed, rapidly talking into his phone; a giant of a man, with a brain that never stopped making connections. He was a fixer, producer, bodyguard. He was essential.

Danyil and I went from Lviv in the west to Kyiv to film the national championships. Then we went further, to within 30km of the Russian border in the east. We travelled over 3,500km in a few weeks, sleeping on night trains so we could film during the day. I had no formal paperwork (my Ukrainian military press pass arrived three months after I returned home).

Climbing community in Lviv, west Ukraine.  © Matt Groom
Climbing community in Lviv, west Ukraine.
© Matt Groom

There were air raids, but alongside the disruption were climbing and community. Young athletes were living and training in bunkers, in darkness and freezing temperatures. At times, the war felt far away, but close calls with bombs landing uncomfortably close were a stark reminder that death was waiting everywhere. 

The national championships were not only a chance for climbers to compete and have fun; for some, it held a much greater significance. As a 23-year-old man, Mykhail Tkachuk is not allowed to leave the country. The government doesn't want to lose men of fighting age. The only way he could get out, have a safer life in Europe and avoid being drafted into the army was to win the competition. He needed a place on the national team…he had to be a champion. He features heavily in the film, his gentle and introspective personality exuding a calmness amidst the carnage.

Matt Groom with Ksenia Zakharova and Danyil Boldyrev.  © Matt Groom
Matt Groom with Ksenia Zakharova and Danyil Boldyrev.
© Matt Groom

In Lviv, we found a 16-year-old climber called Ksenia Zakharova, a member of the Ukrainian junior team. She had the biggest influence on the story. 'Climbing Never Die' is really about Ksenia and her family. Our paths crossed by pure chance, but it was the story that I knew was waiting for me in Ukraine. What she has experienced is unimaginable to most, but she has a resilience and power that cuts through the sadness of her journey.

Sender Films and the Reel Rock team had the unenviable task of going through countless hours of footage from Ukraine and putting it together to craft the film. There were many things that didn't make the cut, and I'm glad they made most of those hard choices. I've watched it dozens of times throughout the editing process and it still makes me cry. 

A big thank you to the people and climbers of Ukraine and to the Sender/Reel Rock team for their hard work, support and for caring as much as Danyil and I did.


Watch the film trailer below:

Visit the Reel Rock 18 website to find a film tour date near you. Climbing Never Die will be released online on Reel Rock Unlimited on 25 April.

29 Mar

It would be meaningful to see something similar commissioned with regard to the situation Palestinian climbers find themselves in. Despite the global Climb the Wall event, happening soon (12 April) and the letter to the BMC, there's been zero coverage from UKC...

I'm keen to see the film when it comes out.

It's unimportant, but I was struck by how well written the article is, and yet the film title is clearly from a non-English speaker. Maybe there's a reason it is as it is; I'm sure it could've been easily changed.

29 Mar

It does kind of grate. I‘m guessing it‘s a central quote made in the film by a Ukrainian athlete, which they’ve used as the title, in which case inverted commas would have cleared all doubt. We‘ll have to wait until 25.04. to find out though.

I'm intrigued by it . Anyway, weather looks great today . I'm off out climbing and its got absolutly nothing to do with the military, politics or war !

1 Apr

People can dislike my comment all they like. There was a War in Ukraine series on UKC with UKC's logo appearing in Ukrainian flag colours. For Palestine...? A genocide met with silence. And yet, there were some films made about the Palestinian climbing community not so long ago... and an article appeared on UKC about the Wadi climbing gym. There are people who could be contacted if anyone was interested to do so. And there are climbing-related events coming up. So, it would be nice to see a meaningful article produced in solidarity with a people being murdered in their tens of thousands before our eyes.

More Comments
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email