A Ukrainian guiding company has announced that it will not accept Russian clients, while mountaineers worldwide are calling for a blanket ban on Russian-led expeditions and clients abroad this upcoming season — and potentially beyond. We spoke to Ukrainians, a Russian guide and a conflict resolution expert and climber to explore their arguments for and against a ban.
In the coming weeks, climbers will travel to the high mountains of Asia ahead of the spring mountaineering season. Visas are secured, permits are in place and expedition companies are booked and ready. But as sanctions continue to be imposed on Russia, some Ukrainian mountaineers argue that Russian climbers should be banned from accessing foreign mountains for as long as their government wages war on Ukraine.
The owner of Ukraine's largest mountain tourism company Kuluar, Taras Pozdnii, took the decision into his own hands: he has banned Russian clients - who make up 30-40% of his international groups - from upcoming expeditions. He is currently preparing to defend western Ukraine.
"This war will forever remain a wound on the heart of every Ukrainian," he said. "Thousands of dead civilians, destroyed cities already. Ukrainians simply will not be able to communicate normally with Russians in the same group and there will be no friendly atmosphere, which is so necessary in the mountains."
Even if the decision will cause his company financial loss, Taras believes he made the right choice. "I understand that many Russians oppose Putin," he said. "But now, during the war, we do not have the moral strength to divide them into "good" and "bad." The entire world should say: "Do not be silent! Stop Putin! Stop the war! Hundreds of civilians die every day!" Let there be peace!"
When the invasion began on 20 February, the first Ukrainian woman to climb Everest and K2, Irina Galay, travelled from Kyiv to her hometown in western Ukraine on a train. She left her down suit and ice axes behind and instead of heading to Annapurna this month, she's now preparing to fight in her local Territorial Defence Unit and donning military fatigues — with an AK-103 assault rifle in hand.
Irina believes it's unfair for Russian mountaineers to have the 'privilege' of high mountaineering abroad as their soldiers invade Ukraine, while she and her countrymen and women fight on the front lines. All Ukrainian men aged 18-60 are now subject to martial law and are prevented from leaving the country.
Appealing to Russian mountaineers and international expedition organisers, Irina and her partner Yuri have launched a social media campaign page called 'NO PEACE, NO CLIMB.'
'As long as the WAR is continued by the Russian people, by the Russian government, and by the Russian president, all Russians should be stopped and banned from having the privilege of climbing," she wrote on Instagram, alongside a photo stating 'NO PEACE, NO CLIMB'. 'If you are a Russian citizen not agreeing with this WAR then cancel your expedition and find a way to help or protest. Hoping, ignoring, or being silent is not the way to stop this WAR, now is the time to make the choice!'
While Irina's international following has expressed support for Ukraine and her cause on Instagram, she has also received abuse. "A Russian mountaineer messaged me to say that he would spit in my face if he were to meet me at Annapurna Base Camp this season," she said.
Yuri explained that they were hesitant to speak out about a mountaineering ban, understanding that it would cause tensions. "A few days ago we thought about posting, but we didn't do it," he said. "But then we heard that Russian climbers are going with a few companies to climb Everest. That's when we decided we should act."
A supporter of Irina's campaign - a Ukrainian climber who wished to remain anonymous - explained why she thinks sanctions affecting Russia and its citizens are necessary, describing how she believes that people cannot be separated from their nation's politics — in this case, at least.
"Many Russians surveyed support the Ukraine invasion and a potential invasion of other European countries," she says. "These people only stop supporting dictator Putin and war crimes when it directly affects them."
"When supermarket shelves are empty, when they cannot use Instagram and when they cannot go to the mountains, only then they "stop" supporting war and genocide," she continued. "But if the world allows Russians to continue living their lives as usual, many will gladly vote for Putin and continue supporting war. They are the only people who can change the regime in Russia and they will not do it, unless they are forced to. Please don't allow them to live their lives as usual and ignore war."
The woman left central Kyiv at the outbreak of war for her parents' house in Hostomel on the outskirts, which subsequently became one of the hotspots for Russian attacks and is now "basically non-existent", in her words. Four days ago, she fled once again, this time to western Ukraine.
"It's hard to explain what I feel after having everything I had destroyed; my friends, my neighbours killed, stepping over dead bodies just to evacuate and then all I hear from Russians is that "Russia has nothing to do with it, this is fake," or "Yes it's sad, but they blocked Instagram in Russia so we are also suffering," she said. "Some will go to the greatest lengths to avoid empathy, avoid change, avoid acknowledging that they allowed this to happen. If people want to help - please ban Russians from your business. This is the best thing everyone can do for us."
The post caused some people with connections to both countries to adopt a diplomatic stance, or refuse to comment outright, while others claimed it would be unfair to deny Russian citizens their freedom.
"People declined reposting, saying things like: "Mountains should be without politics," or "We know some Russian people and some of them are nice," just being politically correct," Yuri said. "Guides claimed they were afraid to lose sponsors and clients, but if you're afraid to lose clients because you said something about Russian climbers, then you don't need those clients. Right?"
Russian mountain guide Vladimir Kotlyar strongly opposes the war. In early March, he climbed Kilimanjaro and unfurled a banner bearing 'STOP WAR IN UKRAINE' on the summit. Vladimir - who recently moved to Kathmandu when his anti-war stance distanced him from other Russians - can see both sides of the ban argument.
"On the one hand, I understand the calls for a ban on climbing for Russians, especially from Ukrainians," he said. "Many of my Ukrainian friends and their relatives have lost their homes, or are under shelling and are forced to shelter. Their wives and children are in danger. But on the other hand, many Russian climbers do not support the war in Ukraine and oppose this aggression unleashed by Putin and his military junta."
Ultimately, Vladimir believes that climbing in the mountains can unite people from across borders. He'll continue to climb and guide in Nepal - potentially with no Russian clients, since some have already refused to climb with him - while using his social media profile and climbs to speak out against the war.
"My opinion is that the mountains should not be a place of discrimination on a national basis," he said. "Especially for people who are against the war. Mountains are not primarily a sports arena, but a temple in which representatives of all nations and religions can see the beauty and grandeur of this world."
David Falt, a keen alpinist and conflict resolution practitioner, agrees with the calls for a ban. He recently played a part in setting up Ukraine Justice Alliance, a coalition of lawyers and NGOs working to support Ukrainians.
The nature of Russia's war on Ukraine makes it a major cause for concern, David explained. "There are 43 ongoing armed conflicts globally, but this is the only invasion war since WWII," he said. "There hasn't been an outright invasion of this scale where one country invades another — all the other current conflicts are civil, tribal, religious or proxy wars. This needs to be taken seriously."
Even in the close-knit mountaineering community - where strong international friendships are formed and many Russians have condemned the war - banning all Russians is necessary, he believes. "The point of sanctions is that it's a blanket punishment to make a pariah state," David said. "Yes, innocent civilians will suffer, but what you want to achieve is incremental change. You want people to start feeling: 'This is isolating us. We need to stand up now!'"
Russian expedition payments and mountain permits will come with myriad financial and moral implications, David explained. "Firstly, it's questionable whether you can take any money from any Russian today, because the whole country is under blockades and sanctions — it's dirty money, essentially," he said.
Additionally, ruble payments are now impossible due to the sanctioned Central Bank and SWIFT restrictions could make payments trickier, although any issues could be circumvented via Chinese financial systems. David explained that anyone accepting Russian money could face travel issues.
"In theory, completely innocent, non-sanctioned people can organise an expedition, but if they want to travel to Europe, they would have to prove that they have no ill-gained assets," he said. "If you have been given sponsorship money or contributions from a sanctioned entity or individual, you automatically fall into that sanctions category."
Geopolitics will also play a key role in permit issue. "The Nepalese will give permits to Russians because the Chinese will pressure them to do so, as Nepal is a client state of China," David said. "China has so much leverage over over Nepal that it can't act independently, and Pakistan is a Russian ally too."
Tourism boards and mountaineering federations are largely under the thumb of their governments, but climbers could push issuing parties to decline Russian applications. Yet payments and permit logistics aside, David thinks the moral imperative alone should be strong enough to dissuade Russians from participating, and companies from welcoming them.
"I think from a moral point of view, no-one should be involved in any expedition with Russians," he said. "Tensions can already be high on expeditions between different people and nations — arguments happen, fights break out. This brings extra safety concerns. Russians should just simply stay at home, protest and use their expedition fee to pay any fines."
Ministers come and go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed. - Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography
Sporting events in Russia and Belarus have dropped off the calendar in the past weeks and Russian participation has been banned by many federations and organisations. Putin's world-famous penchant for using sport for political gain and image enhancement - or 'sportswashing' - made Russian events, sponsors and participation a prime target for sanctions.
"If there is one leader on the planet who has always understood the soft power sport can play in politics, it is Vladimir Putin," Alastair Campbell wrote. As major sporting organisations withdrew Russian and Belarusian events from the calendar and issued bans last week, competition climbing organisers followed suit, eventually extending their sanctions to officials and members of commissions and working groups.
But the mountains, some argue, are different to organised sport. They're a place of freedom where climbers should theoretically be untethered by politics and world events, many say. There is no governing body controlling access to peaks — this falls outwith the UIAA's remit, and instead falls to governments who issue visas and permits for mountains.
"Saying that the mountains are an apolitical place is complete nonsense — it's always been nationalistic," David Falt said. "Sport climbing, ice climbing, they have banned Russian athletes. Why would the mountains be different?"
Mountaineering has indeed been as politicised as any sport, with peaks being roped into displays of national pride and conquest, from planting flags and expressing allegiance to staking a territorial claim. Mountain communities worldwide also face a disproportionate share of ongoing wars and conflicts.
Throughout history, many significant ascents have been state-funded and supported, or celebrated by fascist regimes.
In WWI, the Dolomites served as a high-altitude front between Italy and Austria, a bloody tussle that saw many thousands of dead as the warring armies battled it out among the summits and glaciers, establishing the first via ferrata and networks of fortified tunnels through the mountains.
Following his first ascent of the Via Comici on the Cima Grande in 1937, Fascist sympathiser Emilio Comici wrote in the hut ascent book: 'By the same light that illuminates the value and tenacity of the Italians of Mussolini, we have opened the path to the north face of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.'
In 1938, a German-Austrian team joined forces to complete the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger. Anderl Heckmair later wrote: "We, the sons of the older Reich, united with our companions from the Eastern Border to march together to victory."
In 1939, German SS Alpine unit member Heinrich Harrer and his team were interned by the British in India while prospecting the Diamir Face on Nanga Parbat. He was selected to climb by the German Himalayan Foundation, and the team was welcomed home by Hitler following their ascent.
In 1942, troops from the 1st Mountain Division raised the flag of Nazi Germany - the Swastika - on the summit of Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in both the Caucasus and Europe. It has been suggested that Heinrich Himmler ordered the expedition because the mountain was sacred to the Aryan Gods in ancient Persian cults.
In 1945, a flag-waving stunt that was far smaller in elevation but nonetheless significant on a global scale occurred: the two flags raised by U.S. Marines above Mount Suribachi (169m) on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima were described by President Nixon as "a symbol of the hopes and dreams of all Americans."
In the U.S.S.R., thousands of Soviet climbers who ascended significant peaks were awarded 'Mountaineer of the U.S.S.R.' badges. Many ascents were state-sponsored and led to novel equipment and techniques. Peaks were named after leaders - Lenin Peak, Stalin Peak - and mountaineering became a symbol of socialist courage and vigour. During WWII, the German invasion halted mountaineering progress as the Soviet climbers swapped climbing for fighting to defend the Caucasus.
Yet even in peacetime, mountaineering ascents can symbolise nationalist, imperial or political ideologies. The first ascent of Mount Everest by Tenzing and Hillary in 1953 boosted Britain's status as a former great power nation still reeling from war losses, austerity, and loss of empire. Queen Elizabeth subsequently knighted Hillary with an OBE.
In 2021, an all-Nepalese team completed the first winter ascent of K2. They marched to the summit singing Nepal's national anthem and bearing their nation's flag — not in conquest, but in a historic celebration of subverting decades of Sherpa exploitation by Western mountaineers.
In 2022, displays of the Russian pro-war propaganda symbol "Z" have been exhibited both prominently and discretely, at events ranging from nationwide mass demonstrations and flash mobs to a gymnastics World Cup in Doha, where a Russian gymnast taped 'Z' onto the front of his leotard before stepping on the podium. Russian symbols are being removed and blacklisted across the globe, from the state flag outside the Council of Europe headquarters, to Russian products in supermarkets.
While the historical mountaineering precedents clearly do not mean that all or any Russian mountaineers would deliberately use a climb to score political points this season or in future, they show how a feat can be exploited by a climber and/or their leaders and the media — even one at altitude, far from civilisation.
Yet the fact that some Russians can enjoy such freedom while Ukrainians are losing their own freedom - and for thousands, their lives - remains the most upsetting aspect for some, and shows a lack of solidarity, Irina believes.
"We really don't want to see people with Russian passports enjoying climbing high mountains in a few weeks' time," she said.
As war rages and talks take place between their nations' leaders, tensions are running high between Russian and Ukrainian citizens. The question remains: where do you draw the line between a state's actions and its citizens, and how does it connect to those on the other side, whose politics don't toe the party line — those who would tie-in with the supposed 'enemy', high above borders and boundaries?
Russian mountaineer Eugeny Beletsky - who grew up in pre-U.S.S.R. Ukraine - wrote about this camaraderie that mountaineering can encourage in an Alpine Journal paper, and used a storm metaphor to describe the more peaceful global situation on the horizon at his time of writing in 1955:
'By its nature mountaineering is not a sport of individuals joining in a single combat against the summits. It is only a mighty and collective fight that can count on victory.'
'In our time people from all countries seek common issues that may bring them together in their natural aspiration for the progress of humanity and for peace. The clouds that appear now and then on the political horizon cannot stop this movement. We mountaineers know very well that the heaviest storms come to their end, that cloudless weather sets in. There is good ground for believing that the relations between our peoples have entered the days of cloudless weather.'
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