Climbers Against Conflict: Community Rallies to Support Ukraine

© UKC News

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine and commits devastating and indiscriminate military attacks on civilians, many in the climbing community have united from nations across the world to support and demonstrate solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

Climbing wall turned place of refuge.  © UKC News
Climbing wall turned place of refuge.

The climbers sacrificing the most for Ukraine are, of course, those who are currently fighting on the front lines to defend their home towns and cities. All males aged 18-60 are now subject to martial law and are prevented from leaving the country. Men and women are joining Ukrainian Territorial Defence Units and lining the streets with their weapons, including some of the athletes on the IFSC and UIAA competition circuits and mountaineers whose achievements and ascents we report on.

On the morning of the invasion, Ukrainian national team member Jenya Kazbekova wrote: "Today we woke up at 5 a.m. from the explosions in Kyiv...And they say there are explosions all over Ukraine. Russia started invasion...God help us all."

Many citizens have moved west and sought refuge with family, in hotels, gyms or community centres with stacks of provisions and pets in tow. A member of one group of climbers reported to his friend:

"I spent 19 hours behind the wheel, had no sleep for 26 hours. Now I am in Lviv and we will move to Poland, we need to send women and children. Men cannot leave the country. We have 23 people, 4 children, 2 dogs and 3 cats and we try to be positive. This building has a bomb shelter and that's good."

He shared a photo of a destroyed residential building in Kyiv. "This house was opposite mine, which I left yesterday at 3:30 p.m.," he explained.

For those who happened to be abroad when the invasion began, or who managed to flee in the first few days, many have felt compelled to help family, friends and fellow citizens back home from afar.

Using their European climbing connections, young elite climbers and Ukrainian national team members Illya-Bakhmet Smolensky (17) and Fedir Samoilov (24) - both safe in Slovakia and Germany respectively - began compiling a list of potential hosts to match with Ukrainians seeking refuge.

As of today (1 March), the pair have received over 350 offers of refuge, transport and assistance from 60 cities across 20 countries, helped by the EU's announcement of visa waivers in all member states for Ukrainian refugees for up to 3 years without the need for asylum applications.

But as an estimated 660,000 flee ahead of a predicted total displacement of 7 million people, leaving the country has been a slow process. "Not many people have been able to cross the border so far," Fedir says. "I'm asking people where the best places to cross the border are. There are borders where you can wait for four days, and others where you can cross in about ten hours."

In response to the refugee crisis, individual federations and athletes across the world have opened their doors. The Italian climbing federation FASI announced an offer of asylum and support to Ukrainian athletes via their residential training facility in Arco, 'in order to find peace and continue training until the hostilities have ceased', while Czech climbing organisation LANO has secured hosting and schooling for two Ukrainian youth climbers. Kimanda Jarzebiak, Chair of The Boulders Climbing Gym in British Columbia, Canada, is writing letters of invitation to support visa applications for climbers and their families. Olympian Bassa Mawem has publicly offered space in his home in Colmar, France.

Putin's well-known dependence on 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 came under pressure on social media.

Following the suspension and cancellation of climbing competitions in Russia by the IFSC and UIAA on 25 February, organisations and individuals pushed for the withdrawal of the Climbing Federation of Russia, the Belarus Alpine Federation and their athletes from events. [update 2 March: the IFSC have now announced full suspensions]. The Polish Mountaineering Association (PMA) criticised both the phrasing of the IFSC's initial statement and the limits of its outlined response in an open letter.

"We would like to point out that 'conflict in the Ukraine' and 'unprecedented crisis' are a direct consequence of the brutal invasion of the Russian army on the territory of a free and sovereign state of Ukraine," the letter reads. "By doing so the governments of Russia and Belarus have broken the Olympic Truce. In this situation, we believe that the actions taken by IFSC are far from being sufficient."

Letter from the Polish Mountaineering Association to the IFSC.  © UKC News
Letter from the Polish Mountaineering Association to the IFSC.

The Polish governing body added that beyond the issue of giving visibility to Russian and Belarusian climbers, the fact that Ukrainians are currently defending their territory would make it unethical for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete on the grounds of Fair Play, as supported by the IOC in a statement on 28 February recommending 'no participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials' in sport.

On 1 March, the 2022 World Games organising committee announced a ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials, which affects at least five qualified Russian climbing athletes.

The Climbing Federation of Russia has not commented independently on the invasion other than a one-sentence, nondescript news report, but posted an article on 1 March with comments from Russia's sports minister Oleg Matytsin, headlined with his quote: "We will defend our positions and protect the interests of [Russian] athletes." Matytsin expressed concerns about the costs incurred due to cancelled events and described participation bans as "discrimination" against Russian athletes.

Defensive comments from Russia's Minister of Sport Oleg Matytsin on 1 March.  © UKC News
Defensive comments from Russia's Minister of Sport Oleg Matytsin on 1 March.

Polish climbing website reported on the Ukrainian athletes across various sports who are appealing to the IOC for a suspension of Russia and Belarus from the Olympic Movement and launched a petition echoing the PMA's letter, which called not only for the cancellation of Russian IFSC events, but for a participation ban on the two countries.

"Perhaps it is time for a letter from climbers to President Thomas Bach? After all, we are an Olympic sport," Wspinanie's report suggested.

As full IFSC suspensions were announced on 2 March, the federation said that all Russian and Belarusian officials with roles in 2022 IFSC events would also be replaced and that fee waivers would be implemented for the Ukrainian Mountaineering and Climbing Federation and its athletes, alongside a support programme for the Ukrainian climbing community.

While the majority of supportive posts and petitions for Ukraine's cause have come from climbers in Eastern Europe, US alpinist Colin Haley wrote about three Ukrainian friends who made a first ascent on Annapurna III together last year. "Incredibly, three of the most badass alpinists currently on Earth run a very real risk of being killed in the near future by the Russian military," he wrote. "These three Ukrainians are currently trying to get their families to safe places, and then are prepared to pick up an AK and try to defend their homeland from one of the biggest militaries on Earth."

Japanese athlete and Tokyo 2020 Olympian Tomoa Narasaki shared a #NOWAR post to his Instagram profile.

Outdoor brands - primarily those based in Eastern Europe - are raising their voice and making donations of survival equipment to civilians, fighters and refugees. "We support Ukraine in its fight for freedom and justice," Bulgaria-based climbing wall manufacturer Walltopia posted, while Mammut are sending sleeping bags and clothing to organisations working with refugees in neighbouring countries. On 2 March, the European Outdoor Group shared a 'call to action' encouraging other outdoor companies to offer material or monetary donations to Ukraine's cause.

Between sheltering from air raids, contacting loved ones and defending their streets, Ukrainians are resolutely sharing the reality of the conflict on social media and appealing to others to spread their message and demand assistance and condemnation from global governments. One Ukrainian climber told UKC:

"We need support from the world as much as possible. If there are any demonstrations or strikes in your country please attend them and ask your government to help Ukraine. Ask them to use maximum restrictions and sanctions on Russia."

A Ukrainian climbing wall app developer sent an appeal to the 4,000 users of his app who are based in Russia and Belarus, disguising it as a new route entry visible to all, graded '7a' and named 'Stop the War in Ukraine.' "About 4,000 climbers from Belarus and Russia - the aggressor, will continue to climb at their climbing walls and will see the following message," he wrote on Instagram.

"I am writing you a message from the basement of the house in Kyiv, where I live. The house that created an app for climbers around the world. including you Russians. Houses over which rockets launched by Russia to Kyiv flew at 5 in the morning on Feb 24. The Russian army is firing at Ukrainian cities and villages, civilians suffer. I urge all you users to do your part to stop this madness. Putin is the new Hitler!"

App developer appeals to customers in Russia and Belarus,  © UKC News
App developer appeals to customers in Russia and Belarus,

Despite the risks of public dissent against Putin's regime, some Russian climbers have spoken out. On 25 February, the largest climbing and mountaineering website in Russia shared a public anti-war statement with numerous signatories and a banner featuring photos of Ukrainian climbers ("They're our guys"):

"Compatriots! The outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine is a SHAME. This is OUR shame, but, unfortunately, our children, a generation of very young and unborn Russians, will also have to bear responsibility for it. We do not want our children to live in an aggressor country, so that they are ashamed that their army attacked a neighbouring independent state. We call on all citizens of Russia to say NO to this war. We do not believe that an independent Ukraine poses a threat to Russia or any other state. We do not believe in Vladimir Putin's statements that the Ukrainian people are under the rule of "Nazis" and need to be "liberated". We demand an end to this war!"

"For me "Ukrainians" is not an impersonal, stigmatising category," an editor of the website wrote, before naming multiple Ukrainian friends. "They'll go to war to protect their country and families and we will kill them. I don't want war. I still think: we lived in the same tent, they are our own."

With each passing day, more and more high-profile Russians are sharing personal posts with anti-war sentiments. "No words necessary. We are brothers and sisters," an early post read at the start on the invasion, underneath photos of climbers from both nations socialising together.

As members of the Ukrainian military and civilian units prepare to defend their territory and people, some Russian climbers are unwillingly on the other side, risking arrest by joining protests or fearing conscription to their invading army to fight in a war they don't want.

For every chant of 'No to War!', one Russian who attended a recent protest wrote, there are "twenty soldiers per person full of ammunition and batons, ready to send them behind bars indefinitely," he explained. "People are afraid to go out, afraid to express their opinion! That's why I address athletes, climbers: Guys, don't be silent!"

Another Russian climber spoke out about her Ukrainian family and her heartbreak at its invasion by her native country. "Ukraine is my second home! Where my relatives live! Where my friends live! I love you very much!" she wrote on social media. "And now I am scared for them, for everything that is happening. I am against the war! I am for peace!"

Resorting to power in numbers and the reach of the Internet, Russian climbers have shared an open letter 'from Russian climbers against the war in Ukraine', which has attracted over 900 signatures and counting. The letter reads:

'In our sport age does not separate us. Children, adults and elderly people train and climb together. Children grow up next to their elders, and old people grow younger next to their children. In our sport, achievements do not separate us. World champions and beginners climb in the same gyms. We belay each other, we cheer for each other, we are friends. We don't really care who's better. In our sport, international borders do not separate us. We climb at the same rocks. We meet friends from all over the world. We trust our lives to each other, even if we can't always speak the same language. We understand each other without words, by sign language. We cheer for our athletes at competitions, and immediately after that we cheer for athletes from other countries. We have the best sport and the best people, the best relationships without borders. But today, the war divides us. It is impossible to look at it and it is impossible to look away. We don't want this war, it is terrible and disgusting, there is no excuse for it. The attack on Ukraine poisons the soul and breaks the heart. It poisons our sport and breaks our dreams. We demand an end to this war.'

But with no end in sight as yet, all people can do is hope, protest and share the reality of the situation. Jenya Kazbekova pleaded with followers to communicate the atrocities and hold the Russian government to account. "Please share as much as possible," she wrote. "Let the world know that Ukraine is officially under attack of Russia. Now we need the support of everyone."

How you can help:

Updated 2 March 4:45 p.m. to reflect a further statement from the IFSC announcing a full suspension of Russian and Belarusian events and athletes, a replacement of officials in 2022 plus fee waivers for the Ukrainian Mountaineering and Climbing Federation and its athletes, alongside a support programme for the Ukrainian climbing community.

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2 Mar, 2022

Hi, the link to the sign petition to allow all refugees doesn't seem to work

2 Mar, 2022
2 Mar, 2022

I can't read more, the read more link seems dead??

2 Mar, 2022

Link has never worked for.

2 Mar, 2022

Should be working now?

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