“You do not think this type of climbing is common in your America?”
“Ah ... no, Valeri, this type of climbing is super not common in America.”
Brittany, Burcham and I are climbing with our 68-year-old Russian friend/guide/translator, Valeri. We are unroped, free soloing halfway up a near-vertical 400-foot climb in Siberia’s Stolby Nature Reserve, a collection of 100-plus Joshua Tree-esque domes and pillars sprouting out of the dense taiga forest. One slip, one flubbed foothold, and it’s dirt-nap time. This is as dangerous and serious as rock climbing can get. Yet all around us, there are hundreds of people – an eclectic potpourri of men, women, kids, the elderly, toddlers and partying teens you’d expect to find at a shopping mall – free soloing as well, erratically scrambling up the dome, alongside, above and below each other like ants. If one person falls, they will all be bowling-balled down the steep face to their deaths.
Only a few Stolbists wear rock shoes. Everyone else wears whatever shoes they wore on the six-mile uphill approach hike from town. One guy passed us earlier on a 5.8 crack wearing knee-high rubber irrigation boots. Another eager lad, nattily clad in a tan leisure suit, wore pointy-toed dress shoes that were six sizes too big. Near the dome’s summit, more than 300 feet up, a thickly built, shirtless and head-shaved septuagenarian in white running shorts was covered in a full lather of sweat as he grunted up a wide crack, probably making his 692nd ropeless ascent of the route.
The locals from the nearby gritty, industrial town of Krasnoyarsk have been free soloing on these rocks (they call it “Stolbism”) for more than 150 years. Stolbism’s gearless tradition took root behind the Iron Curtain without influence from the larger climbing community, and even now no one climbs with a rope. The town and surrounding area had been off-limits to foreigners until 1991, and we are the first American rock climbers to ever climb here. We can’t believe what we are seeing.
A hundred feet off the deck, a gaggle of giddy schoolgirls giggle and screech as they try to climb a slippery corner. This, of course, causes a monumental logjam behind them. The crowd’s solution? Begin casually free soloing around them, passing the girls making outrageously exposed slab moves. Two hardened babushkas in threadbare Brezhnev-era dresses and hand-knitted Chewbacca-fur sweaters choose to awkwardly stem in the corner, silently waiting for the young girls to finish grappling with the moves before laboriously continuing upwards.
Valeri assures us that all this is quite common for a sunny weekend day at Stolby, and that deaths are quite rare, typically “no more than one or two a month.” Broken bones, Valeri adds, are, however, a daily occurrence. So common during the weekends, in fact, that an ambulance is stationed at the base of the hill in order to quickly whisk the wounded off to the hospital.
From the summit, Brittany and I lean over the precipice and watch in disbelief as three young teenagers, would-be Stolbists in wool sweaters and haggard sneakers, edge their way up a sheer 400-foot 5.9 that we had nervously climbed a few days earlier. The girl in the group seems to be (even by Stolby standards) a rank novice, so her boyfriend (who is clearly the group’s leader since he is wearing fingerless, mesh-backed bicycling gloves) has wisely brought along a 40-foot hank of laundry-line cord. He has it tied to his belt loop and climbs ahead of her; the other end is looped around her wrist. Once he reaches a stance, he “belays” her up by standing with his back against the wall and coiling the cord in his hand. Somehow, the trio, laughing and joking the whole way, manages to summit. On top, the girl victoriously jumps up and down, woo-hooing with her arms raised skyward like Rocky Balboa. Brittany, John and I are stunned. These kids just cheated death. But here in Stolby it’s just another sunny day of fun for the entire family.