The North Face Climbers Emily Harrington, Cory Richards, Matt Segal, and Cedar Wright are currently in the Ukraine exploring the unique and vast big-wall climbing potential of Crimea, which overlooks the Black Sea. Follow their adventures for the next month as they search for the ultimate first ascent.
I received an e-mail from my friend and fellow athlete on The North Face team Matt Segal in late May. “Hey Em, I know you have a lot going on right now, but I was wondering if you’d be psyched to come on a big-wall climbing trip to Crimea in September for TNF. No pressure, just wanted to put the idea in your head. Think about it.”
I did have a lot going on at the moment. I was just two days away from attempting to summit Mount Everest as a part of The North Face and National Geographic Everest Education Expedition. I had been in Nepal for nearly three months, acclimatizing and preparing for the five-day summit attempt. It was my first big mountain expedition—and a physically and emotionally wrecking experience.
From within my tent at our Wi-Fi-equipped base camp, I replied to Matt’s e-mail: “Yo – yeah, I think I’d be psyched. Let me finish this, and then I’ll be able to confirm for sure.” Being in Nepal had been a massively pivotal journey for me personally, and even then, in the very thick of our summit push, I felt a desire to continue exploring other places and learning new skills, so I agreed to the Crimea trip.
I realized later that I never even bothered to ask what or where Crimea was.
Back home, I found out that the peninsula that juts out into the northern part of the Black Sea is known as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. It has a warm and temperate climate, with lush forests and massive limestone cliffs that paint the coastline of the salty and warm Black Sea. It’s an idylic setting, reminiscent of the gods and goddesses, shipwrecks, and heroic battles that ancient myths are made of.
Crimea is a part of Ukraine, but the tumultuous history of being occupied and controlled by nearly every world superpower throughout history has given the region a unique cultural identity. The most recent instance was in 1954 when Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev gifted the former holiday retreat for Russian royalty to the Ukraine as a friendly gesture. The implications weren’t felt until nearly 40 years later when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent from Russia.
Now, Crimea’s identity is split between its dominant Russian culture and the obligatory political and geographic ties to the Ukraine. In some ways, Crimea still seems stuck in the Soviet era, unable and unwilling to let go of its Russian heritage. Soviet architecture is still characteristic in Crimean towns, with its drab concrete buildings littering the coastline, not at all evocative of the cute cottages and straw-thatched bungalows of most beach locations in the rest of the world. Russian is considered the mother tongue—despite Ukrainian being the national language—and most classes in school are taught in both Russian and Ukrainian.
We ordered borscht the other day, a soup consisting of beets, potatoes, and carrots and were told that it was prepared in the traditional Russian style, and that the Ukrainian version is much different.
Even we as foreigners can see and feel the mismatched nature of this place. The volatile history and isolated nature of the Soviet Era make Crimea feel like a time warp, as if the place were still stuck in the 1970s. We are truly outsiders here. There is literally zero English known here.
We are so lucky to have our Russian guide Sergey with us. He is a soft-spoken 28-year-old from St. Petersburg who patiently helps us with every single thing. We joke that he is like our babysitter; providing us with all the basic tools for survival. Without him, we would have never found our way from the airport to the town where we’re staying, let alone a place to stay or be able to order food off of a menu.
While the purpose of our trip was to explore the massive limestone cliffs that pepper the coastline along the sea; we came not really knowing what to expect, hoping to learn about a new culture and its people, and as always, seeking adventure.
Despite being an immensely powerful journey for me mentally, Everest left me physically weaker than I had ever been in my entire climbing career. As a former competition climber, not being able to climb above a moderate level after returning from Nepal was a tough pill to swallow. The expedition had wasted me so much emotionally as well as physically that I felt zero motivation to even try to improve my fitness. I was simply too exhausted to try hard and have been fighting all summer to amp up my psyche and confidence for this trip, hoping that it would return in time for me to be able to perform well and contribute positively to the team.
Now I’ve been in Crimea for just four days, and a renewed sense of strength is returning. The team dynamic is high energy and positive, and we’re all working together to make the most of our time here. Matt Segal, Cory Richards, and I have bolted a new line on a beautiful feature called the Sail, while Cedar Wright has bolted another route on a neighboring wall with Sergey.
The whole process is both physically and mentally engaging for me. It feels new and exciting again. My climbing is finally beginning to find its rhythm after nearly six months in a funk. We are exploring the vast potential this place has to offer, working hard to put up new routes, and giving our all to complete them. Stay tuned!