Cedar Wright is currently on a big-wall climbing first ascent adventure on the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine with fellow North Face athletes Emily Harrington, Matt Segal, and athlete and National Geographic Photographer Cory Richards.
I’ve been climbing professionally for more than ten years, and along this learning curve, my philosophy on climbing, adventure, and travel has evolved. In 2002, when I landed my first big North Face expedition with Jimmy Chin and Kevin Thaw, I departed for Africa full of ego and hubris. I had ambitious plans to break records, blow minds, and generally be as bad-ass as possible while in Mali. Most of my research before the trip obsessed around the climbing and what might be the most impressive vertical achievement. The cultural and human experiences that would ensue were little more than an afterthought. But in the end, it was these aspects of the adventure that turned my trip to climb the five fingers of the Hand of Fatima into a truly transformative experience.
Until you see it first hand, it is hard to imagine thousands of people living on subsistence agriculture in mud huts without electricity—and then to realize that most of these people seem happier than their first world counterparts was, for me, nothing short of paradigm shattering. Thrust from the safety and comfort of my first-world bubble of existence, I began to more deeply appreciate human connections and our global humanity. We managed to climb some “bad ass” stuff in Mali, but that’s not what sticks with me. When I think of Mali, the first image that flashes through my memory, is of a group of tribal women singing and dancing in rapturous harmony, a beautifully synchronized celebration of life.
After more than 20 international climbing adventures later, I now look at these North Face climbing trips as not just an opportunity for athleticism and climbing adventure, but as a vehicle for cultural and historical enrichment. Each trip has its lessons, and clicks another puzzle piece together for me in the mystery that is life.
Which brings me here to my latest adventure in Crimea, an autonomous region within the country of Ukraine, a region that not so long ago was part of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps because of its strategic location on the Black Sea, the story of Crimea is a tumultuous one. In early history Crimea was occupied by the Cimmerians, Greeks, Goths, Sythians, Khazars, Bulgars, Huns, Kipchaks, Ottoman Turks, and the Mongols, just to name a few! By the 13th century, the Ventians and Genovese claimed partial control. It goes on and on, with more recent history including control by the Russian Empire, Germany during World War II, and finally the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century.
While the people and history of Crimea are fascinating, it is the monolithic limestone walls flanking the Black Sea that have lured us here. Matt, Cory, Emily and I departed for the Ukraine with a lot of unknowns looming in our minds. Our friends, Jonathan Thesenga, Brittany Griffith, Mike Schaeffer, and Kate Rutherford had visited the region last spring and returned with reports of Crimea being the most difficult place they had ever traveled. No one spoke English; all of the guide books were in Russian; and they had a total epic trying to climb there.
I took their cautionary tales to heart and made it my primary objective to find a local contact before we left, but this was easier said than done. I ran up against one brick wall after the next trying to find someone who could translate, and knew the logistics of climbing in Crimea.
Finally with less than a week before we departed, I hit pay dirt. Thanks to the magic of Google, I discovered a story about a Russian climber named Sergey Nefedov who is the main pioneer of big-wall free climbing in Crimea. The story was about how he had freed several aid lines on “Morcheka” the biggest, steepest, and most historical wall in in Crimea. At the bottom of the article was the Holy Grail I had been searching for it read, “At present there is no English guidebook to this area. Foreigners wishing to climb here may contact Nefedov directly via email@example.com.”
With only three days before our departure, Sergey responded agreeing to be our guide for the duration of the trip. I believe that when I look back on this amazing adventure that has been the Crimean Big Wall Expedition, it will be my new friendship with Sergey that stands out as the crowning memory. Without Sergey we all would probably still be at the airport looking for our luggage. Soon after arriving in Crimea we split off into two climbing teams. Matt and Emily would attack a difficult new route on a wild limestone tooth called The Sail, while Sergey and I pioneered a difficult and gymnastic new multi-pitch on the Kuba-Kaya formation. Each day the group would rejoin with tales of bullet stone and amazing climbing.
My climbing partnership with Sergey reinforces my belief that the climbing community is truly a tribe that transcends the boundaries and borders of countries. As Sergey and I toiled day after day on our climb, I realized that I felt more connected with Sergey, a kindred adventure climber, than I did to most Americans. As always it’s the people more than the climbs that stand out, but that’s not to say that the climbing hasn’t been incredible. Our new route “Game of Thrones,” 5.13a, that I completed last week is one of the best first ascents of my life, and the climb we are working on now on Morcheka is even better than that! Sergey turned me on to the steepest, most direct, and amazing unclimbed line on the most famous cliff in Crimea. The climbing is improbable, beautiful, difficult, and unforgettable. If we can free climb this route it will be the stuff of legends. My fingers are crossed, but sore and swollen from my efforts thus far.
On a recent rest day Sergey took us to a nearby cliff where some of his friends had organized a 250-foot rope jump. Everyone on the trip took the plunge. Emily’s jump was perhaps the most comical; she shrieked the shriek of the dying and flailed her arms like a mad women as she plummeted to the end of the rope. I found the experience liberating and cleansing. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.
We have a couple more weeks to go here in Crimea, and While Emily and Matt work on what may be the most difficult multi-pitch in Crimea, Cory continues to take mind-blowing photographs for The North Face. We are having an unforgettable and successful climbing trip that will become a priceless memory for the rest of our lives. While no one speaks English, I am struck by character and kindness of the people here. Any residue of the cold war is left perhaps only in the upper echelons of government and here amongst the people, is nonexistent My philosophy on adventure and climbing will continue to evolve, but that lesson I learned on my first TNF expedition endures; I will remember the people and human relationships long after the climbs have faded.