Sermon on the Mount

 The most decorated Siberian mountaineer and rock climber’s rules for life  01/30/2014, 20:24

Yuri Pushkarev
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Sermon on the Mount
Photography by Vera Salnitskaya

Judging from photos, legendary athlete Valery Balezin has barely changed since the days of his Soviet youth and looks amazing at 60. This is the perhaps the most impressive thing amongst the hundreds of awards that the most honoured rock climber and mountaineer in Siberia received at various times. For more than ten years he didn’t let his rivals, neither domestic nor foreign, stand on the top step of the podium. Sib.fm’s correspondents arrived in Krasnoyarsk and saw Balezin the way he is at home and in the mountains.

When you’re about to meet the current coach of the Krasnoyarsk Territory mountaineering team and a man whose sporting achievements long ago provided him with the status of a living legend, you don’t expect much. He’ll find an hour or two in his busy schedule, filled with important business, and that’ll be it. If you’re lucky, on a Sunday morning or late on a weekday. Balezin agreed to meet us immediately:

«Come in the evening.».

20 The number of times Valery Balezin was USSR climbing champion

A few hours later:

«Valery Viktorovich, we’re stuck in traffic and are going to be late. Is that all right?»
«Yeah. You get here when you get here.»

We arrived at the entrance of the five-story building in a residential district of Krasnoyarsk an hour late. We were met by a puny man of small stature. Wiry, to be more precise. I can’t believe that he’s Balezin. The Balezin. We introduce ourselves and go up to his apartment on the third floor. Getting the better of three flights of stairs in the company of a mountaineer and climber with 40 years of experience is priceless.

We go inside. It’s a simple Soviet one-bedroom flat with a cramped corridor, small kitchen and similar rooms. The walls are covered with wood panelling.

3 The number of years Balezin worked at the Krasnoyarsk Television Plant after graduating from the Polytechnic Institute in the mid-1970s

«Did you spruce up the place yourself?» we ask, for no obvious reason.
«Yes, a long time ago,» Balezin says quietly.
We go through into the kitchen, the master offers us a cup of tea. We agree, of course.
«You were born in Minusinsk, studied engineering in Krasnoyarsk. When and where did rock climbing and the ’Stolby’ [national park] come into your life?»
«At school I was one of the most unpromising pupils in PE. The teacher tried to make me play football and volleyball, but nothing really worked out. Then I passed my exams and was admitted to the Polytechnic. There was still a month left before the start of term. By chance it just so happened that I went to the Stolby on my own. I met some people there and got carried away.»
«You went by yourself? Just like that, you got up and went?»

Amendments to the law «On Specially Protected Natural Territories» may deprive seven reserves in Russia of their status — including the Stolby

For those who weren’t surprised by school-leaver Balezin’s solo trip, let me refresh your memory: Stolby is a national park that starts within the city limits of Krasnoyarsk. It’s made up of 50 hectares of mountainous taiga with giant stones — nicknamed «stolby», or «pillars» — jutting out of the ground. The stones were formed in prehistoric times, have experienced everything under the sun and these days look phantasmagoric: one pile of rocks is similar to the profile of an old man and is called Grandpa, another is every bit like the feathers from an Indian headdress. A third, 70m in height and 500m in length, is called the Little Wall of China.

Almost every other resident of the city wants to conquer the Stolby, climb to the very top of this natural miracle, feel like great explorer Yermak and get a bird’s eye view of the Red Ravine (the literal translation of Krasnoyarsk), so it’s not surprising that one day the cliff-climbing daredevils joined forces to form the informal «Stolbist» scene, as frequent Stolby-goers call themselves.

Of course, for the most part it’s all about kitsch songs accompanied by guitar and vodka, but there really are some passionate characters. Balezin, for example.

People like him don’t go to the Stolby for the smell of the taiga or to listen to birdsong — they have problems of a different order.

«I started to go and met some stolbists — my teachers Semyon Yermolaev and Vladimir Teplykh,» continues Balezin. «I practically lived with them at the Stolby for about two weeks and then started my studies. That was in 1970. Then at the institute I somehow happened to meet the coach of the climbing group.»

Vladimir Teplykh is the most legendary of all the legendary stolbists. He got up to unimaginable things on the rock faces with no safety equipment at all. No more and no less than two stories are sufficient to assess Teplykh’s personality.

The first is about how Teplykh conquers stolb number 2 (what can you do, not all the rocks have beautiful names) in a particularly sophisticated way, crawling over rocks without obvious footholds — he immediately made the climb his own and it acquired the name «Teplykh Loop». The second story is about how Vladimir, showing his wife, children and a friend a trick on the 40-metre-high Feathers for the millionth time, climbs up, rests his feet on one stone, his hands on another, horizontally hangs over the abyss in this position and falls to his death in front of everyone.

Teplykh’s apprentice Balezin isn’t the type of person who likes to show off at altitude. That’s probably why Teplykh is exclusively a legend of a local scale and a reason for the stolbists to make a toast, while Balezin — a national, if not international and, fortunately, intact legend — sits in front of us, slowly and briefly explaining how he «just happened» to win international climbing competitions. And then Soviet competitions. And then wouldn’t let anyone else in the world onto the top step of the podium for another ten years in a row.

You listen to him and realise that everything happens to Balezin by chance.

He talks about everything as if 60 climbs of the highest difficulty in one season were a trifling matter, not even worth mentioning, and as though he didn’t deserve the wall rug, completely covered with gold medals. It’s just what happened. By the way, our legend «put the rug in the garage a long time ago».

Did you get that?

Put. In the garage. A long time ago.

In 1982, Balezin was the first in the USSR to become an International Class Master of Sport in rock climbing, winning the largest at that time international competition in Yalta

«Listen, becoming the only International Class Master of Sport in the former USSR for two disciplines at once — rock climbing and mountaineering — obviously didn’t happen by chance?» we ask, not knowing where the swagger ends and the rules of life begin.
«Don’t know. You see, rock climbing hadn’t been recognised as a sport in the West. Yes, athletes came from Italy, France, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Japan — around ten countries, in total. But for them it was just one class of mountaineering, while in the Soviet Union it was an official sport with developed training techniques,» says Balezin, almost making excuses for himself.

Okay, let’s assume that was the case. Even so, not everyone managed to win the national championship 15 times.

It becomes more and more difficult to accept such unusual and seemingly unwarranted modesty and reticence.

It’s clear that the man grew up, more or less, in the woods, among the rocks. Frankly, not the liveliest place with the most talkative conversation partners. But how can you call yourself a «stolbist» without telling tall tales of adventures on the rocks? Or maybe there weren’t any?

«No. Well, I remember there were some difficult routes in the Crimea that I wanted to climb, but I never had enough time. Then once I heard some strangers saying Balezin did this certain Crimean route faster than everyone else!»

In fact, this story is multifaceted: it’s as revealing as it is uncomplicated at first glance. Balezin heard it last year at a veteran competition, where he beat everyone in his age category yet again.

And yet we still can’t get to the bottom of Balezin. Why does he keep silent, try to speak about himself as little as possible, and make pauses between sentences that are longer than the sentences themselves? What does he have to hide? Maybe we’re the problem?

Eugene Yukechev’s report on the path to the highest mountain in Altai

There is one theory that explains this, if I may say so, deathly silence, but it requires a little preface.

You have to walk seven kilometres uphill from the nearest bus stop to the first stolb (Stolb number 1). Not all people can cope with this distance, so a rest area with benches and wooden tables has been set up at the half-way point — it’s possible to have a snack, pause for breath, turn around and go back home. Nearby, there’s a small chapel made of logs and a concrete memorial wall, inscribed with the names of the few dozen stolbists that died on the rocks, including Teplykh. This is the most depressing place in the park, although plates reading «Stolbist so-and-so died here in such-and-such a year» are riveted to the rocks themselves here and there.

14 The number of consecutive years (1977-1990) that Balezin was part of the USSR climbing team

Balezin never managed to pour us tea, completely absorbed in melancholy reflection on a series of coincidences and their role in his life. Sib.fm’s correspondent has run out of questions (or, more precisely, hope that he will get any answers). The photographer steps in:

«When Yuri and I were on our way to see you, we wondered how it’s possible to walk past the wall of dead stolbists every day and climb onto the same rock that more than one of your predecessors fell from. Do you feel like you’re teetering on the brink?»
«Who’s Yuri?» asks Valery.
«Yuri’s sitting in front of you. I’m Vera, and this is Yuri.»
«Ah... No, I don’t take risks, you know. If I feel that I won’t make it across a route without safety equipment, then I don’t do it.»

«I once worked out that earlier, when I was actively training, I clocked up 300 kilometres a year just on the rocks and cliffs themselves.»

«So I have enough experience to determine the complexity and calculate my strength. And on the other hand, fear is dangerous — it paralyses you.»

Maybe he’s silent and modest because he has nothing to talk about with down-to-earth people who haven’t even experienced one-tenth of what has fallen to his lot over the last 40 years. I doubt that it’s snobbery and contempt, but what could he really tell us to convey the feeling you get from the most challenging climbs? He’s in the mountains, and we’re here. It looks like Balezin is always in the mountains, even when he’s sitting in the kitchen.

Our host remembers about the tea after all, turns on the kettle and puts a jar of honey on the table. All three of us make a silent pause again. The kettle bubbles and the temperature sensor opens the electrical circuit. The click seems to return Balezin to our real world. We take this opportunity to continue the conversation.

Krasnoyarsk grammar school teacher Ivan Savenkov started school trips to the Stolby in the 1870s

«Anyway, you still drive your students to the Stolby to train, although indoor climbing walls have been around for ages. You can easily do without having to crawl over snow-covered rocks and sleeping in sleeping bags in huts with small stoves.»
«A climbing wall is just a wall with ledges. But rocks have a soul,» he finally utters the phrase that everyone was surely expecting from him.

«Anyway, you still drive your students to the Stolby to train, although indoor climbing walls have been around for ages. You can easily do without having to crawl over snow-covered rocks and sleeping in sleeping bags in huts with small stoves.»
«A climbing wall is just a wall with ledges. But rocks have a soul,» he finally utters the phrase that everyone was surely expecting from him.

It seems that the key to Balezin’s elephant-like impregnability is that he himself is a man-mountain, a rock. Not in terms of severity and strength of character, but simply by external appearances. He’s one of those people who doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, he’s not obliged to make any movements. If he wants to, it could be difficult or even insurmountable, seeing as he looks ridiculously small. You can’t split open, budge or break through to a person like that.


Read this story
in Russian

The day after our meeting, Balezin led a group of athletes to the Stolby. Fifteen people headed off for a three-day training camp in the national park — to climb the snow-covered rocks, mount the Manskaya rock face, spend the night in a hut on the rock known as Edelweiss and start clambering upwards again in the morning, always taking the road less travelled. These days, winter ascents of the Stolby aren’t considered heroic, but when Balezin started in the 1970s, he went up there in rubber galoshes (so as not to slip on the rocks) with a hemp rope over his shoulder. However, in other respects, little has changed: the huts are still packed to the rafters, even in winter, and Krasnoyarsk climbers continue to lead the world rankings. Although, on the other hand, maybe that all happens by chance too.

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