Climbing New Routes near Bilibino
In July and August 2015, we climbed several routes on a previously unclimbed 500m granite wall in the Chukotka Autonomous region of Siberia. The area, about 60km from the remote town of Bilibino, had its first ascents in 2014 by our friends Chris Fitzgerald and Chris Warner, lured by a few photos sent to them by a local. They concentrated their climbing efforts on the Commander and General Peaks, but in 2015 Chris Fitzgerald returned to the area with us, and we climbed at the Finger Crack Cirque, a separate valley that Chris and Chris discovered in 2014 but didn't climb in. We also explored in another valley where there were more spectacular unclimbed walls, and we made the first ascent of Weasel Tower.
We almost didn't even get to the region when we found out, only two weeks before we were due to depart, that we were supposed to have a special permit, a 'propusk', to enter the Chukotka region, a process usually requiring at least two months. This came about because a European climbing team arrived before us, also without the 'propusk', and the authorities were alerted to this fact. This team, plus us, plus a couple of Scottish climbers who were due to arrive later, were the most visitors that Bilibino had ever had - apparently Bilibino had received about two tourists in the last 10 years, and this permit was not anything any of the locals knew about! We were lucky to have a great contact in Bilibino who somehow managed to negotiate with the local authorities so we could enter. We all had to pay fines, and we were fingerprinted and had to sign various documents in Russian.
After sorting all that out, and purchasing very expensive local food (it all has to come in on small aircraft), we were driven in 4WD vehicles, to a point about 6km away from the Commander and General Peaks. Here we met the European team on their way out, having climbed several new routes in the Commander and General area. We spend a few days ferrying loads to this area, and then a further 7km to the Finger Crack Cirque. In this valley, we set up base camp next to a lake, and with the abundance of rocks around, built a rock shelter to protect us from rain and winds. The Finger Crack Cirque was dubbed as such by the Chris's due to the abundance of splitter cracks on the sweeping granite wall, over a kilometre in length.
The named did not disappoint and there were some stellar finger and hand cracks on the wall. We put up several new lines in the Finger Crack Cirque - all of our routes were climbed ground up, and most using only natural protection. One steeper and harder line, 'Orbital Sander', we climbed over three days, and due to some sections of fused cracks, a few bolts were placed on lead. Getting down from the top of the cirque was an easy, but long, hike down the ridge back to camp - very civilised! It was a lovely valley to be based in, and we regularly saw pikas, lemmings, and weasels scurrying between the rocks. We even saw deer from afar, but no bear sightings even though they live in the area.
The weather alternated between a few sunny days followed by some rainy days, but we also got some unseasonal early snowfalls in the second half of the trip. We originally planned to climb on the Commander and General Peaks toward the end of the trip, but the early snows and a dramatic drop in temperature limited our climbing objectives and there was little point moving to that area. We still managed another climb during the colder weather, on a tower that we named Weasel Tower in an adjacent valley. We hiked to this valley the previous day and camped near the tower. Even though more snow fell during the night, it melted quite quickly and we managed to get up the climb, albeit in very cold and shady conditions. The climbing ended up being much harder than it looked from the ground, and a move pulling on a cam was required on two harder sections that might have been possible in warmer conditions. But the climb was worth it for the pointy summit of the tower and spectacular views to the north.
We also met the two-man Scottish team, who had unfortunately arrived just before the snow came and were climbing in the Commander area. Our kind gift of some ethanol (given to us by the Russian... yes they drink it!!) helped ease the frustrations the guys were experiencing due to the weather, although we thought the horrid hangovers were not worth it! We all hiked out together from the Finger Crack Cirque, down a 12km long, broad valley that took us directly to a road from where we could easily be picked up. It is quite a stunning landscape and we experienced the seasons change rapidly from mosquito-infested summer, to a landscape draped in snow and rich red autumn colours, all in a matter of a few weeks. In Bilibino we were treated to a 'bunya' - a backyard sauna including a thrashing of dried oak leaves. The warmth and generosity of our local Russian friends also made this trip a memorable one.
For more about this trip, see the article in Vertical Life magazine on our Media page.
Bilibino is in the Chukotka Autonomous Region, the north-eastern most district in Russia.
The climbing lies about 200km north of the Arctic Circle, and is in an area of valleys and peaks about 12km across, surrounded by polar tundra.
'The Propusk', grade 18, six pitches, 290m (plus ~300m of scrambling to top), Finger Crack Cirque.
'Lemming Meringue Pie', grade 16, two pitches, 110m, Finger Crack Cirque.
'Vodka and Lemming', grade 18, seven pitches, 385m (plus 140m of 4th and 5th class scrambling to top), Finger Crack Cirque.
'Orbital Sander', grade 22/23, eight pitches, 440m to top, Finger Crack Cirque.
'Siberian Summer', grade 21/A1, four pitches, 160m to summit, Weasel Tower.