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This Ukrainian Climber Turned His Gym Into An Aid Station

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Stanislav Kleshnov, vice president of the Ukraine National Climbing Federation and the partner of the first network of climbing walls in Ukraine (Space and TheWall), converted his gyms into temporary shelters and aid stations.

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I will never forget the morning of the beginning of the war. At 4 a.m., I woke up to the sounds of loud explosions. It was difficult to determine the blast’s location, but I knew for sure that it was happening somewhere near the international airport, which is located 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from my flat. When I looked at my phone, I saw tons of notifications about the full-scale Russian invasion. 

Oleg Pokusayev, the chief executive officer of the Space gym, and I quickly got in touch with several of our climbing partners and agreed to meet at the Space gym, in Kyiv. We closed the gym along with our other location, TheWall, in Lviv. We fled west, from the capital to the European border on the same day.

We had a convoy of six cars. The common highways were congested in our direction, so we kept in touch by phone, and we tried to follow the terrible news. All gas stations had long queues, and customer service rules also changed: we could only refuel up to 20 liters (5.3 gallons).

A line of cars string the path towards Ukraine’s west boarder.

The road from Kyiv to Lviv (550 kilometers, or 340 miles) took us about 20 hours— 14 hours longer than normal. It was a continuous line from the capital to the border.

Tired, we gathered at the Lviv climbing gym, TheWall. We ate and rested for four hours for the first time in 30 hours. The news was terrible, and we decided to move to the border. We waited in line for three days to enter Poland. I had two children, two women, two men, a dog, and a cat in my car. I mostly manned the wheel, trying to stay awake while my family and friends slept. I kept the car started since it was cold outside and would get chilly inside the car. We had some snacks, sandwiches, and cookies. Local citizens came and offered hot food to us. It was a real blessing to drink hot homemade soup; it was the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten.

In the line, we learned that men aged 18 to 60 couldn’t leave the country under wartime conditions. We tearfully said goodbye to the children and women and returned to Lviv.

While we were waiting in line, we received many offers of help from our friends in the climbing community from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, England, Spain, Belgium, and others. Our families dispersed to the volunteers who had offered help. We did not expect such a volunteer unity—all our friends and neighbors wanted to help us. My children and mother are now in Germany, and they have been granted immigrant status. They are safe and well-off, thanks to friends at the Blockhaus Freiburg. My friends’ relatives are in a similar situation, but they are staying in Poland at the moment.

Our men’s team decided to volunteer after the first good night’s sleep in Lviv. At the base of TheWall, we organized a temporary shelter for refugees moving west to Europe.

TheWall, in Lviv, Ukraine, converted gym pads into beds for refugees.

It was nice to see that the gym’s floor could serve as beds. We made an improvised kitchen, bought a microwave oven and utensils, and provided everything needed, even a washing machine and dryer. We received plenty of help from the city citizens and volunteers. The restaurant next to TheWall cooked hot lunches for us based on the food we brought them. We bought products from donations from our friends worldwide, via bank transfers, PayPal, and others.

At first, we had a wave of familiar climbers, but later, strangers found out about us, and anyone in need could rest with us and come to their senses. Every night we hosted around 50 to 60 people that were constantly moving in and out.

A temporary kitchen for those seeking shelter and reprieve on their journey west.

We agreed with the building owners not to pay rent until the war is over.

Our everyday financial needs are:

  • The payment of utility bills (water, heat, electricity).
  • The purchase of food and everything necessary for hygiene.
  • A small payment for the shelter staff.

We also are helping people evacuate or move around the city by driving them in our cars, and we are transporting humanitarian aid from the border to the depths of the country. 

Some of our friends and colleagues are now fighting on the front line. We are providing them with expensive tools and equipment. They need body armor, military helmets, tactical clothing, binoculars, thermal imagers, rangefinders, and more.

Currently, there is no opportunity to train at the gym, although we organize climbing lessons for children from the shelter. There is not much commercial climbing in Ukraine, and almost all of it does not work today. Next week we will try to open one gym for visitors in Kyiv, and it will be open for maybe two to three days a week. The situation is complicated, as our clients have either left the country or lost the opportunity to pay for services.

Many of the Ukrainian national team athletes were able to settle in Europe and find a location for training. However, there are problems with the coaching staff, national spot suits, etc., and no financial support for athletes and coaches in this competitive season of 2022. 

We try to get help through personal connections with national federations in Europe and Britain. We are promised help with housing at competitions and sometimes with money. Almost all gyms in Europe are free for our athletes. Additionally, the IFSC has promised to cancel membership fees in 2022 for our team.

We appreciate this titanic effort; it is significant for us.

It isn’t easy to imagine the future. Sometimes we lose motivation and faith since we had incredible plans for the development of climbing in Ukraine this year. 

Climbing readers may find donation info here