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Ukrainian Climbers Brace For Fighting

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This article was originally published in Outside’s What You Missed weekly newsletter. You can sign up for it here.

Ukraine is home to some of alpinism’s most accomplished athletes, and in recent years the country’s climbers have notched multiple first ascents and accolades on high peaks. In July, climber Irina Galay became the first Ukrainian woman to summit K2, after setting a similar accolade on Mount Everest in 2016. And in November, Viacheslav Polezhaiko, Nikita Balabanov, and Mikhail Formin completed a first ascent on the near vertical southeast ridge of Annapurna III.

Now these climbers are hunkering down in their homes or actively participating in the defense of their country. Reporter Angela Benavides of Explorersweb recently spoke to some Ukrainian mountaineers about their lives during the first days of the war.

Longtime guide Valentyn Sypavin, who has climbed K2 and reached the Everest summit on four occasions, said he helped neighbors in the city of Kharkiv whose homes had been destroyed by a missile attack.

“Rockets fly to peaceful neighborhoods in Ukrainian cities. It’s not a fake, it’s Russian rockets!” Sypavin told Explorersweb. “This is insanity!”

Galay, 33, is reportedly now coordinating a corps of defense volunteers, and she posted an online photo of herself in military fatigues carrying an AK-47. Formin told Explorersweb that he is safe in Kyiv with his family.

American climber Colin Haley took to social media earlier this week to applaud Formin, Balabanov, and Polezhaiko and to ask the international community to help Ukraine: “These three Ukrainians are currently trying to get their families to safe places, and then are prepared to pick up an AK and try to defend their homeland from one of the biggest militaries on Earth,” he wrote. “That may seem crazy, and you might feel it would be wiser to just surrender, but imagine that the missiles are landing in the city where your parents and grandparents live, that the tanks are rolling into the neighborhood where your children play.”

American mountaineering icon Conrad Anker echoed the sentiment in a post of his own: “May there be a speedy resolution for the people of Ukraine. May the citizens of Russia express their dislike for the aggression and bring about regime change. Eventually the leaders of regimes defined by autocracy will wither.”