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How Ukrainian Climbers Traded Mountains For War

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian climbers mobilized against the invaders in many ways. CLIMBING sent longtime contributor Ed Douglas to Ukraine to hear some of their stories.

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This story was first published in February 2023, and is being re-released alongside our story “Ukrainian Climbers We Lost.”

—The Editors


Like most former Soviet cities, Kupyansk has its share of dismal concrete, but the town’s cultural administration center had long been an exception. Built as a theology college in the 1890s, its handsome brick façade featured arched windows and tall columns. But during the night of December 8, 2022, as I sleep in a bunker down the street, Russian guns blow the façade to rubble, exposing the rooms behind: a building with its pants down. 

The next morning someone drapes plastic tape from trees out front to keep onlookers from getting too close, so that’s where I stop, shivering inside my body armor and insulated jacket against the bitter Ukrainian winter.

“Don’t go any further,” Mykhailo Poddubnov warns me.

Misha, as his friends call him, is among the most widely respected and influential mountaineering instructors in Ukraine, a nation that a little more than a year ago secured its place in mountaineering history. In early November 2021, Ukrainian climbers Mikhail Fomin, Nikita Balabanov, and Viacheslav Polezhaiko stunned the climbing world with their first ascent of Annapurna III’s vast and perilous southeast ridge. 

Their line, described as “an incredibly serious undertaking” in Climbing, had repelled many of the world’s best climbers over four decades. The Ukrainians spent two weeks on the mountain, overcoming tenuous snow conditions and rock with all the solidity of a pastry. They ran out of food, endured temperatures of -31° F with 40 mph winds, and found themselves crawling up the summit ridge on their hands and knees. They joked that between them they’d lost enough weight to flesh out a fourth teammate. Their climb was hailed as among the Himalayan ascents of the century, or any century; but it would prove a small moment of light in Ukraine’s gathering storm. 

When Russia invaded on February 24, 2022, Ukraine’s alpinists, Misha among them, put aside dreams of the high mountains to help defend their country. Ukraine’s entire climbing scene turned itself into a network at war; some raised funds and sourced equipment for members of the community fighting on the frontlines; others used lessons learned in one hostile environment to survive another that has proved far more dangerous.* Misha offered to introduce me to these climbers and, like any good guide, has proved a reassuring presence on my 10-day trip through eastern Ukraine, where the threats have not been falling stones or avalanches but shellfire and icy roads.

“What makes a hole that big?” I ask Misha, looking at the ruined building. 

Misha purses his lips.

“Maybe Pion 203mm,” he replies, referring to the Russian army’s colossal self-propelled cannon.

Kupyansk’s cultural center had survived a century of wars. The Nazis occupied the town for six months in 1942, executing dozens of partisans before the Soviets counterattacked. Now Russia is back, not to fight fascism again, as President Putin claims, but to reduce Ukraine, independent for 30 years, to the status of vassal. Russian troops captured Kupyansk, located just 30 miles southwest of the border, early in the war but were driven out in September. Last night’s shelling was a reminder that they are still nearby.

Turning our backs on the ruined cultural center, we cross an open square, newly sprinkled with clumps of dirt, and stop above a steep hillside overlooking snowy plains spreading to the east. Below us the Oskil River flows north to south from beyond the Russian border. On its far side are the railway yards of Kupyansk-Vuzloyi, a strategic objective for both sides. In the distance, plumes of gray smoke rise from Russian artillery strikes and new ones puff into life. Europe has not seen anything like this since 1945.

*Editor’s Note: With Misha Poddubnov’s help, Climbing has identified 11 Ukrainian climbers who’ve been killed in the war. 

Misha at the damaged kindergarten in Saltivka, a residential district in Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine. Photo: Emily Johnston

On the day Russia invaded, Misha had just returned to his home city of Dnipro after teaching an ice climbing course in Chamonix. Everyone knew Russia was planning something, but Misha, like most Ukrainians I spoke with, thought it would be limited to a new offensive in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where conflict had been smoldering since 2014. 

When the true scale of Putin’s plan became clear, Misha fled west with his wife and sons, aged 11 and 13, and saw them across the border into Poland. They flew to Germany to stay with friends, where they remain, but Misha returned to Dnipro and, like some 100,000 other Ukrainian men and women, tried to join the Territorial Defense Force, a collection of organized militias that came into being after Russia’s 2014 invasion. Not surprisingly, the Territorials, as they call themselves, didn’t have the resources to equip such huge numbers and offered places only to those with military experience.

Among them was Misha’s friend, Oleksandr ‘Sasha’ Kosyachenko, an alpinist who has climbed 7,000-meter peaks in the Pamirs and Tien Shan mountains of central Asia and, a few years ago, the Matterhorn of the Himalaya: Ama Dablam (6,812 meters). 

I meet Kosyachenko at a gas station 16 miles west of central Kyiv, close to where the Russian army was turned back in late March. Bearish and affable, wearing fatigues and a black beanie, Kosyachenko sips a flat white behind the wheel of his camouflaged pickup, stroking his beard with one hand and pointing out where shrapnel had pierced the gas station’s steel cladding with the other. He tells me how Kyiv’s authorities, led by charismatic mayor and former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, handed out thousands of rifles to reservists, Kosyachenko among them, and charged them with saving the capital. Kosyachenko lives with his wife, Liubava, in the village of Boyarka southwest of the city, so he used his knowledge of Kyiv’s western approaches by working in recon, and as a sniper, probing the city’s forested outskirts on an ATV. 

Assuming a sniper might also have a natural affinity for shooting, I ask if he’d been a hunter in his youth. 

He chuckles. “No,” he says. “I love nature. I don’t want to shoot that.” 

Just round the corner from the gas station, outside a compound of luxury weekend cottages, Kosyachenko shows me a column of burned-out Russian armor that had been ambushed while retreating north last March. Just two Ukrainian tanks, aided by soldiers with anti-tank weapons, had obliterated this column of 13 vehicles, including T72 and T80 tanks, all now peaceably draped in snow. Kosyachenko had corrected the Ukrainian fire and taken photos of the fighting’s human cost.  

“Buryat,” he tells me, pointing to an image of a half-burnt corpse. Buryats, Mongols from southeast Siberia, are one of several ethnic groups fighting in Putin’s army. 

“Fifty Russian soldiers died here,” he continues. “Eight surrendered.” 

(Reports from journalists following the fighting suggest that his number is possible.) 

As we leave, I ask him if his experiences in the outdoors—as a climber and a guide—had prepared him at all. 

“Oh, they really helped. Particularly with orientation. Most of the time, the Russians didn’t know where they were,” Kosyachenko replies as he guides the truck through the outskirts of Irpin, the scene of fierce fighting last spring. “They were using maps from the 1980s, so when they got here they were expecting to find forests instead of neighborhoods. They thought they were already in Kyiv.”

Kosyachenko says he carried out 30 missions into the occupied zone before the Russians pulled out in early April, 20 for the army in his reconnaissance role and 10 to help extract civilians who wanted to escape, including the family of a regular army commander. (“He gave us a van with small arms and ammunition in the back as a reward,” he says.) During one of these operations he found himself hiding in a ditch 20 yards from a Russian tank.

“I thought, ‘I could die right now,’” he recalls. “My climbing experience helped with the fear, controlling that.” 

After the Russians abandoned their attempt to take Kyiv, Kosyachenko was transferred to the Donbas. There, while evacuating a wounded soldier outside Bakhmut, a rocket exploded as he was getting into his vehicle. He suffered serious head wounds and was invalided out of the army. The soldiers in an adjacent vehicle were killed.

Once he recovered, Kosyachenko took courses on mine clearance in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia and returned home as a volunteer, clearing mines and explosives the Russians left behind. 

I ask if the fighting has left him with any psychological wounds.

“No,” he says firmly. “Except for the first time I shot someone. A Chechen. That night I had a panic attack. But the next time it was easier.”

Kosyachenko, who suffered a serious head injury while fighting earlier last year, visits the Bucha car cemetary. Though they look like they've been in the junkyard for years, these civilian vehicles were destroyed while their occupants tried to flee from the Russians in February and March 2022. (Steel turns into iron oxide, i.e. rust, when burned.) The car cemetery serves as a memorial for the hundreds of civilians who died at Russians hands in and around Bucha in the early days of the war. Photo: Emily Johnston

Unable to serve with the Territorials, my guide, Misha, looked around for other ways to serve his country. A contact working in a recon unit found him volunteer work, but the sight of an un-uniformed civilian tapping away on a computer inside a military base irked one rigidly bureaucratic senior officer, so he was let go. Then one of his contacts put out a request on Facebook for a Garmin 62S handheld navigator. It was a device he’d relied on in the mountains, but his friend needed it for use in a MiG-29, a Soviet-era fighter jet that is the backbone of the Ukrainian Air Force.

“I have one of those,” he said. “Do you want it?” 

Pretty soon he’d tapped his climbing social networks and sourced 10 62S devices for other MiG pilots and was answering a request for thermal cameras. “That’s when I understood my role in this war,” Misha told me. “I know a lot of people. They know me. They trust me.” 

So he went to work answering requests from climbers and clients at the front line, both Territorials and regulars, finding them vehicles, scopes, warm clothes, sleeping bags, stoves, drones, and even an ambulance. He called his network Climb Army.

Across Ukraine, hundreds of social networks like Misha’s sprang into action in the early months of the war: doctors, firefighters, IT workers, anyone with connections, especially if those connections extended to other countries directly threatened by Putin. And the commercial climbing world, though small, had its own role to play. 

“Trying to get them to leave the towns and villages is nigh-on impossible. They say, ‘Who’s going to take care of my potatoes if I leave?’ You tell them they could die. And they say, ‘What if my potatoes die?’”

It’s bitterly cold the day I meet Taras Pozdniy, owner of Kuluar, the largest guiding service in Ukraine, at a café near his home in south Kyiv. Thanks to Russian missile strikes the electricity is out, but a generator rattles outside, and it is otherwise business as usual. Already a veteran of several 8,000ers, Pozdniy climbed Everest in 2018, attracting headlines when, in a publicity stunt, he buried a memory stick with keychain information for a crypto-currency some friends were launching. Even before Everest, Pozdniy, 33, had a reputation as a shrewd businessman. He started Kuluar in 2010, when he was just out of college, and by 2021 the company was sending out guided groups almost daily, including 20 to Nepal. 

“For the first five years, I don’t have weekends. Second point, I have a great team. Most [guiding] companies are husband and wife, small management,” he says. “We decided to grow the business. We’re very good on Google optimization.”

On February 24, Pozdniy was just back from Moldova, where he was showing a film about his company’s expedition to Everest the year before. (Nikita Balabanov, one of the three Annapurna III climbers, had been lead guide.) “I could not believe it was possible,” Pozdniy says of the Russian invasion. But he leapt into action, turning to his network to figure out how he could help the Territorials defend his city. 

“They went to war without anything,” he tells me. “They don’t have helmets. They don’t have body armor. So we started to find it, everything they need.” 

A Russian-speaking client who worked for Motorola in Lithuania gave them 600 radios, worth some $15,000, for free. Later, they bought 1,200 more at discount and gifted half to the army. “The rest we passed on at cost,” he adds. 

At the start of the war Kuluar had 14 permanent staff members and over 60 freelance guides. Ten of those guides are now fighting on the frontline; others are serving as medics. Pozdniy was able to keep 12 of his staff despite the collapse of the travel industry, putting them to work on procurement and delivery. “I make less,” he says, “but they have families too.” 

The guiding business is picking up again now that the situation has stabilized. “This season we have a lot of groups, maybe 80, for the Carpathians and a good number for the Alps,” he adds. “It’s not bad.” 

His latest project was sourcing 2,000 concertina-style foam sleeping pads and 1,300 winter sleeping bags from China. One thousand will be donated to the army and the rest sold through his outdoor store, X Zone, which he opened just two months before the invasion. He laughs ruefully at the timing. But the shop remains in business and currently employs five people.

Kyiv’s best-known climbing store, KomandaEx (Team X), has been around longer, founded in the early 2000s. While Misha Poddubnov and Taras Pozdniy rely on their virtual networks, KommandaEx is a physical meeting place for activists. In the store’s cluttered lobby I find myself looking at a sobering collection of spent ordnance and other Russian equipment on sale to raise funds. I’m particularly struck by a grenade and an anti-tank casing hand-painted with bright flowers: swords into plowshares, or in this case, artwork.

The store’s manager, Denys Maztyniuk, introduces me to two fellow climbers, businessman Petro Shamborovsky and IT manager Taras Krazhenko. All three men have just turned 40, part of that generation that grew up in the chaotic 1990s, when oligarchs scooped up Ukraine’s post-Soviet industries and the country was plagued by a series of corrupt presidents. 

“The intention of the Russians since 1991 was to destroy or control the Ukrainian army,” Maztyniuk tells me.

“We had a huge army. Our nuclear capability was taken away from us in return for our sovereignty,” Krazhenko says, and they all laugh bitterly. “In 2014 we barely had an army at all.”

“The soldiers barely had socks,” Maztyniuk adds. “For us, Russia’s invasion is a war against all Ukrainians, and every Ukrainian is thinking every day how to help. For the Russians it’s totally different. There’s little volunteering activity in Russia.”

“Do you have friends in Russia that you climbed with in the past?” I ask.


“Do you maintain those friendships?”

“No,” Maztyniuk replies firmly. “Some [Russian] climbers, some well known, support Ukraine a lot. But they are mostly silent. And pretend to be blind.”

“They came to kill us,” Shamborovsky adds. “Our history is about the Russian empire or the Soviet Union erasing our history and converting it to their vision. A lot of people [in the West] consider Ukraine to be a part of Russia, but it’s not.”

“Some of our friends had military connections,” Krazhenko explains. “They were saying we need this and that. Because the war began in winter, the first requests were for clothes, gloves, socks, gas cartridges, stoves, that stuff. We’d source things from Europe and the U.S., sometimes things that weren’t eligible for export. Thermal devices in Germany can’t be bought without a license. Lots of rules are, how shall we say, continuously broken.”

“Can you talk about that?” I ask. 

They all laugh. “No.”

Their procurement list is extensive, from the purely military equipment like magazines, scopes, and rangefinders to equipment more familiar to them as climbers. They also raise money to aid the towns the Russians have devastated. Their challenge has grown much more difficult as the war in Ukraine becomes old news in Europe and the U.S., but climbing friends in Poland and Lithuania have proved staunch supporters.

“We are unofficial and because of that we’re very effective,” Shamborovsky says. “It doesn’t take us two months to deliver something to the frontline. If a guy in Bakhmut needs a drone, next day we go with Denys and Taras to the frontline.” 

Misha Poddubnov, founder of Climb Army, during the author's tour of Northeastern Ukraine. Photo: Emily Johnston

“I never wanted to be an alpinist,” Andriy Zhyhariev says, his narrow features breaking into a wry smile. I find him at his workshop in Kyiv’s western suburbs, standing in a pool of lamplight at his workbench. Outside it’s snowing hard. When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, rock climbing was rigorously structured and geared solely towards training for the mountains. But 30 years of access to Western Europe has changed all that, and Ukraine now has a small but vibrant sport-climbing scene. (Jenya Kazbekova, for example, born in Dnipro, placed fourth in the IFSC European Continental Cup at Brixen in 2022, and fifth in the World Games; she has sent 5.14c.)

Zhyhariev, 41, is the co-founder and owner of UkrHolds, and has been in the business for almost two decades. Some newly shaped slopers and crimps are arranged before him on the bench. He started climbing more than 20 years ago, while in college, when a friend took him to a climbing gym. A few months later, just before Ukraine’s National Championships, his friend fractured an arm and had to pull out. Zhyhariev took his place. “Honestly, it blew my mind,” he says. Sport climbing became his life.

Like his mountaineer compatriots, Zhyhariev spent the first weeks after the invasion scrambling to supply equipment to those friends who suddenly found themselves at the frontline. He shows me a picture of two men, one in uniform. 

“That’s my business partner,” he says, pointing to the strong, burly man in uniform. “Oleksandr Paukaev.” 

“Who’s the other guy?” I ask.

“That’s Taras,” he says, pointing now at a slighter figure in civilian dress. “He was killed two weeks ago. In Bakhmut.”

After a few weeks at war, one of the workers at UkrHolds was on patrol near the workshop and decided to check its condition. Nothing had been touched since the Russians invaded. A delivery they’d been packing on February 24 was just as they’d left it. That delivery was for Digital Climbing Holds, a French company that had commissioned UkrHolds to manufacture its fiberglass product line. After the invasion, the relationship changed, with Zhyhariev using his contacts to source equipment for soldiers. But as time passed, Zhyhariev realized that he and his employees needed to get back to work. Although his French partners were at first reluctant, concerned about the risk to Zhyhariev and his team, production at the UkrHolds factory has now resumed. 

Zhyhariev switches off the lights in the workshop, telling me it was a touching act of solidarity on the part of the French. “It means we can keep our people,” he says.We’re not making any profit, but my employees get money for their families.” 

Zhyhariev drives me through the falling snow to visit Funattic, a climbing gym he helped establish a few years back. With street lights turned off to save electricity, Kyiv is dark and austere, but the gym is busy and brightly lit. A parkour competition is in full swing, with young men bouncing off structures and spinning through the air. Music thumps out of the speakers and Zhyhariev has to shout to introduce me to his former business partner Serhii Kishchenko. 

“The gym is not very profitable,” Kishchenko acknowledges. While the entrance fee of $6 or $7 is cheap compared to gyms in Western Europe, that’s steep for Ukrainians, even without a war. “But we’re keeping people in work. And it’s a place for people to let off steam. No one is training hard. They just come to meet friends and get some exercise.”

“It’s a small illusion for a few hours,” Zhyhariev adds. “You forget about everything outside.”

The two friends, who both grew up on Crimean climbing, talk fondly of their early years as climbers, conjuring a world of white limestone cliffs and warm sunshine. Crimea was the epicenter of hard Ukrainian rock climbing until it was lost to them following Russia’s 2014 invasion. 

“I can even remember the time of the Kyiv train to Sevastapol,” says Kishchenko wistfully. “It was 8:28 p.m. I haven’t been there since autumn 2013. October is beautiful there.”

Mykhailo "Misha" Poddubnov, founder of Climb Army, standing in a S300 missile crater in Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine, in December 2022. Photo: Emily Johnston

The day after the parkour comp, I cross town to a restaurant in Kyiv’s old city to meet a climber who knows Crimean climbing better than most. Andriy Kachnov grew up in the pro-Russian naval port of Sevastopol, where his father was a marine electrician and his mother a teacher. Now 45, his hair is thinning but he has a youthful face and a wicked grin. Kachnov started climbing as a 15-year-old, just as the Soviet Union split apart, climbing on a 100-meter toprope in the old Soviet style until some British and French climbers visited with a drill and introduced him to sport climbing. After that, climbing took Kachnov all over Crimea and exposed him to its complex history before and after the Russian revolution.

“I hated the Soviet Union growing up,” he says. “I remember a time when my dad was paid in tinned fish instead of cash because the state had run out of money. My parents had to take the fish to the market to sell it.” 

Yet Kachnov still felt supportive of Russia until 2008, when Putin ordered the invasion of Georgia, at which point Russian propaganda disillusioned him. His father, still in Sevastopol, remains a devoted Russian nationalist. 

“He spends the day drinking and watching the news channels,” Kachnov says. “I haven’t seen him for five years.” 

His mother, too, was delighted when Russia annexed Crimea. “She called me two days ago, asking about the price of cucumbers. She’d heard they were very expensive. I said, ‘You’re worried about cucumbers? People are being bombed here!’”

By 2014 Kachnov was living in Kyiv with his partner, Christina, who he met climbing in Crimea. At first Kachnov was homesick, but he found his feet as an instructor at Hyperion, a climbing gym that boasts Ukraine’s tallest lead wall. Some of his clients came from Misha Poddubnov. “Mikhail will have someone who wants to go to the Matterhorn and he will say, ‘You need to raise your standard. Go to Andriy.’” 

Working at Hyperion has brought him into contact with many climbers serving in the army’s Special Operations Forces. When a small team in eastern Ukraine needed to understand how to build a Tyrolean across a river, they came to Kachnov. “We rigged it up between trees in a park south of the city,” he says, before adding, with a smile, that his lessons were put to work in May, during one of Ukraine’s most spectacular successes: the destruction of an entire armored battalion on the banks of the Siverskyi Donets.

Kachnov also offers free bespoke physiotherapy sessions to wounded soldiers, often working remotely and tailoring his sessions to the facilities available to his patients. He shows me images of a soldier in his early 30s with a horrific wound to his lower leg.

“Classic mine blast,” Kachnov says. “He had grafts in Germany but they still wanted to cut it off. He came to me and we started working on it.” 

The patient was doing well, Kachnov adds, and is walking again. 

Another of Kachnov’s patients has a more unusual perspective on the war. Ryan Collins is an American, born and raised just north of Atlanta, Georgia, who first visited Ukraine in 2016 after abandoning a PhD in math at the University of Wyoming. He’d been fascinated by Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan movement, the so-called Revolution of Dignity that ousted the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and prompted Putin to send troops into the Crimea and southeastern Ukraine. 

“I came at first for six months to see if I’d like it,” Collins tells me in a bar in Kyiv’s central Podil district, “and I really liked it. Ukrainians have more social cohesion. It’s not so totally dominated by consumer culture. I like the basic things, public transport, a grocery store on the corner, stuff like that.”

Born in 1989, Collins grew up hunting with his grandfather and taking ski trips to Colorado. As a college student he deepened his appreciation for wild places and started climbing, particularly after he moved to Wyoming. When he arrived in Ukraine he started taking trips to the other Georgia, on the southern side of the Caucasus. He’s since started Snow Vigil, a backcountry skiing business that runs trips to the underexplored Racha Range in the east of the country. He was there when the war broke out, but his immediate instinct was to return and fight.

 “I was quite anti-war,” he says, citing America’s involvement in Iraq. “But this was quite different from that.”

The only unit Collins could join was the International Legion, comprising foreign volunteers with “all kinds of motivation,” according to Collins, under the command of the Territorial Defense Force. “I didn’t get along with most of them to be honest. But there were a few people I really liked. Most of the crazies shook off, especially when we got to the front.” 

Training was patchy, but he says that the Ukrainians used his unit well. They provided infantry support for mechanized forces, sweeping through towns in advance of the tanks. Some of his worst days were early in the war when Ukraine had little answer to Russia’s huge artillery advantage.

“It sucks. When you don’t have friendly artillery support it’s the worst thing in the world. It’s just a matter of time until they hit you,” he says, adding that his mountain experience helped him cope with the fear. “I was used to dealing with life or death situations and just moving through it. You can’t freeze up in those scenarios. If you’re in the middle of a pitch and it’s really scary you can’t just say I’m done.”

He also takes inspiration from ordinary Ukrainians. “Trying to get them to leave the towns and villages is nigh-on impossible. They say, ‘Who’s going to take care of my potatoes if I leave?’ You tell them they could die. And they say, ‘What if my potatoes die?’”

The odds finally caught up with Collins on Halloween when another soldier set off a grenade trap and started running without shouting a warning. Collins was just a few yards from the blast but escaped with shrapnel wounds to his lower legs.

When I ask Collins why he thinks the Ukrainians have survived despite the might of the Russians, he says that the Ukrainian army’s biggest advantage has been its ability to act in a decentralized way, which allows them to react to threats quickly. “They are very creative, and everyone is motivated to try to do something better and solve the problem,” he says “People are there for a reason.”

“This is not about language... It’s not about nationality; it’s about a way of thinking. We have different minds. Different dreams."

In Kupyansk, Misha Poddubnov introduces me to one of his former mountaineering students, someone who encapsulates what Collins had described. Call-sign ‘Ajax’ (he asked me not to use his name for security reasons) is a drone operator who talks me through the impact small consumer drones have made on Ukraine’s overstretched artillery and how quickly that happened. Before the invasion, Ajax worked as a hydraulic and pneumatic engineer in Kyiv, but having studied military aviation in college he was eligible to join the regular army. When the Russians invaded, he worked in reconnaissance in Kyiv, locating and arresting spies who were directing artillery fire. As a sport shooter and alpinist, Ajax had useful skills, but he had never flown a drone before. That changed when the Russians withdrew from Kyiv and he was transferred to Kharkiv. Faced with what seemed an overwhelming force of tanks and artillery, his recon unit realized they needed a better understanding of the battlefield—and that meant drones. “One guy had the skills,” Ajax tells me. “He had worked in the film industry. A lot of people from the movies were the early drone pilots.”

On their first operation they found a cluster of four Russian tanks. They called in artillery and then waited in frustration for six hours until 36 rounds were fired at the location, which had long been vacated by the Russians. “We said, ‘Guys, this is the wrong way. We should do something else.’ And we start to work with artillery. We are flying, finding targets, and then we call artillery and start working, correcting fire. So every shell counts. The bosses saw this and said, ‘Yeah, you can work.’”

The workhorse of Ukrainian recon drones is the DJI Mavic 3, but Russian anti-drone measures are a headache and losses are frequent. 

“We’re not like the American army that has lots of drones and pilots,” he explains. “Our army did not have it at all. But it’s hard with the military bureaucracy. If you want to buy something it’s a long process.” 

That’s where Misha, Ajax’s erstwhile alpine instructor, comes in: Before we started talking, Misha had handed Ajax another box-fresh Mavic 3.

“When we started our attack, we lost a lot of copters,” Ajax says, referring to last autumn’s Kharkiv offensive. “Misha helped us at that moment. It was very important. We got two drones from him.” 

I ask what that had felt like, to be on the attack after the shock of invasion. Ajax’s eyes light up at the memory. “It was the most cool feeling,” he says. “Our part of the front was the first one that attacked and one of the reasons was down to our recon job.”

Now winter has come and progress has stalled in the mud and ice. But Ajax, who has climbed in the Caucasus and Tien Shan and plans to visit Mont Blanc when the war is over, says he is unfazed by the winter weather. He also says that he has lost friends, and that he has served on the frontline without a break for eight months, but the sense of purpose he and his comrades share drives them on.  “The man who did most for the idea of Ukraine was Vladimir Putin,” he says. “He united the entire nation.”

Igor Zhadan: climber, physician, triathlete, currently serving in the Kharkiv Oblast. His call-sign is ‘Nepal,’ because “that’s where I’m going as soon as this ends.” Photo: Emily Johnston

The next morning, Misha and I drink coffee with Igor Zhadan, another of his climbing friends, who is serving in the Kupyansk area as an infantry medic. In the first days of the war, Misha had brought Zhadan a uniform and his first 20 tourniquets.

I have never met anyone with more energy. Zhadan leans forward in his chair, legs bouncing on the ground rattling through some of his best adventures: scuba diving the warship graveyard at Scapa Flow off the coast of Scotland; riding his motorcycle through Greece; climbing Manaslu. His call-sign is ‘Nepal,’ because he says “that’s where I’m going as soon as this ends.”

“Igor has a huge collection of helmets,” Misha adds drily. 

Despite being trapped in his billet, Zhadan still has the compact frame of an athlete, and it’s a genuine shock when he says he’s 49 and a grandfather. His 29-year-old son is also serving. 

After med school in his native Dnipro, Zhadan had worked as a consultant psychologist and is consequently primed to see the war in psychological and philosophical terms. “Climbing teaches the management of risk. Here I need it. Managing fear. Because when you’re going near avalanches, crevasses, my fear is my friend. It’s a help for me. For surviving, in the mountains and here.”

I ask if the war impacted his own mental health, and he says, “If I say no, then it’s not true. People who are injured, it’s my comrades. I live with them for nine months. They are my people. That hurts. We have 200s [the Soviet-era classification for KIA]. We lose people.” He is already thinking about how he can help those traumatized by the fighting when it’s finally over.

Zhadan and Misha speak often, and not just about their shared experiences in the mountains. Both men were born in what is now Uzbekistan, a reminder that Stalin and the communists spread Russians around their sprawling empire to dilute other national identities. Misha’s half-Ukrainian, half-Russian father was born in Kyrgyzstan, and Misha recalls seeing Karakol Peak (17,113 feet) in the Tien Shan while visiting his grandfather during summer vacations. 

Zhadan was born in the Fergana valley, on the northern fringes of the Pamirs. His father came from a village in the Dnipro region and grew up speaking Ukrainian, only switching when he joined the Soviet army, where Russian was the lingua franca. Misha’s wife also grew up speaking Ukrainian, but at home in Dnipro with Misha and their sons they use Russian, its influence no longer state policy but simply the status quo. While a minority have chosen to switch to Ukrainian since Putin’s invasion, Igor and Misha both insist that Russia’s claims of intolerance are simply propaganda.

“This is not about language,” Igor says. “Half my company speaks Russian. But they want to be independent of any pressure from the Russian government. It’s not about nationality; it’s about a way of thinking. We have different minds. Different dreams. We want to be open to the world. Especially the young.”

There is a pause. Then Misha adds, “And we don’t want to be slaves.”


About the Author: Ed Douglas is a British writer based in Sheffield, Yorkshire. His latest book is Himalaya: A Human History.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the climbing store KomandaEx had been founded by Ukrainians who escaped the fighting in the Donetsk region following Russia’s intervention in 2014.