A boy was jammed under the seat in front of us. Our seemingly winged marshutka was hardly touching the highway, flying over the potholes like an angel in sunglasses. Above the boy a girl sat sideways in her seat, trying to suck her neighbor's hair through a straw. The chaperone threw glances at the girl but not at the boy beneath her. Fifteen other kids stuck their heads out windows, blew on flutes, waved paper in each other's faces, played with themselves, drank foaming sodas.
The situation was bad. I looked at my climbing partner Svet. He was staring straight ahead, expressionless, but because of his sunglasses i couldn't say for sure what he was looking at. The marshutka blew down the road at an ungodly speed.
We had gotten the hell out of Kyiv in the first marshutka (10- to 20-seat van) we could find. Svet had nearly grabbed the driver by the collar, demanding a ride to the destination stated on the window placard -- Zhitomir -- the closest town to the Deneshi crags where we could not only hunker down for the night but climb some of Ukraine's better short sport routes. When the driver said calmly "Guys, get in" -- two seats remained in his air-conditioned van -- something seemed wrong, some kind of trick maybe, but we were desperate, and with all the children sitting inside, hands folded on their laps, I said: "It's only 90 minutes to Zhitomir -- fuck it, let's go."
The calm driver, when behind the wheel, was a maniac. We were in Zhitomir in less than an hour. As soon as the marshutka reached the curb we lept from the door and left those beastly children behind. Unfortunately, killing the joy we felt at our release from air-conditioned hell, we looked up to see our connecting marshutka -- #109 -- pulling away from the curb. A rock thrown through the rear window didn't slow it down.
In Zhitomir a person can disappear, even two wild heathens like ourselves. After consulting with The Man Who Sees All (disguised as a man selling cigarettes outside the bus station) we learned that #109 leaves every 60 minutes on the :45, never a minute late. Whether it was true or not, we did not know and did not care. The information sounded good, and like I said, even with a backpack that could have contained a dead body, we blended right in.
We went for supplies. The magazin was designed like an anus-clinching panopticon -- whoever designed it was a twisted bastard, though one had to admire him for achieving his goal. After adjusting to the initial shock, the horizontal freezers gave the place the feeling of a bourgeois morgue, or an improperly lit mod-goth tavern. We bought beer, wine, kielbasa, and grapefruit juice, and got the hell out of there.
Nearby we found a comfortable curbstone in front of a make-shift shopping mall. We drank beer and killed an hour. After relieving ourselves on the side of the mall we ran for the #109, nearly jumped on its windshield in our haste, and once inside were on our way to the countryside.
This ride was more pleasant than the first. Normal adults drinking beer, adjusting their skirts, necking on their girlfriends, fingering their money, chatting, picking their noses. Thirty minutes later we were the last ones in the marshutka and nearing our destination. We spotted a group of soldiers in the forest, camped next to the road -- not what we wanted to see but we were prepared to defend ourselves against anything. A few hundred meters past the soldiers was a dirt road leading to the Deneshi dam. Here we left the marshutka , skipped down the road, made a picture of the dam for our files, and hiked downstream a couple hundred meters to the crag. We could hear boys fishing in the river but otherwise not a soul was around.
We stood below the shady crag. In front of us were twenty 20-meter routes, the setting sun touching just the tops of them. We relaxed and laughed, then realized we had work to do. First we needed to find a good, defendable place for our tent. Second, we needed a nasty, smokey fire to ward off the ridiculous hordes of mosquitos that were attacking us. As for the tent, we decided that the best defense is a strong offense: we set our tent directly in the middle of the trail. Not far away was a huge fire-pit, which we had smoking in no time.
Svet uncorked the wine. I uncapped the beer. Then vegetables, bread, mayonnaise, kielbasi on sticks set over the fire. While drinking and preparing and slapping the mosquitos (who had long ago learned that smoke doesn't kill) a few campers appeared and began setting up tents at a nearby fire-pit. Then a few more people appeared, and then a few more. Before long there were eleven tents and twenty people encamped not far from us. Svet and I quietly agreed that this development might prove useful for us.
Before long we learned that this huge group had bussed to Deneshi from Minsk. Many of them were wearing new "Deneshi 2005" t-shirts. They asked if we had been climbing long. We played their game, said we weren't professionals but had been climbing for a few years. One man explained that in their group were the top five Belorussian climbers. Svet and i gave each other a knowing look. Seeing that we were swatting mosquitos the man offered us a repellant spray. We thanked him kindly, blessed him, then blessed ourselves with the foul liquid.
Darkness fell and the Belorussians began barbecuing. Svet and I were drunk and began planning a nighttime ascent of our first route -- we had a strong headlamp and were feeling confident. As we gathered together our gear I began to feel the fear. Something about the army battalion camped somewhere at the top of the crag.... it wasn't feeling right.... and the Belorussians had just raised a white flag in the middle of their camp. With some difficulty I persuaded Svet to wait until morning: "Better we sleep well and climb early, get on the wall before the Belorussians." He agreed.
We planned to get up at 7:00 a.m. At 8:00 a.m. we peeked out of the tent and saw that only three of our neighbors were awake. Apparently their late-night, off-key sing-a-longs had taken a toll. Svet fired up our stove and prepared strong coffee. We sat quietly, drinking, watched the sun shine through the leaves, listening to the main wall beckoning us.
Suddenly two Belorussians appeared at the top of the crag, anchored two ropes, and threw them to the bottom. Svet looked at me with raised eyebrows but said nothing. We continued to drink our coffee, more quickly now as three more Belorussian ropes were attached and thrown off the main wall.
"Those swine! They were so kind and friendly last night and this morning they're top-roping the entire fucking crag!"
We sat as if stoned and watched the sixth, seventh, and eighth ropes get fixed and thrown. We grabbed our gear and, before it too had been top-roped, set up beneath a route named "Center". After their difficult work the Belorussians assembled and ate breakfast, leaving their ropes hanging limply in the morning sun. "A strange etiquette," I said, still hoping that these odd people were helping us in some way.
As we prepared to climb "Center" we looked down at their camp. The white flag had a logo, in English: "Executive MBA 7". Underneath the flag was a gigantic pile of chopped firewood, apparently also bussed in from Minsk. It was hard not to admire the preparations that had gone into their excursion, and admire these campers for having such an enjoyable time. Later in the day we asked two of them what the logo on the flag meant. They said they had no idea.
Svet and I got to climbing. Bulgakov once wrote, "In such odd circumstances the most sensible thing seemed to be to forget it all." So we did just that. Svet on-sited "Center", making easy work of a delicate face-move off the deck and then moving smoothly past the small roof. I climbed it next, with a rest at the roof. We agreed that it did not deserve the 7a rating. Maybe 6c. Maybe.
Next we moved to "Easter Island", another 7a with a slightly larger overhanging section. Svet ascended with one rest. I was unable to pass the crux and bailed to the right. We agreed that it deserved the 7a rating: a nice climb with a good crux.
The Belorussians had finished their breakfast and fixed the last of their eleven top-ropes -- apparently one for each of their tents. Throughout the day no more than five of the ropes were in use at any moment, which allowed Svet and I to maneuver around them and climb the routes we desired.
After a coffee break we moved to "Megalomania" (7a), a good-looking route that moves from face climbing to a broken roof to a short, difficult gully below the final bolt. The crux seemed to be the final move, which neither of us could negotiate. A great route.
"All Your Time" (6c+), just to the right of "Megalomania", proved slightly easier but equally enjoyable, with a similar start and finish.
The Belorussian climbers were starting to show their true merit. Four of them were strong climbers. (The best in Belarus? We doubt it.) The others were either beginners or aging climbers. Svet and I deduced that these folks were mountaineers, not sport climbers. Clearly they were comfortable in the hills and knowledgeable about rope-work. They came to Deneshi to camp and enjoy themselves, and then to climb. We admired this and came to enjoy their easy company at the crag. But as we discovered later, to our horror, we had been lulled into a false sense of calm.
In the afternoon Svet and I moved to the middle of the main wall and climbed " Shlamburka ", a 6c route that required face-climbing from one horizontal crack to the next. One must balance carefully and hope not to fall when getting to the first bolt or after clipping to the fourth bolt which looks like a rusted Slavutich Ice bottle cap. Svet red-pointed this route, showing that his style is equal to his power -- he made it look easy, which is was not for me: I over-heated and bailed to the left at the top of the face.
I went to the river to cool off, throwing some water, swinging at the mosquitos, then returned to camp for the necessary grapefruit juice. From here I could see the main wall. Something had gone terribly wrong. Svet was swinging from a Belorussian rope and no one else was in sight. I ran to him and saw that the rope had wrapped itself around his neck. His face was purple and mayonnaise was spewing from his mouth. I could not understand how this had happened. With his great strength Svet had managed to pull himself up to a ledge and take his weight off the rope. But what the hell was this mayonnaise substance?
Svet freed himself and began down-climbing. At first he couldn't talk, his face was expressionless, then began making sounds like "rope from above!... soldiers .. maybe.... mayo! .... bad shit .... ouch .... shoes?..." I didn't understand what he was talking about and was getting ready to help him down the last section when he lost his balance and fell head-first onto a large boulder. His face was suddenly, horribly covered in ketchup. He lost consciousness and somehow, inexplicably began laughing.
At that moment three Belorussians arrived. We carried Svet to the river and threw him in. He screamed once, regained alertness, and stood up in the waist-deep water. We asked him what had happened. The last thing he remembered was red-pointing " Shlamburka ". Very strange. Unbelievable. But he was okay.
I gave Svet the grapefruit juice and made some coffee. One of the Belorussian ladies brought us some cookies. She sprayed us with mosquito repellant and we thanked her again for the generosity. We began to wonder just what was in this special Belorussian "mosquito repellant". Soon Svet and I were back on the wall, making a few more climbs, our last of the day being the pleasant "Right Keel" (6b).
A calm descended on the crag at the end of the day. Svet and I packed up our gear as the Belorussians gathered around "Center" to practice the first few face moves. The birds sang, the river gurgled. After such a strange day everything seemed just right at that moment. We shouldered our backpacks, said goodbye to our Belorussian friends, wished them good climbing, and hiked back towards the road. The marshutka would pass by at 7:25. Our hike was short and Svet decided another dip in the river would be right for him. I refrained, still unsettled by the strange occurrences that had been happening.
The marshutka was exactly on time. Once inside, our large backpack nearly killed a babushka : rounding a corner the driver accelerated quickly to pass a small truck carrying a cow; our pack lifted off the floor and landed on the babushka , who was amazingly unfazed and simply suggested a better position for our backpack. (You know, probably she was stronger than Svet.) The driver stopped to buy dried fish, we adjusted our pack, and in no time we were back in Zhitomir hailing a connecting marshutka to Kyiv.
The ride to Kyiv was comfortable, the marshutka half-empty. We dozed... until that damn EuroVision song came on the radio, that winning Greek tune. Svet and I were both snapped out of our reveries and gave each other a harrowed look. To our great relief the driver apparently had the same feeling: he changed the station. We celebrated him vocally and then returned to our slumbers.
The marshutka brought us to the Zhitomirska Metro station in Kyiv. In our haste to catch the Metro, and in our attempt to reduce suspicion by looking completely confident and moving quickly, Svet nearly killed himself on the platform when something ran across his path. (We still don't know what it was.) I quickly explained to all the wide-eyed citizens that this man suffered from a bad spleen. We jumped onto the Metro and were home in our respective flats before midnight, having avoided most bad happenings though many things remain unexplained. Regardless, it was a successful climbing trip to the fine crags of Deneshi.