Green living Russian style: This summer Lena is building a vacation cabin outside Saint Petersburg...
...note the insulation! (click to enlarge). Images by Lena Laletina,
ExWeb interview with, part 2: Orwell vs. Brave New World

Posted: Jun 19, 2009 01:43 pm EDT
( Yesterday Lena recalled how Russian climbers were made hard as rocks in state-controlled (but free) alpine clubs all over communist ex-Soviet.

The times are changing. Today the second part of the interview; 1984 vs. Brave New World.

ExWeb: Russian (and especially ex-Soviet) climbs have been criticized by UK and American alpinists for being aggressive, overly organized and restrictive to individualism - vs. the Alpinist's aim for gentle approach, self-sufficiency, elegance and personal freedom. How do you feel about this debate and what do the Russian climbers think about it?

Lena: Mountaineering was a team-sport in USSR, and it still is in Russia and the CIS. So climbers interested in the sport had to be highly organized it's the rule of the game. If you decide to play on the team, it means you accept the rules, which then make sense as a good team is very effective on the route.

As for restricting individualism yes, there were such situations, especially in big expeditions, and it wasnt always right. But its the flip side of teamwork. For example; in the first Soviet Himalaya expeditions (such as Everest and Kanchenjunga) some climbers didnt want to use oxygen. Although they were fit enough to climb without it, they still had to use it, because it was decided by the leader.

As a rule though, everybody still have room enough for personality and as Denis Urubko said; if there are more than two members in any team, there are always restriction to somebody, because even with only three people solving problems two are often against the third

So the debate is useless: to climb independently, in duo, or solo, or become a member of "overly organized teams" - in the end it's each to his own.

ExWeb: On the other hand, climbers complain that Alpinism is drowned in a sea of trivial adventure entertainment with few counter-examples from true exploration. The Discovery Everest "reality" series aired globally including in Russia and a second part was shot this spring; what are your thoughts on this "Brave New World"?

Lena: Yes, in many countries alpinism has gradually turned into a show led by federations, politics and commerce. Its no surprise that trivial climbers can be awarded, become heroes, or made stars in TV series: they are promoted by people with self-interest very far from mountaineering. Its a symptom of the current times; when all can became part of a TV-show with their private life, their love, and their tragedies.

Very few climbers these days are explorers willing to honestly try and touch the edge of human capability; to accept real risk and become true role-models in mountaineering. I like to write about them. And I hope that there are enough people in the world mountaineering community who understand the difference between show and true adventures.

ExWeb: Is the general Russian public aware (and proud) of your national mountaineering accomplishments these days?

Lena: Outside the climbing community, theres not much interest for mountaineering in Russia. Mass-media prefer to write about soccer, hockey, tennis, etc. Stories and films about great climbs and ambitious expeditions are rare except for when someone dies in mountains. In case of fatalities the Ministry of Emergency uses all its information capabilities to publish info about the accident as wide as they can, which causes a negative attitude to the climbers in general. But some great expeditions and climbs are appreciated by the nation and the people, of course, are proud of the heroes.

ExWeb: What is Russian climber's relation to ex-Soviet mountaineers such as the Kazakhs?

Lena: Russian climbers view their colleagues in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova and other former Soviet republics as "relatives" - we still believe that we are all one family.

It became more difficult to cross borders and mountains when states were divided and became independent, and mountains that USSR climbers always viewed as "theirs" are now abroad. It's inconvenient, of course, but it can't be helped and does not represent a barrier between the climbers of the CIS countries.

Whatever the political conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, or Georgia, for example, we all continue to climb mountains together. We organize joint competitions and festivals, we decide route classifications and write books together, we discuss successes, challenges and problems on the same websites and keep fingers crossed for those whore enroute

ExWeb: You guys set up your own Golden Ice Axe award; how come?

Lena: We have already held two editions, in 2007 and 2008. If the Russian Mountaineering Federation listens to the experts, the award could turn out really good. There were a number of great Russian climbs in 2007, which saved the situation. The leaders of the strong teams were able to select the actually best climb and the idea of a "Hamburg score" was excellent.

Last year wasnt rich in first climbs (new routes) though so very different teams became nominees: with some first climbs (such as Babanov-Afanasjev's or Alexey Bolotov's) but others only second climbs of famous routes, third climbs or even absolutely ordinary climbs. Its not right for a Piolet dOr - the name should call for something.

But about a month ago RMF formulated the criteria for this year's edition and nominated only first climbs - so it's a good step. I also think it would be better to choose another name for a Russian best climb award. Battle of Titans or a Titanium Ice Axe (as Pavel Shabalin suggested) for example.

ExWeb: The international Piolet d'Or is now reborn. What are your thoughts on that?

Lena: Piolet dOr, created by Jean-Claude Marmier, died because it became a show. It didn't suit many climbers and I suspect that the new Piolet dOr will become another spectacle soon enough. But I want to hope it wouldnt.

The main criterion, as announced by the organizers, is style. While alpine climbs are beautiful and modern, style isnt everything in mountaineering. This isnt rock climbing and style is a game for those who dont want to admit that mountaineering is about overcoming. Not only the route, but also the self - which cant be measured and described by style only.

Objective judging is obviously almost impossible in a mountaineering competition, but a high-class jury of experts can try to come close. We must honestly admit that not all "alpine-style climbs" are true in that category and likewise there are far fewer "solo-climbs" than the ones usually declared.

If a climber scaled two thirds of a route one year and repeated it the next of course it wasnt alpine style; every climber knows how much easier it is to climb familiar terrain. True alpine style is to climb a route in one single attempt. To climb parts of the route, descend, and return in a year or so is not much different from Himalayan style. You know the route already and that's the key.

As for other Piolet criteria, Saving of means" and Transparency in the used means - its funny, no more. I only hope that climbers wont have to compile inventory reports.

And then there is the Respect of future generations of mountaineers by leaving them the possibility to live the same adventures. USSR mountaineers team-climbed a lot of beautiful technical routes in the 70s and 80s - with the primitive gear of the day, of course. Let's be honest, I havent seen anybody suffer the absence of the possibility to live the same adventures on some of those routes; the south face of Peak Communism, for example, or the Chatyn Wall in Caucasus. In fact, what I see is that NOBODY can climb such routes these days, simply because its too difficult.

If somebody ever opts to climb Jannu North Face or K2 West Face in Alpine style, Im sure theyll have plenty opportunity to re-live the adventure of the Russian pioneers. As for Piolet d'Or this year, I liked the idea to award Bonatti, and the Japanese climbers who won. They climbed a great route!

Next, final: The internet and old vs. new media.

Social critic Neil Postman contrasts the worlds of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in the foreword of his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He writes:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture [...].

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

Comparisons of Huxley's Brave New World with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four courtesy of Wikipedia.