Alexander Ruchkin entered his first Championships of the former Soviet Union by chance. In 1991, he was working at a climbing camp in Kyrgyzstan that received a team slot as the event host. His team, firing the 3,000-foot north face of peak Free Korea in winter, took third in the competition.
"Everyone was very surprised," he acknowledges. "It was a big competition."
The various Soviet climbing camps anchored a regimented system of education and classification. Having already attained his first two "ranks" within the system, Ruchkin through his top-three finish earned the coveter rank of "Master of Sport."
At such competitions, climbers chose from various mountain routes, and were judged on difficulty and speed, with safety paramount. Use of fixed ropes was common, and solo climbing, as unsupervised, usually did not add to one's résumé.
Today, the system remains much the same, but since the dissolution of the USSR, climbing is no longer state-funded. Climbers must now pay for trips or gain sponsorship.
Ruchkin, 42, was the technical force behind the 2004 first ascent of the north face of Jannu, part of the "Big Walls—the Russian Way" series of 10 first ascents envisioned by Alexander Odintsov. Ruchkin has been present for five of the seven routes completed, including those on the Troll Wall, Norway; Trango Tower, Pakistan; and Great Sail Peak, Baffin Island. This summer he will attempt the north face of Masherbrum in Pakistan.
The "Big 10" climbers at first selected nearby destinations for economic reasons. For Jannu, they had a sponsor. The team used expedition tactics, an outdated style by Western standards, but normal in the context of Russian climbing history.
Says Scott MacLennan, a friend of Ruchkin's, from The Mountain Fund, "Even though the Soviet Union is gone, the old ways are still very much alive. To summit means success, to attempt is to fail ... You cannot get sponsorship for bold attempts."
Ruchkin visited North Conway, New Hampshire, in February to give a slide show for the American Alpine Club. He described the instability and difficulty of the walls of Jannu, on which he spent 50 days. In any style, the guy is tough as nails.
Have you won a competition?
Seven times. [But] I participated not to be first. I just wanted to go climbing. Competitions mean you can do more and more difficult routes.
Why the 10 walls?
To display the ability of Russian climbers to complete such a big project. For so many years, Russia was [isolated].
Have you gotten to climb in America?
[smiles] Only at the REI wall in Denver.
What style will you use on Masherbrum?
It could be capsule-style, something between alpine and Himalayan, because it’s a very long wall.
Do you wish to go alpine?
Alpine is considered more prestigious, and it’s my personal style. Not go up, go down. I like to go all the way up.
Leonid Vyssokov, translator: He has lots of climbs that he did in one day, much faster than others. Like the REI Wall. That only took one day.
Why Jannu expedition-style?
First, to succeed, based on 29 years of teams trying to make it alpine-style.
Now do you think someone could?
Yes, now we have more information about the wall. But it’s a very difficult.
What walls after Masherbrum?
The other two are unknown. We’re considering Latok 3. We’ve tried twice. We had a rockfall accident the first attempt, and on the second attempt a climber died.
Vyssokov: I would suggest REI Wall.
*Alexander Ruchkin and Vyacheslav ‘Slava’ Ivanov were killed in August 2015 while attempting a new route on the south face of Huandoy Sur (20,209 feet) in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.
This article was previously published in Rock and Ice issue 152 (July 2006)