Orlyonok and the Rock Wall

Sitting between sessions at a conference in Smolensk, I quickly scanned my work schedule for Orlyonok. Three days of morning and afternoon workshops, swimming, a camp tour, and rock wall. Rock wall? What’s a rock wall? Whatever. I just need this schedule set so I can move on to the 500 other things I’m supposed to be doing. I’ll ask when I get there.

rock wall orlyonok
I, ah, love you like a rock wall baby.

Looks great! I wrote back. See you at the airport.


On the 2nd day of the training we were scheduled for “the rock wall.” I wore the most flexible dress pants I had and a tee-shirt. After the last workshop for the day, we walked to the fake rock wall set up for the campers.


The coach, Roman, had already set up three sets of ropes and had the gear ready. There was a short discussion about my shoes before a size 35 were handed to me. Roman gave me a harness, clipped me in, stood back to belay (for non-rock climbers–to keep me from falling too far through a rope!) and said “go” in Russian. I looked at the wall.


“Up there?” I pointed. He nodded and I awkwardly climbed to the top. Roman said something in Russian and Kate translated. “Touch the metal thing at the top. Then you come down.”


After touching the metal thing, I asked: “So, how am I coming down?” Kate spoke to the coach and translated his response.


“Let go of everything and he will bring you down.” Let go of everything? I looked at the ground. This was a big distance. What if the equipment failed? I let go of the wall and waited for the fall. I dangled to the ground.


That was fun!

takin' it easy
The easy side of the wall. Scaled by the wonder kid in 8 seconds.

“OK. Now, you have to use your arms less and your legs more. You should stay as close to the wall as possible. You use the arms only for balance. Your legs should be what takes you to the top.” Kate translated the coach’s advice after observing my ascent. “Now, you will try the intermediate side.”


We walked over to the other side of the wall. I was clipped onto the rope and started up trying to use only my legs to heft me up. Flying up the bottom part of the wall I got stuck right after the middle. Tired arms and legs began to scream and I saw no way out.


“I can’t do this,” I called to Kate. “Tell him I’ll come down,” I said as I let got of the wall. She didn’t bother to translate the message to him.


“You will do it. You cannot quit.” I looked at the wall and saw a different angle and climbed a little higher before getting stuck.


“Kate, seriously, I can’t do this.” She ignored me and they chatted in Russian. My legs were shaking as I clung to the wall. I hung back and surveyed the wall. Seeing a new position, I climbed a little higher.


Roman said something and Kate called out, “Move your right leg to that pink thing.” I followed his advice and got a little higher.


“Roman’s son is climbing the difficult level right next to you. He should give you stimulation,” Kate said as I saw a little kid with glasses start at the bottom of the wall. Eight seconds later he was passing me. I watched how he moved as he got to the top. I imitated him and touched the metal thing before descending back to earth.

Orlyonok Sunset
And then we walked to watch the sunset over the Black Sea. I did a little victory pose. It was a good day.

Life is climbing a rock wall. Sometimes, especially near the top, you get stuck and can’t seem to find your way. You might shut down for a little while and think it’s too difficult, but then you take a step back, get some perspective—watch how others manage a similar problem – and keep going.

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