Last November, Nikita Balabanov made a heroic first ascent in the Himalayas. Today, he is the main link between supporting outdoor brands and the war front in Ukraine.
On the 23rd of February, Nikita Balabanov had planned to fly out of Kyiv, to climb a summit in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. But a skiing accident had hurt his back. He was meant to support a group on Mount Everest in April and didn’t want to take the risk of missing this expedition because of injuries, so he decided to skip the Kyrgyzstan tour at the very last minute.
The day after, Russia invaded Ukraine, with troops aiming for Kyiv. Nikita Balabanov immediately decided to move westwards to help and support older relatives around Lviv. His hometown Irpin, just north of Kyiv, soon became a devastated battleground, with many dead civilians.
“Like many young Ukrainians, I wanted to join the armed forces after the attacks. But at the recruiting office they told us that so many had already volunteered, that they only accepted people with a military background.”
Instead, Nikita Balabanov started to look for other ways to take action and help. Besides assisting the many groups of volunteers that were forming, he wondered if he could also use his international network in the outdoor and climbing community?
In Ukraine, climbing is a small, though growing, sport. Hardly anybody knew about him. But in places like Chamonix, many experienced alpinists would have recognized him instantly. In 2015, Nikita Balabanov and his climbing partner Mikhail Fomin received the Piolet d’Or – something like the Oscars of mountaineering – after climbing the sheer face of a 1,700-meter pillar on Talung (7,349m) in Nepal. Several other expeditions would follow and in November 2021, Nikita and Mikhail together with Viacheslav Polezhaiko made the headlines in the climbing world once again. The team completed the fabled Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III (7,555m), with almost three vertical kilometers to the summit. Only a few attempts had been made before, the last of which was in 2016.
In normal times, the international publicity that followed would have been a good injection to Nikita Balabanov’s mountaineering career, also for the guide operations that he has worked with for many years as an outfitter. But as for all Ukrainians, all life plans were put on hold after President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
“Before mountaineering and organizing expeditions became my full-time job, I had worked eight years within the outdoor industry in Ukraine, mainly with imports and logistics. So, I knew many good contacts, both in Ukraine and around Europe.”
The link between west and east
Nikita Balabanov started to send e-mails to industry contacts he knew, asking if their companies could support Ukraine with clothing, footwear, sleeping bags and other equipment. And at the same time, some old contacts began writing to him. “How can we help?!” Just over a few days’ time, a collaboration was established between Nikita Balabanov and Piotr Turkot from the Polish Outdoor Group. Then the Scandinavian Outdoor Group asked their Polish colleagues how the Nordic brands could support, and the European Outdoor Group also reached out.
“Everyone acted really fast. The team from Polish Outdoor Group became like a logistics hub that brands from all over Europe, especially the Nordic countries, started to ship to. There, the team sorted the gear and prepared to transport it to Lviv in Ukraine.”
In Lviv, Nikita Balabanov realized that large quantities of aid would arrive and that he still had no place to store it. He soon teamed up with a small informal volunteer group, all sharing the passion for hiking and mountaineering.
“You must remember that it has been war in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. Some in our team have been soldiers before and have a great network on the ground among our armed forces. We all wanted to move fast and not get stuck with too much administration. Luckily, the volunteers got hold of a large storage facility.”
From here, what followed was week after week of nonstop work.
“We took the first day off after 51 days – and then we continued. In total we are around 15 people, including the drivers that transport the gear east to the troops.”
Equipping Ukrainian soldiers
Nikita Balabanov says there a lot of very useful gear that the outdoor brands can support them with. Such as shell jackets in the right colors, footwear, sleeping bags and mats, water filtration and purification, and cooking equipment. The group especially supports smaller combat units in hot spots of the war.
“In the beginning of May it rained a lot in eastern Ukraine. Some soldiers were telling us that they were soaking wet. It felt so good to be able to within 24 hours deliver around 200 shell jackets to them.”
Nikita Balabatov gives a rough estimate that the European retail price for the aid donated by the outdoor brands would amount to 1 million Euros.
“For instance, we have received over a thousand sleeping bags and around two hundred water purification systems. But the last weeks it has slowed down, I don’t get so many contacts anymore. I can understand if the outdoor companies cannot give unlimited amounts.”
Still, he hopes that helping Ukraine will remain on the agenda.
“Our group does not want money; for such donations it is better to use the large organizations. But if the outdoor industry wanted to sell to us with a larger discount, we can help with necessary arrangements.”
“Our team is very thankful for all support we have received so far. And the fact that we already have accomplished a lot with our limited resources makes me proud. This is one small victory on the way to the big victory.”
Nikita Balabanov and his team want to thank:
Polish Outdoor Group, Scandinavian Outdoor Group, European Outdoor Group, Exped, Silva, Smartwool, Kamik, Rocklands, Woolpower, AKU, Garmont, Polygiene, Comodo, RAB, AMC, Oase-outdoors, Lifestraw, Peak UK Kayaking Co LTD, Camp, Primus, Hilleberg, Haglöfs, Tasmanian Tiger (Tatonka), Source Tactical, Black Diamond Equipment, Bartek Klocek and Michal Matrejek from Crag Sport, Piotr Turkot, Sasha Yakunin … “And many more!”
Does your brand want to support with outdoor equipment?
Get in touch with Nikita Balabanov: firstname.lastname@example.org
The EOG team: email@example.com
The Polish Outdoor Group: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Scandinavian Outdoor Group: email@example.com
Photos: Nikita Balabanov