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Stas Beskin Pushes the Limit on Ice

If you weren’t captured by the rumours of a Russian-émigré-Israeli-special-forces-vegan-ice-technician, then at least maybe the photos got your attention

Stas Beskin ice climb solo pillar

In 2018 pictures circulated of a climber on pillars skinnier than his barrel-shaped chest, on ice you could see through. It was Stas Beskin. In Quebec he was climbing ice most of us wouldn’t walk under, never mind tie in for: shockingly narrow pillars and daggers that looked destined to collapse at the lightest swing of an ice tool or kick of a boot. Pillars like these had very rarely been climbed. But it was his technique that baffled us more, even though it explained a lot. Videos of a technique he was pioneering he called “scratching” followed; he had reimagined how to use an ice tool and gave us an art few would dare emulate. Rather than swinging at the ice, he was carefully considering the textures and contours of the ice and then scratching up and down lightly on the surface of the ice, creating an edge that he could then hook so as not to impact the lethally fragile ice formations he was on.

Who was this guy? Rumours abounded. Assumptions were made. Judgements handed down. While some climbers were impressed and intrigued, others were skeptical and critical. He continues to achieve unparalleled objectives but remains surprisingly unheralded by the climbing community. How is Stas Belkin able to do what he does? And why are we not lauding him more for it?

After the photos and videos went viral, a passionate debate ensued in the Rockies ice community. Were the photos somehow staged or exaggerated? All kinds of explanations were considered: the pillars weren’t that high (only 20 metres?), that in some photos he was top-roping (he wasn’t), that maybe the Quebec ice was more supple and wet than in the west (but having spent any time in Quebec in the winter everyone knows how cold it is). If truth be told, we were witnessing an outsider climb ice like few locals would ever dare.

Later that same year a shock reverberated through the Rockies climbing community. Beskin and another “non-local” approached the Real Big Drip WI6 M7, one of the most iconic mixed climbs in the Canadian Rockies. It isn’t the most difficult, nor the longest, but it’s front and centre as you drive into the Ghost River Valley, a shining example of what a modern, bolted mixed ice route should be. For years, there was talk among locals that one day the entire climb could be done as a pure ice line. In December 2018, nature delivered a fully formed pillar that made it possible to climb it as a pure ice route. Though let’s not kid ourselves: it would still be dangerous as fuck. Beskin and his partner, all the way from Ontario, took up the mantle of climbing it. Beskin and Daniel Martian had approached the Real Big Drip in 2017, but the first pitch dagger fell off nearly killing them.

This time Beskin and Dany Julien successfully made it up the first pitch as pure ice, climbing one of the most mythical of all Rockies lines. A deep, very real fear intruded on them when eyeing up the third pitch dagger. It was so large, and so unstable-looking that they turned tail. With the preceding year’s near-death collapse in mind, they thought that they were setting up to both be killed if they attempted to climb onto the upper ice. In fact, three weeks later this shaky pillar did collapse on a party who were drytooling the normal third pitch, somehow escaping unscathed. Photos of the first pitch being climbed as a pillar circulated and a huge amount of respect was paid by ice climbing communities around the world. Except for ours in the Rockies. Our reception of this feat couldn’t have been much more hostile from the locals if an actual secret agent had infiltrated. And, well, if some of the rumours were true, maybe one had.

Beskin grew up in the Caucasus mountains to a father who was an astrophysicist and widely read in spirituality. He attributes his upbringing with giving him the belief that anything in nature is possible. By the age of 12, he was going on long outings in the frigid cold. By 18, to avoid conscription into the Chechnyan war, he immigrated to Israel. The only time I have witnessed anger in Beskin was when he is reminded of the situation in Russia at that time, with the lack of value for human life. In his new homeland he was required to join the national service and was selected for the special forces. For three years he was in one of the most elite military branches in the world. After his time being conscripted, he remembers the relative joy of skiing around with a gun on his shoulders in the mountains of Israel as a member of the reserve unit called The Alpinists.

Beskin on Nemesis WI6 on the Stanley Headwall photo: Tim Banfield

He then worked as a contractor for Israeli embassies around the world. His favourite posting was in Norway, where he fell in with a strong group of climbers. He recalls climbing 17 kilometres of ice a year on average. And it is vertical ice: fjords famous for 700-metre plumb routes. As he says of the Rockies, in comparison, “You know, in the Rockies, people say Polar Circus is 700 metres. But half of it is walking. Every climb in the Rockies has walking in it.” This type of global perspective—and irreverence—is one of the reasons for the cold shoulder that’s given to him in the areas where he now climbs. But this ice heaven was not to last, as Beskin was given three days to leave the country due to a “higher-level diplomatic misunderstanding.” Who typically gets thrown out of countries in disagreements like these, after being stationed at embassies? This, as Beskin himself notes, “is probably where the story that I am a spy started.”

When we see someone climbing in a way that we can’t personally comprehend we look for an explanation. And what better explanation for the supernatural ability to ignore risk than that he is a trained spy? From the movies we want to believe in training that makes certain people able to respond with lightning reflexes and intuition to surreal situations that would kill a normal human. Is it his military background that drives Beskin to seek out, and complete, the most daring of climbs? After all, the second ascent of the pure-ice first pillar of the Real Big Drip was in fact climbed shortly after Beskin, by another ex-military special forces soldier. But the second party was quick to point out, “What Beskin climbed in one pitch with five screws we climbed in two with 12.” There is something else that differentiates Beskin from other climbers.

The question of how someone climbs the most unstable of ice features, or solos them even, is perhaps best summed up in a response Beskin himself provided once on Instagram: “By kilometres and kilometres of experience. And mind control.”

When I asked him why he doesn’t place screws on “easy” pitches, he says quite matter-of-factly, he just knows he is solid on the ice. He, like most soloists, says he doesn’t climb anything he doesn’t know he can climb. This is a similar belief, a type of spirituality even, expressed by the likes of legends like Messner: that the truly accomplished climber, at the peak of their art, can sense the energy of the mountain. Where does this spirituality come from? In contrast to his military years, Beskin now lives a very simple life, happy to live in his own space in his van, even when offered a warm place inside during the winter. A vegan, he talks openly about his love for animals, including his very large three-legged German Shepherd, Vook, who is older now and doesn’t accompany him to the base of routes as he used to. During a break from the military in Israel he studied ecology at university and spent the summer of 2021 at the Fairy Creek old growth logging protests. When asked why he quit the military he simply states, “It is not the kind of thing you want to do for the rest of your life.” Following his strong sense of ethics, he dropped an international sponsor in favour of a small Montreal company that emphasizes local production. An ice warrior on his chosen path, he has a near monastic bent.

Having twice been exiled from his home of choice, I believe Beskin is imbued with a need to make the most of every moment. Every day out he makes a full outing, capturing the potential of the moment. On road trips to the Rockies, whether from Ontario or his new home on Vancouver Island, he achieves an impressive list of bold ascents and difficult pitches. Ice is his passion. He will dry-tool to reach aesthetically pleasing ice features but has little interest in drytooling for its own sake. Training, Beskin will drytool indoors two or three times a week, drytool outside at one of the crags he has established or the no-longer-used tunnel he has converted into an outdoor gym. But when it comes to free time, he seeks large and long ice routes. He isn’t particularly drawn to the skinny pillars that first got him noticed, saying he wants to climb any ice that appeals to him for its beauty.

Make no mistake, Beskin also has every detail organized to perfect ice climbing: every biner he uses is as light as possible, and his picks are pro model shapes that he has refined over years of study. He even convinced a manufacturer to make picks to his precise requirements, and now has pro model picks named after him. Beskin’s skill and approach to ice climbing is also wholly different to what we expect from a pro climber. We are all employing some variation of a standard ice climbing technique of swinging and kicking, modified by less pressure on the tools in recognition of the fragility of the ice. Beskin, on the other hand, “adapts himself to the ice, rather than changing the ice to make it fit me.” With a slow and thoughtful approach, Beskin moves like a leopard up the climbs, locking off often in highly asymmetrical positions to layback his next tool placement. The square, face-on A-frame taught to beginners is a long way from his shape on these highly technical pitches. He flicks his tools with the lightest of touches, barely sinking the tip. And in the most extreme cases he foregoes the security of sinking his tools at all, and scratches instead. Some say that “ice climbing isn’t hard,” as physically it is never harder than 5.10 rock climbing. That is a different matter entirely than committing to pillars you can’t swing at or kick for fear of them falling off when you are 30 metres up from the belay ledge.

The level of skill Beskin has perfected was most recently on display in what I would regard as the icefall ascent of 2020: Katana, a five-pitch route featuring two WI6R pillars and the crux WI6+X pillar on the second to last pitch. Beskin climbed it with Dylan Cunningham (no shrinking violet himself, best known for solo skiing the second descent of the North Face of Mount Robson) and Sebastian Taborszky (a local ice specialist guide). As Taborszky recalls, “The crux pitch was touching but it was just a maze of skinny icicles at the bottom, fin shaped, man wide… I clearly remember ripping about 15 per cent of the pillar base just by hooking the sides on the first moves… Half-way up there was this clean, unhealed two-inch crack across the whole thing. I don’t understand how the pillar was still standing there… I learned a bunch watching Beskin climb that.”

Beskin solos Kitty Hawk WI5
photo: Tim Banfield

The crux pillar stood spectacularly out from the vertical wall with windows of air clearly visible through it. There have perhaps been some ice climbs in Europe of similar nature, given WI7, but Katana’s pillars seem skinnier, more unstable looking, and sustained.

So, with such skill and achievements, why have we not been fully embracing this bold and impressive climbing? In 2018, when Beskin posted that he had not climbed on the third pitch pillar of the Real Big Drip and had thus missed his chance to climb it as a pure ice line, most people responded that it was a great decision. Pictures had appeared of the third pitch with wild, wing-like spears pointing out from the climb where the pillar had obviously snapped off and reformed as an overhanging saber. Many of us were glad when Beskin decided not to climb onto it. But a few noted that, given the upper pillar was still standing, he had somehow “chickened out.” The Rockies criticism of Beskin is one of two types: either that we have already climbed these types of incredibly fragile pillars and that it is too dangerous to continue doing so, or that we do this type of thing but didn’t post it to social media as it is encouraging others to risk too much. Perhaps a truer reason is, as one strong local put it, “It is hard to be the best at what you do for a long time and then someone shows up who is so obviously better at it.”

This wasn’t the first time Beskin had received critical comments. In January 2017 Beskin made the first repeat of the hard Ontario gear-mixed test-piece Metamorphosis M10, at Diamond Lake. This steep crack was etched into the Canadian climbing community’s psyche after being featured on the cover of the Canadian Alpine Journal. On the first ascent there had been wood wedges in the crack, initially installed to do the ascent as an aid climb. In this first repeat, Beskin’s partner chose to remove these wedges to better protect the climb with cams, and for what he felt was a better climb. Later, when Beskin claimed M13 at Elora for a linkup of previous drytooling routes, Metamorphosis’ first ascensionist was open in downgrading the climb. Perhaps that Beskin called the route Dreaming of the West didn’t endear him to the locals from Ontario.

Beskin on Metamorphosis

In 2019, Beskin soloed two of the more audacious freestanding ice pillars in the Rockies, Fearful Symmetry and Rainbow Serpent, next to each other in the Recital Hall in the Ghost Valley. Years earlier Guy Lacelle had famously been captured doing the same thing by photographer Andrew Querner. Lacelle was widely regarded in the world ice community as having an unequalled mastery of the medium of ice. He was on the cover of the MEC catalogue climbing a very skinny pillar, Le Grand Delire, in Quebec and was widely regarded in his travels as the best ice soloist of all time. Interestingly he was also a bit of an outsider to the scene but was welcomed in as an exceptional climber. So, given that Beskin’s climbing is of equal stature, what explains the lack of welcoming that has met him?

Is it his different technique? Is it that he originates from elsewhere? That he takes on overly risky climbs while sending the Rockies hardest routes? Or is it his overall irreverence to the way we have been doing things here? Or perhaps we are just jealous? I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is that new and different things often make our world better. So love him or hate him, or somewhere in between, do keep an eye out for Stas Beskin. Watch him, learn from him, go climbing with him if you can. He is a legend in the making.

In his most recent act, Beskin is moving to Quebec where he plans to open a guiding business, Wild Ice. Having climbed in most of the well-known ice centres of the world, he is a firm believer that Quebec ice is the best in the world. There is nobody better to show people the next best way to climb ice. – Ian Welsted is an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides alpine guide based in Canada’s West.

This story originally appeared in the October/November 2022 issue of Gripped: The Climbing Magazine