There’s a reason that mountains make for good metaphors.
Fred Ptucha knows this. It’s why the Vietnam veteran decided to launch the organization Climbers for Peace, a project that brings individuals of different backgrounds, beliefs, and nationalities together to reach summits and, just maybe, levels of understanding that cross cultural chasms.
Ptucha, a US Navy Veteran, has dedicated his post-war life to peace activism. He’s headed organizations like Veterans for Peace and participated in the Moscow International Peace Marathon in 1989, after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In 1997, Ptucha was brainstorming ways to help advance the cause of world peace over a few beers with fellow activists and adventure lovers in Northern California. He wanted to do something attention grabbing, something that would let people have a good time, and something that would have an impact. Mountain climbing came to mind.
The symbolism is ripe, sure. A group of diverse people, scaling physical peaks, while also trying to overcome their differences. But Ptucha had a much simpler explanation for why mountains became his vehicle of choice for driving positive change.
“You might say, ‘Well why didn’t you do beach volleyball or something?’” Ptucha says. “The answer is: There’s something kind of magical that happens when you add a certain element of risk. With a mountain, there’s always the risk of the fall, so if you’ve been through some tough times together, and pulled through, it creates a bond much quicker than if you just got a bunch of people sitting in a room and talking.”
Ptucha chose the highest mountain in Europe for the group’s first climb. Mt. Elbrus — located in the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia — holds that title, but considering diplomatic relations with Russia weren’t exactly friendly during the late ’90s, Ptucha needed help organizing the expedition. He decided to send an email to sitting president, Bill Clinton.
“We really were flying by the seat of our pants,” Ptucha says.
With the help of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and former Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin — both of whom were contacted by the White House — and The Ukrainian Federation of Alpinism, Ptucha was able to lead 12 Ukrainians and a handful of Americans to the top of Mt. Elbrus.
The climb was supposed to be a one-off, but when the three-week trip came to an end and Ptucha and his fellow climbers said their goodbyes through tears on a sidewalk in Ukraine, they decided to organize another excursion. And another, and another.
The two groups climbed Mount Olympus in Greece, trekked the Tartar Mountains in Slovakia, spent two weeks hiking the Swiss and Austrian Alps, and conquered Mt. Shasta in California. Each expedition brought new people into the fold. Ptucha says he’s climbed with adventurers from Sweden, Spain, Austria, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the U.K., the Middle East, and America over the years.
Different cultures can present different challenges — language is always a barrier and can provide funny moments during a climb, like when you accidentally insult the person you’re entrusting your safety to.
“You know the expression ‘thumbs up?’ Well in much of the Arabic world, that means raising your middle finger,” Ptucha explains. “So you’re thinking ‘Hey, thumbs up,’ on the mountain and they’re going ‘Why did you tell me to fuck off?’”
And, spoiler, mountaineering is hard work.
“None of these are a walk in the park,” Ptucha says. “You have to have a sense of adventure. You have to know going in that there are gonna be some bumps in the road. That you’ll summit some unexpected obstacles.”
They might not be undertaking death-defying heights, but sliding 3,000 feet down a glacier on the side of Mt. Shasta or traversing the side of a cliff in Slovakia, with a roaring river below and only steel platforms and a cable to keep you secure, can get dicey.
“That is the idea,” Ptucha says. “That people of different backgrounds, different cultures, different languages can still unite around a common goal.”
The group is comprised of all kinds of thrill seekers from various backgrounds — gay, straight, Christians, Atheists, men, women. The youngest climber is 14-years-old, the oldest nearly 84. The assortment of members leads to interesting, sometimes difficult conversations. Ptucha says he’s heard plenty of talk around politics while scaling peaks.
“Most wouldn’t bring it up right away,” Ptucha says when discussing controversial leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump. “They try to differentiate between the American people and our government, but it’s disheartening, in talking with people from all over the world, to see how arrogant we can be. We think we have all of the answers to the world’s problems. We don’t.”
Artem Brahinets was just 12 years old when he started climbing with the group. Originally from Ukraine, Brahinets was encouraged to join the organization by his aunt, an avid climber, who thought the experience would be a great excuse to practice his English and to learn about other cultures. He’s done four climbs with the group so far in places like Greece, Russia, and the United States.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, who you like, or what you believe in. Even if you don’t speak the same language it is not that big of a deal,” Brahinets says. “We’re just focused on promoting peace and bringing people together.”
The group had planned an expedition to Iran this fall, but due to delays in the visa process and growing tensions with the U.S., they’ve delayed the trip to next year. It was a tough call for Ptucha, especially after hearing from friends in the country.
“A lot of us thought we would have to just cancel our project,” Ptucha says. “We talked to our Iranian friends and they said ‘Even when Bush was president, and called us part of the axis of evil we still had Americans coming.’ And they said ‘Most Iranians really love Americans. We really differentiate between the government and the American people, so things like Climbers for Peace are even more important now.’”
Overall, the climbs have afforded Ptucha, his fellow mountaineers, and the people paying attention to the treks a sense of community with the world. Languages and cultures may be different and diplomatic relations tense between countries, but for the men and women scaling these peaks, those things are just distractions, insignificant in the grander scheme.
“We’re all essentially the same,” Ptucha says. “We all want a better life for our children. We all want to live in peace. We all share a healthy skepticism about many of our country’s leaders. The common thread is that we all hope, in addition to seeing some beautiful new country, to come away with lasting friendships.”