Professor Georgi Atanasov ’45: Passion for Heights

June 15, 2013 by American College of Sofia

Text by Petia Ivanova ’97

My first encounter with Prоf. Georgi Atanasov ’45 takes place at the traditional alumni reception following the Christmas Concert in 2012. He is on his way out but stops and waits patiently by our desk until I finish chatting to a couple of much younger alumni. The professor is very friendly yet his impatience to be contacted and asked all about his mountaineering career shows, so I make a mental note to google him.

Later that same night I learn about the College alumnus of the Class of 1945 by the name of Georgi Atanasov, known among his friends as Geegee. It turns out he is one of the most prominent figures in the history of Bulgarian mountaineering with several achievements above 7,000 m. He and his fellows are responsible for building the foundations for future generations of mountain climbers in our country by among other things drawing routes on all difficult mountain faces in the country.
During his long mountaineering career he has climbed numerous peaks in the Alps, Pyrenees, Caucasus, the Tatra, Pamir and Atlas Mountains. Moreover, Prof. Atanasov has started up the department for mountaineering and tourism in the National Sports Academy, today known as Department for Tourism, Alpinism, Orienteering, and Skiing. He is also the author of several books his latest being Steep Summits (2008) and as I am about to learn a very interesting, yet down-to-earth person.

We meet again when he comes to visit his old high school in spring. He insists on taking care of the logistics of the visit himself and on the appointed day and hour shows up all smiles on the steps in front of Building 5 after somehow charming the female police guard at the gate into permitting his taxi all the way there. At first he seems shy and a little worried for not being as worthy as other pre-war alumni we have interviewed on the pages of the magazine so far. As we will soon learn, this is just the professor’s humbleness speaking though. One of the first things we learn is that Prof. Atanasov did not have a chance to actually graduate from the College. In 1942 when the school was closed, he transferred to the Fifth Male High School. For a long time he kept his College past a secret in order to be allowed to travel around the world and climb mountains on three continents.

Yet, according to him the communist government readily made allowances for sportsmen and other accomplished professionals in order to be able to pat themselves on the back for their achievements. But let us start from the beginning.

Prof. Atanasov, you spent three years at the College between 1939 and 1942. What are the memories you still keep from this time?
At the College I learned everything about order and cleanliness I know and still practice today.  There was actually someone in charge of checking how well we made our beds in the morning. Needless to say any crease was a reason to make us go back and correct it.
Photo: Prof. Atanasov at ACS, 2013

Even today, I can’t leave the room in the morning before I have made my bed properly. Some say it was generally very tough at the College, you know discipline-wise, but I didn’t think so. There was a list of community work type of tasks put up, so it was all out there and everyone knew the risks they were taking. Usually you had to put two hours of community work for minor misconducts. For instance, once I had to even out a running track. For bigger things like running off to the city on a weekend, you could get up to 15 hours of community work. For three years I only got caught once though, when escaping in order to meet with a female classmate downtown, of course.

I remember distinctly being proud to have been chosen to represent my class not without the support of my Jewish classmates, who being objects of some bullying by some members of the student body at the time saw a patron in me. Well, there was one Jewish girl I had an eye for but you don’t have to write that down (winking). Once a week the Dean would gather us class representatives to discuss issues we’ve had and he treated us with delicious cookies. I recall my parents receiving letters from the College on two occasions; one saying I was a brilliant student and one saying I beat up a younger student, or was I the one that got beat up, I don’t know anymore. I also recall us students waiting in front of the cafeteria for it to open and singing the song Mountain Day at top of our lungs. It must have been springtime as this one-day outdoor event on a hill near the College always took place in spring. We could hardly wait for Mountain Day and all the excitement connected to it. I also remember staying after classes for two hours that were meant to be used for preparation and doing homework but those were the most boring two hours of the day for me. As for teachers, aside from our Sports teacher Dimitar Grigorov, who later taught me in the National Sports Academy, as well, I only recall Ms. Monedjikova, our History teacher, very well at that, maybe because she was both beautiful and had a great personality. Until recently I used to meet up with former College classmates but unfortunately, we haven’t met lately, maybe because there are so few of us left now.

You mentioned escaping to meet a female classmate downtown. But you must have had other, less risky, means of communicating while at school?
Yes, of course. One of the two places where boys and girls could at least throw glances at each other was the cafeteria at mealtime. The student waiters were our messengers and helped us exchange notes. We respected them enormously for this favor they were doing for us. Sometimes we covered for them when they were sick. The other place where we met the girls was at choir practice. Needless to say, I was a member of the choir.

When did you know it was sports that would be your path in life?
Sports has always been in my blood but I owe much of my sports achievements later in life to the possibilities for sports practice I had at the American College. I became an athlete here, on these running tracks. I am not sure whether you know that the College had sports traditions equal to those of teams such as Levski.

Photo: Georgi Atanasov as a first year student in the 1940 Bor

The College sports teacher, Mr. Grigorov, later became the first Professor in the National Sports Academy. Sports competitions were being organized all the time between our College and other schools like the French one in Plovdiv for example. I was honored to be on our athlete team and on the basketball team. I had several victories from running competitions as a student at the College, later on also as a student at the Sports Academy, and during my stay in the army, as well. I even set a Bulgarian record on the 4 x 400 m relay team at the Balkan Games in Tirana (1946). We had opportunities to ski near the College, as well. We would do it either on the slope behind the pool – by the way, is the pool still there? – or up on Vitosha near Aleko on weekends. I knew I wanted to develop in the field of sports but for my father it took quite some time to accept that notion. Before the war, he was the President of the Board of Directors of Granitoid, the largest shareholding society in Bulgaria at the time governing water power stations, mining industries, cement production, etc, situated in the village of Batanovtsi near Pernik. After the changes they kept him as the Head Manager of Granitoid. My father had dreamt of me becoming an engineer and taking over his factory one day. That is why he had not really been supportive of my sports inclinations. However, after the changes on September 9, 1944, he came to me and said: “Listen, son, why don’t you go ahead and enroll in the Sports Academy”?

On our way to the pool, now rather overgrown, we meet a boy and a girl holding hands. The professor is startled at first but is quickly reminded of how things have changed in the past 71 years and in this matter, we agree, for the better.

And how does one get a degree in mountaineering?
Well, in my case, just like that. Once, I was already an avid mountaineer as a student at the Sports Academy, I took part in a climbing festival near Lakatnik, you know where that little house is hanging on the rock wall. The most acclaimed in the field such as the academy rector Prof. Mateev and Alexander Belkovski, the doyen of Bulgarian mountaineering, were there gathered along the river. Belkovski had studied somewhere in the Alps region, had experience as mountain guide, and had come to Bulgaria afterwards to offer the first course in mountaineering. An acquaintance of mine overheard the two discussing that this young talent Georgi Atanasov should be involved in starting up a department of mountaineering at the academy. Two weeks later, the rector called me up to offer me a spot as assistant professor which I immediately accepted. My dissertation was on fear within mountaineering and fighting it successfully. Within my academic career I was twice rejected on the basis of my father’s wealth by the Higher Attestation Committee responsible for overseeing awarding of advanced academic degree. Our rector called me up again and said to me frankly: “They will not let you become professor just like that, so why don’t do it the creative way and get a DSc in Pedagogy first; after that they won’t be able to interfere”. And this is exactly what I did.

How often are you up in the mountains nowadays?
I still hike and I do it mostly alone. I start from Knyazhevo and continue as long as I am able. Seven years ago I climbed up Olympus and I was the oldest one to to have done it at that point. I was reluctant at first but my fellows were prepping me saying it’s not as high as Musala after all and I’ve been on Musala many times. Well, the difference is that there’s a perfect track leading up Musala while the ‘way’ up Olympus consists of inclined stone plates and cemented wedges for the ropes. It was a rainy day so I saw nothing at the top. It was as if Zeus deliberately hid his Hera from me. On the way down my students had me tied at the end of a rope much like a pet dog. It was so funny I would have laughed if I didn’t fear for my life every time I peaked in the abyss surrounding us. This year I climbed Mount Etna. People find my lifestyle odd for my age. On my latest regular visit to the doctor when I mentioned I was just returning from skiing in Chepelare, she immediately decided I, at 87, must be hallucinating and prescribed ‘no women and no skiing’ for me. But you see, after having been married four times, my current life partner and I are not married and we’ve been happy together 35 years now, maybe exactly because of that.

Have you had any injuries in your rich climbing career?
Yes, as a matter of fact, I have a broken thigh bone. Ironically, it happened while I was crossing Tzar Osvoboditel Blvd. at the wrong spot. The lady behind the wheel tried to stop but it was raining and the wet street prevented her from doing so on time. I ended up defending her from the onlookers who were trying to blame her for the accident.

Do you have any other projects on your mind you would like to tell us about?
Somebody gave me a book by another mountaineer recently, called Peaks and Lowlands 3, the author of which says his sole reason for climbing was enjoying nature’s beauty and the shared experience with friends.
Photo: Mountain Day, 1939

And I got to thinking and felt a pang of shame for my own pursuit of fame and degrees. Ever since, I have been contemplating on writing another book, this time one about all my fellow climbers and our wonderful shared adventures; I have 120 of them, you know, and it is only fair to acknowledge them as I would be nothing if it wasn’t for them. I basically owe everything to them. And since I have come to the acknowledgements part of this I am so, so thankful to the College where it all began for better or worse.

The interview was conducted in April, 2013 by Natalia Manolova, Zornitsa Haidutova, and Petia Ivanova ’97.

%d bloggers like this: