As with any of these trips, one of the best parts is being back home in my own bed and able to see those I love. Not to mention, getting out of the same pair of pants I’ve worn for a week or two.
Let’s see, where did the trip begin? Clearly, climbing Mt. Elbrus has been on the radar since the inception of this journey. However, it came into view for this summer a bit more clearly earlier this spring. After taking 6-9 months to shake off my experience on Everest last year, I finally cleared my head and re-focused on what I’ve been trying to accomplish for nearly six years now.
For me, Mt Elbrus was a composition of a few objectives. I wanted to try out the Hypoxico tent to see how my body would react to not only the tent, but going to a high altitude in a relatively short period of time. No matter how you cut it, 18,510 (5642m) is a pretty high point to reach in 5-6 days. On Kilimanjaro, you go about 800ft higher in a similar amount of time. Almost everyone feels shitty at some point though. People try all sorts of things, from Diamox to lengthening the trip to simply not even going up. Elbrus is similar in that you go relatively high pretty quick. You can see it on the faces of everyone you see on summit day.
With Elbrus, I wanted to more or less go the “budget” route and got connected with a local tour operator – Top Travel – with whom I’d had no first hand experience. The advantage of going with a local operator directly is that you save a ton of $$. All of the western tour/guide companies ultimately use a local operator to arrange logistics anyway. The only major difference is that a western company sends a US-based guide along with you. After having climbed the mountain the way I did, I’m not sure if it’s worth the extra $3-4k just to have one more person walk with you up the hill. Having more people that speak English would be nice, but I suppose it all depends on what kind of experience you want.
All things considered, getting my visa for Russia was extremely straightforward. Aside from the fact that you have to divulge every country you’ve visited (and when) for the last five years, plus where you’ve lived, worked and all sorts of other information. It felt like a more exhaustive background check than when I got my last job. I’m sure it’s more of a tit-for-tat response to how the US treats Russian citizens whom want to visit the states. It’s a pain in the ass, but that was the most difficult part to getting the visa. The rest was just giving them $250 and waiting a week or so.
As the summer went on, and as the situation in Ukraine escalated, I was starting to get rather concerned about what life in Russia would be like. Especially considering I would be traveling to a historically unstable portion of Russia, I was a tad nervous. For context, Chechen rebels had blown up one of the ski lifts on Elbrus almost 3yrs ago when Putin was scheduled to visit the area. Allegedly they did it at night, which meant that no one was hurt, but suffice it to say the Russians shut down access to the mountain during that time. Shortly thereafter, when access was re-opened, the area was rife with political unrest and corruption.
Fortunately, my trip to Russia couldn’t have been more seamless though. From when I first landed in Moscow, until I departed, it was snag free. The only “issue” was when I was clearly told in Paris that I’d have to pick up one of my bags in Moscow to re-check it. I hung around baggage claim for 20 min… no bag. Went over to the lost & found counter, and waited another 10 minutes while they fumbled around with six different computers trying to check on my bag. I got to fill out a few forms in triplicate, only to be told “Oh, your bag is checked to Mineralnye Vody. No get bags here.” After sweating it out (literally) in customs & security line to get back through in time to make my connection, I was on my way to Min Vody. When we landed, about midnight, everyone started applauding. Passengers on the flight from Paris to Moscow also did the same thing upon landing earlier as well. I’m not sure if they are just so blown away that we didn’t crash that they felt the need to clap, or if it was just their show of solidarity for the pilots whom now don’t get paid in wheel barrows full of worthless money. It’s hard to say for sure, but entertaining none the less.
From Min Vody it was a 3.5hr ride on a two lane road where people regularly drive 3-wide, including 18-wheelers. So, that was fun. We didn’t get in a head on collision, so that was a bonus when we go to the ski village of Azau. At the top of the Baksan Valley, Azau was little more than a couple ski “hotels” and a few shacks selling souvenirs. From our hotel, we were about 200 feet from where the cable cars leave to take you further up the mountain. The cable car we took up on the way had to have been built in the 50s or 60s and was still in service. At one point when crossing a tower, I was convinced that I’d be taken out by a shitty cable car, not the Russian military, Chechen rebels or an objective hazard on the mountain itself. That makes you feel alive! (well, after you get off the damn thing and kiss the ground near top).
From the top of the rickety cable cars, we took snowmobiles (aka rat trax) to our modest accommodations for the next few days. Fortunately, we were staying a bit higher on the mountains in newer “huts” which were old shipping containers converted into places to sleep & eat. Think of a really crappy trailer home, dropped on a mountain and the bathroom is a few minutes away with just a hole in the ground with years of prior climbers “leftovers” dumped on the side of the mountain below. I say that this is fortunate because just below are these old diesel barrels that were converted years ago into living accommodations on the mountain. They probably haven’t had the beds washed since they were put in 20-30yrs ago. The bathroom situation at the barrels is the same as it was 20-30yrs ago as well which basically means it’s a slaughter-house of an awful situation. Luckily for us, our camp won’t be that bad for a few years. Even further up the mountain were these brand new “barrels” which were a set of new facilities designed & built by the Italians and installed on the mountain this year. Apparently they are quite expensive, but they sure were nice.
Once in the huts, we went on an acclimatization hike up to the where the rescue guides hang out. I think this hike was more for Soltan, my local Balkarian guide, to get away from Victor and have a smoke. Of course, he wasn’t supposed to smoke around me, but clearly the give a shit factor was low with Soltan. Quickly, Soltan busted into the “Cognac” stash and started pouring drinks. According to him, Cognac was “good for acclimatization.” Who was I to question this local Elbrus mountain god? He’d been to the top nearly 200 times at this point, after almost 20yrs of guiding on the mountain. It was at this point that I began my extensive training in the differences between the Balkarian people & Russians. It was quickly apparent that they had little regard for Russians and sincerely appreciated ANY effort made towards understanding them and their language. Naturally, I fit right in given that I was willing to embrace his acclimatization methods and learn a few words of Balkarian.
After a few days of hanging out on the mountain, we then needed to take a “rest day.” Which, as it turns out, was an excuse for Soltan to go hang with his other guide homies on different parts of the mountain. I didn’t see him the whole day. Anneta, our cook, spoke NO English and my Russian was about on par with that, so I then retreated to my hut and read the bulk of the day. I came out of hiding long enough to eat, and go back to it. I got through three books and re-arranged my gear about a hundred times. Later that night, Soltan emerged in the hut with a healthy buzz going, and informed me in heavily slurred English that the next day would be VERY BAD WEATHER and disappeared. Presumably back down the mountain or maybe to his hut. It was hard to tell for sure. The next day, Soltan made his first appearance about 11am and looked a little rough for the wear. He was functional long enough to go to the bathroom and then disappear the bulk of the day again.
I started to work out that Soltan got paid for number of days on the mountain which was starting to make the weather look “VERY BAD” for a prolonged period. I got used to hearing “we’ll see” in regards to questions about weather or when we’d move up or down. I’m sure he’d actually have been much happier if I had said that I canceled my flight and had a month to hang out. In fact, I know this to be true as while we were drinking cognac at 4000meters with his rescue guide buddies, he told me that I should quit my job, move to the area and dedicate myself to learning Balkarian full time. After a few drinks, I briefly pondered the idea.
Finally, on Thursday, we got our shot to go for the summit. Unlike many other mountains where a summit day begins at midnight or earlier, we didn’t “have” to be up until 3:30am. I was already all packed and ready to rock. At 4:00am, we took a snowcat to about 5000meters (16,400ft) which is the high point we’d already climbed two days earlier on one of our acclimatization hikes. This is awesome as it saves time and drops you off where you’d already been. Since it had snowed quite a bit in the last day or two, and it was pitch black, we go the luxury of breaking trail by post-holing through knee-deep snow.
The going was pretty good, actually. I felt great and at this point I was grateful for my time in the Hypoxico. I felt strong and was powering my way up the hill with Soltan leading the charge. We were passing groups that had started before us with looks of frustration & curiosity when we just made our way around. However, the further we went, the more the wind started to pick up and whip us in the face with loose snow & ice. By the time we had gotten to the saddle, which is in the middle of the two cones of the volcano that is Elbrus, the wind was blowing hard in our faces making the climb slightly less enjoyable. We took our first break at this point, which gave me time to have a bit of water and put on a little bit of sunscreen as the sun was now out at this point, even though you couldn’t see it through the clouds which had set in long ago. After a few super awesome minutes in the pounding cold wind, we were off. At this point there was one last group in front of us whom started up the final 1,000 feet towards the summit.
We had light, but the clouds were so thick that you could see about 75 feet in any given direction which made the upward mobility a little interesting. After a half hour or so, and about 18,000ft, it was clear that we’d all lost our way. At this point, Soltan and I were in the front of the pack, post-holing and breaking trail without being able to see where the hell we needed to go. Even the rescue guides whom were supposed to be setting the route that day were behind us and had no real idea where the hell we were going. No fear, Soltan came to the conclusion that the route was much further to the right. With the one group of people on the mountain near us fading quickly into the clouds, we took off. It was at this point, for the first time on the trip, that I actually got a bit concerned. It wouldn’t take long until we’d lose what evidence of a route we did have and it wasn’t clear that the actual route was anywhere in sight.
Fortunately for us, the route appeared by means of fixed rope that has been strung along the rocks where it’s relatively steep, and there’s a reasonable chance for a long fall. Again, Soltan had no fear and was confident in our abilities to pursue without clipping into the rope. In hindsight, it would have taken 30 extra seconds to clip in the rope and would have provide a safety buffer in the event of a misstep. But, hey, we’re in Russia – who needs a stupid safety rope?? Not us. Shortly thereafter, the route flattened out a bit and it was a matter of pushing through the increasing wind & ice being smacked in the face until we finally reached the summit of Mt. Elbrus at 5642m/18510ft aka the highest point in Europe!!! After a quick photo, we were off like a frog in a sock.
Of course like the old story of having to go uphill in the snow, both ways, to school seemed true for the wind on our climb. The wind felt like it turned and was again in our faces. How the hell was that possible? I had no idea, but was not stoked. Given that we were still above 18,000ft, getting a full breath of air was slightly challenging. Therefore, having the buff on my face proved to be a pain in the ass. When I’d wear it, it’d keep my cheeks a bit warmer but also made breathing a challenge as it was like wrapping a blanket over my mouth and being asked to do sprints. The other downside to the buff in this situation was that it’d cause my goggles to fog up. On a sunny & clear day, that wouldn’t be as big of a problem, but given that we had horrible visibility, it meant that I couldn’t really see anything beyond 5 or so feet in front of me. I had to make a decision whether I wanted to see well and risk frostbite on my nose & cheeks or have a warm face and not see. Easy choice! I wanted to see and have a warm face. Solution? Change to sunglasses as it was bright enough out. That worked for about 2 minutes and my glasses were back in the same boat as my goggles – fogged. Awesome. I couldn’t see, we’re still above 17,500ft and it’s colder than a well digger’s ass. No choice but to push through and try to stay close enough to Soltan that it didn’t matter I couldn’t see. We were running/post-holing down to the saddle where it seemed we’d finally get a bit of reprieve from the cloud cover.
Once back at the saddle, at least the sun was coming out enough to instill a sense of motivation again. When we’d got to this part of the mountain, we were lucky enough to now have the wind at our backs, which meant I could drop the buff and just focus on actually seeing where the hell I was going. It was clear sailing back to our huts at this point. Just an hour or two of slogging it out and we were home free!
After a quick nap, it was time to pack our stuff and catch the lifts back down the hill before they stopped running for the day. Time to say good bye to the murder scene called a bathroom, and we were out. After another sketchy ride on ski lifts that have to be 40yrs or more old and ready to give out at any moment, we were back down in the ski village. A nice shower to wash the grime off, a quick shave and it was Beer:30 and BBQ time!
Luckily, I had about a day to check Moscow out before I headed home which was pretty cool. I got a whirlwind tour by Vladimir where we power walked past St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, the Kremlin and lastly the Church of Christ the Saviour for some speedy photo ops. Even though I had actually eaten really well on the whole trip, I was craving a burger and a beer. There was a Hard Rock Cafe about a mile’s walk from the hotel and I had nothing better to do. Sitting there enjoying my last meal in Russia, this dude next to me engaged in conversation not seeming to care that I didn’t understand single word he had to say. I said yes and smiled a lot. I think we toasted in Russian at least a dozen times which made him alright in my book. Au revoir Anatoly, it was time to GTFO…
It was a most excellent trip. Uneventful, and I got to meet some really nice folks who still want me to quit my job and become a linguist. Who knows… Maybe someday??
Thanks again for tuning in! Until next time.
For the rest of the pictures