Russia’s Mt Elbrus is Europe’s highest peak at 18,510 feet. It is one of the illustrious seven summits, comprised of the seven highest mountains in each of the seven continents. A limited number of climbers have done all of them. Summits of Hope has been tackling them one by one to raise funds and awareness, and bring hope to kids who are facing life threatening illnesses.
Our journey began on Monday June 21 with a tour of BC Children’s Hospital. Here, we met some of the kids who would benefit from the money we were raising. The kids all signed a giant flag that we were taking with us to the summit along with smaller flags signed by our respective donors.
After meeting some inspiring individuals with their own mountains to climb, our team needed to get ready for the next day’s departure. Our new associate climbers would be following our progress on summitsofhope.com.
We left our homes at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday June 22nd. Travel to Elbrus involved a bus from Vancouver to Seattle, a flight from Seattle to Moscow, followed by another bus ride to our hotel. We were finally able to lie down again late Wednesday June 23rd. The next morning we were up early to catch a bus to Moscow’s domestic airport. Our plane took us to Mineralnyye Vody, a small town between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, just north of the Caucasus Mountain Range. After a two-hour flight, we were met at the airport by our guide, Yuri. Our baggage was driven into a concrete building on the back of a flatbed truck for us to collect. A four-hour bus ride ensued, and by late afternoon, we had arrived at our hotel in Cheget, near the base of Elbrus, which is North of Georgia, West of Chechenia, in the heart of the Caucasus.
For the next three nights, we would stay at the hotel in Cheget, which is at about 6,000 ft. The scenery in the valley was lush, green, and enjoyed by cows that would wander and lie down on the roads as they saw fit. Busses and cars would barely slow down as they swerved around the cows who became as normal an obstacle as a pylon or pothole. Small villages at the base of the mountains offered food and drinks, and local women sold woolen hats, sweaters, scarves, and other souvenirs from their collection of stalls. I think everyone on our team has at least one new hat now.
In order to prepare for the 18,510 ft peak that lay ahead, we had to gradually acclimatize by traveling up and down the mountains, so that our bodies could adjust to the thinner air. The theory is to “climb high, sleep low”. Day one saw us reach 10,800 feet on Donguz-Orunbashi near Cheget. What should have provided a clear view of Elbrus showed us only that the mountain was engulfed by clouds, and not very hospitable. Would she give us a window to make it to the top? On day two, we took a bus to Azau at the base of Elbrus, which was just 10 minutes from our hotel. There, we went up to the Diesel Hut at 13,000 feet, and descended again. Although not a brilliant day, visibility was reasonable and we were spared any major precipitation. With weather and altitude reactions being unpredictable, we took photos of ourselves and our flags to send back to our donors. We also made daily reports on the Infosat phone to be updated on the website back home.
Base camp at the Barrels
Day three, it was time to relocate. Elbrus is a ski resort. You can get up to 11,800 feet via two gondolas and a chair lift. Here, there is an established “base camp” that uses old oil drums or “barrels” for sleeping quarters. After a hearty lunch, we set off to further acclimatize by hiking to Pastuhov Rocks at 15,000 feet. This was the highest that some of us had ever been. Everyone was feeling great so far. We descended back to the barrels for dinner and to get a good night’s sleep.
Rest Day and Summit Plans
Day four was a rest day. We were to hike back up to the Diesel hut at 13,000 ft and practice our self-arrest skills. The weather had turned and we trudged up in snowy, windy, near whiteout conditions. I had woken up feeling a very runny nose and a bit of a sore throat. Uh-oh… The following day was scheduled to be our first summit attempt. At this point, it was hard to predict what the weather was going to do and how to best manage our time. Mountains tend to create their own weather. Local and mountain forecasts help some, but in the end, it is often a gamble. The plan was to wake up early and get to Pastuhov Rocks. If it looked good, we would continue, if not, we would retreat, rest, and try again the next day, hoping that the weather would improve and that our bodies would recuperate. Weather is the most challenging factor on this mountain. It decides whether you get a shot at the summit or not.
Departure for the Summit
On June 29th, we woke up at 1:30 a.m., had breakfast at 2:00, and set off just after 3:00 a.m. to see what the weather would do. With only our headlamps to guide us, we trudged up towards the diesel hut, then to Pastuhov Rocks. The mountain gods must have been smiling on us. As the sun rose, a clear sky was revealed and the winds remained calm. Our team continued to make steady progress past 16,000 feet with the glorious view of the Caucasus behind us. Up until this point, although I have experienced altitude issues on other lower climbs, I had been feeling no affects of altitude whatsoever. This was about to change.
Climbing at Altitude
Altitude is a funny thing. It’s all about acclimatization, and even then, a bit of luck comes into play. Once we hit 16,000 feet, I found that if I concentrated and kept a steady pace, I was OK. If I slowed down or stopped, I began to feel queasy. We continued like this to the saddle between the East and West Summits at 17,000 ft. There were nine Summits of Hope climbers, three guides, and one newcomer who we had adopted from another group. Miraculously, after 5,200 feet of climbing, we were still all together.
Onward from the Saddle
We took a short break on the East side of the Saddle. From here, we had to traverse the saddle and ascend the West summit. This was the most exposed section of the climb. I never thought I’d be thankful for previous bad reactions to altitude. It is never fun to be in such a spectacular place in the sunshine above the clouds, only to feel like you are going to heave, but it was exactly these previous bad experiences that enabled me to get through it yet again. I had never actually heaved on a climb before, but at 18,000 ft, I painted the snow with the chocolate power gel that I had eaten a half hour earlier. I’m pretty sure it was the raunchy old cigarette butts on the ground right by my nose where I lay down that pulled the trigger. They were everywhere at this one spot. Who the heck smokes at 18,000 feet?!?! With only 510 feet of elevation left to gain over much easier terrain, we all pressed on.
Approaching the Summit
Alec, one of our guides, had heroically stayed with our packs at the saddle. This enabled us to continue with a pole, an ice axe, water, and of course, our flags. Amazingly, the twelve of us were all within sight of one another after over 6,000 feet of elevation gain over many miles. The summit itself is a final bump on the massive hill that we had just climbed. As it became clear that we were all going to make it, it is overwhelming the emotions that you go through. I get weepy at the best of times on local peaks. I remember embracing the others on the summit as the floodgates opened and there was no holding back the intensity of what we had just experienced. All twelve of us were there. It was windy, and our flags ferociously fluttered their messages to the heavens above. Photos were hastily snapped, and it was time to quickly descend.
The weather was starting to turn again, and it was important to get everyone down safely. The descent to the saddle was uneventful, but adding snow, wind, and diminishing visibility to my altitude abused condition, didn’t make for a particularly pleasant time. A blizzard was coming in.
Back at the saddle at 17,000 I still felt like crap and really needed a hug. Don’t think anyone else was feeling much better. Yuri offered me a tablet (some Russian product called Valedol which is readily and inexpensively available at drug stores) that is supposed to help. I still don’t know what is in the stuff (I later bought some, but the label is in Russian). Combined with the progressive loss in elevation, it sure did the trick! By the time we were down to 16,000 feet I felt good as new and was ready to go again. That was very encouraging. We slept at the Barrels that night, and descended the next morning.
After the Climb
There was the obligatory post-climb celebration evening back in Cheget. I’m really looking forward to big climbs in Mexico. Tequila shooters I can do. Vodka shots…not so much. Probably a good thing though - I felt great the next day. What you can’t drink; can’t hurt you. We bonded with a group of German climbers who had summited the same day as us. The rest of the stay in Russia was spent traveling and sightseeing in Moscow and St. Petersburg, a completely different culture from the mountains – very cosmopolitan.
Summits of Hope was a very different climb for me. I’m used to exploring a mountain with a small group of friends or even strangers that I’ve met through Summit Post (soon to become friends). Our responsibilities are to ourselves in making sure that we are adequately equipped to be self-sufficient with respect to food, water, shelter, warmth, safety gear and procedures, as well as route finding and all decision making. With Summits of Hope, the organization must take responsibility for all of that, and it is the responsibility of the climbers to raise funds and awareness for BC Children’s Hospital through the climb. Summits of Hope did a fantastic job of seeing to it that we were extremely well fed, sheltered, and otherwise taken care of. It was a very well organized excursion. I often felt a bit at a loss on the mountain without the usual survival requirements to tend to. I have always been a very social adventurer, and cherish the connections made with fellow climbers. The climbing partners that I usually wind up with seem to bond over comfort management, and thrive on interesting and unique challenges. The individuals in the Summits of Hope group were all wonderful people, but I really felt like the odd man out when it came to what our respective passions were. As someone who is used to being the physically least powerful in a group I have developed ways to both keep up with and contribute to a physically and technically stronger group. These ways not only did not fit this situation, but also left me at a loss as to where and how I could fit in. It was a delicate balancing act not to diminish the accomplishments of this climb, while at the same time deal with my feelings of how much more the climb could have been. The more I stayed upbeat and positive and tried to contribute, the less I seemed to connect with the others. It was the first time I had encountered a situation like this, and it was a very emotionally difficult journey for me. Rather ironic that what was physically one of the easiest climbs I have done, was so tough emotionally. Just goes to show how important relationships with people are.
Final Thank You’s
At the end of the day, I believe everyone developed a mutual respect for one another. There was a post climb reception back home for the team, family and friends, and it was great to see everyone again. The group did a fantastic job with its fundraising. I was completely overwhelmed by the support from everyone back home who made donations to my campaign. Summit Post played a huge part in both fundraising and moral support for my climb. You have no idea how huge it was for me the couple of times in Cheget that I was able to log on to the site and see the support back home. Some days, it really kept me going. I felt like everyone on the site was with me in spirit. With your help, I raised over $4,000 for BC Children’s Hospital. I am so appreciative of every single message, post and donation from everyone at Summit Post. Thank you to everyone for making this climb possible.