with: Laurie, Jeff, Rich, Susan, Susan, Craig, Sherry, Kurt, Steve, Mike, Mike, Kelly, Rhonda, Bill, Harry, Keith and Greg.
I was fortunate enough to be part of a CMC outing to Russia's Mt. Elbrus, the highest point in Europe, one of The Seven Continental Summits.
To make a l-o-n-g, culturally-interesting story short, 14 out of the 18 of us summitted this fine peak under beautiful cloudless skies on Friday, 11 July 2003. This was my first trip to an altitude above the Colorado 14ers.
Basic Mountain Itinerary
After a Sunday night in Moscow, we flew on an ancient Aeroflot DC-something to the town of "Mineral-vody" and took an exciting 3 hour bus ride (easily the most dangerous part of the trip) to a beautiful, cozy Russian Dacha in the Elbrus valley. Here we stayed two nights, and did some hikes in the nearby beautiful mountain valleys. These couple of days had their own interesting stories, being very close to some very troubled areas.
On Wednesday, 9 July, We rode a couple of trams and a single-chair ski lift from the floor of the Elbrus valley to around 11,800' and a "base camp" of sorts consisting of a bunch of "huts" made from giant steel barrels. Not very attractive, but functional. Each barrel holds 5 climbers very comfortably. There are about a dozen of these. Myself and 4 others elected to stay in tents, to get some actual high mountain tenting experience, about 100 yards away on a ridge. There is also a "kitchen" hut with a large propane stove, pots and supplies. Our group hut fee gave us access to this kitchen (even us tenters). The edge of the snow-line was right at these huts.
Turns out that this area is also one of Russia's best ski areas, and above the huts, the snow boarders were still at it in mid July. Sort of fun watching these Russian kids strutting their stuff at a terrain park just above the huts, to Russian rap music blaring away. We caught some bikini action once or twice on a warm sunny day.
We arrived at this area about noon on Wednesday, in a hard rain & snow (higher up) storm. LOUSY weather. Later in the day it got a bit better. Thursday's weather was slightly better, but still clouded in most of the day. We did a brief "acclimatization" hike to about 14000' on Thursday, up to and above the old "diesel hut" and burnt-out Priut building. During this hike we heard helicopters overhead. Turns out two Polish hikers had tried to summit the day before, and had wandered off route. One of the climbers was found, the other was never found, presumably he had fallen into a crevasse. Sobering!
We had three days scheduled for summitting, just in case. Friday would be our first scheduled day, and it worked out perfectly. Not a single cloud in the sky the entire day. Somewhat windy, but otherwise perfect. After summitting on Friday, we stayed that night at the huts/tents, for a total of three nights on the mountain. Saturday, we headed back down into the Elbrus valley and our comfortable, hospitable Russian Dacha, with 10 rubble Vodka shots at the bar; that's 30 cents. Beers were twice that. Ah, life!.
Detailed summit day report:
"Woke" at 2:00 am, after a fitful nights sleep of a few hours. Cold in the tent, tried to dress in the mummy bag, no way, so unzipped it and quickly dressed. Grabbed the daypack, and headed over to the Kitchen hut. There were a few of our party already there. Quick meal of oatmeal and cocoa, then outside into the cold, clear night air with the others. By the designated 3am time, everyone was ready to go, and off we went to the snow cats. It wasn't really that cold, even with the totally clear night sky at 12,000'. Maybe 15-20 degrees F or so.
Here I made a big mistake, taking a rear seat in the snow cat... Up the ski-slopes we went, and I was squashed senseless by the weight of the other people on the seat above me. Argh! 30 minutes of hard discomfort later, the cat stopped at around 14,700'. A new personal altitude record! Of course, I hadn't traveled there under my own power, but still, 300-odd feet above Mt. Elbert! Assuming my altimeter was accurate, of course. I had tried my best to reset my Sunto to "meters", including asking everyone else with the same altimeter. No one could figure it out, including the Europeans whose Sunto's where already reading meters. Well, at least I tried.
So, 17 of us (one of the 18 had severe GI distress, and didn't come) strapped on our crampons, and started up the hill at 4am. We had a hired Russian guide, Vladimir, leading the front group. This would allow Steve and Mike to lead the rear group (inevitably, groups of this size will fragment), allowing for an extra person to escort someone down if necessary. The dope on Elbrus is that as long as you stay on the wanded route, there was no crevasse danger. Well, these wands were tiny, and for me impossible to see in the pitch dark, so I was glad to have a guide leading us.
Soon after starting up, the eastern sky showed signs of dawn. The gorgeous main Caucas range of mountains behind up was starting to become visible. So far, I had no signs of altitude effects, but we were barely above 15,000', and Vladimir was leading at a nice relaxed pace. As the sky brightened some more, the Caucas range became absolutely gorgeous. Soon, the shadow of the earth itself became visible against the sky, getting lower and lower until the first rays of sun hit the high peaks across the valley. These sights made the otherwise BORING initial ascent rather pleasant. We made brief, welcome 5-minute stops every half hour or so. I started feeling a real need for more nourishment. It hit me like a ton of bricks suddenly, somewhere around 16,000 feet or so. Funny, when this hit me, Laurie made a comment about needing a snack. I guess these altitudes wear down the body resources a bit faster. I simply slammed down a power gel (double-caffeinated!) and felt much better almost instantly.
We traversed over to the left (west) towards the 17,000' saddle between the east and west summits. The saddle looked so close! This aspect is the single most memorable thing about climbing this mountain; the shear grand scale of the thing. This is a BIG mountain. Everything is bigger and further away than it initially looks. The scale is just different than in the CO mountains. Good lesson to learn. It seemed to take us forever to reach that damn saddle. At least it was now becoming full daylight. I grabbed what I consider to be an excellent photo of the shadow of Mt. Elbrus cast on the Caucas range across the valley.
Somewhere on this leg, the actual west summit became visible as a little blip above the massive false west summit. Our goal was to make it to the warming sunlight, somewhere just beyond the saddle, before we took a much-needed nice long break. It was cold and windy. 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and that sunshine looked mighty inviting. Well, we just couldn't quite make it, and stopped instead a couple hundred yards short for a good, but chilly, 15 minute snack break. Off we went towards the sunlight! Five minutes later we were basking in it. How pleasant.
Our guide Vladimir, was obviously not feeling well at this point. This seemed strange, but it turns out that he had been involved with the attempted rescue of the Polish climber the day before, and he just wasn't recovered. So, in his very broken English, he pointed out the rest of the route to us. We made him repeat it to be sure. Seemed straight-forward enough (it was). Rich, a long-time CMC leader assumed command, and up we went sans-Russian guide.
Side note: we noticed early in the climb a small guy, with short skis strapped to his pack, following us and taking pictures. He stayed with us all day, snapping away, and when the final person of our group left the summit, he put on his skis, and zoomed away. The following night back at the Dacha, a nice pack of photos was waiting for each of us. Forty bucks for about a dozen nice large (6x9-ish) photos, customized for each of us, including summit shots, approach shots, individual shots. Nice touch. Capitalism in Russia at it's finest! I figured the guy cleared 3 or 4 hundred bucks for his day's work. 12 thousand rubbles. Good money in these parts!
The next part of the climb was the steepest, anywhere from 30 to 40 degrees, some of the time on very hard snow and even some ice. This was my fist climb on this type of terrain, and I was very careful, and had my ice axe at the ready in case of a slip. We had a rope along (I was carrying the damn thing at the time), with harnesses and biners, but never roped up. Most of the rest of the group were high-peak veterans, and this steep hard snow was a lark to them.
We passed group of French Canadians (heading down) that we had met and chatted with at the huts. "Only another half hour to the summit" they said. Turns out they were about right. We finally hit the flat area before the summit, right at about 18,000 feet. We had a nice tight group of 10 folks. I was feeling just fine, just as long as we didn't move any faster. Jeff had been leading for a while, at a perfect pace. Susan was starting to feel a bit off, so I thought maybe we should let her lead the final summit push, which she did in fine style. As we approached the final summit mound, a rather large group of folks were still there. Up we went to the top of Europe! With all the other people there, it was a bit crowded at first, but soon they all left, and there were just the 10 of us (and our little photographer guy) enjoying our success. All sorts of pics were taken of course, in various combinations of people. It was just after 9am.
Eventually, people started filing off the summit. Laurie and I descended together, arm in arm, happy as larks. Very nice. After a short while, we passed Rhonda on her way up, all by herself. Jeff and I, full of chivalry, decided to escort her up. I think she appreciated this. After summitting again with her, Jeff and I were enjoying ourselves so much, we decided to hang around on the summit for while. the wind was still howling though, and we decided to descend to the flat area sheltered by the main summit mound, and hang out. Sometime later, we saw Bill approaching in the distance, and when he arrived, we decided to escort HIM up. So, three summits of Elbrus in less than an hour? Jeff and I had a chuckle about that. Finally after pics of and with Bill, we all decided to head down.
Fifteen minutes later, near the end of the flat area, we came upon the original summit group, patiently waiting for us. Keith had shown up with Vladimir. There was talk about turning Keith around at this point, and I don't believe he was happy about that. It was only 10am after all, and still not a single cloud to be seen. The decision was finally made to wait for the last summitter, Craig, and if he showed up, Vladimir would escort him and Keith to the summit. He did show up, and they all did summit.
So, we all headed down, in the warming sun. Not much to say about the descent... As the day wore on and the altitude decreased it became warmer and warmer, and the early morning's hard snow eventually turned to slush. Though we started the climb off of a snow-cat ride to 14,700 feet, we descended all the way to below 12,000 feet at the huts, a 6500 foot descent. That's a long way, and it took a while. We all pretty much split up on the way down, and I took the point. The wands were now easy to see and follow, of course.
So, one by one we all wound up stretched out in our skivies in front of the Kitchen hut, drinking water, eating snacks and just enjoying the fine sunny day. Most of us spent hours there relaxing. Eventually, I headed over to my tent and stretched out for a luxurious couple-hour nap.
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe