Russia - go or not to go?
Russia is and always was an amazing country - sad and rich, unfair and strong, so different from the rest of the Europe. I had some mixed feelings about this trip, first I was in the process of changing jobs, moving to a different state in USA, selling a house etc. I kept changing my plans, and at the end I made no real plans, I just went...
I was surprised how much hassle it was to obtain the visa. I did contact Pilgrim Tours for some basic information, and visa invitation (you cannot request visa unless you have the invitation, and it could not be done by an individual, but a registered organization). I was contemplating between the light package, which Pilgrim tours offers, or taking the whole tour with them, or hiring a russian guide. Then due to my above mentioned circumstances, I was not thinking about this trip at all... I moved my 3 bedroom house into a storage unit in Colorado, filled hundreds of pages of paperwork necessary for me to practice medicine in Colorado, and flew to the Czech Republic to declimatize in the altitude of 150 meters.
I did not even purchase the airline tickets to Moscow, and from Moscow to Mineralne Vody until 2 weeks prior this adventure. I have to thank my brother Pavel, who took care of this, as well as for the accommodation in Moscow.
I received an e-mail from Alex Trubachev alex climb
a few days prior going to Moscow that he is free, and would give me a tour of this amazing city. I was happy to meet another SP member, and a local, the only problem was I did not know where I was staying, and where we would meet. I was not planning this trip! I wanted to be relaxed and figure out things as they happen. My brother told me that someone will wait me at the airport (did not know who), and will take me to some monastery, where I could sleep. So, why to worry... even if nobody would wait for me, I could figure something out. Poor Alex, first I told him a name of one monastery, then another one... he had to think what a crazy woman!
Yes, there was a man at the airport, and he took me to St. Philip Russian Orthodox Monastery in a nice big Mercedes. I got my city tour, and the following day flew from domestic Vnukovo airport to Mineralne Vody. Just some observations about the transport - Moscow metro is very convenient and easy to use. Railway stations are connected to the metro, so it is easy to ride via Aeroexpress to the airports. Most people use Sheremetyevo airport connected with Beloruskaja metro station, or Kyjevskaja metro station connected with aeroexpress to Vnukovo airport. I was advised not to use taxi, and did not need it.
Air conditioning is rare in Russia, and it was very hot in Moscow during my visit - nearly 40C. I remember sitting in the airport hall and sweating, really profusely sweating. There was not even climatization inside the plane.
Another confusing thing for me was finding a toilet at Vnukovo airport - I followed a sign, then I saw written on the door "for smokers" (dlja kurenia), so I did not enter. Yes, it was the toilet - first, smoked filled room, and then the potty chambers. One had to hold a breath while...
Russian men were extremely polite to me. I never had to carry my backpack. Some man always came and carried it for me, on the street, metro, train. Very gentleman like...
Mineralne Vody - the arrival hall was very small, and after obtaining my baggage, pushing myself through a dense line of taxi drivers, then trying to avoid palm reading gypsy women, I saw a sign for Pilgrim tours. The bus ride from Mineralne Vody to Terskol was pretty uneventful, only 1 military check point with a tank on the road and some heavy duty armed russian soldiers. No, I did not take a photo of them, but was tempted.
Acclimatization hike to Cheget, 3600 meters
The acclimatization hike was super easy, first an easy hike down the road, then taking chairlifts, and then a short hike to the top of Cheget Peak, 3600 meters. Everybody from our big group of 17 felt great. There were many dogs on this trail, most of them looked dirty and hungry. The Pilgrim tours took care of all food and the water in the hotel Scheherazade was safe to drink from the tap. I did, and nothing happened...of course, you could always sterilize your gastrointestinal tract with vodka. This is Russia after all...
Our group was very international: 2 Americans from L.A., 1 UK, 5 from Spain, 3 Italians, 1 Mexican, and 4 young men from Denmark, and me. (only 2 women).
The hike was very scenic with amazing views of the main Caucasus ridge, Elbrus, and Donguz-Orunbashi Mnt. The flora in the July was splendid as well.
The transfer to the Barrels was easy, taking a lift again (3 transitions), and then only about 50 meter hike to the Elbrus luxury. The Barrels are at the altitude of 3800 meters. There are 9 main barrels for clients, each accommodating 6 people + some kitchen huts, and other structures where you can be placed during the high season. I would recommend to make an advanced reservation during the high season. They had troubles to find spaces for us, so I ended up sleeping in a guide's hut, and our group got separated.
The barrels are dry and there is electricity there, and a small heater. The kitchens were great at supplying us with boiled water, and cooking was good. Vegetarian options were not great, so I ended up eating a lot of chocolate.
There is no need to bring a heavy duty sleeping bag since it is pretty warm inside the barrels, and no dishes. Pilgrim website lists bowl, cup, and spoon in their equipment list, but it was not needed.
Fun in and around the barrels
I loved that moment of reading a book and listening to others snoring inside the hut... the lovely smell of unwashed men and stinky socks...
One of our climbing buddies was celebrating his birthday. I think that Martin from Denmark was turning either 21 or 22, so I wanted to give him something special! not just my underwear, but something making it even more funny. So, I went around to search for a condom. It was very interesting entering barrels and waking up napping climbers to ask them for a rubber protection. I had so much fun...
We also did some ice axe practices, stopping the fall etc. I picked up a few bruises in places which I rather not show... it was fun sliding down a small hill, head first...
An another adventure was a trip to the toilets. They named the toilets: 1. House of Pain, and 2. House of Horror, and I think that the names are well deserved. Still not sure whether to place photos of those places.
I think that pretty much everybody hikes up the gentle slope of Elbrus to the Pastukhov rocks as a part of the acclimatization process. The lower Pastukhov rocks are at 4644 meters, and the higher end is at 4745 meters. There is a lot of activity going on along this part of the trek. Skiers, hikers, snow cats going up and down. You pass by Priut 11, Diesel hut, you see people camping on the rocks. There is no need for crampons or ice axes for this section (unless the snow is frozen). Our snow was soft, and in some section we had to cross icy puddles from melting glacier.
We had 3 skiers in our group, and they skinned up, no ski crampons needed.
One of the members of our team got ill from the altitude, but recovered as soon as he got down to the barrels and took a nap. The hike offers great views of the Caucasus range...
Sergei Baranov was our main guide. He spoke excellent English, and some Spanish (very useful in our group). It was his 105th summit of Elbrus, and I can give him just the highest recommendations. Sergei took part in many expeditions around the world, especially K2 and Broad Peak in 2007.
We had many secondary guides, ratio 1 guide per 3 clients. They spoke some basic English, checked the equipment, helped with the crampons. One of the guides was assigned to skiers. Some smoked, some drank vodka, and some did both.
I think that Elbrus is a mountain where guide is not really needed in a good weather. The route is well marked, and the path well travelled. I would imagine that orientation must be very difficult in a stormy condition.
Finally, the summit
Our wake up time was 2:00 am. I think that most of us did not sleep well, so much excitement. They served us a large breakfast, but I ate only "kasha" (something like a wheat cream) and drank some tea. The night was beautiful, pretty warm, and so many stars.
We went super slowly. I wanted to run, I wanted to go faster, but then I remembered: you never know what the altitude will do to you. So, I patiently waited for others. I ran ahead to take photos, I helped carrying a backpack, I was watching 2 members of our group puking out their breakfast, and most of all I kept turning back to stare at Ushba. It is an amazing mountain. Ushba info
We took many breaks, we had to send 2 members of our team down due to their acclimatization issues (heart rate in 200s). Finally, we slowly approached the saddle at 5381 meters. I felt so great, and I felt so bad to see others suffering. I think that being a woman makes me more immune to the altitude problems, and surely living in New Mexico at 1600 meters helped too. I have been higher than Elbrus, so I knew I could do it, but I wanted to be cautious (I did spend 3 weeks in Czech republic at 150 meters).
The steepest part of the climb is from the saddle up, a short section. Many people left their rucksacks at the saddle to make this section easier. And the last section is flat... we could see the small summit, overcrowded with climbers. What a day! What a luck! What an accomplishment!
Where is the top of Europe?
Is it in Russia, or in France? I was told that french people do not climb Elbrus. I do not know that, but the truth is I did not meet any french men on this trip. Generally, the recognized top peak of Europe is Elbrus, but in a traditional sense it used to be Mt. Blanc. I don't really care, I have climbed both. My Mt. Blanc Album
I find it interesting that some people can quarrel about such a topic. Both are beautiful mountains, and deserve our respect.
Thanks and "da svidanija"
I would like to thank Alex for showing me around Moscow, to Sergei - our main guide, to my brother Pavel (who arranged the Moscow accommodation, and the air tickets to Moscow, and from Moscow to Mineralne Vody). And to our group, especially Chiara. We had so much fun.
I am so impressed with Russia. It is a hard place to live, and it makes its people very strong. Can't wait to go back.