Mt. Elbrus, Europe

My 3rd of the Seven Summits

I landed in St. Petersburg and met up with my entertaining climbing team. There was a full cast of characters on this expedition, starting with our fiddleplayin’ lead guide, Vern Tejas, who is famous in mountaineering circles for completing the first solo winter ascent of Denali (i.e. his nickname: “The Denali Lama”) and for summiting each of the seven summits twice in one season, a climbing first. There was also big, bad Bob Nystrom, who scored the Cupclinching goal in OT of game 6 of the ‘80 Stanley Cup Finals to provide the Islanders the first of their four straight Stanley Cups. We also had the World Champion female body builder in ‘94 (essentially, Ms. Universe!) among a slew of other interesting folks.

We spent a couple of days getting to know one another in St. Petersburg, where it was hotter than a habanero pepper mud bath. With no air conditioning anywhere, I was sweatin’ more than a blind man in a prison shower, but the countless sundresses gallivanting down the busy streets helped distract me enough to endure it until we escaped to the cooler climes of the Baksan Valley in the heart of the Caucasus Range. Despite this region abutting Georgia and Chechnya, we managed safe passage to the mountains and thankfully did not witness any of the unrest in the region aside from the soldiers at the airport armed with fully loaded automatic weapons. Perhaps this was a result of Putin’s Russian forces assassinating the Chechen rebel leader, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, three week before we arrived in the country. Traveling through this part of the world was a bit unsettling nonetheless.

Once in the town of Terskol, we conducted a few acclimatization hikes before moving to base camp (i.e. the Barrels Camp), at nearly 12,000’ on the lower flanks of Elbrus. We spent a few nights at the barrels camp, where the outhouse leaves a little to be desired, as the wind launches “used debris” (mostly in the form of toilet paper) back up the outhouse hole directly at you as soon as it is discarded. A rather unappealing part of this expedition.

Fortunately, we soon moved to high camp at 13,780’, where we stumbled across a memorial to climbers that had lost their lives on Elbrus, which was a sobering moment. Even though Elbrus is known for its mostly gentle slopes (30-50 degrees), it is 18,510’ with all of the standard objective hazards: crevasses, avalanche danger, weather, and altitude. In fact, earlier the same climbing season a team of 11 Russian climbers died on the mountain during a strong spring storm, so this served as a sober reminder of the inherent risks of mountaineering and got us focused for the summit push.

Upon reaching high camp, we had hoped to make a quick push to the summit, but the weather took a turn for the worse. Regardless, the next day we decided to make a push for the summit despite being completely socked-in. We were up at 2am and started out soon thereafter. We ascended in the dark in a full-blown blizzard. The snow in the Caucasus (which run between the Black & Caspian Seas) holds so much moisture that with the high winds (40+ mph), we ended up with a thick layer of snow/ice sticking to anything exposed (coats, packs, poles, ice axes, etc.). I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We pushed through heavy snow, hail and high winds for several hours. Finally, just before sunrise, we had lightning flash all around us, which was absolutely disconcerting especially when carrying a lightning rod in the form of a mountaineering axe and ski poles. I had never encountered “snow lightning” before, but would again on future expeditions in the Himalayas.

Right after the lightning flashed several times, a Russian team came screaming (both literally and figuratively) down the mountain, which was at once alarming and hilarious. They were yelling about the need to get down and back to shelter, while they literally ran down the mountain. The best part was that about 30 seconds later a lone Russian climber came tearing down the mountain behind them with all of the group’s metal gear (snow pickets, poles, shovels, ice axes, crampons, etc.) tied together in a pile and dragging behind him attached by a rope that ran around his waist. How do you think that conversation transpired?!? “Yuri, umm... as the new guy, how about you make yourself useful by turning yourself into a human lightning rod and we’ll hopefully see you back in camp... oh, and try not to lose any of the gear while you’re at it. See ya.” We continued up into the storm with the hope that we would ascend through the top of the clouds, but by sunrise conditions worsened so we decided to abort this summit attempt at roughly 16,500’ and return to the safety and comfort of the hut.

The descent was eventful as well due to the full-blown whiteout conditions, high winds and cold temperatures. In fact, we drifted a little off-course and ended up off the main snowfield (no crevasses) and on one of the lower glaciers (many crevasses). We weren’t roped up for glacial travel due to the nature of the terrain we were expecting to be on all day, so that made for a fairly tense traverse back to our intended route of descent. We navigated through the crevasses safely, with only Vern (our internationally revered guide and principle route finder) punching through a snow bridge into a crevasse up to his waist, out of which he was able to belly flop safely. It was a scary moment, but we made it back to the hut without further incident, although Vern suffered a severely bruised ego.

The next few days we were completely stormed-in. We practiced the “art of the hang” while waiting for better weather in which to make our next summit attempt. As several days passed, our chances did not look promising, but we were going to make a push the next day regardless of the conditions. Amazingly, we awoke at midnight to clear skies, although the winds were still whipping.

We made quick progress in the dark and were well above Pastukov Rocks (15,400’) by sunrise. It was a cold, windy and beautiful morning. We continued up to the saddle and then up the steep summit headwall. From there, our team followed Lynn, our 64 year-old, two-time breast cancer survivor and inspiration, to the roof of Europe at 18,510’.

We descended safely to the Baksan Valley and celebrated well into the evening by sharing a traditional Russian meal of Shashlik (barbequed sheep) washed down with Russian vodka (by the way, it’s true that they export all the good stuff unless you’ve developed a fondness for sipping white gas).

We visited Moscow on our way home and stayed in the beautiful Hotel Ukraina, one of the Seven Sisters, which are a group of Stalinist-era skyscrapers. From there, we walked up a pedestrian mall to Red Square, where we saw St. Basil’s cathedral, Lenin’s tomb, the Kremlin, and more. It was amazing to stand right where nukes had been paraded in front of the Politburo at the height of the Cold War less than 20 years prior. And, with capitalism taking hold there now, the old Soviet store (of the infamous bread lines) had been converted into an enormous shopping mall. Moscow overall was an impressive city and a nice way to conclude my time in Russia.