The Cliff Notes version…
I went to Russia and I climbed Mount Elbrus (5642 metres). It was a great climb and I learned a lot!
For those Paul Harvey fans, the rest of the story…
Elbrus is a quirky mountain. Truthfully I suspect, the only reason anyone climbs it, is that it is the tallest mountain in Europe and Russia. There are five routes up Elbrus but the vast majority of climbers begin their ascent in the village of Azou (2530 metres). Azou has the feel of “any ski town” with a variety of accommodations, small shops, and souvenirs slung along the one road that leads up the valley from Mineralnye Vody (the nearest city of any size). There’s one difference, however, this ski village is in a remote Russian valley on the border with Georgia so there is no polish like many ski resorts in North America. Instead, there is a sense of primitivism and possibility, paucity and practicality, purulence and petulance.
Elbrus’ twin peaks tower over the neighbouring Caucasus Mountains to the south. Their jagged toothed slopes cry out for climbers but for now, the access door to them is locked tight due to the dispute along the Georgian border. On one of our training hikes, we were warned not to wander past the border signs or we might be met with an unusual welcoming committee carrying large automatic weapons. Given that our team was Canadian (barring one United Kingdom import living in Seattle to whom we granted honourary Canadian status), we decided to give the Russian military a wide berth.
After four days of acclimatization hikes, it was time to head up the mountain. This moment is where Elbrus’ surrealistic nature as a mountaineering objective first comes into clear view. Most ascend from Azou via ski lift. Ski lifts, actually. I remember in 2006 that I was most frightened by this part of the climb. I was certain the creaking old overloaded gondola would detach from the cable and plummet us all to our death. Given it is now 2009, you know that didn’t happen. Three years later, we began our ascent on a state of the art German gondola that whisked us silently and steadily up the mountain invoking little or no fear. That is until I noticed the new gondola only went one-third of the way up to our destination.
For the middle part of the journey, we forewent modernism for another terrifying ride on a fifties-era flying rectangle that I prayed would hang onto its cable for one more ascent. Five heart-pounding minutes later, we emerged from the gondola station with one more conveyance to survive. A single sixties-era chairlift completed the ascent with our backpacks hanging from a hook on the main support arm of the chair. A flimsy safety bar kept us in our seats that were slightly askew from the weight of our packs. Liberated from this final airborne adventure, a short hike with backpacks on backs and food boxes in arms; we arrived at “The Barrels.”
Climbers wishing a “pure ascent” of Elbrus (or who can’t afford the lift ticket) walk up a steep gravel road to reach the same place (3800 metres). We had climbed to virtually the same elevation the day before so I didn’t feel too guilty catching a lift. The mid-slopes of Elbrus are where the mountain shows off as a ski area. Even in July, these mid slopes are covered in brightly coloured skiers and snowboarders. A ski lift, appearing to be a cross between a T-Bar and Pommel lift takes these snow sport aficionados up 100 metres to test their meddle in a terrain park. Other skiers and snowboarders are whisked higher to 4500 metres by “snow cat” (large snow machine with tank like tracks that can ascent steep snow slopes) to fly down past the ever-slow marching mountaineers attempting to acclimatize.
You mention Elbrus to anyone who has been here and they will ask about “The Barrels.” Each barrel sleeps six and is a cylinder about 3 metres wide by 3 metres high by 20 metres long. Constructed of steel, the barrels look like they may have once been culverts or piping of some kind, but were actually constructed as huts. With windows cut into the walls for light and some fine sixties paneling, these round and unique huts provided a comfortable home for the next four nights. The barrels, decorated like Russian flags, became a beacon for us each time we ventured up the mountain.
Though our move to the barrels was promised as a rest day, plans in Russia seemed to change more often than the weather. With our first lunch, deliciously prepared by our cook Olga, resting uncertainly in our bellies, Eugene declared it was time to climb up the mountain to further our acclimatization. A round of groans erupted in the group but we trusted his experience (this was to be his 69th ascent of Elbrus) and so went off to pack our backpacks. Marching in a tight line, resembling worker ants, we slowly exposed our bodies to ever thinning air. Our goal for the day was the next level of huts, the most notable of which is the “Diesel Hut”.
Originally, there was the Pruitt Hut situated at 4060 metres. The Germans had built it during World War Two as they hoped to ascent Elbrus as a symbolic gesture of their conquering of Europe. Neither happened and the Pruitt Hut was burned to the ground by the Russians. The Pruitt Hut had a diesel generator shed that was eventually turned into the “Diesel Hut” that sleeps fifty climbers today. We thought we would be moving up to the Diesel Hut after a few nights but for reasons that were never explained to us, the Barrels would be our home for our entire stay. In talking with other climbers, we did learn that the Barrels were much more comfortable place to stay.
After a rough night’s sleep for most given the jump in sleeping elevation from 2350 to 3800, we left early to climb to the top of the Pasckachov (sp?) Rocks (4700 metres) while the snow was still hard and the death star hadn’t started beaming its burning rays. Still new to this elevation, the climb was slow yet steady. The passage to the Diesel was easier but the terrain then steepened more dramatically and we started to time our breathing with our stepping while utilizing the rest step. The rest step involves momentarily soft locking the back leg to rest on the skeleton instead of the leg muscles. Depending on the steepness and elevation, that momentary rest can stretch from a second to a minute.
During this five-hour climb, we were passed by several snow cats carrying skiers and snowboarders up for a run. With their load dispatched, the cats would turn and head down to fetch another. We actually climbed up either on or beside the tracks left by the cat. Continuing our measured ascent, we were introduced to a new mountain hazard, the skiers and snowboarders. Some, seemingly on the losing edge of control, zoomed by us, barely missing. I am used to avalanches and rock fall but this was the first time, I truly feared other humans in the mountains.
We topped out above the rocks and were rewarded with a view of Europe’s second highest peak across the border in Georgia. Snacks and water on board, we now felt the full force of the sun beating down on our tender skin. The initial part of the descent from the rocks was very steep and so we stepped very mindfully through this section (on summit day a climber in another group broke his leg in this section). As soon as we emerged at the bottom of the rocks, skiers, snowboarders and snow cats bombarded us again. Did I mention that Elbrus is a quirky mountain?
The next day we finally enjoyed a rest day that was actually a rest day (our previous two “rest” days ended up having some training on them). I, for one, was glad for the rest because I had been battling a cold and allergies almost from the moment I arrived in Azou. Acclimatization hikes through reproducing grasses had me sneezing and clawing my eyes out. I developed a sore throat and feared that I was developing a cold. I knew that a cold can predispose one to high altitude pulmonary edema and I didn’t want another climb to be interrupted by illness. I pumped the fluids and vitamin C, imagined my immune system fighting the virus, and prayed to the universe that I would heal quickly enough.
I tried very hard not to be generous and keep the virus to myself. I didn’t want to infect anyone else on the team. When we ascended to the Barrels, I developed a nagging cough and the cold was fully leaking from my face through my nose. I keep drinking and hoping. Despite the copious amounts of liquid and mucous escaping from my being, I was pleased that the cold didn’t seem to be zapping my energy. I spent the rest day reading and napping and packing for our summit attempt that would begin early the next morning.
Much of the rest day was also spent in debate about using or not using a snow cat to return us to 4500 metres. The vast majority of climbers who use the Barrel huts use the snow cats to spare them 700 metres of climbing the ski slopes to the bottom of the Pasckachov Rocks. On my previous attempt of Elbrus in 2006, we stayed at a hut at 4200 metres so did not use the snow cats on either of our attempts. Coming back a second time, looking at the realities of an 1800 metre summit day from the Barrels, debating where a climb actually begins, gnashing through climbing ethics, and finally embracing Elbrus’ unique and strange climbing reality, I became willing to follow the guides’ advice and use the cat to cover ground we’d already climbed. In the end, all agreed (though some still harboured doubts).
If I were to come back to Elbrus a third time, I would choose to climb expedition style from the north thus avoiding the skier and snowboarder hazard, women dressed in leopard skill bikinis, crowds, ski lifts, and all things unmountainering-like that Elbrus presents on its south side.
We had an early supper and I was tucked into bed by 6:30 pm with I-Pod trying to cajole me into early sleep. The alarm was set for 2:30 am. It was a restless night for all and there was relief all around when the alarm finally meant we could rouse for the big day ahead. The morning brought wind after several days of calm; it would be a cold day to climb. Breakfast was at 3:00 am. It was the easiest pre-summit breakfast of all for me–no retching or nausea and I managed to get a fair amount down to fuel the first part of the climb. We jumped aboard our snow chariot at four and we whisked up to 4500 metres to where the steep climbing began. The moment we stepped off the cat we were pummeled by the wind. I was glad I dressed warmly (I most often fear being too warm than too cold). I shed my big parka and soon we were underway.
Eugene was at the lead setting the pace for our ant line. I was directly behind him and fell easily into the pace. I set my intention to climb safe and well and to dedicate my efforts to my dad and to Moh Hardin, one of my Buddhist teachers. I used a Buddhist mantra to start the day and then found the song, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” occupied my mind for the early part of the climb. I was smiling, felt quite confident (though kept that under wraps because I didn’t want to piss off the mountain gods), and had a spring in my step (or at least as much spring as one can have after little sleep and at 4500 metres).
We wove our way up slope beside the Pasckachov rocks. When we faced west, the brisk wind blew directly into our faces and quickly chilled us. When we took the diagonal to the east, our backs to the wind, we warmed up. With relatively equal diagonals, I found that I guessed perfectly and my temperature was good, not too hot so I would sweat, and not to cold so I would risk frostbite. Above the rocks, the terrain steepened once more and our diagonal intervals became shorter as we traversed the slope more often. I had my eyes set on “The Traverse.” We’d seen it for days from the Barrels below. From that vantage point, it looked well beaten in and “flat.”
After a quick second break, I realized why expectations are so dangerous. The traverse was beaten in but it was not a flat surface at all. The 1.5 kilometre traverse clung tenuously to the slope and the climbing was uneven with most of the work falling to the downhill leg. This time there would be no relief to the East for two hours. Soon, my left calf and lower leg began to burn and scream out. I tried various foot positions, trying to duck walk or place my foot in a different orientation to the slope to get a bit of a break from the intense pressure on that foot.
This was the only moment of doubt for me on the summit day. Could I hold out? How bad would the burning get? Would my leg lose too much strength? In experiencing the burning, I thought of my dad and how the chemotherapy he has received for prostate cancer must have burned in his veins. I knew he had stuck it out so many times and I would do the same. I was in pain but I could manage it. Finally the traverse delivered us onto to the more level ground of the saddle between the two peaks and out of the wind.
We took our first substantial break of the morning after four hours of climbing to eat, drink, apply sunscreen, and mentally prepare for another step traverse of the west summit. I looked up at the line of climbers ahead of us and made another mental commitment to just keep putting one foot in front of another. Suddenly my left eye began to water and I felt intense pain. I quickly closed both eyes and wondered what was going on. I knew I had changed into dark glacier glasses as soon as the sun rose so it couldn’t be snow blindness. I couldn’t open my left eye. “Oh no,” I said, ” I am so close now.” I remembered that retinas can detach at high altitude but I’d thought that was more like a black curtain coming down. Tears from the watering flow down my cheek and I was glad no one could see my face. “Should I tell Eugene?” I asked myself. I kept eating and kept my eyes shut. I wondered if I could climb with one eye. Then the right one didn’t want to stay open. More watering. “Shit,” I thought, “I can’t risk my eyes.” Drank more water. Ate more food. All with my eyes closed. One more try. I opened the right one. It seemed better. I cautiously opened the left one. It seemed better. Both eyes open now. The watering stopped. I could see. I could keep climbing. Who knows what happened…perhaps a piece of snow, ice, or sand got in there and irritated it.
There were four of us now climbing with Eugene. The rest were behind with Oleg and Keith. The weather was starting to get worse again so it was time to be on the move. This traverse, thankfully, favoured the other leg so the left one got a break. Eugene warned us that we could not see the summit from the saddle that we must go up and around to it. After the long traverse, a steep section awaited and the clouds descended and the wind picked up as soon as we stepped out onto the summit ridge. We could only see four metres in front of ourselves; we were shrouded in white.
Along the summit ridge, I spontaneously began to think of my dad, Heinz. Then I thought of his dad, Alois. My brother, Mike. My uncle, Joe. I silently expressed gratitude to them for their love and support. I continued to think of significant men in my life: Colin, Mr. Walton, Mr. Boyko, Mr. Carmel, Moh, Mr. Hamilton, Leo, Jean-Marcel, Matt, Jasper,…mentors, teachers, friends. With each step, I thought of these and others and again thanked them for being there for me. The terrain eased and I took the last step onto the highest point in Europe at 10:33 am on July 13, 2009.
I was elated. I’d finally gotten here! The weather was awful and we struggled to get summit pictures. I had to work hard to keep my various flags and Velma from blowing away. I had to be quick because I had my mitts off and didn’t want my hands to freeze. There was no view just a group of folks sharing a high point of topography and the thrill of a summit reached. The climb was only half done and we steeled ourselves for the long descent. I felt glad that I am often a strong closer and followed Eugene down through the clouds. The saddle, again, was a place of respite. Fueling up for the 1200 metre descent to the barrels, the weather allowed me to make a brief call to the website to let folks know we had summitted.
Over the next hours, we climbed down. As we dropped in elevation, we met the snowmobilers. They were trying to high point on the mountain and came dangerously close to use as we re-crossed the epic traverse. Did I mention this mountain is quirky? The lower we got, the higher the temperature climbed and the sun began to bake us again. With limited water left, the climb down through porridge density snow seemed almost as tasking as climbing up. Finally at 2:40, we reached the Barrels, hot, bothered, dehydrated, and thrilled.
I immediately began to drink and get things hung up to dry. Olga’s soup never tasted so good. I managed after an hour or so to call in an update that we were back safe but knew I was too tired to convey the subtleness of the experience. The last climber on our team returned at 5:00 pm. Most napped until dinner at 9 pm but I wrote in my journal and wrote and wrote. Fifteen pages of transcription captured both the technical and emotional lessons that Elbrus had taught me. I am still reflecting on and digesting those lessons but they relate to confidence, climbing through and with illness/injury, Buddhism, and the intersection of courage, intention, and generosity. More on these in the future as I come to a deeper understanding of them.
The wonderful combination of high strung conveyances that brought us to the Barrel Huts were sidelined by a lack of electricity so we had to hoof it down the steep access roads carrying our big packs. The middle Pterodactyl-like gondola had the audacity to start up just as we reached its bottom station. We had power in the village just long enough to enjoy that amazing first shower off a mountain and then enjoyed dinner by candlelight. The power stayed out for another 12 hours fortunately I’d gotten the laptop and I-pod charged before we lost juice.
When I got down, I felt like I’d been run over by a rather large Russian military truck. I was running a slight fever, had an intensely sore throat, and a productive cough. Followed Dr. Eugene’s advice, I started some antibiotics to help kill off the little bugs I couldn’t manage on my own. I passed on the last day’s hiking to rest and recover. After nearly 18 hours of horizontal time, I’m beginning to feel human again.
I never climb alone. I always know a loving and caring community, that spans the globe, surrounds me. Thanks to all who made contributions to the Canadian Prostate Cancer Network. (It’s not to late-you can still donate).
• Thanks to my family–especially my dad–for your inspiration, love, and belief in me.
• Thanks as well to my partner, Marian, for her unwavering support of my climbing endeavours.
• Thanks to Karen, my best buddy, for always knowing the exact right words to say.
• To Earl for his generosity with his time to be my communications manager on this and many other climbs.
• Thanks to Deb and Wilma and the Applecore crew (and everyone else who came as well) for making my Signal Hill birthday bash a resounding training and awareness success.
• Thanks to Nadia and Natelle for being great training partners.
• Thanks to Susan, my Buddhist personal trainer, for the slogans I used on the climb to work with my mind.
• Thanks to Memorial University of Newfoundland for its support and specially for some of the folks in Allied Health Services who helped get my body ready given many injuries (Amy, Todd, and Tim).
• Thanks as well to Janine and Janice for help with my body as well.
• Thanks to Jeff Fryday at Tim Horton’s who went above and beyond to get me my traveling companion, Velma the Vanilla Dip. I finished two dreams that I started in 2006 (climbing Elbrus and taking a Vanilla Dip with me).
• Thanks to our guides, Keith, Oleg, and Eugene and to my teammates: Marie, Thomas, Chris, Peter, Jeff, Clement, and Isabel.
• Finally, thanks to all of you who follow along, think of me, pray for me, send messages of encouragement, and eagerly await each installment of the adventure. Your presence and participation in my climbs (and life) are a precious gift to me.