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Mount Elbrus Russia Climb Part 1 – The first few days

First few days…

I left Toronto on Friday July 20th early in the evening. That was day 1 and a necessary part of this adventure – long flights! I arrived at Moscow Airport late on Saturday afternoon, July 21st and instantly marveled at the sight of Russia. It didn’t look at all like it’s portrayed in the movies. It just looks like any other country. Clearly, the stereo type is not very correct. Incorrect stereotypes; hmm … where have I heard that concern before?

Having said that, the people DO seem different. They don’t smile a lot. They are polite and do their jobs, but there are no smiles offered.

As I met the group, I was relieved that everyone seems nice. Another part of this adventure – you have to make friends with and rely on all sorts of people. I am happy to see two other females in the group in addition to our guide Carole. She and her husband Vern are highly experienced and rank among the best in the mountaineering circles. Yet they exude politeness and happiness – like they really like their jobs.

The hotel is OK. It has a bed and a bathroom – just a functional space. No smiles here either.

Day 3. Sunday July 22nd. Heavy sigh. The jet-lag is affecting me. I had a very hard time sleeping beyond the hour I slept around 11:30pm local time. I fell asleep again around 3:30am, but it was not deep, just resting in a semi aware state.

Still, I was excited to be here. I am actually in Russia! The day was spent touring Moscow: Red Square, the Kremlin and the cemetery where politicians and famous Russian socialites are buried. I found the tombstones fascinating and disturbing, as well as quite pretentious. Statues serve as headstones for the deceased, for example Boris Yeltsin’s is an abstract piece of art.

The architecture is wonderful and fascinating. The details that show Persian, Portuguese and even Spanish influences were wonderful to see. The city is extremely clean, perhaps the cleanest city I have ever visited. Certainly, Moscow puts to shame the dirty, smelling streets of New York City.

I enjoyed seeing the changing of the guard, an English monarchy influence.

Still, the lack of smiles of Russian residents is something that I kept noticing. There was an emptiness to it. Though never rude to anyone, their presence is never inviting, warm or happy. It seems strange to me …

We believe that if one smiles to another person, and are polite and cheerful, it will evoke similar feelings in return. Not here. I have tried, but to no avail. No response. None.

Our team of fellow climbers seem like a wonderful group and we have been easily bonding. Our #AlpineAscents guides, Carole and Vern, are not only professional, but warm, caring and so far excellent hosts and guides. They share not only their guidance and leadership, but their own friendship and love for mountaineering.

I was privileged to learn from Carole that she and Vern actually got married on the summit of Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Vern proposed on their way to the summit, as they both were climbing alone, roped together, him shouting down to her – “So, do you want to get married?” and Carole simply answering back, “Sure!” Vern is not a man that waits to get things done. He saw another guide on his way down from the summit, guiding a client, that he knew was licensed to officiate marriages. On the spot he asked if he could marry him and Carole.

And so it was, with the other client in tow, the officiant guide turned around and married Vern and Carole at the top of the Summit. Both bride and groom wearing climate warming outfits and with routes and carrabiners hanging from their harnesses. Now THAT was a mountain top marriage! Haha.

That was a decade ago. However, as Carole told me the story, I can see in her eyes the love and romance of the gesture her husband made. Not many people can say they got proposed to and married in Antarctica and on the highest mountain of that continent! #Priceless.

For what would be our day 4, again, I managed to sleep only an hour and then around 1:30am I am wide awake. Not a problem if I didn’t have to wake up at 5:00am, shower, and get ready to get myself checked out to be ready in the hotel lobby at 5:50am, so we could head out to the airport. Some how I made it.
We were finally headed to Mineralyne Vody, on our way to Elbrus. The highest peak of Europe.

The flight was about 2 hours and then we a had a bus ride of over 3 ahead of us. Shortly after we landed, my first real test and my fear of huge bags and weight was presented to me. “Ok team!” Vern states. “We have about a kilometer to walk over to where our ride is. Put your duffels on your back and carry your backpacks on the front.” Easy. No really Ema, easy. I was trying to talk myself into it. I was quite nervous. There were 12 other team mates, 10 of them guys and let’s be realistic, even cutting down, my duffel still weighed 55 pounds! Fortunately, one of the guys helped me just with securing one of the straps as it slid down my arm. I walked awkwardly – mainly because the duffel bag was ¾ of my size – the weight did not bother me very much. ‘I can do this’, I kept silently telling myself. After about 100 meters we arrived at our location. I was happy! Phew. Test one – check.

After a few minutes we stopped for lunch and the group had chicken, lamb and beef. Myself, I had some salad, grilled vegetables, fresh bread with butter and tea. I learned that this part of Russia enjoys lots of Persian influences and the restaurant where we ate lunch reflected it.

After a 3 hour bus ride, we arrived in Tersol, which is at the base of Mt Elbrus. Here we are at last. The lodge where we stayed, was not luxurious, but clean and we were the only residents. There are 15 of us in total. Vern and Carole introduce us to two Angelas, who would be taking care of us during our stay.

The following day, which is day 5 in the itinerary, was our first acclimatization day. We hiked for about 5 to 6 hours. We hike up tall grass and a steep hill towards the Observatory.

It was on this first day that Vern and Carole taught us about pressure breathing. Some of my teammates seemed to have theirs already down pat, but I am always out of breath. When I had learned it in Mt Rainier, I found it complicated and it made me light headed and actually short of breath more. Breathing should not be complicated. And it isn’t. Their method was to blow the stale air out of your lungs, by filling your mouth with air until you get cheeks like a chipmunk and blow it out like to are exasperated with someone. Bingo! Feels great.

On day 6 we climbed a different side of the valley. We went very close to the Georgian border and the majority of my team joke about crossing the border illegally- like the fact we were all going to attempt to climb Elbrus was not dangerous enough! We still needed the prospect of getting shot or detained either by Georgian authorities or the Russia police to be added in to the mix?! Fortunately, no casualties to report.

Each day we climbed up to more than 10,000 feet in altitude. We also learned to pace ourselves and I kept practicing my new breathing technique.
Both days we saw Mount Elbrus towering over the valley. Spectacular sight.

Day 7. We repack our duffel bags, leave what is not necessary in the mountain in our second small duffle bag, and lock it. It will be stored for us in a room, and will await our descent from the mountain.

We load our duffel bags, our backpacks and 40 litres of water – 4 bottles of 5 litres each per climber. From the van, which brings us to the tram, we go up to the last stop. Its official, there is no turning back and I am nervous. Again.

Basecamp at Mount Elbrus is a dirty place. Let me explain. There is garbage everywhere, the toilets are 3 walls and a door and a hole in the bottom, which means that each time anyone goes to use the ‘facilities’, urine and feces just free fall in the air and lands on rocks that lie underneath. Yuck.

Our accommodation is one of the nicer ones. Inside accommodation was hostel style – 8 of us shared one room, with 4 pairs of bunk beds. The staff was always washing the floors and our hiking boots were always contained to a designated area. But it is hard to clean inside, when no one cleans outside.

We were not there for a vacation and I set aside my dismissal of my surroundings and concentrate on training as directed. Vern and Carole don’t let us waste any time and right after lunch we go on a short hike on the glacier. They take the opportunity to teach us hiking roped as a group, as a review. Even though we would not be roped into to each other on summit day, this exercise is great to practice.

On day seven we take a longer hike, in altitude. We climb up to the
Pastukhov rocks area, even though on summit day, we take a ‘Cat’ up to this point and start our accent here. We use our crampons for the first time, get them properly fitted to our boots and I was pleased that Vern helped fit mine flawlessly, his experienced hands helping me with a couple of adjustments (stretching and bending). They now fit my #SportivaSpantik boots like a glove! Thank you Vern.

Our altitude gain was about 15,000 feet.

Later in the afternoon, we review the intricacies of anchor building. There are crevasses on the glacier and being armed with more knowledge and skills is nothing but a benefit.

Day 8. July 28th. This is supposed to be a rest day, as the following day we will attempt to summit the tallest Peak in Europe. However, we are athletes. We can’t just laze around all day and we need to practice our ice axe skills. Self confidence and readiness for emergencies, in case of an accidental fall or slip is crucial.

Therefore, we spend a couple of hours in the morning practicing just that. We replicate, on purpose, several ways we can fall and how to use our iced axe, to stop us from sliding down the glacier from the possible reach of our teammates. This is a potential life saving maneuver. Very important.

Although we did not anticipate traversing over any crevasses during our summit accent, Vern and Carole generously set up a couple of stations for self-extraction out of a crevasse, so we can refresh the theory and practice the skill, for other mountains. Learning from the man that currently holds the title of 70 Summits, meaning, he has climbed all 7 Summits, 10 times each, is a privilege and treat.

And we are then instructed to rest for the next day.

Rest is not easy. Several of our teammates are suffering from intestinal problems and lots of trips to the “facilities” are necessary. We all worry about what we are eating. The last thing we need on Summit day is to need to run to the bathroom with diarrhea or vomiting.

And as is the normal routine, we each take turns for privacy during the afternoon and put on our Summit day clothes we have packed for the occasion, and get our backpacks ready. The time has come. Here we go …

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