elbrus

Mount Elbrus Russia Climb Part 2 -Summit

It is Sunday, July 29th, 2018 and to the ‘Putin on the Ritz’ team, day 9 of our adventure.

My alarm is set for 2:00am for breakfast, but I, like several of my teammates, was already up. Vern turns on the electrical kettle for hot water, to warm our first batch of water bottles, and we are ready to go.

Our plan was to be ready and mobile at 3:00am and be by the ‘cats’ to put our crampons on at 3:30am. Plan accomplished. Yes! Off to a good start.
We have a large group and need two ‘snow cats’ and awkwardly get on board, with all our equipment. We sit excitedly, knowing what’s to come and hold on tight as it brings us up to just past the Provesky Rocks on Mount Elbrus. We all jump off. The moment has come. At last, we are about to attempt to summit Mount Elbrus. For me, mountain number three!

We remove our down jackets, because we always ‘start cold’; our bodies start heating up fast. Snow googles on next, with our face buffs securely underneath its strap, so we don’t have any of our face exposed. My buff has a Canadian flag print. Yes, I am proud to be Canadian!

It’s windy and cold as we start out. And we all knew that as we gained altitude, the temperature would decrease and the winds would increase. The clear blue skies we had been seeing the previous days as we glanced up the mountain from base camp were merely a rouse. Clearly, this is NOT going to be easy.

The previous day, when we were informed by Vern that we would attempt our Summit today, it was with the expectation that the weather would be similar to the previous day. The report brought back from the climbers that had reached the Summit, was that they had to literally ‘crawl’ to the Peak. I had visualized the ‘crawling’ action myself and yet only believed Vern 50%. I thought he was simply exaggerating. In a few short hours, I learned first hand, that ‘crawling’ was the right adjective. A daunting exercise; but the only way…

However, with our backpacks securely buckled on our backs, our headlamps turned on, we get to business. We ensure our ice axe is deployable and both our trekking poles are at the appropriate climbing length. These two skills we learned and reviewed with Carole and Vern until we were proficient.

In a single file, one step at a time, practicing both our rest-step and pressure breathing, we start to climb. I concentrate on both, and at the same time, ensure each of my steps are careful ones, so as to not get my crampons tangled on each other. I try to only concentrate on my rhythm and nothing else. ‘One, two, whooof…. one, two, whooof…’

I know to others looking at us from below or even from behind, we look like fireflies, slowly moving up the mountain, as only the light from our headlamps is visible. Fireflies in a string, moving upward in the extreme cold and wind.

Daylight is breaking and we reach our first stop. Vern directs us, “Keep warm people.” “Ten minute break.” “Remember to pee, drink and eat – in that order.” “You do not want to be caught with your pants down when we are ready to go!” His sense of humor lifts our spirits. We need to smile.

This first rest stop is by a broke -down, red, snow caterpillar. It is now a fixture on its ridge, and I doubt it will ever be removed. Just another piece of ‘garbage’ on Elbrus. I wonder how long it will remain here.

Modesty in the mountain does not exist. Men and women simply accept our basic nature needs, and simply that. And all are respectful. We ‘go’ when told, like in grade school.

“Two minutes people!” Vern commands and we know its time to rap it up and get going. We all respond as quickly as possible.

We continue our ascent as the sun slowly slides past the fluffy white clouds, painting a a golden hallow around them, as it rises to set its place against the blue sky. For a brief moment, both sun and moon share the same space. It’s magical what God has created. And from this vantage point, even more so.

Anatoli, the ‘official’ mountain photographer is going around from group to group, capturing special moments, which he will sell to us in a couple of days. Vern tells us at one point to simply pull our buffs down for a brief smile into the camera as we pass him at a certain point and time. We do. It records our red, frost faces that are hiding under our buffs. And also relieves us. There are some civilized moments up here! Plus we are not alone. We are having this adventure together.

Our second break is on the vertical face of the mountain, just off the narrow trekking path. As we follow our break routine I try not to think of the height which we are at, and also the fact that one slip, would have any one of us demonstrating our ice axe arrest techniques. Better not to think of that possibility. None of us wants to practice that. I try not to look back because of my fear of heights and simply tell myself I am on solid footing. It helps.

As we continue in single file, we come upon another group, which after a few moments, our guides and theirs, negotiate our passing ahead of them. All of our group secretly feels good about this maneuver. We seem to be moving at a decent pace!

I can see that we are entering ‘the saddle’. The saddle is termed as such because it’s a ‘dip’ between both mountain peaks, resembling an actual saddle.

While we enter the saddle, the wind is not prevalent and I foolishly think that Vern was exaggerating about the wind speed we were to expect. Never doubt Vern!

As I look ahead I can see snow blowing and creating dust clouds against and around other fellow climbers, already at the base of the saddle and also making their way up the other side towards the Summit. The brief stillness we feel was very much like the proverbial ‘calm before the storm’. Brace yourself Ema.

As we reach the saddle base, the wind is demonstrating its superiority. It pushes us like a bully, demanding we push back and fight to keep ourselves vertical.

Vern commands and guides us efficiently to get our down jackets on. We need to pee, drink and eat like on any other break, plus we need to put our harnesses on. We are securing all our backpacks and trekking poles in a pile and leaving them behind here. This is both to facilitate our final push up to the Summit, but also to save space – there is not much room up there!

Our guides help us with getting our harnesses on, without taking our crampons off. As Irina and ‘Jason’ (nicknamed by us, because of his white mask) help us, I make a mental note that I need to get a better harness for when I repeat this task in a future climb. It’s just not smooth enough for crucial times like this.

And we are off, for the final leg.
Again, we are soon feeling the wind’s defiant tease to ‘take him on’ with only our ice axe in hand as if to threaten the wind to ‘back off’. Just as we clip on the static line, the wind retreats teasingly, giving us a false sense of hope. Then it comes gusting against us with speeds of about 50km an hour. At moments, it takes a deep breath and then when it exhales, it spits out ice pellets that hit our faces and bodies, with demanding threats against us. I have never experienced wind like this. Truly, if we break our attention from it, it will and can toss us into the abyss. I briefly wonder if this is what Denali or Vinson will feel like, but I don’t have much time to ponder this thought, as all my energy is spent concentrating on each step, bracing myself with my ice axe and also guiding my leach on the fixed rope.

And suddenly it dawns on me, we ARE ‘crawling’ up to the Peak. The roar of the wind, the stinging of the ice, and the concentration required, are all very real. We are indeed crawling to the top.

Then as we leave the fixed rope section, we continue slowly, hunched down, up the glacier ridge towards the summit point. It’s in sight and that encourages us. But we move very slowly and carefully, because even though wind has given up throwing snow dust at us, it continues to push us defiantly.

And then suddenly – we are there! We are at the top of Mount Elbrus! We did it!

The Summit space is maybe a 10×12 foot small, cramped space. Our group alone fills it, as others also compete to share it.

At the same time, I realize and feel like, the wind is going to blow me away. This is not a good feeling; despite the relief at being successful, I still need to concentrate. I hunch down and secure my axe ice on its floor. I start to pull out my first flag, the Portuguese and Canada flags. I have sewn them together and realize the wind is blowing it like an out of control boat sail. Another climber sees me struggle and helps me hold an end, while Andrey, takes a picture. I know that it will not be possible to take pics of all my flags: the Language Marketplace flag, the Peaks for Change flag, CAMH, and why I climb. I will also not be able to take a pic of #JesusRocks flag and my heart tugs in sadness. However, I quickly stuff the flag into my jacket and try to hold up my ‘Julia and Ethan’ flag, for my beloved grandchildren. Unfortunately, the wind crumples it in response as Andrey snaps a quick picture for me.

Then I join the rest of the group for a group summit photo and just like that, it’s over.
It reminds me of a wedding – it takes so much time and preparation and you look forward to it with great anticipation, then it’s over so quickly. And today, there is no time to savor the moment.
It’s time to move on. Others are waiting to take our place and want us to move along.

However, I do have time to take a deep breath and look around in a 360 degree motion and memorize the true beauty that scourged us below. Peaks adoring the horizon around us, like a crown, as we stand on the top of Europe. Thank you God for allowing me to see this; to have this moment. Your mountain tops are truly awesome and You brought me here safely.

As we start our decent from the peak I feel disappointed I was not able to take more pictures and fly all my flags in celebration. But the goal of my trip was realized. I summited Mount Elbrus. Another successful climb and a resounding exclamation to the world that the stigma of mental health must change. That brings a smile. Now comes a well needed rest with my family before starting to prepare for Antarctica.

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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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Create a World in which everyone believes life is worth living.

Create a World in which everyone believes life is worth living.

These powerful words where part of the last sentence Mr Chown, the Director of Events for CAMH wrote in a thank you letter addressed to Peaks for Change in reference to our fundraising gala event we had on April 27 2018.

As I prepare to leave to Russia to climb Mt Elbrus, these words are hitting hard at home : ‘ A world in which everyone believes life is worth living.’ As I think of my Mom, Susan’s son Reid, and all those that just recently did not believe their life was worth living.

Yesterday, I had been speaking to my insurance advisor for our company benefits at Language Marketplace, and she mentioned that insurance companies have seen a rise in claims for anti-depression medications.

Are we as a society becoming more hopeless as we isolate ourselves more and more behind our social media profiles?

How can we tell if our friend, family member or neighbor is debating if ‘life is worth living’?

Openness. Understanding . Speaking out. Listening. Seeking help. That is what we all have to do when we feel or someone else is feeling that life is not worth living.

And this is the aspiration I will take with me as I try to summit Mt Elbrus in a few days. One step at a time. Together, we can ‘create a World in which everyone believes life is worth living’.

Ema Dantas

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