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.