Mount Elbrus- 18,510 feet- An abbreviated adventure. Let’s Ride!
Mount Elbrus- 18,510 feet- An abbreviated adventure. Let’s Ride!
The plan was as follows: In 238 hours, fly from Los Angeles to Moscow, catch a connecting flight to Yerevan, Armenia, stay 7 hours in a hotel in Armenia, catch a different flight/airline to Mineralyne Vody, Russia, and move from Min Vody to Terskol, Russia, and the rest was unknown, unpredictable, and inherently exciting, with an intent to summit the highest mountain in Europe, and then take a weekend of rest in Armenia. Undoubtedly complex in its various moving parts, it fell apart at the beginning.
I arrived timely at LAX thanks to a ride from my work wife Nikki, snapped the obligatory selfie of wish me luck, and checked my bags. I found a bar close to my departure gate, and ordered an IPA. This guy sat down a bit away from me, and was pleasant in his demeanor but a bit odd to me. The magic of alcohol bridged our cultural differences, and eventually we were throwing back shots of Jameson. Alex was his name, the second Alex I would meet in my one week journey to Russia (having “met” the first Alex through Instagram, a mountain climbing guide).
As I proceeded to drink my way onto the plane and prepare to annoy my seat companions, I received a call from an 800 phone number. I was annoyed to learn that my flight from Yerevan to Min Vody, scheduled in 36 hours, was arbitrarily cancelled. No reason was given, I guess for the airline no fucks were given about the impact on passengers. The polite foreign Indian accented Expedia representative kept me calm (or maybe it was the Jameson), as we tried to sort out an alternative.
I entered the Moscow flight, still on the phone with Expedia trying to sort out my problem. Incidentally, every time I enter an airplane, I take a brief second to study the door that I know will seal shut and trap me in a tube that could be the last time I stand on the earth. There is something magical, intimidating, and worth reflecting upon when I enter a plane. This is the door, when it shuts, it will not open again unless you are alive.
I try not to talk in loud volumes, so I am not the kind of traveler who I loathe- the loud mouth self important attorney, or the oblivious self important boring housewife with a mundane life that must be shared with everyone within a ten mile radius. Regardless, I continued to communicate with Expedia about my options. It came down to this- I could land in Yerevan, and spend 48 hours waiting for the next flight to Min Vody. Considering I had planned only 238 hours to fly around the world, solo climb the highest mountain in Europe, and paint the town red in Yerevan, this 48 hour delay would simply not work.
I took my seat, with my new companion Alex not far away, continuing to ply me with whiskey, and tried to figure out my options. The wi-fi on the plane had failed, so I resigned to my fate, took a valium, and took in meaningful sleep on my 13 hour flight to Moscow. Incidentally, I had heard so many negative comments on the airline, Aeroflot, but I found the experience quite enjoyable. I paid for a few small upgrades, but the plane was large, the food was decent, and the services were respectable.
I left LAX at 4pm Friday, and at 2pm on Saturday, I deplaned, and entered the maze of the Moscow airport. I briefly contemplated and accepted the possibility that Edward Snowden could have indeed hid in the airport as a political dissident (really, a traitor). Now that I landed, I turned on my phone and began to figure out what to do. On that note, my phone would only hold a charge for 45 minutes. I tried to get a new phone before I left, but Mount Elbrus felt I should have more challenges, so I never received it and was left with a malfunctioning piece of shit.
I discovered quickly that I could book a flight from Moscow to Min Vody. This meant I would miss my flight from Moscow to Yerevan, and further miss my flight from Yerevan to Min Vody. More importantly, I had to get my bags off of that flight to Armenia. In order to do that, I had to enter Russia! I would leave the security of being an unidentified diplomatic transient, and instead take my American ass into Russia. This was the only way to implement the changes that seemed the most feasible option.
Being a man of action, and certainly a man of instinctive impulse (and let’s be sure- that characteristic has absolutely benefitted and bear trapped me in life), I went for it and entered Russia. I politely went up to the Areoflot people telling them my predicament, and that I needed to intercept my bags before they went to Armenia. I came to immediately understand the complete lack of concern for my circumstances, the emotionless cultural characteristics of my Russian friends, and suffering through jet lag, time changes, and a hangover, I was pinballed around through multiple people about how to intercept my bags. This did not give me the comfort I was seeking. But that inner voice as always is saying, Man up Tony! Still, if I didn’t intercept the bags, they would end up in Armenia, and I would have to go there simply to retrieve them.
Fortunately, my bags were delivered to me, after the final person handed me a note written in English about how to intercept my bags. Must be a common occurrence. Interestingly, at no time were they ever inspected. This was a positive development, permitting me to smuggle in copious quantities of Quaaludes and molly. I found an airport lounge with a semi-private bed and sacked out for 5 hours. I took a cold shower (because the hot water was not working, or true to the hearty nature of the Russians), and boarded a plane to Min Vody at 1am on Sunday. I landed at 4am. Essentially, I was back on the track I had expected, as the original plan saw me landing in Min Vody at 5am.
I proceeded to figure out how to get to Mount Elbrus. Before I left, the US State Department had issued a Level 3 warning about traveling to this part of Russia, owing to Chechnyan terrorism activity, and other somewhat realistic threats to American security. This was compounded by the fact that there is not a functional US Consulate or Embassy within 1500 miles, so if you get yourself in trouble, good luck getting out. Armed with my wits, tenacity, and a belief that the hero of the world, Donald Trump, was riding shotgun on my trip (please, please note sarcasm here), I felt confident I would not be sent to a Russian prison. Also I had read that taxi drivers will take you to a dark road, beat the shit out of you, and steal your climbing gear. This is all so overblown, but I am not so naïve to not be guarded in my actions.
As I approached the counter of a reputable looking taxi service, a man about my age tapped me on the shoulder. He noticed my ragged climbing pack and asked if I was a climber, and further if I was heading to Mount Elbrus. I confirmed, and he then asked if I wanted to share a taxi. It was one of those moments from the Matrix, where you are offered the Red or Blue Pill, and the consequences will forever impact your life. In my exhausted stupor, I tried to size up this friendly looking man and make a decision. I ended up taking the Red Pill, and like Neo, my journey went in the correct direction.
Alex, now the third Alex, is a 35 or so year old married father of one daughter, from Kaliningrad. I consider myself so enriched by his friendship, and I really look forward to following his life and growth as a man. Incidentally I had no idea where in the hell Kaliningrad was located. Now I know one more thing about our beautiful planet. I knew Alex was cool, and that I had made the correct decision, because 10 minutes into meeting me, Alex proudly told me he had just attended a Tony Robbins seminar. Only an upstanding, positive, good intentioned human would volunteer to a stranger that he had just attended such a seminar.
We retrieved our bags, and walked out to our designated taxi. And of course, Alex broke out some ciggies, and I smoked the first of 30 or so over the next week with him. Cursed little bastards! Alex was going to climb Elbrus, having never really climbed any mountains, certainly having never used any climbing gear. He had been instructed by his team leader to look for a guy with a climbing backpack. How fortuitous it was that I crossed his field of vision. We jumped in our taxi about 4am and proceeded to Elbrus.
The valley up to Elbrus was beautiful, as are so many of the mountain valleys I have traveled. They are always cut by a creek or river, and as you climb higher and higher, the Northern Caucuses appear as the alps in Switzerland- jagged, topped with glaciers, inhospitable, powerful, and grand. We stopped along the glacial river coming off these mountains, and I purified myself in the waters, as has become my ritual. For me to be with nature, and to connect with my surroundings and my challenge, I want to feel the air, the ground, the water, and engage all my senses in as many ways as possible. So, I ritualistically bathe in the water sources around.
We arrived in the “Elbrus Town” about 630am. I noted the sun rose early, even for late Summer, around 5am. Waiting for us was the mountain climbing leader, Egor. Ahh Egor, a man who embodies the dirtbag climbing characteristics that I possess in smaller doses. He is a wiry 37 year old handsome man with a full head of prematurely greying dark hair, and constantly with a cigarette in his hand. He immediately sized me up and I believe was skeptical. I smile thinking of Egor. He is sarcastic, optimistic, and genuine, and has climbed a lot in Kazakhstan. I made it clear to him that I was happy to be connected to him, as I assumed he could help me sort out a lot of my logistics. I also established our boundaries immediately, advising him that I intended to climb the mountain independently, and I did not need to be managed or guided by him.
We checked me into the Hotel Alpinista, and for $9 a night, I had a bed and a bathroom. True to my frugal Scottish ways, I was quite pleased with this cost. Incidentally, Egor remarked that he was happy to meet an American, and not a Brit or a Scot, because they drink too much. I was happy to point out that my roots are Scottish, and that indeed I would cause him to drink. When I checked into the hotel, Egor politely poked fun at my US Passport, with its majestic eagle and dominant presentation. Ahhh, America, even our passports project overconfidence.
About 10am, we began an “acclimation hike.” I expected a 4 hour hike. Wrong. We climbed 13 miles, up to 13500 feet, over 7 hours. This was slightly difficult, in light of no sleep and the time change. On the way up, we visited a beautiful waterfall. Never missing an opportunity to taste the land, I stripped down to my skivvies and climbed into the ice cold waterfall. My Russian Comrades, Alex, Egor, and Sergei (another 30 ish man, who spoke no English, but was absolutely pleasant and another value added to my life), were chicken-shits and did not join in the fun. Probably better, for as I entered the falls, I smashed my noggin into some rock and split open my head. I was bleeding like a stuck pig for a little bit, but the bleeding subsided, and we pushed on. Sometimes I like to feel a bit of a sting to wake me up and keep me on my A game. We topped out on the trail, at an observatory, and then descended back to town.
The next day, Monday, we assembled our gear and began our “climb” up Elbrus. I always try and embody the purist ideal in climbing. Self-reliance, hard work, independence. I have to acknowledge on Elbrus I played a bit loose with my own principles. We took a Ski Quad up to around 12,500 feet, then a single chair ski lift to around 13300 feet. The discarded and abandoned Soviet era machinery added a fun bit of character to the mountain as we made our way higher. When we topped out of the single chair ski lift, we proceeded uphill for about 1 hour. At that point, Egor found some people he knew, and they humped our packs to the Marie sleeping structure on the back of a snow-mobile. The cheating continued in this capitalistic and entrepreneurial part of the world.
As we marched up the mountain, I took note of the vast amount of infrastructure. I had read about the “barrel huts” at the top of the ski chair lift. There is so much more than that now. Row after row of single story, questionably constructed structures, fed off of fuel powered generators, lines the trek as you make your way up the mountain. Of the four summits I’ve so far accomplished, this represented the greatest density of human influenced structure in nature. I think much has to do with the fact this is a ski resort, and has been for a long time. When people are not climbing the mountain to the summit, they use this area to have winter sport fun.
We arrived at the highest of the structures on the mountain- Go Egor! We settled into the Marie structure. As you enter, there is a common area with a table. The room is about 10 feet by 12 feet, and on the far side is a shelf with a lot of food stuffs. There are large 1 – 5 gallon water bottles all over the place, and a burner in the corner that feeds off propane. Incidentally I drank the water unfiltered directly off the mountain. The structure has three (3) rooms. The first is occupied by the designated host. In our case, it was a young man who was excited to share about the Muslim religion. He washed his feet and face in a common water bucket which I found disgusting so I took to emptying it every day. Also, the structure has electricity off a generator, that turns on when the sun goes down, and seemed to be available on random and unpredictable basis.
Next to the host room, separated by a wall as thin as paper, was our room. It could sleep 4 men. There was one wooden board elevated off the floor about 2 feet, and above that, another wooden board. I staked my climb on the upper part of the bunks. Egor acted as quickly as I did. The other two non-climbers were a bit out of their element, and so they did not act as fast. Next to that room, another similar room, and when we arrived there were two women in it, and a male guide. They were Russian.
The toilets on Elbrus are legendary, and they did not disappoint. You make your way over some rocks to two separate structures, pitched precariously off the side of the hill. You close the door to handle your business, which consists of squatting over a hole, and having a crap onto the side of the mountain. There is no collection receptacle. Everyone literally shits on the side of the mountain. The toilet paper is supposed to be deposited into a garbage bag, which I did, but not everyone. Note if you ever go, the bathroom with the blue door is the “better” one. In addition to this absence of infrastructure, there was no mechanism in place to deal with trash. As such, it was quite visible. It seemed to be collected in a few different spaces, and Egor told me they burn it on occasion. I suppose that is a way to get rid of it. I was disappointed with this method, as inevitably there will be garbage, and plastic, that goes down the mountain, and pollutes the environment.
We got settled in, and then received an invitation to the common guiding structure. Egor was really excited for me to attend this structure, though I was pretty tired. Still, to honor and oblige my new friend, I went to the structure. Here was an ugly experience. An asshole was among us, and this man treated me poorly and was actually a bit aggressive with me. I was already tired, and speaking no Russian was doing all possible to participate in the place, primarily by sitting still. This guy had a problem with me, and he got my blood boiling, so I bounced. I didn’t need to get into a fight on the mountain, so I exited the get together. I was disappointed because a guy was going over to play a guitar, and it could have been a fun experience.
The next day, we hiked up to the Pashtuhova Rocks, 15,321 feet. That took us about 2 hours. Sergei and Alex had not previously used crampons, so this was an acclamation experience, as well as a gear training event. We hung out for a while, and the Kaliningrad Konnection taught me how to say this is awesome in Russian- “Pyzeet Caak Ahounda.” We jammed out to some Russian music and then descended. That night, the men made me Greshka, a Russian staple. They were incredibly warm and accommodating to me as their guest and they made me feel so welcomed. I shared butterfingers, Sour Patch Kids, and Beef Jerky. I continued to smoke Egor’s cigarettes. They also taught me the phrase “Poi ya hole eh”, which translates to “Let’s Ride” in Russian and was stated by Yuri Gergarin before he blasted into space as the first human being to do so.
The next day I was determined to take a rest day. But Egor asked me to get some cigarettes, so I obliged and descended the mountain in search of them. I should note my right knee was injured before I left for Russia, and it did not, and has not, improved. So, going downhill caused me quite a bit of pain, annoyance, and frustration. Furthermore, I was unable to find any place that sold ciggies, so I was in a shitty mood as I returned. What a wasted mission! Funny thing about men, maybe climbers in particular, we study each other for body language cues for compatibility purposes. Egor noted my shitty demeanor and made a remark that, although he didn’t know me, I seemed like a man who could easily be made to brood. I denied knowing what he was talking about; I know exactly what he was talking about. I have subjected every woman I have ever loved to the torture of my mood shifting personality. It is no secret that I have a penchant to swing in my moods.
Following my self imposed pity party, we all discussed the following day, summit day. We would get moving by 1am. We climbed into our rat cave and each of us went into his own mind in preparation for the climb. At 11:50pm, I announced, in a strong tone, “Gentlemen, it’s time to climb the mountain.” We got our summit packs organized and left right on time at 1am. I took lead, with Egor behind me, and Alex behind him. Egor had begun to suffer respiratory distress, and was having some challenges, while Alex was just moving a bit slower as an inexperienced climber. Sergei decided to meet us at the Pashtuhova Rocks via a snow-mobile transport.
We arrived above the Pashtuhova Rocks, and kept moving. I had on my 6000 meter Lowa boots, wool socks, two pairs of long underwear, ice climbing pants, long underwear shirt, fleece, soft shell jacket, and down puffy jacket, a beanie, a balaclava, and a buff. For my hands, I had on liners and snow boarding gloves. My hands and feet were chilly; at several points, even being in motion, I had to slam my hands into my legs to make my fingers not numb, and stomp my feet to keep them warm. I developed the screaming barfies twice, surprisingly. I was cold and fatigued, but in good spirits.
Just as the sun began to come up, around 16,500 feet, I was shocked to see a snow cat deposit 20 climbers. And it happened twice! I had to talk a little shit, and I captured myself doing so on my Go Pro. How dare they! They shaved off a good 3 miles and 2000 vertical feet of climbing. In addition, from that point on the route was single file, and so I ended up stuck behind the group. I kicked it into high gear, and passed the 40 climbers on the left, leaving everyone in the dust, including Sergei, Egor, and Alex.
I reached the saddle between the East and West summit, with the West summit being the highest peak. I took in a bit of water, and kept moving, ending up behind a group of military men who were training on the peak. The last 700 vertical feet or so is slightly technical, with a slight pucker factor. I was surprised to see that, and was more concerned about it for me coming down. Not fatal consequences, but you would really have a bad day if you slipped in there. In any event, I continued my march, pretty whipped at that point.
By about 8am, I reached the summit plateau, and I could see the summit in the distance. I knew it was the summit because there were people standing around on it, and when it’s 10 degrees below zero wind chill, people usually don’t hang around. For the first time in a long time, I was able to enjoy the last 10 minutes of my climb to the summit. So often you are wasted tired, cold, and miserable, you do not enjoy the summit. In this instance, seeing the summit in the distance, knowing I would make it, gave me a nice long feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. Soon I would stand on the highest mountain on the continent of Europe and my 4th successful summit!
So I did. I stood on the summit, took some video and pictures, and even sent out text messages from the summit. It was quite glorious.
I began my descent and encountered Alex. He told me Egor and Sergei had turned around, and he was by himself. I cannot express what pride I have to call this man my friend. It takes almost immeasurable drive, discipline, and determination to continue on, without support, to the summit, as he did, with no encouragement and no guidance. He made the summit about 90 minutes after I did. I reached the top of the Pashtuhova Rocks, and my knee was absolutely killing me. So, I paid a guy to transport me down on a snow-mobile. Why the hell not.
I arrived back at the Marie structure, packed my bag, and began my descent. On the way down, I encountered a woman I consider one of my personal heroes. USMC Kirstie Ennis, a single leg amputee who is absolutely one of the toughest people I know. She was ascending the mountain to climb the 7 summits, as I have been doing, but she is overcoming so much more adversity. Seeing her really made my day.
I got to the hotel and took a nap, and the Kaliningrad Konnection joined me about 7 hours later. My stomach was a mess, and I had very little appetite. I did drink the water off the mountain unfiltered, but I think if I were sick from that it would have been an emergency room type of illness. We slept one night, and then I left Russia the next day. Getting out was a bit challenging. We were stopped twice, and I felt a great deal of scrutiny. Further, when we were at the airport, I was initially denied departure because I did not have an Armenian visa, which is not necessary, and then I was stopped for a good 20 minutes because my passport had red flags because I entered in Moscow, was leaving Min Vody, and headed to Armenia. I kept my cool, but I felt like I was doing something wrong, which I was not, and I had to keep telling myself to stay cool, and that I wasn’t doing anything illegal. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we cleared the ground.
Pyzeet caak ahouonda!