Mount Elbrus Climb,  18,500 ft.      Russian Federation


June 21-July 3, 2010

June 30, 2010 Askau, Elbrus Region, Central Caucasus, Russian Federation 7800 feet.

I’m staring at a hillside that rises about 1000 feet from this village we have based out of near Terskol. The State Dept has a warning about travel to this area, something about kidnappings but that is not my present concern. Right now I am staring at a team of wild horses that are successfully eluding their prospective captors who are attempting to co opt me and Brian into their scheme. As the mounted locals take the heights in an attempt to corral the herd of ten or so beautiful wild animals we are supposed to block the entry to the village road and prevent their escape to the south. The whole thing looks good on paper. The local cattle, who have owned these streets for an indefinite period of time, appear unconcerned.


We descended to this village after our attempt on Mount Elbrus summit June 28, my birthday. Today’s walk through town down to Mt. Cheget’s base was a sort of de acclimatization walk to rid ourselves of any lactic acid from the big walk we did from our high camp at 14000 feet the day before. (Never mind the cable car ride to 11000). We had earned a day about town.


A week earlier we had dropped down into Askau to climb Cheget peak. As we returned back up to Terskol in the rain along this same road, we heard an ungodly noise up around the bend. An old military jeep came flying in our direction. It was obviously dragging something of consequence as we braced for impact. What happened next was entirely unexpected. The jeep was hauling some type of metal rebar in 20 foot sections, about three pieces. They were attached to the rear of the vehicle and were flailing about. Unfortunately for us, a curve lay between ourselves and the vehicle which meant that this truck, traveling about 55 miles per hour rounded the bend and whipped the metal like a flail at us. Brian, who was in the lead jumped in time to avoid losing his legs. I bolted immediately to the left and managed to dodge the metal by inches. The driver continued his journey while we checked for missing appendages. Go figure.

Later, while sitting on a bench outside our hotel, a couple of older locals approached and began speaking to us. When we responded “English”, they laughed and shook our hands. These guys were in their seventies and began slapping our backs and laughing at us and crowding in on the small bench we had originally occupied solo. As the growing crowd squeezed us off the end of the wood, Brian suggested we excuse ourselves. (maybe had something to do with that kidnapping thing?) I concurred. These guys had a connection and shared the same tattoos on their hands. Wow, what a place.


(three days earlier) June 28, 2010. 14000 feet, Mt. Elbrus High Camp, 3.45 am.

“Severe Clear” shouted Brian as he slipped from the tent into the shivering cold pre-pre dawn hour. “Nothing but stars!” His enthusiasm was lost on me at that point, having not slept a wink that night. The storms that blew in a few fresh inches of snow pelted our tent and helped prevent any sleep for me that evening. Weather was but one of the factors contributing to my insomnia. Summit night is the worst of the year. I thought back through that sleepless evening of all the summit nights I had spent on other mountains doing the exact same thing, laying there, sleepless. You know what the day ahead portends. Anywhere from ten to fourteen hours of sheer exhaustion. A mountaineering marathon of activity, cold, thin air and nausea. Hopefully the weather would hold. It was time to start brewing up.

4:45 am, 15700 feet, Elbrus Normal Route:

The “severe clear” has successfully disappeared. It was now severe cold and snow. Clouds replaced the stars and wind whipped our faces punishing us for leaving the tent. It was a steady climb up the well wanded route we had ascended the day before for acclimatization. The top of Elbrus east summit was now completely enveloped and the sun, normally on the rise by now at this latitude, was conspicuously sleeping in. Back into my steady groove of stepping and breathing. The weather would break. I had a feeling this couldn’t last for long.

Elbrus isn’t known for it’s technical difficulty. You don’t even need a rope. Just an ice axe for this route. That’s what they said. At this point, we were about the only ones ascending, what does that tell you? We heard the sound of a machine in the distance. From the lower slopes, headlights penetrated our cadence. It was the snow cats bringing climbers to Pashtukov rocks to begin their climb. Cheaters. (okay a cable car to 11 thousand is, well, fudging too.)

(9 hours into our climb, the storm does not abate, wind chill is minus 20 Fahrenheit)

Maybe this meant they heard something about the weather. It had to be a good sign. I pulled my balaclava up over my mouth. It was very cold when you stopped. We caught the cheaters within an hour as the gathering storm gained force on these slopes. We became caught behind the Congo line of 15 climbers, guided group, on their summit bid. Breaking trail was a chore and we were willing to allow them to do the job. They seemed annoyed that we should be sharing this duty so Brian passed them on the right, through thigh deep quicksand. I remained in back, my pace was slower. We eventually leap frogged each other until the saddle between the two summits. It was now nine hours since we departed from our high camp and the storm showed no signs of abating. The wind had actually increased to 30 mph and the snow stung my face and clung to my whiskers. I felt physically well. For me, breathing at these heights is always a chore along with eating. I did feel nauseous and fought the urge to empty my stomach. There wasn’t much there in the first place and I need the nutrition. For the past nine hours I had drunk only a few sips of water and eaten one quarter of a cereal bar.

(Mr. John and Muir at high camp, Chapter 3 shout out)

This storm was dumping snow at a record rate. Throughout our five days on this mountain we witnessed all forms of weather from blistering sunshine to lightning within a snow squall. There was no lightning now, just wind and snow. The weather was becoming problematic. I felt great, though. Prior to this climb, I instituted a new training regimen of interval cardiovascular workouts. It seemed to be paying off. I could get into a rhythm and retreat inside my clothing to insulate myself from the wind and enjoy the exercise. All my gear was working great! Brian complained of a cold finger. He might have early signs of frostbite. He asked about my nose but it felt fine. I had plenty to spare. A while later the uphill yielded to a flat traverse between the two summits of Mt. Elbrus. This saddle or “col” as it is referred to in mountaineering terms delineates the two distinct summits of this extinct volcano. Our objective is the Western Summit to the left. As we walked what seemed to be a half mile between the saddle, the marker wands began to disappear with the unending snow. In that saddle the wind seemed to be funneled more sharply and we again caught the guided group who were stopped dead in their tracks.

You know it’s trouble when the guide approaches us as asks if we are familiar with this mountain. Of course not, they are lost. The markers are gone and we are in between the breasts of this mother. As we sit for 20 minutes weighing our options it becomes apparent that the guided group is oblivious and we pass them. Heading up towards what little bit we can see ahead of us we ascend the Western peaks flank to the summit ridge. There is one marker barely visible in the growing storm and Brian walks to the right to find a possible route. It was amazing how quickly he disappeared in that gale and he returned to me as I did the same maneuver to the left of his foray. We were looking for any kind of track but this storm had long since buried any evidence of previous climbers. We began walking side by side since we didn’t have a rope anyway. Placing one foot ahead of the other we got to a point where you couldn’t even make our each other’s faces. Our altimeters were doing the weather thing. Erratic readings between 18000 and 17000 feet. Were we on the summit?

Brian gave me that look that decried my own thoughts. We had reached the end of our climb. The only real way to describe that moment is to think about swimming in the ocean at high tide. You can play around and go further, riding waves back into shore. We were gambling that we could get back but with each advancing foray into the white, we were erasing any proof of our existence on this mountain for descent. We stood there for a minute and a half staring at each other. I knew what he was going through. We couldn’t claim a summit of this mountain.

(group on acclimatization run day before, much like the one we followed)

To say frustrating is an understatement. We felt strong, had plenty of reserve and had pushed through the worst of the storm, not that it had dialed back any on our account. One begins to think that the wind simply cannot blow for 10 hours at that speed but on this day it did. At one point, when we had reached the saddle, the wind stopped and blew back a cloud to reveal the brightness of the world outside our bubble. That was but false hope that pushed us further up the slopes. We never saw the sun again until we reached our high camp and the clouds miraculously parted like the red sea. Our summit bid was over twelve hours after we began.

(Brian moves about camp as the weather breaks upon our return)

(harried after our epic summit attempt day, nose and cheeks are severely sandblasted by snow and wind)

                         (headed back down to 12000 feet, this photo is a stitched panorama of four separate shots of the Caucasus Range)

Moscow, July 1, 2010 Hotel Aquarium Expo

I am watching the biggest traffic jam on earth. Fourteen lanes dead stopped both into and outside of town . I have returned from the airport equally disappointed as Brian scored a flight and I did not. That meant another 1500 ruble cab ride for moi. Uuugh, these guys don’t have air conditioning either. Ah, the joys of standby travel. The day before we had taken a taxi from Elbrus region to MinVody airport. This place had bathrooms with holes in the floor. Their idea of food vending was an old gypsy lady with home baked muffins. Feral cats climbed in an out through the windows of this place and Russian soldiers with their big uniform hats watched us closely for any democratic missteps. Brian and I pulled gear from our hundred pound duffels to avoid the weight overcharge. I considered wearing my mountaineering boots on the plane until I realized how hot it would be on that 50 year old Aeroflot jet. Little did we know that when we weighed our stuff the guys were amenable to bribery. The Russian guy wrote down a figure on paper, 2000 rubles. Brian writes down a counter offer , 1200 rubles. We settle upon 1500 rubles, a bargain considering we paid an extra hundred US dollars to get this stuff out here in the first place. Delta pilot Brian is elated until I remind him that all the other people who have done the same thing probably do not have the weights reported accurately in the final weight tally of the airplane. He gets even an hour later by telling me that the engine by which we are sitting is one that blew through a window and killed some people in the states back in the nineties. (Did I mention that while we were boarding on the tarmac they were changing a tire on the Russian made jet with a tire iron exactly like the one for my 1971 Ford pickup?)

July 2, 2010 Sherementeyvo International Airport, Moscow:

I decided to change my strategy and go for a bird in the hand. I would accept a flight to New York instead of Atlanta. Get me to the states and I will work the rest out. After all the customs stuff in Russia I am on a business elite seat to the states. YeeHa. Now we’re talking. Eleven hours and a lot of great pampering later, we land in New York. I’ve got two hours to catch a flight to Atlanta. Customs takes exactly two hours. I’ve never seen such inefficiency. Welcome home. I squeak by all that stuff, recheck my bags (all 100 lbs of it) and make a dash for the terminal. Back to standby status. I am 14 on the list and it is the day before July 4. It will be close. As the boarding begins to close, they call my name. I’m going to make it. Arriving in Atlanta at 7.30 pm, my bags were not so lucky, well, at least one of them anyway. Brian and his girlfriend Ashley are there waiting for me. What a nice greeting. They are great hosts. I return to his house for a few hours of sleep. Brian is getting up at 4.30 am to run the Peachtree Road Race with Ashley’s family. I depart his house at 5 am and return to the airport to attempt to retrieve my luggage. After one hour, I find someone who can assist me. There is my gear. I retreat as the sun rises over Hartsfield International Airport. By ten am in in pulling into Knoxville, just in time to shower and make church. I leave the service early, thanking God for getting me back home safely and proceed to Morristown to join my family for a July 4th picnic at my Brother David’s house.

July 5, 2010, Knoxville:

I’m staring at my Summit Certificate for Mt. Elbrus. Four days earlier the lady at our ground service office in Terskol looked at us as if we were ghosts when we returned to the hotel and knocked at her door the day after our descent from Elbrus.

“You climb in that weather?” she asks.

“Yes,” we proclaim, “it sucked.”

“You summit?”

I don’t think it mattered what we said, she was already printing the certificates. I pulled up some videos from you tube. Typing in “Elbrus summit ridge” I run across a video from a crystal clear day that some Frenchman took from the summit. He scanned the horizon down into the Col where we stood unsure of our position. There, right below his vantage point was the rock band where Brian and I made our decision. The cameraman could have dropped a rock on our heads. Oh well, that’s mountaineering. People ask if I am disappointed etc. The answer is a resounding No. We didn’t reach the true summit but without a doubt I feel as if we climbed that mountain. Our expedition was a success on all levels but those last few feet. It’s funny how Westerners measure success. I am as proud of this climb as any I have done. Brian and I made great decisions, gelled as a team, had a wonderful time and experienced a country foreign to us both. Yes, I would like to rewind the clock and postpone our summit bid by a day or two but the weather on that hill is marginal all the time and it could have been a carbon copy.

(Elbrus West summit to left.  Although everything looks very close, those rocks to my right were several miles and a couple of thousand feet higher than I was standing)

Russia is one of the most difficult countries in which to travel I have experienced. Red tape, visas, OVIR registrations, border checkpoints and expensive cab rides make getting to the Elbrus region an expedition in itself. No one speaks English. Climbing the mountain seems the easy part, in retrospect. The Russian people are not friendly. Their dour faces and general lack of apparent happiness seem holdout from the Soviet days. Moscow is a city of giant commerce and new wealth. I walked into the most opulent mall near my hotel that made Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles look diminutive. Conversely, the border zones of Elbrus are as poor as Appalachia. Time will tell what effect capitalism will have on this empire but I am appreciative of my experience and Brian for securing me the airplane ticket. Business elite flying makes transatlantic journeys so much more pleasant. It is worth any standby hassles for certain. The mountain itself is beautiful and straightforward if you ignore the mechanizations associated with the ski resort. Camping on its flanks is a truly splendid panorama that affords brilliant views of the Caucasus mountains. I would recommend this climb to someone who wishes to test their body at altitude after a climb of Rainier or something else in the Cascades.

Click pics for larger version.  (I am working on a video as we captured some footage during the climb so check back in a few days, please) This first set is from our time in Moscow and Red Square, the Kremlin etc.  Below are climb pictures.