The “What Nexts”

I’ve puzzled greatly what the next post topics should be post Elbrus. And as I am on what seems to be my never ending quest to climb stairs during the hamster wheel of my work day, I have come up with numerous topics, all of which are duly recorded on the notes section of my phone.

But I have resisted the urge for an in-depth examination of my sunburned lips (although an expose of the sunscreen industry may be forthcoming) – and I similarly am not going in the direction of laundry, dogs and calling the kids. Instead, I finally settled for some thoughts on what’s next.

The “what’s nexts” can come up any time – I’ve had it happen after a big case is finally over, after any milestone reached. But there’s something particularly difficult – yet exciting – about the what nexts after a climb.

For one thing, at age 53, there simply is no such thing as stopping the training. So that’s not a what next. Maybe I’m not lugging 23 pounds around on my back while climbing stairs at the moment, but if I stop climbing stairs altogether, I don’t think there’s any amount of time that could get me back to where I am. It’s like the Woody Allen line from Annie Hall – if a shark doesn’t keep moving forward it dies. OK, he was talking about relationships but you get the point.

But more than just that – there is a world of infinite possibility out there – tempered only by some reality of space, time, and physical ability. Time and space – I truly don’t see how, until I actually retire, I can take three weeks off work to climb Mt. Vinson in the Antarctic, for example. Two weeks is hard enough. As for physical ability – I have to recognize it probably is not within my being to carry 65 pounds and drag a 100 pound sled. Unless I quit my job, do Cross Fit everyday and invent some other form of training that presently doesn’t exist – that’s just out – which means Denali is too.

So – what next? There is Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Maybe trekking in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco? And I am still determined to summit Mt. Hood one of these days. Mt. Adams? And we are seriously discussing a trip with friends to Iceland in March. There has to be some fine climbing there.

I just want to use my ice axe again. Right now the most likely near term possibility may be a winter ascent of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. And maybe I can even convince the daughters to come along.

I’ll throw it open for comments – from the north, south, east or west. Which summit next?

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Looking Down the Barrel

Our multiple methods of transportation continued as our team moved camp from a nice hotel with electricity, toilets and running water to a compound consisting of six oil barrels converted to lodgings, several similarly converted cargo containers, and exactly three outhouses, one of which didn’t have a door. But it was more than made up for by the view from the outhouses (and the entire area) of mountain peaks and green valleys.

The Outhouse:

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The View From the Outhouse

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To get to the Barrels, we loaded our luggage, ourselves and food and water into a taxi to the starting point of a gondola that took us over the valley and up to the first level of ski runs. Then we unloaded and reloaded and did exactly the same thing for yet another gondola ride higher up. And finally, for a grand finale, we loaded one piece of luggage onto each chair of a single person chair lift – whose only safety feature was a metal bar that loosely swung in front of the rider as he or she soared hundreds of feet over the snow covered ground. The bar actually created more danger because it gave an illusion of slight security, encouraging the rider to lean forward to see the sights below.

Our team was assigned Barrel #3, altitude 3900 meters (12,795 ft.). My husband and I had the first two “beds,” which were cots on each side of the barrel with a bedspread and pillow. There was a half wall (no door) dividing this area from the remainder, in which there were four more cots, two on each side, where our teammates and guide slept. Cozy quarters, to say the least. Prior residents had stuck all sorts of things on the walls, ranging from guiding company stickers to car ads (a high-end Mercedes). Each day, at some unexpected moment, electricity would suddenly be turned on for a couple of hours.

Home sweet home: in the top picture our backs are to the entry way to the barrel. We are facing the other cots.

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Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all served in a converted cargo container a few feet from our barrel, although it was still treacherous to navigate the icy snow and broken concrete slabs between the barrel and container. Breakfast – oatmeal (and lots of it), unspecified sausage, cheese, bread, fruit, yoghurt. Lunch – soup, sausage, cheese, bread, and the ubiquitous cucumber and tomato salad. Dinner – more soup, entree of different stews and potatoes or pasta, and salad. Our cook’s name was Olga. At each meal, including breakfast, there was a bowl of chocolates.

The first day in the barrels we hiked with our Russian guide Alec – who seemed to know everyone on the mountain – up to the Diesel Hut for acclimatization. It’s a complex of three or four “buildings” and one stone hut that campers can rent. It was built on the site of the old Priut 11 hut that burned in 1998. Renters or not, everyone is allowed to go in. It took us 2 hours to reach that spot the first day. We had cut that down to 45 minutes by day 3. Tells you something about the body making more red blood cells at altitude.

The second day we hiked one level further, up to the Pastukhov Rocks, at about 4700 meters (15,420 ft.). By now we were feeling much more adept with our crampons, plastic boots, and poles. The two members of our team who were going to ski down Elbrus, in the meantime, were practicing skiing and “skinning” up the mountain.

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All was going smoothly until the dread zipper problem reared its ugly head again. To understand this paragraph fully, you must read the earlier entry, Gear Check #2 or How to Break Your Equipment Before You Start. Just as we were about to leave for the Pastukhov Rocks, the side zipper pull on my oh so expensive hard shell, full side zippered pants separated itself from the zipper yet again. Our resourceful guide safety pinned the offending area together, but it wasn’t enough to survive a crash and burn slip and fall on the snow. There’s a wonderful photo of me (that shall not be posted here) having a Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction moment on the mountain. Fortunately I was wearing long underwear. Later that night our guide was able to fix the zipper – which required the use of pliers from his ski repair kit – but I was under strict instructions not to touch those side zippers again.

Day 3 in the barrels was supposed to be a rest day with some skills training. We spent an hour or so in the morning just below the Diesel Hut working on self arrest, footwork, what it’s like to be roped, and how to use an ice axe. Finally getting to use all the gear, the acquisition of which had consumed so much time, money and soul (at least in the part of my husband). I found I actually remembered some of the lessons from our unsuccessful Mt. Hood attempt. We spent a leisurely rest of the day trying to sleep, reading, etc. By now the barrel was starting to feel like home.

Although theoretically the two days for the summit attempts were days 4 and 5, everything in the mountains is about change. Because the weather looked good for Monday night into Tuesday morning, our guide made the decision we should attempt the summit a day early, and have an extra day in the Valley.

Monday night we had a huge 5 pm dinner of chicken and pasta. Although I was pretty well acclimatized by then I had lost my appetite and had to force myself to eat. We had spent much of the day packing our packs for summit day, no easy feat, and were supposed to be ready for a 1:15 am wake up call to have breakfast and get on yet another mode of transportation – a snowcat – that would take us to the Pastukhov at 3 am. By 7 pm we were all in bed, headlamps turned off, trying to sleep.

Life in the Baksan Valley

After planes, trains and automobiles – or rather, van, Aeroflot jet, van – and 12 hours of traveling we made it to the small village of Cheget. The three hour drive from Mineralye Vody to Cheget was fascinating: transitioning from pastures and fields to the rugged Caucasus Mountains. As we neared the mountains, the villages became much more middle eastern in appearance – wide gates fronting compounds of small houses. The van driver spent a lot of time dodging the many cattle who preferred standing in the road to the fields.

In sharp contrast to these villages, which appeared not to have changed in any significant way for hundreds of year, we drove through a very small town that catapulted us forward to the Soviet era. Despite the vast surrounding land, its main street was lined with five story communal apartment buildings in varying states of poor repair. Lots of empty factory buildings with the profile of the mountains in the background. Common green areas apparently designed to reduce the wild landscape into safe homogenized parks to fit the needs of generic human beings. The attempt to force uniformity onto this wild landscape wholly unsuccessful. I managed to upload a photo below – but it was taken out of the van window and doesn’t quite capture it.

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We then came to some sort of border, which we drove straight through, but one car had been detained and the driver was being questioned. Just on the other side of the border was a tank.

We are staying at the very nice Hotel Povorot. It’s at the edge of Cheget, and about 10 minutes from Terskol. Both are small villages that cater to skiers, climbers and hikers. It’s not ski season right now, and I suspect the villages are more lively then.

Our team consists of five climbers: one lawyer, two professors, and two investment bankers. We have one US guide and a Russian guide, an older gentleman who is said to have climbed Elbrus 200 times. As I suspected, I am the only woman. Fortunately everyone in our group has a good sense of humor!

On day one we climbed Mt. Cheget, about 11,000 feet, as our first acclimatization hike. There was a fair degree of scrambling and it was steep in places. There’s a fast group and a slow group and my husband and I are squarely in the middle of the slow group (except for downhill where I should be in a middle group). Scenery is spectacular – craggy, snow capped mountains, waterfalls. At one point we heard a roar and it wasn’t a tornado as we Floridians would assume – it was an avalanche on a mountain across the valley. It looked like a train of snow plummeting down the side of the mountain.

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Today was another acclimatization hike up to the observatory, about 10,000 feet. Instead of snow and glacier, this trail took us by fields of wildflowers – pinks, purples, blues, yellows and a white flower made of multiple small petals like lace, whose buds look like broccoli. I tried to post more photos but the ones above are all the wifi here can apparently handle, so they will have to wait.

Tomorrow we leave for the barrel huts at 12000 feet up Mt. Elbrus to prepare for our summit attempt. Probably no more posts until we are back down some time early next week.

Now I must go and pack/repack yet again. I feel I have been packing and repacking for weeks, but I guess that’s the essence of steps to stairs to summits!