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.

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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!

MCO to Moscow

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Perhaps not an iconic photo of Moscow, but that was the view from our hotel room at 3:30 a.m. this morning when my eyes popped wide open. We are staying at the Hotel Gamma Delta in the Izmailov area, just a few metro stops from downtown Moscow. The hotel is part of a tourist complex built for the 1980 Olympics and there are presently just as few Americans here as I suspect there were back then.

The trip to Moscow went smoothly, although accompanied by the usual hiccups – such as the last minute search for ski baskets for my trekking poles (none to be found in Orlando in June) only for the original six we had purchased months ago to be located under the pile of gear in the guest bedroom. And I shouldn’t omit the re-packing of all our carry-on luggage at the airport when we became concerned our backpacks exceeded the maximum 22 inches in length.

Our first day started with a long traffic jam as we left the airport, during which our non-English speaking taxi driver seemed to take particular delight in playing games of chicken with much larger vehicles. Our route took us past innumerable high rise apartment buildings. Some rehabbed; many not. They stood in stark contrast to the incredible green surrounding the airport. We spent the afternoon recovering from jet lag and exploring the Izmailov area, which includes a reconstruction of a wooden Russian church and brightly painted castle and surroundings, now used for the History of Vodka Museum and weddings. There’s very little English here, and I’ve been looking up how to say “please” and “thank you,” not to mention trying to gain some understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet.

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After dinner at a traditional Russian restaurant last night with our guide and one of our climbing companions (who has climbed Denali and Acongagua, among others), we spent the day touring Moscow. The Armoury Museum at the Kremlin – itself surrounded by 15th century walls, is incredible. The opulence of the dress, crowns, carriages, and jewels rivals Versailles. No wonder there was a revolution. Particularly interesting was seeing the two presidential helicopters land only a couple of blocks from us in the Kremlin, then take off again, and shortly after we saw the presidential car with its two security vehicles exit the Kremlin.

We ended the day with dinner at a very ultra modern Italian restaurant that embodies the new Moscow. Now it’s back to re-packing everything for a long travel day to the Baksan Valley in the Caucasus Mountains where our mountaineering will really begin.

And who knew? The name “Red Square” has nothing to do with the
Soviet Union. The word red means beautiful.

At Red Square
At Red Square

My Bags Are Packed and . . .

Except they’re not! Instead I’m lying in bed writing this blog while the bed in the guest bedroom remains covered in all the gear for the trip. My most recent interaction with said gear has been taking guests to look at it, as if they were being introduced to some elderly, crotchety relative who lives in a back bedroom, or to view an important but obscure work of art. We gaze upon the equipment reverently, with appropriate looks of awe, and I secretly wish I had less reverence and more knowledge about all of it.

Same As It Ever Was
Same As It Ever Was

In any event, the daunting task of packing, together with other last minute activities, remains. It’s been a harried week, with work and a week long visit from our daughters who are briefly in town (but who have shown little interest in helping their aged parents pack). I can no longer use this blog as my vehicle for procrastination today.

I hope to have decent internet access here and there. Please excuse any typos in posts from the road as they may well be written on my phone. To Russia, With Love!

The Last Minute

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One of my law partners suggested that I title this post – only one week out – “the morbid post,” focusing on all that might happen should I not return from Elbrus. It was a tempting subject. Who can forget Tom Sawyer standing in the back of the church as he watches his own funeral unfold, and becomes overwhelmed by his own hitherto unknown virtues. For years I have treasured a Shouts and Murmurs column from the New Yorker that consists solely of the author’s self-satisfying rant as he imagines the accolades he will undoubtedly receive when his time comes from his ex girlfriends and others who never appreciated him enough during his short, but now clearly worthy, life. Something like, “It was not until now that we realized [insert your name]’s true talents, skills, generosity, and overall wonderfulness.”

But, alluring as morbidity may be, as an eternal optimist, instead I will simply observe the last minute activities of the week.
1. Tickets – Since flights have already changed departure times on numerous occasions I have no doubt they will do so again. Cross fingers two hours really will suffice for a layover in NYC.
2. Cram gear in duffel bag. Having already unsuccessfully tried to convince Delta we should get two free bags each instead of one due to the way the baggage fees were described, we are stuck with one bag each plus carry-ons. Somehow I don’t think the ice axe can go in the carry-on.
3. Practice with gear. Although we had the best of intentions to really learn our equipment, my motivation was gravely affected by the zipper debacle. See post – Gear Check #2. Although said zipper was fixed, the much anticipated practice session still hasn’t taken place. The pointy things on the crampons go down, right?
4. Get psyched to leave work behind and shift gears to preparing to climb!

The Fear Factor

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One way to alleviate the excruciating boredom of climbing the fire staircase as part of my training routine is surfing the internet on my phone. (Yes, it can be done, although it is easier on the way down than up and it is certainly not possible while going backwards.) As part of that practice, I have possibly read every blog ever written about Mt. Elbrus, ranging from the missives sent by the ubiquitous Pilgrim Tours (who publish success ratios for each of their almost weekly climbs once the season starts) to past worldwide wrestling pro John Layfield’s diary of his ill fated attempt to summit a couple of years ago. I
haven’t ignored YouTube either. I have stayed up many a night viewing other people’s clips of the Barrel Huts, the snow, and sometimes, the summit.

What all these have in common is their utter lack of consistency. You go from the cheery Canadians planting their flag at the summit under almost clear skies to the blog from the South African woman whose group gets caught in a storm just meters from the summit and who has to struggle for hours through deep, deep snow to get back down. There’s one video that seems to consist of nothing but climbers collapsed in a heap while snow pelts down on them.

Last Thursday I watched and read enough of these that I awoke Friday wondering just what the heck I was I actually planning on doing. How do we know whether we are going to encounter blue skies or will we fall victim to the truly dangerous mountain gods? But, it didn’t take much more than remembering how I felt when we reached the top of Kilimanjaro in all its icy splendor, or the views of the wind whipped rock and stone of Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail, to get me going again. Two weeks from today. Countdown is on.

Gear Check #2 or How to Break Your Equipment Before You Start

The Gear
The Gear

It is a well known fact that men like gear. Trigger alert – this post may disturb some of you gentlemen so continue to read at your own peril.

My husband is no exception. He has studied the meaning of “soft shell guide pants,” weighed the respective benefits of Black Diamond vs. other brands of crampons (that dilemma was easily resolved when the Black Diamonds wouldn’t fit his boots), and by now has a vast knowledge of the respective merits of multiple types of plastic boots.  The number of emails he receives from  Moosejaw is by now probably equivalent to those he receives from the president or other political luminaries.

I realized gear was a large part of the male enjoyment of the Great Outdoors many years ago on a one night camping trip in the Adirondacks with the husband and several of his male buddies. We arrived in the small town outside the state park about noon, and then proceeded to spend the entire afternoon buying equipment for what was probably no more than a six mile hike the next day.  We got to the camp site just in time to drop off all the new gear before heading back to town to have dinner at a restaurant.

The wind up for this trip has been no different. The husband’s latest mail order has been the much wondered about soft shell guide pants made out of some special fabric apparently guaranteed to turn the most inexperienced climber into something worthy of Everest. But in all fairness, I have to admit I have not been immune from the gear bug. At Travel Country’s last sale (by now they recognize us and devote an entire cash register to us as soon as they see us coming in) – I found unbelievably expensive hard shell pants at half price. Water proof, breathable – clearly if my body fails, these pants will surely walk me up the mountain by themselves.

But yesterday we decided to practice putting our crampons on, zipping and unzipping pants over our plastic boots, etc. Unfortunately, I forgot that my highly exotic full side zippered pants zip both up and down. After I couldn’t figure them out, I resorted to my husband’s clearly superior gear skills to solve the problem by yanking on the *#%@ zipper. Following a fair amount of cursing and blame and tugging – now the zipper doesn’t work at all! The pants are now off at a tailor in the hopes they can be fixed, labels still pristine.

All I can say is, despite all my maligning of my husband’s obsession with his equipment, all his stuff still works. At least so far.

Why I Decided to Run (Sometimes)

I have hated running for as long as I can remember. It started in junior high or high school when our gym teacher decided an appropriate way to avoid the mutual torture that comprised our gym classes was to require each student to do an independent series of workouts for about six weeks. Every week we each had to accumulate a certain number of aerobics points after which we were free to return to eating Pringles, drinking cokes, watching Star Trek and I Love Lucy reruns, and the other activities that made up our generally somnolent 1970s lives. I’m pretty sure the book upon which this brilliant exercise in avoiding actually teaching (much less seeing) your gym students was Kenneth Cooper’s The New Aerobics.

I would stagger around Duke’s east campus in the hot North Carolina afternoons, convinced that I must be running at least 3 or 4 miles. It was only much later I found out it was barely two miles door to door. But my aerobics points were much higher when I self reported the greater number of miles, and hence my completion of the task much sooner.

In any event, it was those memories that faced me each time I thought of running as a form of training. But as Elbrus has drawn nearer and nearer, the fear factor ever increasing, and the conflict between the time needed for other types of training and my work responsibilities seemingly sometimes insurmountable, running has occasionally seemed like the best solution. Hence, off I have gone, Pandora radio plugged in, and at a steady 11 1/2 minute per mile pace. And very occasionally I have actually hit that point where your stride feels rhythmic, breathing even, and you feel you can keep going indefinitely. I have to admit that the purchase of real running shoes as opposed to what we wore in the ’70s has also made a difference. I’m certainly not into speed – in fact, the few times my much taller husband has run with me he claims my pace is impervious to topographical features. But in my view you shouldn’t have too much fun running downhill – I figure that it’s the sheer mental endurance that may be the most needed quality for the long slog up Mt. Elbrus.

So, I will now grudgingly sometimes go for a run – and maybe even enjoy it (but not too much!). Nonetheless, I must point out that Jim Fixx, the author of The Complete Book of Running dropped dead of a heart attack at 52. Need I say more.

The Gear Check

The packing/gear list for these trips always seems to occupy at least 3 single spaced pages and to contain various incomprehensible descriptions such as “soft shell guide pants.” And there is a dreaded moment of truth when you set everything you have for the trip on the bed in your guest bedroom. My stuff on one side of the bed; husband’s on the other. Shared equipment in the middle (such as the multi pack of carabiners – the use of which we only have the vaguest idea).

That’s the moment where (a) somehow despite hours of shopping you seem not to have certain pieces of what could be essential equipment and (b) even if you have it, you don’t have the faintest idea how to use it.

This is what happened on Mt. Hood in June 2012. This was to be our first climb that involved anything as complicated as a climbing harness and a rope – all of which, fortunately, were supplied by the guiding company that operates Mt. Hood climbs. When we got off the snow cat with our guide at 1 a.m. or thereabouts – having taken off or not put on all of our equipment – we were met with over 40 mile an hour winds that rapidly increased to plus 60 mile per hour gusts. This is what I learned:
Cheap dark ski goggles do not provide night vision.
Goggles cannot be pulled over helmets.
It is impossible to pull up a zipper without a long tie when you are wearing thick gloves.
Gaiters outside your pants will let in snow.
There is apparently no such thing as a water proof glove.
Oh, and if you don’t really know how to attach your ice axe to your back pack in a high wind at night said ice axe will definitely be lost. (Husband and I managed to lose both of ours.)

So, lessons learned. And despite the 80 plus degree heat in Florida I plan to spend quite a bit of time rehearsing how to use all my winter climbing gear for Mt. Elbrus. Now, if I can just remember again how to attach my brand new crampons to my boots.

Training to train.

Four years ago, when I started to train to climb Kilimanjaro, I encountered the same problem facing anyone who lives in Florida and hopes to climb a mountain – how do you train to go up? As I worked (and work) in a 16 floor office building the answer seemed obvious – simply climb the stairs.

I started out in a basic fashion. I simply changed my work shirt for a t shirt, found the door to the fire stairs and started up. As my office is on the 10th floor there was some calculation as to how to count floors 10 to 16 (ultimately I decided that was half a set of the building but I could count a full set if I finished with 1 to 10). I spent a long time wondering if a 16 floor building is really 15 and not 16 floors because you start at 1, not zero.

As my number of sets of the building increased so did my methods for stair climbing. First, I realized an hour on the stairs really required a full change of clothes. Second, just keeping track of how many times you went up and down was difficult. So, I started a routine I keep to this day: set 1 – every step, 2 – every other step, 3 – alternate flights of every and every other. I’m presently refining the succeeding sets so they involve flights of side steps, every other, and yes, even walking backwards.

I’ll leave for another post scintillating topics such as: adding weight as you get closer to the actual climb, “how to read and respond to work emails while climbing stairs,” and how to explain to the security guard in your building that “no you are not a homeless person with a backpack who snuck into the fire staircase.”

But now it’s time to go off for what may be one of our last super long hikes before leaving for Mt. Elbrus. Happy Saturday!