A Wild Card Day or Summits Don’t End

Now that I’m back in the swamp, Internet speeds are much faster, so I’ll start this post with another visit to the summit:

Stepping onto the summit of Mt. Elbrus:

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At the summit:

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We made it!

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We reached the summit Tuesday morning, July 1, and spent Wednesday reversing our trajectory back down the mountain, via chair lift and gondola, having a celebratory lunch and returning the much maligned puffy jackets to the rental store.

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Because we summited a day early, Thursday was what my family affectionately refers to as a wild card day – one of those days with no plans, no reservations, that stretches out before you like a vast plain of infinite opportunity. Well, maybe not always that poetic. We decided to go horseback riding and take a picnic lunch. We rode back up the observatory trail that we had hiked, enjoying the different perspective on the still beautifully in bloom fields of windflowers.

The ride wasn’t without its share of danger, though, as the horses now and then veered ever so closely to the steep precipices below. I just kept thinking – remember, the horse doesn’t want to fall any more than you do. I felt I had a particularly western swagger since I spent most of the ride with my bandana covering the lower half of my burned face for the masked bandit look.

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That evening we celebrated at a restaurant by the Baksan River with its own trout pond. Ordering fish meant being handed a fishing pole. After I almost impaled our guide with a fish hook in my zeal to pull my first trout out of the water, I did manage to catch one. Fortunately others on our team were a bit more successful.

The next day we were supposed to drive the three hours back to the Minerale Vody airport, and arrive back in Moscow by noon. The best laid plains…..I can only sum up our 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. travel day in a series of bullet points:
– Board plane and wait for 45 minutes. Maintenance person goes in cockpit and doesn’t come out. Bad sign.
– Plane is broken.
– Get off plane and wait in terminal.
– Instructed to walk to another terminal to pick up luggage and recheck bags. Unclear why bags couldn’t be loaded directly onto another plane. Ours is not to reason why.
– Go through security again.
– Wait.
– Offered liter bottles of coke or sprite. But if you are a party of two or less you are given a paper cup with no lid instead of a bottle.
– Get in little bus to go to airplane on runway, together with open cup of coke or sprite with no lid if you are a party of two or less. Bus stops by plane; door opens. Instructed not to get out of bus. Bus door closes; continue tour of runway. Return to terminal. Unclear what purpose was except to distract restless passengers. Ours is not to reason why.
– Instructed to pick up bags again and recheck them.
– Go back through security.
– Riot almost breaks out among delayed passengers, who have lost patience with the interminable treks to pick up baggage, recheck and go through security. Multiple people filming confrontation of passenger vs Aeroflot rep vs Aeroflot rep on cell phones.
– Wait.
– Told to get back on little bus and finally onto a plane, six hours late.

It was July 4, and we clearly needed to celebrate. As we were all exhausted from a very long and frustrating day we did what any red blooded Americans in Moscow would do – we went to an Italian restaurant near the hotel. There, a number of our group drank to the 4th with a red, white and blue drink appropriately named a “Russian flag.” I decided to stick to white wine. Our waitress didn’t seem overly enthusiastic – think the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. She apparently regarded it as a personal insult if something was ordered from the menu that the restaurant didn’t have. Nonetheless, we were all still on the high that comes from the summit, and a little bit of brusqueness was not going to rain on our parade.

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July 5 we flew back to the swamp. But even though the Elbrus trip has ended – at least in real time – the lessons learned, friends made, and summits reached are still with me. And one other thing I have learned – I like writing this blog. So, neither it nor the trip is over. There are all sorts of summits – and I’m going to write about lots of them. And no sooner do you reach one summit then you need to be looking for the next, and that’s what I’m doing right now.

In fact, when I returned to work on Monday, I was already back climbing the stairs by Tuesday.

Steps on the Summit

Summit Date, July 1, 2014. Should be said with the appropriate Captain Kirk, Star Trek inflection.

We all awoke about 1:20 am, dressed, and had breakfast at 2. Yes, it really does take that long to get all the gear on. By 3 we were in the snow cat going up to the Rocks where we had climbed the day before – we had already rejected, as a group, the notion of taking the snow cat to a higher elevation. Alec, always the gentleman, felt compelled to ask me if I wanted to ride in the enclosed cab, but that held no appeal to me. The ride up was gorgeous – the Milky Way clearly visible, stars strung against the black velvet sky like the diamonds and pearls adorning the intricate gowns we had seen at the Armory museum in Moscow.

Once off the snow cat, our skiers broke off fairly soon to zoom up the mountain – or zoom as fast as you can uphill with skies. The rest of us – three climbers including myself and my husband, Alec (our Russian guide), and Alec’s friend (who spoke no English, had never climbed the mountain, and had accompanied us in the various acclimatization hikes) – plodded on up, along the snow cat trail to the higher drop point. Always a little disheartening to walk along what is essentially a road. Finally passed that point, and started up steeper and steeper hills. The sun started to rise behind us – streaks of pink wafting over the tops of the mountain, but I was so busy following Alec’s footsteps in front of me I could barely look up to see it.

After one particularly steep area, we emerged onto the traverse. This is a flatter area that runs along the side of the east peak. It is a relatively narrow path with a steep drop to the left. Needless to say, foot placement is important – and we had been using various of the steps we had worked on the day before. By this time, the altitude was kicking in. I had been using the rest step – step, all weight on one leg to let the other rest, breathe out, breathe out, breathe out, and step again – on the steep sections. Like some slow wedding march up the mountain. The traverse, for all its potential for slipping and falling, was a relief.

The traverse took us down to the saddle – the area between the east and west peak. We had been resting every hour; in fact, Alec had take our guide’s instruction so seriously he had set his phone to ring every hour. We had a longer break at the saddle, as that was the point to ready for the final push. There were a number of other large groups, and one area off the track seemed to have unofficially evolved as the place all the women went to the bathroom, and another for the men. This is also the spot where I should have done a much better job applying zinc to my face and lips.

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We left our packs In the saddle, as did nearly all the other groups, taking with us only our ice axes, a hiking pole, and some water. After the saddle came what our guide said could only generously be called a “head wall,” the part of the mountain right below the ridge that takes you to the summit. My standards being much lower than our guide’s, I will willingly call it a head wall! At this point, Alec roped us all together, since this is the steepest part of mountain, and we started to use our ice axes to climb up.

Now a quick digression on the ice axe. You do not use the hatchet part to claw your way up in some sort of Spiderman position (unless you are climbing the Matterhorn). Instead, you use it like a short walking stick – it is always in your uphill hand – you plant the point at the bottom of the ice axe handle, plant your pole, which is in your downhill hand, and step. It provides way more stability than poles alone.

Although the weather was absolutely perfect, little wind and azure blue skies, it was still very cold. Yet we were all sweating from the exertion. We made our way up the head wall to the exposed ridge, and after a certain point, Alec unroped us. There the mountain taught more of its lessons. Any number of rises appeared before us, each of which looked as though it could be the summit. And each time it wasn’t. So, we just went on and on until finally we reached what was indisputably the top.

I don’t want to minimize the effort this was taking by now. We had made good time and reached the summit only half an hour later than our guide predicted as the standard time, which I felt was an achievement in and of itself. Every single step I was taking, though, required each of those flights of stairs, that extra mile of running, and those final few pounds of weight to lift. I didn’t feel any of my training was a waste.

A lot of it, for me at least, was psychological. Just keep going forward, living in your own head in the moment. My thoughts ranged from deep metaphors about what I was doing to reciting the entire Bikram dialogue to myself. Which reminds me to give special kudos to my various yoga teachers for teaching me to breathe and control my heart rate.

Immediately below the summit is one last extremely steep section, almost like one last tease from the mountain, just to see if you can do it. But with the summit within feet, there’s no debate.

We reached the summit at 12:30 pm, 18,510 feet, about 8 1/2 hours after we started. It was cold and windy and blue, a few puffy clouds below. All beneath us was laid out the tremendous jigsaw puzzle of the Caucasus, each ridge and valley fitted into each other, seamed together with white ice and snow. The feeling at the top is pure euphoria – the culmination not just of that day’s work, but the months of training leading up to it, and the sheer bliss of being only in that moment, at that time, in that space.

I’m inserting the one summit photo I currently have access to. Once my teammate gets his photos up, I’ll post them. My phone, which had earlier died, reawakened itself just enough for one summit snap.

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But the cardinal rule of climbing mountains is that everything that goes up must come down, and so we did. After retracing our way along the ridge, we got back to the head wall. To my utter amazement, Alec handed me the end of the rope and clipped me in. I somehow just assumed more rope would appear ahead of me – but no, I was indeed to be the first person to pick our way down the very steep section. Despite the altitude, I mustered enough brain cells and energy to pick out the correct footsteps to follow and gradually wend our way down. I really enjoyed doing his – it was like solving a maze and. gave me something to think about besides being tired and burned and cold.

It took us 5 1/2 hours to get down – 1 1/2 hours beyond what it should have. It’s a long slog down, the hardest part of which was trudging through the by now very slushy snow cat tracks. Moreover, starting at the Rocks, snowmobile drivers are waiting, tempting you with the promise of a ride, albeit expensive, back to the barrels. But not being ones to give in to temptation we struggled on down. I hadn’t hydrated enough and had to keep stopping to drink, which slowed our progress. Also, by then it was becoming apparent that my lack of appropriate lip protection had resulted in something resembling third degree burns, which didn’t help matters either. I’m convinced that if I had a do-over I could get it right!

Around 6 we were back at the barrel, and never has a barrel looked more welcoming. Our third climber had gone ahead of us, so it was just my husband, Alec and myself, and it was great to rejoin our team. After a 7 pm dinner we collapsed into bed – although I must admit I awakened in the night feeling that my mouth was on fire.

But it turns out summits aren’t the end – they are just the beginning of other adventures. Our trip wasn’t over, and with an extra day in the valley there were still some things waiting that amaze, and bewilder. Next up – horses, trout fishing, and a tour of the airport runways.

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!