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.

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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