When Americans think of big adventure, some consider climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Others save their vacation days to visit the spectacular 15th century ruins of Machu Picchu.
Few speak of Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in all of Europe. So that’s where I wanted to spend my summer vacation.
I joined a team of 13 strong and seasoned climbers with Alpine Ascents, a Seattle-based outfit known for its superbly organized mountaineering trips. Our guide was none other than Vern Tejas, a legendary guide hailing from Alaska, and recently inaugurated into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame for his many achievements. He’s climbed all Seven Summits nine times, and is the first climber to do a solo ascent of Mount McKinley in winter.
We were in good hands.
Our journey began in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital, and then we promptly flew to Mineralyne Vody (“mineral waters”) to begin the acclimitization process. Part of this included a hike to an abandoned tower that had reputedly seen its share of battle.
Vern was joined by his co-guide and wife, Carole Tejas, an accomplished climber and skilled teacher. Rounding out the team was Nicolay Cherny, a famed Russian mountaineer in his seventies.
Some have asked what the most difficult part of a climb is. For an expedition with approximately eight days of climbing, including a 12-hour summit day, pacing becomes hugely important. By this I mean it’s crucial that climbers proceed in a steady and rythmic way. More energy is expended at higher altitudes, and climbing in a group that’s moving slowly, then moving quickly to catch up… can be exhausting.
And so we practiced moving slowly, using energy efficiently.
Summit preparation included walking across a glacier while roped together. The weather was remarkable for our trip, save for this one day when our climb ended in the rain. We could hear water gushing underneath, not the most comforting feeling in the world.
The night before our summit bid, we spend the night in “The Boxes,” a grouping of simple cabins at 12,500 feet. Vern urged us to set our alarms for 2:30am the next morning, then surprised us all by waking us up by harmonica. He plays a mean one.
We downed as much breakfast as we could (altitude can kill your appetite), and then loaded our gear and ourselves into a snowcat, a truck-sized vehicle designed to move on snow. 4:00am is an ideal time to view the night sky, if you can block out the roar of the snowcat.
Staying alert was key, to avoid getting speared by ends of our ice axes (“spike,” or “pick”). They protruded in weird angles from the pile of gear at our feet.
The snowcat deposited us just north of the Pastukhova Rocks. Since we had climbed from our base camp to the rocks earlier in the week, I didn’t feel so bad hopping a ride.
Thanks to the amazing support of Vern, Carole and Nicolay, I swept through a brief bout of illness in the first few hours of our climb. Lack of nourishment contributed to my “bonking” — funny how eating one candy bar per hour can bring you great energy on a strenuous climb.
We stopped roughly every hour to repeat the candy bar process, and to hydrate as much as possible.
Before long we had reached the saddle, a flatter, expansive area between west and east summits. The west summit was our goal, at 18,510 feet. Emerging out of the saddle, we had a steep uphill climb where the use of ice axe was necessary. It’s a great stabilizing tool, and can mitigate against uncontrolled slides down the mountain.
Minutes away from the summit the snow leveled out to only a gentle uphill climb. We readied our cameras and gave high-fives to other groups descending from the summit.
The importance of team was fully realized in this group. Without their encouragement, or Carole’s shoving a chocolate bar in my mouth, or gentle reminders to positive pressure breathe (related post coming soon), the summit would not have been possible.
In the picture below, I’m on the far right in the front. To my right, in red jacket and bandanna, is Mike. Elbrus was his seventh of the Seven Summits. What an honor to climb with him and the rest of the team.
It was as if our guide had done this dozens of times, leading group after group to the summit in the best and worst of conditions.
Oh wait, he has.
Some mountaineers prefer climbing up more than they like climbing down. While it’s possible to move more quickly climbing down, it can be taxing on already tired muscles, as they’re forced to work in different ways.
Sunscreen became uber-important at this point. Any exposed skin was already on it’s way to an overdose of reflected sunshine off of the snow.
For those of us who tired at the eleventh hour, there was an option to ride the snowcat part-way back to camp. Many of us selected this option. For some reason I was nominated to ride in the cab, and eagerly stripped off my crampons and jumped in.
Other ways of descending rapidly included on our rears, riding on top of a trash bag. This resulted in many laughs, as well as bruised bottoms.
I’ve always reveled in the idea of doing something different from the regular crowd. Russia was new territory to me prior to my expedition, and I couldn’t have been happier to spend it on Europe’s highest peak.