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Elbrus Express summit 8 3 2048 making it happen

Making it Happen in Russia

It’s not about the altitude…”

Peo­ple come to climb Mount Elbrus for a wide vari­ety of rea­sons. For some, it is one peak on the path to climb­ing the Sev­en Sum­mits. Elbrus is not a tech­ni­cal­ly dif­fi­cult moun­tain, but it sees an inor­di­nate amount of acci­dents, large­ly due to inex­pe­ri­ence com­bined with quick access to alti­tude. This phe­nom­e­non describes the oth­er type of climber drawn to this peak – it’s an acces­si­ble and low­er-com­mit­ment first for­ay into high alti­tude climb­ing, mak­ing it a great place to exper­i­ment, if you hire a guide. And the last type of climber drawn to this peak is the ath­lete and adven­tur­er look­ing to expand his or her tech­ni­cal skills and see what a big moun­tain is all about.

This year’s final Moun­tain Mad­ness Elbrus Express trip had climbers from all those cat­e­gories. There was a fam­i­ly of four, Rich and Diane with their two youngest sons, Phil and Tim, aged 19 and 23, respec­tive­ly. They had climbed Kil­i­man­jaro and were avid hik­ers get­ting into moun­taineer­ing. Dan, their friend from work was also on the trip. He was the one who inspired them to climb Kil­i­man­jaro, and he him­self is well on his way to climb­ing the Sev­en Sum­mits, if he decides to go for it. In fact, the last time I saw him was three years ago, at 14,000 feet on Denali. It’s a small, big world.

The rest of the trip was full of mil­len­ni­als, bring­ing the aver­age age of the trip down sig­nif­i­cant­ly – and the ener­gy up pro­por­tion­al­ly. There were two cousins, Gretchen and Emi­ly. Gretchen is a com­pet­i­tive swim­mer who trans­ferred out of West­point (she’s in school to be an Army Doc­tor) because, as I under­stood it, it was too hard to stay healthy there as an ath­lete. (She loved the food on this trip). Emi­ly jumped on this trip when Gretchen sug­gest­ed it – she’s an avid out­doors woman liv­ing in Rus­sia – way out east on an island I still can’t spell or pro­nounce, but that was some­what recent­ly still part Japanese. 

The two on this trip who did not come with friends or fam­i­ly were Adam and Kevin. Adam rivaled Gretchen in his enthu­si­asm for the extra­or­di­nary food at the Hotel Kristall in the Bak­san Val­ley. He could eat his weight in ice cream, but still proved to be fit and strong. Adam was a force of pos­i­tiv­i­ty and appre­ci­a­tion at every curve – or curve­ball. Kevin joined us from Cana­da, but man­aged to dodge exces­sive ridicule by keep­ing his oot” and aboot” accent most­ly under wraps.

The Express trip starts in a hur­ry. We meet for din­ner on the charm­ing rooftop restau­rant called Alti­tude — fit­ting for this trip! The restau­rant just might be the high­est point in Moscow. And then we head off ear­ly the next morn­ing on our flight to Min­er­al­nye Vody. The flight is always bumpy as we set down in the swel­ter­ing heat of south­ern Rus­sia. Vlad, our logis­tics guy, icon­ic local guide, and old school Ukrain­ian badass climber, meets us at the air­port and whisks us away, head­ed for the cool temps and fresh air of the Bak­san Valley.

Our first day in the Val­ley is allo­cat­ed for rest: we are jet lagged and we just arrived at 7,000ft alti­tude. We set­tle in to the hotel, wan­der around town and the charm­ing mar­ket full of alpine herbal teas, mys­te­ri­ous syrups, and hand­made wool prod­ucts, and then enjoy one of many rich and sat­is­fy­ing three-course (or larg­er) Russ­ian meals back at the hotel.

Our first full day in the Val­ley is a mel­low day hike at Cheget, using the ski lifts to access trails up and around 10,000ft. This is a great way to jump-start our accli­ma­tion for this accel­er­at­ed climb­ing pro­gram. This year, we made our way gen­tly up the slopes only to be turned around before the sum­mit of the moun­tain in the ski resort: a sign post­ed said keep out. It was new this year, and appar­ent­ly has some­thing to do with Putin and increased bor­der patrols. Hm. Oh well, we walked back down to the café and had some wild berry tea (like, lit­er­al­ly with wild berries in it – very refresh­ing!), breathed in the thin air and enjoyed the views – though Elbrus was still hid­ing in the clouds.

Drink­ing tea at the café and enjoy­ing the view.

We made it back down to the base area of Cheget in time for a spec­tac­u­lar lunch of shash­lik (think kebabs), borscht, and sal­ad. Some­times I say that I only climb because I love to eat real­ly well, and this trip to Rus­sia is very much in line with that rea­son­ing. We eat so much good food, spend our days being ath­let­ic, and enjoy myr­i­ad cul­tur­al expe­ri­ences – it is one of my favorite trips to guide. Oh, and the moun­tain is gor­geous, too. Just wait til you see the views of Ush­ba. It’s a U‑shaped moun­tain in Geor­gia, and my favorite in the world. Gretchen, in fact, is going to name her next cat Ushba.

This first day of hik­ing feels rel­a­tive­ly light, but that’s the point. The hike for day two starts in town, climbs over 3,000ft, and cov­ers over 12 miles round trip. That’s the day we are mak­ing some fit­ness gains and push­ing our aer­o­bic sys­tem so that it starts to adapt to high­er ele­va­tions. This sec­ond hike takes us past Lady’s Hair” water­fall to a large tele­scope up in the moun­tains. We can look back down the val­ley to Cheget, and the café where we sat the day before.

At Lady’s Hair water­fall above Cheget.

After this hike, it’s time to get seri­ous. In the evening, we pack our bags for the moun­tain and take off after break­fast the next day. Get­ting on the moun­tain is where things get real­ly, real­ly fun­ny. We take two cable cars and a sin­gle seater chair lift to the Kharabashi (black rock) Bar­rels at about 12,000ft. We will stay here for all our time on the mountains.

Accli­ma­tiz­ing at the barrels.

I very care­ful­ly pre­pare our guests for the ter­ri­ble out­house. It’s real­ly awful. I’m so sor­ry. But you’ll sur­vive. We will all sur­vive. And it’s not as bad as I’m telling you it is. Real­ly. Any­way, it’s bad. But the staff at these bar­rels keep us com­ing back year after year. Olga, our cook, is in her late 40s, mar­ried to the oper­a­tions man­ag­er of the ski area, and has climbed Elbrus her­self. She cooks incred­i­ble meals at 12,000ft, on a cou­ple of hot plates with no run­ning water. And I swear she under­stand Eng­lish but pre­tends she doesn’t, because she has an impec­ca­ble abil­i­ty to under­stand what-on-earth-we-are-ask­ing-her-for-this-time, with­out need­ing Vlad’s hilar­i­ous (and often erro­neous) trans­la­tions. Stay­ing at these Bar­rels is like being in a Russ­ian sit­com for a few days, com­plete with the big-haired woman with gold plat­ed teeth who looks straight out of 1980s Geor­gia – the Amer­i­can one, not the Russ­ian one. Any­way, that is just to say there are a bunch of char­ac­ters here.

Sign­ing the Mad­ness sign at the barrels.

The day we arrive is a hard day. We just got trans­port­ed to 12,000ft, so no one is feel­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly spry. We do a snow school for review, or for the first time, depend­ing on our guests’ lev­el of expe­ri­ence, which is a time for adults to play like kids in the snow. It’s a blast, and often we hear it is everyone’s favorite part of the trip. That, and the food of course.

Our sec­ond day on the moun­tain, we hike uphill, aim­ing for the Pash­tukov Rocks. We go as far as feels good, bal­anc­ing strain and stress, and try­ing to hit that sweet spot where we’re not too tired but we’ve exert­ed enough to force our bod­ies to adapt and accli­mate. After a lunch of soup back at the Bar­rels, we make a plan for our sum­mit attempt (either that night or the next, depend­ing on weath­er), and rest for the afternoon.

Foxy char­ac­ter at the Barrels.

This trip, we decid­ed to go for the sum­mit on the first of our two pos­si­ble days. It’s a hard call, because it can feel good to rest a day at the Bar­rels, then sum­mit when fresh and (maybe) a lit­tle more accli­mat­ed. But if weath­er looks good on the first day, we often make the call to go for it.

We were up at 12:45 am; ear­li­er than nor­mal for this trip, but with after­noon thun­der­storms in the fore­cast, it was the best call. After a hearty break­fast of hot dogs (okay, this break­fast is a lit­tle fun­ny), we pick up our snack pack­ets, put on our cram­pons, and board the snow­cat. This is eas­i­ly the most dan­ger­ous part of the trip: cram­ming a dozen or so climbers like sar­dines into the back of a snow­cat in the mid­dle of the night, all wear­ing cram­pons, and climb­ing 30+ degree snow slopes. But you’re going to want those spikes on where you get dropped off… And as they say, When in Rome…!

This year the snow­pack was very thin, mean­ing con­di­tions turned icy ear­li­er in the sea­son and the snow­cat couldn’t get up to the typ­i­cal high” drop off at 16,500ft. And by this trip, the last of our sea­son, they could bare­ly get to the low drop at 15,500ft. They stopped at 15,000ft, and we awk­ward­ly stepped out of the steeply inclined snow­cat and onto the icy slope, and start­ed instant­ly mov­ing uphill to a flat spot where we could regroup, adjust lay­ers, and reflect on what just hap­pened as the snow­cat fish tailed and slid its way back down the icy slopes. What was that say­ing about Rome again?

Our team was expe­ri­enc­ing what we like to call Type 2 Fun.” Type 1 Fun is some­thing that is total­ly fun while doing it. That’s like float­ing a riv­er with a beer in hand, or sport climb­ing on the week­end. Type 2 Fun is not exact­ly fun while it’s hap­pen­ing, but it is in ret­ro­spect. That’s like a chal­leng­ing alpine climb that scares you in the moment, but as soon as you get back to the car you’re think­ing how amaz­ing it was and plan­ning your next out­ing. This might involve mild amne­sia. Type 3 Fun is nev­er fun. Yikes. Avoid it.

Stoked for some Type 2 Fun on Elbrus.

This first push was def­i­nite­ly Type 2 Fun. In fact, maybe most of the climb was. The Express trip is a blast, but it is not the eas­i­est in terms of alti­tude. Along with Aconcagua, I have found this moun­tain to be a bit of a bear in terms of alti­tude expe­ri­ence. It takes a lot of good breath­ing tech­niques and effi­cient move­ment to get up it feel­ing strong. We talk about this and check in with the team con­stant­ly on the climb.

The first push is a tech­ni­cal­ly easy walk to the sad­dle between the East and West sum­mits. Our whole team made it this far, but the ter­rain steep­ens and the alti­tude effects strength­en from here, so it is an impor­tant place to reassess. Kevin is the first to pull the plug, and while he has been strong the whole time, he is not con­fi­dent enough in his lev­el of expe­ri­ence to tack­le the slope ahead, giv­en the way he is feel­ing. This is a deeply per­son­al deci­sion for any­one, and while we knew he was phys­i­cal­ly capa­ble, some­times it is best to reign things in and ensure that you get home feel­ing strong, and hav­ing had a good expe­ri­ence. Kevin made that hard call, and it was one of the wis­est and most mature I’ve seen in the moun­tains. We were sad to lose him, but I was proud of his wis­dom and the respect he showed for his own expe­ri­ence, the change­able moun­tain envi­ron­ment, and the team as a whole.

Emi­ly and Diane were behind, strug­gling with headaches and breath­ing, but in the hands of Alec and Alexi, two very sweet Russ­ian guides, so the major­i­ty of the team climbed on with myself and Vlad. 

The remain­der of the climb went smooth and steady, and every­one who remained sum­mit­ed. The descent was men­tal­ly chal­leng­ing for some, and the heat and over­all strain of the day start­ed to show. How­ev­er, every­one pushed on, mak­ing con­sis­tent and steady move­ment down­hill, until the whole group was togeth­er again at the snow­cat at 15,500ft. The dri­ver whisked us back down hill, with the whole team wav­ing like the Queen to climbers on their accli­ma­tion hikes, yelling in var­i­ous lan­guages, did you make it?”

And in the inter­na­tion­al lan­guage of thumbs, the team stuck them up high in the air, and said, yea!!!”

On the sum­mit of Elbrus!

The team opt­ed to stay at the bar­rels that night, get some rest, and head to the hotel first thing the next morn­ing. It was a great way to cel­e­brate on the moun­tain, and enjoy the views and the char­ac­ters around us with­out the loom­ing pres­sure of the summit.

The momen­tum of the Express trip quick­ly resumed, and we were trans­port­ed back to the hotel ear­ly the next morn­ing, with just enough time to repack, pick up some last minute wool slip­pers for grand­pa at the mar­ket, and get to bed ear­ly for our 6am depar­ture the next morn­ing, and our flight back to Moscow.

Nor­mal­ly, this would be the end of the sto­ry, but some­thing else hap­pened this time around.

In the mod­ern guid­ing world, social media has become an impor­tant com­po­nent of every trip. As such, I was post­ing about the Bak­san Val­ley hikes and the climb. An old friend and room­mate of mine from the year I lived in the French Alps saw my posts, and mes­saged me: Hey, you’re near my home!” I had for­got­ten that my Russ­ian room­mate in France had grown up near Geor­gia. Wow! But there was more. He was home right now, vis­it­ing fam­i­ly, and head­ing to the Bak­san Val­ley at 8am the same morn­ing we were dri­ving out. OMG, for real? Could we meet? I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t seen him in 10 years, and we were going to be dri­ving past each oth­er on a remote moun­tain road on the bor­der of Geor­gia. I mean, seriously? 

There’s no way we can coor­di­nate this, I thought, between the chal­lenges of lan­guage bar­ri­ers and cell phone data plan bar­ri­ers. OMG, I thought, so out­ra­geous! Come on Moun­tain Mad­ness, can you Make this Hap­pen, just like our mot­to says?

The Elbrus Express is a rel­a­tive­ly quick trip, as the name sug­gests. I didn’t have much extra time to coor­di­nate an elab­o­rate meet up with an old friend. Most of the time, I love the cul­tur­al com­pli­ca­tions of trav­el­ing in a for­eign land where I am tru­ly, deeply for­eign: Here, I can’t even guess at most of the logis­tics, as I don’t speak the lan­guage and even the Russ­ian alpha­bet, Cyril­lic, doesn’t look remote­ly like Eng­lish or any Romance lan­guage, and I can fum­ble through many of those. 

But this was one time where I wished things were just a lit­tle bit eas­i­er. And as luck would (not) have it, Vlad, our local logis­ti­cal guru, had to head to Geor­gia for anoth­er trip and we decid­ed I could han­dle the dri­ve to the air­port with­out him – from Vlad, I knew this was a com­pli­ment. But dan­git! I could def­i­nite­ly coor­di­nate this eas­i­er with him around.

Hang on, Emi­ly speaks Russian! 

I asked Emi­ly if she could trans­late to our dri­ver. She tells him, in what we have heard is an excel­lent Russ­ian accent, that I have a friend who wants to meet briefly at Lud­mi­la mar­ket, it’s on the way to the air­port. The con­ver­sa­tion goes on for longer than I would have expect­ed. The driver’s region­al accent was real­ly chal­leng­ing, she says to me as she lis­tened to a long string of commentary. 

The dri­ver then picks up his phone, says a few things in Russ­ian, and hands the phone to Emi­ly. It’s Vlad. Emi­ly told Vlad in Russ­ian what I was ask­ing. She hands the phone back to the dri­ver. More emphat­ic hand ges­tures, and he hands the phone back to Emi­ly. Vlad explained that the Lud­mi­la mar­ket is about one kilo­me­ter long and it would be impos­si­ble to find my friend with­out a spe­cif­ic meet­ing place. 

Dang. I text Denis. No response. Emi­ly tries call­ing from her Russ­ian phone. It’s a French num­ber but she has an inter­na­tion­al call­ing plan. No answer. I try call­ing from my phone. Nope, not autho­rized for that call. I try tex­ting again.

Then Emi­ly gets a call. It’s Denis! I think… the con­nec­tion is so bad I can bare­ly hear his voice, but I can tell he hears me. I tell him in French that we will call back from the driver’s phone. Emi­ly grabs the dri­vers phone, shakes her head and laughs when she sees that all the keys are rubbed blank, but man­ages to dial Denis’s Russ­ian number. 

We hand the phone back to the dri­ver. Some­one picks up. They exchange more emphat­ic words, and I can’t tell if the dri­ver is angri­ly chastis­ing my poor old friend or just mak­ing plans. I hope for the lat­ter. And I look at Emi­ly for con­fir­ma­tion. She’s focused on the phone call.

A moment lat­er, the dri­ver hangs up. In the rear-view mir­ror, he looks at me briefly, smiles, and nods. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him smile.

I’ve been at the head of enough suc­cess­ful climbs with Moun­tain Mad­ness that I’m well acquaint­ed with our mot­to: Make it Hap­pen.” But I’ve nev­er thought of what that might mean for me, as the guide. Right now, I’m keen­ly aware of the momen­tum of my own Mad­ness expe­ri­ence. Did all these peo­ple just make this hap­pen… for me?

We set­tled back into our seats, and wait­ed. I still wasn’t con­vinced it would work out. Anoth­er text pings on my phone. It’s Denis. He says they set­tled on a meet­ing spot: the Ross­neft petrol sta­tion on road E50. And he’s dri­ving a Toy­ota Aven­sis, what­ev­er that is. I sound out the let­ters of the next petrol sta­tion роÑнефть”… that’s it! We passed it. Okay there must be anoth­er. A few min­utes lat­er, we pass anoth­er. Then anoth­er. Wait, they’re all Ross­neft! My doubt grows.

About 20 min­utes go by, and noth­ing. Then the dri­ver slows, and pulls off at anoth­er Ross­neft gas sta­tion. I slide the door open, and look in either direc­tion. Nothing.

By the time I step out into the swel­ter­ing heat of the val­ley, a car has pulled up. A stern look­ing man is walk­ing toward me, with a dark, full beard and a shaved head. My visu­al scan says Nope, not Denis. Last I saw him 10 years ago he had a full head of blond locks and he strug­gled to grow a goa­tee. Then our eyes lock. It’s Denis!!!

The Lyra and Denis reunion!

I got to know Denis in France, where it is cus­tom­ary to greet friends with a polite pseu­do-kiss on the cheeks, some­where between two and four times, depend­ing on what region you’re from. Two, for the Alps region. And hugs are awk­ward to the French. Then I won­dered for a split sec­ond what Rus­sians do to greet friends, they seem down­right stand­off­ish some­times, but I’ve man­aged a big hug from Vlad. But none of those cul­tur­al fil­ters mat­tered, I was on autopi­lot: it was a big gig­gling Amer­i­can hug for Denis!

After my brain set­tled, we fum­bled for a moment to fig­ure out what lan­guage to speak. He’s been learn­ing Eng­lish, but my French is still flu­ent enough, and his is extra­or­di­nary after liv­ing there for 10 years, so we stood on the side of the road at a petrol sta­tion in the blaz­ing heat of south­east­ern Rus­sia, one Amer­i­can and one Russ­ian, catch­ing up in French on the last 10 years of our lives.

Denis is liv­ing in Lyon, near Greno­ble, where we lived togeth­er 10 years ago. He got his res­i­den­cy, which he was real­ly excit­ed about. And he is work­ing for a Russ­ian import com­pa­ny. Fit­ting. Bril­liant. He’s still snow­board­ing a lot: He used to be a park rat, but he’s been get­ting into split­board­ing, which he says with such a severe French accent (“le spleet-bored”) that I bare­ly under­stood what he was say­ing. And he’s on his way to climb Elbrus, with the goal of snow­board­ing down it next year. He grew up with this moun­tain in his back yard, but he had nev­er climbed it. After 10 years in the Alps, I’m sure he’s well pre­pared. But most of all, his atti­tude is great, it always has been, and as we know, it’s not about the altitude…

“…it’s about the attitude!” 

–Scott Fis­ch­er, Moun­tain Mad­ness Founder

~Words and images, MM Guide Lyra Pierotti