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 “Ñ€Ð¾ÑÐ½ÐµÑ„Ñ‚ÑŒ”… 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