Two Stones on the Summit-Epic Success on Elbrus
Early on the morning of July 9, 2018, two Stones sat on top of Europe, buffeted by high winds and cold temperatures, but holding on, rock solid, for one hard earned summit photo.
John and daughter Madeleine Stone from Iowa first attempted to climb Russia’s Mt. Elbrus in 2017. When I first met them in early July of 2018, they said they had failed the year before, and were turned around because they had been too slow. They weren’t happy about it, but they took it to heart and had been training diligently for the past year — and now they were back, determined to make it this year.
The pair had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro previously, with mom and the younger brother, who didn’t enjoy the experience so much (and the younger brother is busy with his competitive swimming schedule anyway). But John and Madeleine were hooked.
The first part of the 14 day Elbrus itinerary is organized to help guests acclimatize to the time zone change, and enjoy some of the sights of Russia. We take a spectacular tour of the Red Square, and enjoy some traditional Russian meals together. With this year’s World Cup, the city tour was especially exciting. And the souvenirs were awesome: you could get traditional Russian nesting dolls painted as your favorite soccer team, one nested doll for each player.
The Stone family has lived all over the world, from Germany to China to Singapore, and are now based in Iowa, all for John’s work as an engineer for John Deere. They’ve seen a lot, but they still enjoyed this second round of city tours and Moscow dining adventures. John, 48, is also a former Army Ranger, and Madeleine, 16, is cut of the same cool-headed, strong-willed cloth.
I asked the Stones more about their preparation for the climb this year. Iowa is flat, so they ran the bleachers at the local stadium. From this, I knew they were well prepared physically and mentally — bleacher laps are physically grueling and soul-sucking. This requires some serious mental stamina in addition to leg strength and endurance. So I knew they had tackled the first two of the three pillars of climbing: the physical and mental sides.
But what about the technical?
John and Madeleine also learned that they had been woefully underprepared and under skilled with their crampons. The conditions last year had been icy, so the first part of the climb was challenging. They quickly had to learn to angle their ankles to get all their crampon points in the firm snow, and this demanded a lot of energy and attention. Then there was the wind. And the altitude. And the exposed feeling of being on the side of a big volcano and getting tossed around by strong winds with sharp points on your feet.
So during the last year, they put on their crampons and walked up and down the hills in their backyard. They admitted this to me almost sheepishly, and I exclaimed with delight: that’s the best thing you could possibly do! (Other than actually getting on snow, that is.)
Cramponing demands a lot of your ankle stabilizer muscles, so every lap they did up and down the grassy hills in Iowa was money in the bank in terms of ankle strength, coordination, and the programming of new movement patterns.
And during the winter, they tried out their cold weather gear by suiting up and dashing out of the house in the worst of the storms. This year, they arrived ready to cash in on their year-long investments of time and energy, not to mention a chunk of change for the trip itself.
As I like to say, they had put themselves in a position to be lucky. If conditions lined up, they would be strong, healthy, and in the right place at the right time to summit.
That night a storm rolled in, pouring rain all night, and rattling the valley with thunder and lightning.
By the morning, the Baksan River had flooded, washing out the road in 13 places and knocking out power and natural gas lines — which meant the lifts at the ski area which we use to access our high camp were now shut down. And we had no idea for how long. This was bad. It had been very warm, so the snowmelt had swollen the river, and then we’d had several afternoon thunderstorms. This was unusual, our local guide Vlad Gonchar remarked. He has lived and worked in this valley for over 25 years.
We had one more acclimating hike, so we continued as planned. Nothing was messed up — yet. From our hike, we could see the river swollen to fill the entire embankment, and at least one of the holes in the road. Then we learned there had been a huge landslide that completely blocked the road. This meant we couldn’t leave the valley by car even if we wanted. Vlad told us that he’d heard that school kids down valley had to be flown home by helicopter.
We got back to town for lunch, trying to hide our worry as we searched for updates. Power was back on. The ski area was operating. We were on schedule for our trip to high camp the next day. Phew, we remarked, still in a position to be lucky!
The view from Cheget Glade in the afternoon while acclimating in town.
The iron-rich, fizzy mineral spring water near Cheget.
The landslide was still a question, but we had a week before we needed to leave, so we decided not to worry about that yet — we still had a date with a big mountain.
The next day was our scheduled day to move up to the Barrels shelter, our high camp on the mountain at 12,000ft. After another excellent breakfast of fried eggs, porridge, coffee and bread at Hotel Crystal, we received news that the ski lifts were shut down for the day for maintenance — nothing to do with the flooding or power outages, just their own routine maintenance. We were stunned at our turn of luck — and the rollercoaster of emotions over the last 24 hours.
We decided to keep with the strategy of putting ourselves in a position to be lucky, so we gathered our bags and drove to the ski lift anyway, just in case they changed their minds. Already we had seen power outages predicted to take three days to fix only require one, so we thought our chances of making it uphill were probably decent.
When we arrived to the lifts in Azau at the head of the Baksan Valley, all power was off, except a few lights here and there powered by generators. We found a place for coffee and tea beside the tram, and started waiting. And waiting.
The best of Russian cuisine requires no electricity, fortunately, so we enjoyed a nice lunch of salty local cheeses, vegetables, and soup, and watched as they lit the wood-fired barbecues for shashlyk. Hard wood smoke and the smell of grilled meats began to fill the square. Not a terrible place to wait, all said.
Around lunchtime, we got the update that the lifts might operate again at 2pm. Or, they said, maybe not 2pm. This became our favorite joke for the rest of the trip any time a question about scheduling arose: yes, we would say, probably around 2pm. Or — maybe not 2pm.
Weather started to turn so we migrated inside for another round of coffee and bar snacks. Two p.m. came and went, and then it was maybe 5pm. Or maybe not 5pm. Then 6pm. We were struggling to maintain hope.
After 6pm, things started to move. And then the sky cracked open — it started pouring rain. We loaded ourselves into the tram, really putting ourselves in the right spot to be lucky. And we waited some more.
Seven pm also came and went. The gondola across the courtyard started rolling intermittently uphill and people ran over to line up in the pouring rain. They were operating the gondola with the generator, which was painfully slow — it was taking an hour to make it to the first station. We kept with our strategy, waiting mostly patiently on the tram.
At about 7:30pm, the lights flicked on, and the tram fired up. Everyone scrambled back inside and in moments, we were coasting uphill. Yes!!!!!
Two tram and one snowcat ride later, and we were finally at the Barrels. Olga, our cook, whipped up an incredible late-night dinner, and we turned in, relieved to have made it — and exhausted from a grueling day of waiting.
Guide Vladimir Gonchar in the newly renovated barrel shelters.
The next day was scheduled for our acclimatizing hike to Pastukhov Rocks at 15,000 feet. We decided to start later in the morning for adequate rest and a little more time to acclimate before exerting ourselves at altitude.
We set out late morning, making it to 14,000 feet by lunchtime — and storm clouds raced in around us. We heard crackling and fizzing sound as small round ice clusters started pelting us. Vlad and I looked at each other, and pointed downhill — time to go, team! Soon we heard claps of thunder surrounding us, so we started moving swiftly and efficiently downhill.
Safely back at the Barrels, we enjoyed another delicious lunch of soup and vegetables from Olga, and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon.
The second day at the Barrels is scheduled to be an active rest day — we take it easy, just stepping out for an hour or two for snow school skills review. This is often everyone’s favorite day — it’s like being a kid again, playing in the snow.
That evening was our first possible scheduled summit day, and as the weather looked to be worsening later in the week, we decided to take the first opportunity.
One-thirty am came way too fast. We were up for another stellar breakfast of mini french toasts, porridge, fruit, bread and butter and buckthorn jam. By 3 am we were loading up the snowcat bound for 16,500 feet.
At the high drop-off, we jumped out. High winds knocked us off balance and limited visibility to 30 feet. We stayed close, donned goggles and warm gloves, checked each others’ face protection, and started, slowly, uphill.
Several hours in, and the Stone father-daughter duo were still holding a steady, healthy pace. We still hadn’t even reached the saddle, which marks the half-point of the climb, but they were in great spirits, keeping on top of their comfort and safety, and checking in with each other regularly about any signs of altitude, and, importantly, their stoke.
Near the saddle, our group became divided by pace and altitude illness. Conditions were gnarly enough that Vlad and I took a moment to make a plan. We both knew the route well enough and decided we could manage the conditions as two separate groups. I encouraged the Stone duo to press onward with Vlad as I stayed to suss out some altitude illness issues with the rest of our group (which, unfortunately for me, requires a high level of fluency in English). I watched proudly as the rest of our team pressed onward, tightly following Vlad’s every step as he stopped and started again to find the route through the gusts and variable visibility.
Just a few hundred feet above the saddle, my team found the fixed lines, and the clouds started to dissipate. Finally, we had sunshine and blue skies. The winds remained high, but we were sheltered for the moment. Good weather can do a lot for morale, but quickly altitude got the best of my team, so we turned around. Back at the saddle, the Stone duo caught up to us.
I could tell by their spritely downhill pace that they had made it. I ran over for congratulatory hugs. Summiting Mt. Elbrus is not a new experience for me, but this was by far the most proud I had ever been — and I didn’t even summit. John and Madeleine were glowing, and I was fighting back tears — so, so proud.
Earlier that week, I could tell they didn’t fully understand why they had been turned around on their first attempt. We talked through the situation the year before. Weather had been good, but conditions were icy. It took them 4 hours to reach the saddle, which marks roughly halfway in distance (but only the start of most potential altitude issues), and their guide told them that was too long — it was time to go down. They were crushed with disappointment.
Madeleine Stone, 16, and father John Stone on Top of Europe!
Slow and steady is an adage of climbing, and one that is well suited to climbing big mountains, so it was hard for them to understand the year before just why their slow-and-steady wasn’t good enough. I explained that there is a delicate balance when climbing at altitude between being efficient and too slow. It’s not that you ever have to go fast, but you must hold a consistent pace that will get you up and down before the effects of the higher altitude set in.
They understood that last year’s pace was not quite sufficient to ensure their safe descent. And this year, they saw what a year of training could do to make them more comfortable and more efficient for the long haul. Or, put another way, what it was like to swim far out to sea and have plenty of stamina to make it back to the beach — tired, sure, but strong and stoked — and beaming from the success.
By late morning, we hopped back into the snowcat for the 4,000 foot descent back to the Barrels. The skies had cleared, but winds were still whipping up high, and black clouds loomed on the horizon, slowly marching our way from the Black Sea.
I looked at the two Stones and nodded.
“I dare say you two were in the right position to be lucky today.”
Kolomenskoye Park in Moscow.
By Mountain Madness Guide Lyra Pierotti