icons/avalancheicons/bootscompassfacebookicons/gloveshandsicons/hearticons/helmeticons/ice axeinstagramminusmountainicons/pathsMap Pinplusicons/questionicons/guideicons/ropeicons/gogglesicons/stafftenttwitteryoutube
Two stones

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.
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