“You give me little gift, you fly Moscow,” he’d say in his broken English, grinning slyly.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I’d respond each time. “Can I please have my passport back?”
He’d change the line: “Your papers have mistake. Give me little gift and no problem.”
I’d change mine: “Let’s go talk to that woman,” pointing at the nearby police officer. “Maybe she can help us.”
Over the last ten days, we’d evaded two police blockades, snuck through a military checkpoint, and climbed Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe at 18,510 feet. Feats that felt impossible yet, in the end, somehow worked out.
With luck seemingly on my side, I was not about to wreck my streak with a bribe to some airport security guard. So, the charade continued:
“I’m sorry. I just don’t understand what you want. Can I go now?”
About five minutes and one incredibly long line of frustrated airline passengers later, my ‘play dumb’ strategy paid off when the guard, irritated by our cyclical conversation, shoved my passport back into my hands, pointed at the departure gate, and ended our exchange with a stern “Go away!”
Welcome to Russia, and welcome to Mt. Elbrus. Things work a little… differently here.
If I Go Home, The Terrorists Win
It was 12,000 feet up Mt. Kilimanjaro, a whole continent away, when I got the news—Mt. Elbrus, closed due to an anti-terrorism operation since early April was, in fact, still closed, and my climb would have to be cancelled.
If I hadn’t been sitting on a rock looking out over a sea of clouds above East Africa, I imagine I’d have taken the email a little worse. Of course, I was upset but not surprised; I knew this was a possibility and had even prepared for it. The word from my contact in Russia was that one small (and very poorly maintained) road was not being guarded and could be used to reach the north base camp. It would be a difficult ride and double the cost of the trip, but I was welcome to try it if I wished.
After a few minutes contemplating what would make for a better story—a cancelled trip or a covert operation behind police blockades—my reply was short and unambiguous:
“Let’s do it.”
Sidenote: When faced with two choices, I generally try to pick the one I’ll still remember in 50 years.
Four flights, one eight-hour bus ride, and three hostels later, I’m standing in the lobby of what surely has been named “World’s most Soviet hotel” by some award committee and shaking hands with Andre, the driver who’ll be taking me on the most adventurous jeep ride of my life tomorrow. For now, my attention turns to more basic adventures like eating, sleeping, and charging the iPhone.
In the morning, Andre and I sit down to a truly Russian breakfast of boiled eggs, pasta, and rice before picking up Sergey, my guide for the next ten days, and heading mountain-ward. The six-hour drive consists mostly of brain jarring roads, Russian jokes, and smoke breaks. As for me, I’m happy to sit quietly and soak in the surroundings; the Elbrus region is one the most gorgeous landscapes I’ve ever seen.
As we clip along the tops of the surrounding hills, I can’t help but notice that much of the area is criss-crossed with abandoned power poles—a sure sign of recent civilization. Andre notices my curiosity and explains that, during Soviet times, the area was dominated by community farms where much of the region’s food was raised.
After the collapse of the USSR, private enterprise in other parts of the country took over and the farms were abandoned. Still, there are a few functioning ranches, and as we drive we see several men on horses riding through the fields. “Russian cowboys,” explains Sergey.
Six hours later, just as Andre promised, we’re at base camp. And we only slid off the road once getting there!
The rest of the day is spent setting up camp and constructing a truly exceptional squat toilet.
Fire Politics on the Mountain
The plan was to wake up by 9:00, but the cows had another agenda. Yes, cows. And sheep. The base camp on the north side of Elbrus isn’t just a haven for climbers, it’s also a grazing field for a herd of cattle, and hundreds of sheep roam freely on the nearby slopes.
I pop my head out of the tent to assess the weather but my attention is immediately drawn to the bull attempting to walk through our fence. A few hollers and claps of the hand seem to do the trick in scaring him off—a game of “guard the fort” I’ll play with the same intrepid cow nearly every day.
I later learned that, should your climbing party return from the summit hungry enough, these livestock are, in fact, for sale. Had I needed one, I know just the one I’d have picked.
So begins our second day on the mountain, and our first climb to high camp at 12,000 feet. We don’t spend the night, though; this is just an “acclimatization hike”—a walk up to altitude in order to prepare your body for an extended stay at higher elevations.
We’ll carry our food up today so that our packs are lighter when we bring the climbing gear tomorrow. Of course, on the way back to base camp, I realize I’ve carried my share of the food all the way up…and half way back down again.
It’s too late and I’m too tired to head back up, so I settle for cursing myself a moment before accepting my fate: carry it up again tomorrow. Builds character. Or something like that.
Tonight over dinner, Sergey and I talk politics. I tell him about the economic problems we’re having at home. He tells me about the 90s in Russia, when even his grandmother—a well paid research scientist—wasn’t spared from standing in the bread lines as hyperinflation took her life’s savings from enough for two new Mercedes to enough for two loaves of bread. While times seem hard at home right now, this puts things in perspective.
Politics and the Cold War become a recurring discussion topic throughout the trip.
In the morning, we begin our second ascent to high camp: food delivery, take two!
I’m ready as I’ll ever be. Sergey speaks perfect English, but he’s about the only one in camp that speaks any at all and, since I don’t speak a lick of Russian, I’m starting to get a bit lonely. Conversations based on hand gestures can be fun for awhile, but there’s a limit to what you can communicate.
Even More Politics on the Mountain
“He told me the summit is closed and being guarded by the military.”
“…Fuck… really? Why? How? What?… Why?”
The sun is straight overhead and starting to burn my skin as Sergey and I make our final steps up the slope to high camp where we sit to discuss the terrible news we’ve been given by another climber.
In addition to the police blockades keeping all but a few adventurous climbers from entering the Elbrus region, the Russian military also has a base camp there where soldiers have been working around the clock for two years to dismantle and remove a helicopter that crashed during a rescue mission—quite a task at 15,000 feet.
All the climbers on the mountain right now are here illegally but, luckily for us, the military and police don’t seem to care about each other’s agendas and these troops have no interest in arresting mountain climbers. They do, however, have a few ground rules:
- No pictures of their basecamp
- No pictures of the soldiers, and
- Definitely no pictures of the helicopter
Yet on this particular morning, a climber not satisfied only with taking a picture of the machine also decides to get in a fight with the soldier who tells him not to. By the end of this undeniably one-sided pissing match, the summit is closed to everyone for three days—just exactly too long for us to wait it out—and high camp is full of soldiers with Kalashnikovs (big, scary guns) to ensure that orders are followed.
Morale is low for everyone around camp, but pessimism doesn’t get you far on a mountain, so instead Sergey and I set to work brainstorming ways around this new hurdle.
Sidenote: I find complaining to be an enjoyable exercise for a moment, but after awhile, it’s best to sit down and solve your problems so you can get on with life.
Bribing the underpaid soldiers with food and hot tea seems like a good idea at first but, in the end, leaves us only with fewer supplies and friendlier soldiers that still won’t allow us to climb. Beyond this tactic, our options are limited. As they say, those with the guns make the rules.
This evening, just as our hopes are being freshly dashed against the rocks again, a new summit plot is born. Sergey hears a rumor at dinner that one group of climbers has been granted permission to summit during the closure. After a quiet and brief discussion with their guide, it’s decided—we’re going undercover.
From here on out, we’ll be climbing with this party. Never mind that they’re all Russian and I stick out like a sore thumb. Hopefully everyone else can do the talking.
Crisis #2 averted. Even at 15,000 feet, politics cannot be avoided. These are truly exceptional times we live in.
Rest, Rest, Rest, Go?
The next few days are a combination of acclimatization hikes, card games, and unbridled anticipation building. Climbers are an antsy bunch and, after an aborted summit bid due to foul weather, I’m starting get a little cabin fever. The camp is…fine…but I prefer the open mountain and I’ve got a case of summit fever.
Summit fever is, of course, the intense desire to continue climbing, not an actual illness. Following a bout of poor health on Kilimanjaro the week before, I’m feeling great now and don’t have even the slightest bit of altitude sickness.
Loitering at high camp isn’t the preferred agenda, but it’ll have to do. In any case, there’s a group of Swiss, Germans, and even a few Americans who’ve arrived that I’m happy to be able to talk to. I even manage to get a game of cards in with a few of the soldiers who give me the sense that they dislike sitting around on a cold mountain just as much as I do. I don’t understand the game we play, but I pick it up quickly as they give me a stern “NO” every time I break the rules.
Tonight, I go to bed early after a shot of vodka that the Russians assure me is great for acclimatization. Its real purpose is to put me to sleep. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for bad weather again, but we’ll attempt the summit anyway. We’ve been on the mountain for six days now, and we’re running out of time. Barring a fit of lightning, we’ll climb despite the conditions.
My alarm goes off at midnight, but I’ve been awake half an hour, lying restlessly. The noise jars me back to consciousness and now I’m standing outside assessing the weather before we make our way to the summit.
Clear skies, no wind, plenty of moonlight. I’ll take it. As everyone else sleeps in their bunks expecting a day of wind and rain ahead, I wonder to myself if we’ve lucked out—if we’ve beaten the system. I hope so.
Harness. Check. Headlamp. Check. Crampons. Check. Prussik cords. Check.
My summit bag is packed and I’m ready to climb. Against my better judgment, I sit down to a big breakfast with Sergey. I know the stomach pain it will bring is unavoidable, but my appetite is through the roof these past few days. This is the sign of a healthy climber, so I don’t fight it.
With a dangerously full stomach, we rope together for safety and set out. Three hours later and 800 meters higher, my stomach finally stops turning. A fair price, I suppose, for a nice bowl of porridge.
We reach the saddle of the mountain just as the sun is rising over the region. The beauty stops me in my tracks momentarily. Just as impressive is Sergey’s genuine interest in the landscape despite the fact he’s been to the summit more than 120 times.
When I ask how he keeps himself from boredom, he admits he’s grown a little tired of Elbrus, but climbing is in his blood. He can’t help but get excited when he’s on a mountain, even if he can climb it blindfolded.
Are We There Yet?
Now we’re in “the saddle,” and it’s decision time. Mt. Elbrus has two peaks—one to the east and one to the west. Because it’s much easier to reach the eastern summit, many people choose it. But it’s not the true summit; it’s 68 feet shorter. For me, the decision is simple. I didn’t come all this way to have an asterisk next to my name on the summit list. Sergey asks, but it’s only a formality. He knows we’re going to the west.
And just like that, we’re off, though more carefully now as crossing the saddle means higher crevasse danger. Up the last big snow field, we un-rope when it becomes steep enough that falling by yourself is actually safer than falling with a rope partner. Self-arresting on this hill is no problem but falling while attached would send the whole rope team careening down the slope.
I can feel the lack of oxygen in each breath. It’s a two-for-one battle up here—two breaths for each step—and the lactic acid is building up in my calves. Did I mention this hill is steep?
At one point, I become so tired that I miss a step and fall, but self-arrest in the snow immediately. Looking down the hill, I quietly promise not to let that happen again. “Thanks, ice axe.”
And then, the summit.
A funny thing about mountain climbing: you often don’t know you’re at the summit until you’re standing on it. As a novice climber, you look to every horizon and ask yourself, “Is that the top?” Eventually, you stop asking because the answer is almost always, “Not yet.”
By the time you near the peak, you’re so tired that you look only a few steps ahead to make sure you’re still going uphill. When you run out of options for going up, Congrats! You made it!
And so it goes for Elbrus as well. The feelings that come over me upon reaching the summit are ones that can only be bred from hardship—from facing and defeating many challenges.
The only human element you typically expect to encounter on a mountain is your own. But, in this case, we were faced with many complications, all man-made. But if man can make a problem, then man can also solve it. And that’s what we did. So now, we celebrate.
Standing at 18,510 feet and looking out over a perfect landscape on a perfect day, the sense of accomplishment has never felt so sweet. After fetching my collector’s rock—I keep a small stone from the summit of every mountain I climb—we head back to camp.
On the way down, the urge to take a picture of the crashed helicopter is nearly overwhelming, but proves to be resistible. There’s been enough drama on this trip; no need for me to create more. If you’re still curious, let me describe it for you: big and grey. For this trip, a picture of me standing on a mushroom rock will simply have to do.
Back at base camp, we catch up with all those we left behind on our way up the mountain. The camp, it seems, is a living organism. When we return, it’s grown to at least twice the size. Apparently the word’s gotten out that there’s an open road.
After relaxing a bit, we make a short trip to a nearby hotspring very-cold-spring where a small store sells the only beer you can get for hundreds of miles because a summit celebration without beer is hardly a summit celebration at all.
Tonight we’ll rest and in the morning make our way back to Pyatigorsk, traveling down the same terrifying road that took us here. The locals will gawk at my mustache as I wander the town, and the lady at the hotel bar will sell me a bottle of water that looks exactly like a beer but proves to be a very disappointing imitation.
After a good night’s sleep and a reintroduction to the Internet, I’ll head to the airport for my nearly 30-hour-long trip home that includes one free night on the floor, courtesy of the Munich airport. Of course, at the gate in Mineralnye Vody, Russia, I’ll meet a smiling security guard.
“There’s a problem with your papers. You give me small gift, no problem.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one…
More photos from the trip: