Tuesday, July 12, 2016

T Minus 4 Days--Thinking about our coming Elbrus Expedition

As you know, Anders and I are heading to the Caucus Mountains in Southwest Russia to attempt a summit of Mt. Elbrus--the highest mountain in Europe and one of the fabled Seven Summits.  If we are successful, this would be Anders fifth of those seven peaks.

Here is a pic of what she looks like:

You'll notice that there are two separate peaks of volcanic origin.  The Western Summit--the one on the left is slightly higher at 18,510 feet and is our intended destination.  The Eastern Summit stands 18,442 feet.  The mountain does not present some of the challenges that our last two expeditions entailed (Aconcagua and Vinson) and indeed is sometimes described as a really big Mount Rainier.  Still, like all big mountains, especially glaciated ones, it is not without significant challenge.  Indeed, the weather can be notoriously challenging and many teams ultimately are thwarted by poor weather. Here is a blog post from a couple of days ago from my lead guide on Aconcagua, J. J. Justman, about the challenges his team just faced on an unsuccessful summit bid:

"Hi everyone. Today was a tough day. The team departed camp just before 3AM with moderate winds. As we climbed along the traverse above 17,000 feet the wind was getting dangerously strong. As the the team stopped to clip into climbing ropes for safety, another climber NOT on our team slipped, fell and slid down the mountain nearly a thousand feet. I was relieved to see the climber get to their feet but I am still not sure of their condition. I believe and hope they are ok. Her local guide climbed down and assisted and again, I believe all is fine.

I was extremely thankful our team did not get sideswiped as the climber fell. Needless to say, there were a few team members with very shocked expressions. Being roped up for safety we continued to climb higher. As we were approaching the long traverse into the saddle, four hours from the summit at our pace I witnessed another climber get knocked off his feet by the wind. Luckily he slid a hundred feet and stopped.

It was at that point that I needed to quit thinking and just trust my gut. Our team turned at 17,700 feet and we focused on getting back down safely. And we did."

Reading things like this can give you pause, but Anders and I are both in good shape and have a solid mountaineering experience base and the requisite technical skills to handle crampons, ice-axes, fixed lines, etc.  We are also blessed to once again be climbing with Mike Hamil, who was our lead guide on Vinson.  Mike, if you don't know, literally wrote the book on climbing the Seven Summits:


With his recent Everest summit, I believe Mike has now climbed all of the Seven (Eight--depending on how you think about Australia) Summits at least eight times--more than anyone else.  I'm not sure how many times Mike has submitted Elbrus but I would guess its in double digits.  In any event, Mike is an awesome guide and a great guy to hang with on a two week expedition of this type.

Speaking of two weeks, here is an overview of the schedule that we are facing:

We leave this Saturday, 7/16--Anders from LA and I from Philly and we all rendezvous in Frankfurt.  We then travel as a team of 10 (8 clients and 2 guides--the other guide is a Russian fellow named Igor Tsaruk, who is quite an accomplished climber in his own right--he was a national rock climbing champion in his home town of Leningrad--now St. Petersburg.)  From there we fly to St. Petersburg on the afternoon of the 17th.

We spend about 48 hours in St. Petersburg sorting our gear and seeing the sights.  On Tuesday  afternoon, the 19th, we fly to the city of Mineralnye Vody, which you might guess is so named for the mineral water springs that originate there.  We won't stay long as we will as soon as possible board a bus and drive the 180 kilometers south and west into the Baksan Valley and the resort town of Terskol--this will be about a 3 hour bus ride so I don't suspect we will get to our rooms much before midnight.

Terskol sits at 2100 meters, or just under 7,000 feet and our hotel there will be our base for the next two days.  We have a couple of days of acclimatization and ice/snow skill practice.  I believe we will climb a nearby mountain called Cheget, which stands 12,365 feet high.

On Friday the 22nd, we head up the valley to the town of Azau and then take a tram or chairlifts up to about 12,500 feet on Elbrus itself at a place called the Barrels.  From there we climb up another 1,000 vertical feet to a hut near the old Priut 11 shelter, which will be our Elbrus base--pretty sweet to not have to mange tents, etc. on this trip!

On Saturday the 23rd we acclimatize with a hike up to about 15,000 feet or so to a place marked by a distinctive V shaped rock formation called the Pashtukov Rocks.  We return to base camp and if luck is with us would get up around midnight and climb in the dark to try to reach the summit on the morning of Sunday 7/24.  This entails 5,000 feet of vertical and probably 12-15 hours of climbing round trip.  We have two contingency days as well so hopefully, one of those three days will have good enough weather for us to take our shot at the top.

Here is a "map" of the route we will take:

Post summit attempt, we head on the 28th back to Mineralnye Vody and on to Moscow.  We have about 30 hours or so in Moscow before flying out on Friday (7/29) night to Frankfurt, where we will overnight.  On Saturday the 30th we return to the states.

That's the plan--check back frequently as I will provide daily updates from now on and Judy will blog for me when we are up on the mountain and when I lack access to the internet.

Onward and upward!

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