Mount Elbrus 2016 Summit Report
This is a report of Anders and my attempt to climb Mount Elbrus—the highest mountain in Europe, which took place in the second half of July 2016.
Anders, my 30 year old son and I began seriously climbing mountains in 2009 when we climbed Mount Rainier and Mount Shasta. Prior to that point, we had been primarily focused on triathlons, especially long-course races including several Ironman races together. Since 2009, we have pursued both mountaineering and triathlons.
For our expedition to Mount Elbrus, Anders and I signed up with International Mountain Guides (IMG) to climb Elbrus by the standard “Southern” route. This was to be Anders’ fifth of the so-called “Seven Summits”—the highest mountains in each of the seven continents. Anders had previously climbed Denali, Aconcagua, Vinson, and Kilimanjaro. This was to be my fourth as I had previously climbed Aconcagua, Vinson and Kosciuszko.
We were joined on this climb by six other clients and three professional guides affiliated with IMG. Our lead guide was Mike Hamill, one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers—Mike, prior to our trip, had summited all of the Seven Summits a total of six times and had authored the “bible” on climbing the Seven Summits:
We were obviously honored to climb with Mike and it was for us, a reunion climb as we had climbed with Mike in Antarctica when we summited the Vinson Massif together in early 2015. Notably, this was to be Mike’s 100th professional guiding expedition—we were certainly in capable hands!
Mike was assisted on this expedition by two Russian mountaineers long affiliated with IMG: Igor Tsaruk and Sasha Sak. Igor is a very accomplished mountaineer with many big mountains on his resume. He was also the Russian big-wall rock-climbing champion. Sasha is a 29 year-old new mother of a very cute and entertaining one-year old (whom we met on this trip). Additionally, she is intimately familiar with Elbrus—she stopped counting her summits around 60 several years ago. We were blessed to have such a strong group to lead us up the mountain.
Unlike prior climbs, Anders and I were surprised to discover that we were the most experienced climbers of the clients. That said, we were pleased to meet our team and discover that they were strong, enthusiastic and quite motivated (and from my perspective, young). Our team included: Kristin, a 32 YO from Houston, Joanne (41) from New Zealand, Varun (28) from Oregon, Aaron (45) from Seattle, Danijela (35) from Croatia, and Gina (38) from New York.
Mount Elbrus isn’t technically a mountain, but rather an inactive volcano located in the western Caucasus mountain range, near the Georgian border in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia, Russia. Elbrus is commonly thought to have an elevation of 5,642 meters or 18,510 feet and as I mentioned is considered the tallest mountain in Europe and one of the Seven Summits.
Elbrus’ topographic prominence is 15,554 feet, which ranks it as the 10th most prominent mountain in the world. As a reminder, prominence characterizes the height of a mountain by the vertical distance between it and the lowest contour line encircling it but containing no higher summit within it. It is a measure of the independence of a summit. Prominence is interesting to mountaineers because it is an objective measurement that is strongly correlated with the subjective significance of a summit. Peaks with low prominences are either subsidiary tops of some higher summit or relatively insignificant independent summits. Peaks with high prominences tend to be the highest points around and are likely to have extraordinary views. For example, K2 is considered the second highest mountain in the world at 8,611 meters, even though it is smaller than the Everest’s South Summit (8,749 meters). The later is considered a sub-summit of Everest’s main peak.
Elbrus itself has two peaks—the Western or main summit and the near-by Eastern sub-summit that is about 68 feet lower. Here is a list of the ten most prominent mountains in the world (bolded mountains are ones that Anders or I have climbed previously):
5. Pico Cristobal Colon
6. Mount Logan
7. Pico de Orizaba
8. Vinson Massif
9. Puncak Jaya
Elbrus last erupted around 50 AD and its crater, some 300-400 meters in diameter is now permanently filled with ice and snow forming the so-called Summit Plateau. Elbrus has 22 glaciers that feed three rivers: Baksan, Malka and Kuban.
Elbrus is considered one of the easier of the Seven Summits to climb with only Kosciuszko and Kilimanjaro considered easier. That said, Elbrus is not without its difficulties and dangers. The weather is too harsh to climb, for most, from October to April. Even during the May-September climbing season, the weather can be very challenging. Nighttime lows can drop to low double digit or single digits. The wind can be the biggest challenge (indeed it would be for us) with speeds well above hurricane force. Elbrus’ location between the Black and Caspian seas leads to a lot of precipitation and afternoon whiteouts, and snow and lightning storms are common during the summer.
The Southern or standard route is visually and technically straightforward. Despite this, Elbrus is one of the world’s most deadly mountains—far more so than Everest. In 2004, 48 people died on its slopes and typically 30-35 perish each year. These folks tend to be inexperienced and unguided climbers often without proper technical gear who die from uncontrolled glissades (slides sown the mountain).
The standard route is free of crevasses but during the frequent storms, the unprepared can wander off route, slide down the steep slopes of the cones and eventually find themselves at the bottom of a crevasse. There are many frostbite and hypothermia injuries as well. Also, some forms of Acute Mountain Sickness are common since it is relatively easy to use the infrastructure to get high up on the mountain relatively quickly and with inadequate acclimatization.
The first ascent of the Western Summit occurred in 1874 and many thousands have climbed since. I’ve seen various estimates of the summit success rate and they seem to hover around 50%. That said, it’s not uncommon to have as many as 100 people summit on a good summer climbing day.
The name Elbrus comes out of Persian mythology as Hara Berezaiti and roughly means “High Sentinel”. It has also been called Mingi Tau (Eternal Mountain), “Like a Thousand Mountains” in Turic, Yalbuz (Ice Mane), and Oshkhamakhua (Mountain of Happiness) in Circassian.
Day 1: July 16, 2016
As I mentioned earlier, Anders and I joined a team of eight nclients and three guides from International Mountain Guides led by Mike Hamill. On July 16th, Judy and Roxy drove me and my two 150L bags to the airport to board my redeye to Frankfurt. I looked back at the car and saw Roxy looking with that worried look that she always had when she’s worried that we won’t come back and she’ll never see us again. I told her not to worry, I’d be back…while I kept my promise to her, it would in fact be the last time we ever saw each other….
Once inside the airport, everything went smoothly, although it took 45 minutes for the Lufthansa team to take my $100 baggage fee. I was not able to sleep on the flight (what would become a common theme on this trip).
Upon arriving in Frankfurt, I had the most aggressive TSA guy ever who I think wanted to get a room with me somewhere. Anders departed Los Angeles about the same time. I arrived in Frankfurt first and then met Anders for a nice high protein breakfast spiked with very good Euro coffee. We then met Mike and several members of our team.
Day 2: July 17
We boarded our connecting flight and had a very easy flight onto St. Petersburg. Everything went very smoothly in St. Petersburg and we had our bags and were through all the security in about 20 minutes—frankly much easier than my typical US experience!
Upon exiting we met Igor Tsaruk and the rest of our team and we loaded up and boarded a small bus and headed for the center city. After checking in at the Petro Palace, we gathered in the hotel’s Italian dinner for some good food that took forever to serve—Anders’ pizza arrived almost two hours after we ordered it. We were all very tired when we hit the sack at 11 pm for some much needed sleep.
Day 3: July 18
Unfortunately the much needed sleep did not come for me—I guess I slept just 45 minutes. Anders, on the other hand seemed to sleep soundly for most of the night. Our hotel was near the Hermitage and just a couple of blocks from the main river in St. Petersburg, the Neva. Anders and I went out for an early morning (we left around 6:45) run and did a big loop crossing several bridges and running by the Peter and Paul Fortress. Along the way we saw several decommissioned mobile missiles on their launchers—reminded me of the old May Day parades we used to be terrified of when I was a Cold War kid.
Toward the end of the run we ended up in front of the Winter Palace—home of the Russian monarchs, including Peter and Catherine the Great(s) for some 185 years. Those of you up on Russian history will recall this was the scene of the great October 1917 revolution, which ushered the friendly Bolsheviks into power. Anders challenged me to a sprint along its front façade (with its 1500 rooms, this turned into a lengthy affair). I wasn’t able to hold the 100 or so yard lead he gave me! We bumped into Aaron, also out for a run, on the way back to the hotel and in total notched 5.5 miles on our morning run.
Back at the hotel we had a respectable breakfast before joining up with our tour guide and heading out for a long day of tourist stuff. St. Petersburg seems like a nice enough city but we were paired with the worst tour guide ever. She didn’t like her city, the weather or her job. It was almost comical. In any event we cruised around in the rain and saw a lot of the city’s attractions. We broke mid-day for lunch and Anders and I opted to go across the street for some much better than the hotel stir-fry.
In the afternoon we cruised around in a boat through many of the canals that crisscross the city. It was quite cold and we all dosed off for a bit. That evening, we ventured out and down the street and had a nice meal at a local restaurant. Anders and I each had: “Stroganoff of Chickens” which turned out to be quite delicious. After the meal, Anders and I hit a Russian brew-pub and had a local IPA called the “Red Machine” which is made by a company called Victory Art Brew, which is headquartered near Moscow. Very nice way to end a long and tiring day!
Day 4: July 19
Up at 8 after a good and much appreciated night’s sleep. After breakfast we reluctantly went out for 3 more hours of sightseeing at the Hermitage (which is pretty impressive even with the world’s worse tour guide). Back to the hotel where Anders and I once again went across the street for some stir-fry at the craft beer place.
We boarded our bus at noon and arrived at the airport about 30 minutes later. By two, we were all checked in for 3 o’clock departure. Crowded but uneventful three-hour flight south down to Mineralyne Vody. The Russian passengers all burst into fairly raucous applause when we landed, which makes one wonder….
One of the most nerve-wracking moments in climbing is getting to your final destination and waiting to see if your bags with all of your climbing gear made the trip as well. To our good fortune, all ten of us soon collected all of our bags.
We schlepped them out through a crowd of loud and aggressive taxi operators who all wanted to grab your bag and drive you somewhere. We navigated these challenges and found ourselves trying to cram all of our equipment and ourselves into a bus, which was a bit small for eleven folks encumbered with the large bags that we were.
The drive from Mineralyne Vody to Terskol (near Elbrus) turned out to be a very uncomfortable, claustrophobic three-hour night-mare (although in retrospect, it was far less terrifying in the dark then it would be for our return in the daylight.)
It was about 10:45 when we climbed the four flights of stairs (which was not easy at 7,000+ feet and carrying some 80-90 pounds of stuff) to a crappy little room (complete with mice) in the hotel Wolfram. We met immediately for dinner just pass eleven—some type of mystery meat—neither Anders or I were up for it. We did celebrate Mike's 39th birthday, which was fun!
We beat a hasty retreat to our rooms and tried to call Judy for about 20 minutes but eventually gave up (no internet nor cell service on this evening). We both elected to sleep in our sleeping bags on top of our so-called beds. The weather forecast for the next few days was pretty dismal but we didn’t care as finally we were in the mountains and poised to do what we came here for—to climb! As we dosed off we could hear the call to prayer from the local Mosque—kinda’ eerie!
Day 5: July 20
We both slept reasonably well as the mice were pretty laid back. We went across the courtyard to the main hotel for breakfast, which featured eggs swimming in concentrated butter. Mostly we ate bread, butter and drank our coffee (Starbuck’s Via, which we brought with us). I have to call it like I see it but the food really sucks at this hotel and would lead to several pounds of weight loss during our stay.
We geared up and walked out of the hotel and through the little town, departing at 9:15 am. Our destination was the Elbrus Observatory complex some 3,000 feet above us. Before we could commence our acclimatization climb, Igor first had to negotiate our way pass some Russian dude who demanded a tariff of sorts to reach the climbing trail. Much shouting and gesturing ensued but soon some Rubles seem to smooth our way and gain us access to the path.
We had a delightful climb/hike—it really felt great to be up in the mountains. I was very surprised to see how beautiful the Caucasus Mountains are. We had generally clear and pleasant weather and the whole team hiked very well. Anders killed it of-course, but I was really pleased with how strong I felt as well.
We climbed up and down for a total of 4:29 covering 9.3 miles and with a total ascent of 2,949 feet. The Observatory was located at an altitude of 10,171 feet and gave us fine views of the surrounding mountains including part of Elbrus and the Baskan Valley below us. BTW, the Observatory houses a 2-meter telescope and is actively engaged in astronomical research.
The hike down was shorter and steeper and cut through some beautiful fields of wild flowers and a pretty forest glen.
Here are the mile stats from our climb today:
(Mile #/time/ascent in feet/descent in feet/meters per step/step per min):
We had a crappy lunch back at the hotel (some type of beet soup). Mike came by and checked our gear and then we organized our stuff and got our backpacks packed for the trip up the mountain for our snow school tomorrow.
After another crappy meal we posted some pics on my blog and talked to Judy and hit the sack a little after 10 pm. It was raining pretty hard as we went to sleep….
Day 6: 7/21
The rain gave way to a major, major thunderstorm mid-way through the night that continued on to after sunrise. The lightning was crashing all around us and we pretty much assumed we wouldn’t be going anywhere this morning. Up on Elbrus, JJ Justman and his RMI team endured a terrifying night that he would later describe as the worse he had ever seen in his 14 years of guiding on Elbrus.
Between 7:00 and 7:30 am it went from torrential rain and booming thunder to a beautiful morning with sunshine—very strange. We went over to breakfast, business as usual at 8 and it was as you might guess, crappy and uneatable. Bread, butter and coffee for the C Boys!
By 9:30 the ten of us boarded a bus for a short trip up to the top of the Baskan Valley and the tiny resort town of Azau. We rode three gondolas (the third is new this year) up to about 12,500 feet—above the old and iconic barrels huts. Pretty cushy way to go—saved about a 5-6 hour hike (although, I would have preferred to have done the hike).
We hiked up to about 13,000 feet and a snow school lite. The usual stuff was covered and practiced including climbing/stepping techniques, pressure breathing and rest stepping, crampon practice, ice axe techniques and self arrest practice (which Anders killed), team rope travel, etc. Conditions were pretty bad with visibility often under 100 feet.
The wind picked up to 20/25 mph and it began to sleet large ice particles that stung your face. The temp was relatively mild at this altitude—around 35 or so--we just dawned our Gortex to protect us from the sleet. Mike decided to call it a day, given the weather and we walked down in the soft snow in about 20 minutes. Our total time on the mountain was about 2½ hours and we clocked just 1.7 miles. That said, it was good to get out and play at 13,000 and the snow practice was helpful for dusting off some old skills we hadn’t practiced in a while.
After lunch (soup), Anders and I walked down the Valley to buy a couple of backpack rain covers, which we ultimately would not need. We hung in our room for about 3 hours loading our packs for the move from the hotel to Elbrus proper. By the way, my pack for this trip was an Osprey 65L (Atmos) in which I put about 40 pounds—so considerably lighter than Aconcagua and Vinson (no complaints here).
We talked to Judy, ate a little bit of our dinner and were in bed before 10pm, prepared for some big days ahead. The real climbing was about to begin!
Day 7: 7/22
I awoke fresh with a full nine hours of sleep under my belt—awesome! We did our last minute packing and had breakfast (bread, butter and coffee) around 8:30. We met up with the team, took some pictures with each other and the caretaker of the hotel and once again loaded into a small bus around 10:30.
We drove once again up to Azau and rode the three gondolas and soon were climbing on a beautiful morning. It took us about 70 minutes to climb from the top of the gondolas at 12,621 feet to our hut at 13,451 feet—a total ascent of 830 feet. Once again I felt really strong and the whole team had no problem with this small climb.
We unloaded our packs and moved into the bunks. Essentially, the hut (which really is a modestly sized shipping container) has three rooms—a long group room where we cooked, ate and hung out and two smaller sleeping rooms, each of which had a bottom and a top wooden board on which we slept. Anders and I took the top section along with Joanne and Varun, Aaron and Igor where on the bottom. Mike and Sasha bunked with the other three women—a couple of whom were feeling decidedly under the weather (this became know as the sick room). The WC was a hole in the floor of a wood shack about 25 yards from the hut.
We had a nice lunch of bread, cheese and sausage and hung out the balance of the afternoon getting settled and checking the views of the surrounding mountains, which were amazing! Later we enjoyed a dinner of chicken soup, cheese and bacon quesadillas and chamomile tea. Frankly it was a relief to not be eating crappy Russian hotel food! We played some hearts and all were in bed by 9:45.
Day 8: 9/23
The reality of quickly shooting up to over 13,000 feet without the normal approach hikes hit me like a ton of bricks during the night. I had a very painful headache and my stomach was a bit unsettled. I debated heading out to the outhouse—which entailed clambering down from my loft, finding my big puffy jacket, headlamp, and Hoka running shoes and then venturing out through a rock and ice strewn obstacle course. I elected to grin and bear it as I was pretty sure I’d wake most of my team in the process.
I wished I had access to my Aleve and Imodium, but they were out in the main room and again, I didn’t want to disturb my teammates (this was a bad call in retrospect). I did manage to drink a full liter of water, which definitely helped. I also made full use of my pee bottle—something I’m very experienced and expert at doing.
Outside the wind was absolutely howling (I reflected on the term and realized it was a pretty accurate description of the sound). The hut creaked, shook and groaned. It reinforced my decision to not venture outside—my guess is the winds were well above 40 mph, perhaps more.
Thankfully, it began to get light around 4:45 and then strangely this caused me to doze off for an hour or so. I got up around 7 and took half an Aleve, which had a pretty quick and effective impact. As I said hi to the rest of the team it became apparent that most everyone had a pretty rough night due to the altitude.
We had coffee, eggs and bacon for breakfast and all of those helped a lot. An Imodium and a trip to the WC also helped a great deal. I felt a very strong rally coming on!
Around 9 we loaded up very light packs and headed up the mountain. The snow was a lot firmer with the wind and colder air of the night before. We donned crampons and it made for easy and enjoyable climbing. I felt absolutely awesome climbing and both Anders and I killed this acclimatization climb. The wind was pretty extreme—easily 40+ mph. However, I sensed that the temp was still pretty mild—maybe right around freezing so with a nice layering strategy things were actually pretty comfortable. We did have to protect our faces with buffs to avoid frostbite.
We had a clear view up the mountain, pretty much all the way to the summit. Up above 18,000 feet there was a different story with winds (according to Mike and Sahsa) easily blowing 80+ mph. Needless to say, no one was climbing high on this day.
Our intent was to climb up to the top of the Pashtuhova Rocks, which is around 15,420 feet. However, at around 14,600 feet, Mike gathered us around and said it was good enough. The conditions were pretty uncomfortable and he felt our acclimatization goals were sufficiently addressed with our effort to that point. We achieved about 1,200 feet or so of vertical over a bit less than a mile. The slope here averaged about 20-25%, which is pretty much true for the first 3-4 hours of the standard Southern route. It took us only 70 minutes to climb and 30 minutes to return, which is pretty solid climbing in my book—given the altitude and conditions. Very encouraging climb for sure!
We were back at the hut well before noon and facing a 1 am or so wakeup so all of our energy was pretty much focused on getting ready for our summit day. On the negative side, we learned that our little Roxy had taken a turn for the worse back home and that Judy was scrambling to deal with what looked to be some troubling symptoms.
Of course, we were locked into the task in front of us. We had a lunch of cheese, bread and sausage followed by a lot of lazing around. Dinner was broccoli and rice and we had it around 4:30. We were all in bed by 6pm but unfortunately, the folks in the hut next to us stayed up well past midnight so my 1 am wakeup call came before I was able to get any shut eye…. Oh well, the mountain won’t climb itself, so time to get on with it!
Day 9: 7/24
Summit morning! Alpine start. There is nothing like it in the world. Something to cherish for sure! Mike announced we were on at 1:06 (after I could here him and Sasha outside evaluating the conditions). By 1:06 and 10 seconds I was down in the main room getting ready—no sleep, but raring to go. Anders was up early as well with a big smile on his face. He excels in this environment and lives for moments like this. I was filled with quiet determination and a strong sense of optimism—I felt ready for the challenges ahead!
I went outside to check the weather and it was surprisingly windy, but clear and (for where we were) pretty warm at 20 degrees. I had a big (20+ ounces) cup of Via and downed 3 honey oats breakfast bars. I also forced down a bit more than a liter of water as I wanted my tank topped off before I hit the road.
Mike wanted us ready to go at 2 am, so I was outside with my spikey feet and locked and loaded at 1:50. Unfortunately, this was not an universal situation and it took us until 2:19 before we actually casted off. I know I’m very anal about this, but I can never understand how in a potentially life-threatening situation like this people can put things in jeopardy being late. Rant over and none-the-less, we were on our way.
I should point out that Jo and Daniela (with Igor) had elected to get a Snowcat lift up to 16,400 and go for the summit from there. This is an option that’s available given the infrastructure in place. I think this was a good decision on their part and does not in any way diminish in my book their summits to come. We all rode three gondolas and indeed took planes, buses, etc. to get to our hut. RMI, as it’s standard approach, starts about 800 feet below us but they take Snowcat up to about 15,400 before they start their climb. In any event, Daniela and Jo left about 90 minutes after us and would pass us as we climbed upward.
The first pitch was about 75 minutes and entirely in the dark. We experienced sensory deprivation with the lack of light and the very strong wind. I felt awesome and at this point I believed I was going to just cruise up the mountain. Frankly, I’ve never been this high feeling this great on a climb before. I climbed the whole way, lockstep behind Anders and just behind Mike.
At our rest stop I was pretty efficient—well as efficient as this old man can be. Everything just takes longer when you’re older. Getting your pack off. Getting stuff out. Sitting down—all of it. Still, I was able to eat ¾ of a large Payday (about 350 calories) and drink about 1/3 of a liter of water/Nuun. I also ate a dozen or so almonds. Perfect.
We were now at about 14,435 feet, having climbed some 984 feet. We were just over 4,000 vertical feet from the summit and all systems were very much go!
The next pitch took us to the top of the Pashtuhova Rocks, at about 15,420 feet—another ascent of some 985 feet. Towards the end of this pitch, I began to fall off the pace a bit—nothing too severe and frankly, I felt that maybe Mike was pushing things a bit to hard as both Gina and Kristen (with Sasha) had dropped quite aways behind me.
At this stop, I struggled to do all of my rest stop things and towards the end of the stop, Gina was able to join us. The sun started to announce its imminent rising and we were treated with an awesome view of Elbrus’ shadow to the west. In front of us the southern Caucasus Mountains began to lite up with Alpenglow—pretty special and privileged to see this!
Much too soon, Mike announces that it’s T-minus 5 minutes. I know I’m not really ready to go. Also, I see Gina had just started her rest. Oh-oh. I have a sense of what I need to do—slow down so Gina and I can recover. I know Mike is going to go harder than I’m likely to be able to stay with. This is not Mike’s fault. It’s just a reflection of the fact that this near 60 YO has trouble staying with one of the best mountaineers in the world—even when he’s taking it easy. That said when Mike goes I jump right in and try to hang on.
This next pitch climbs nearly 1,000 vertical from 15,420 feet to 16,400 where the start of the traverse around the Eastern summit is. I now have to push it and yet I slowly, and inexorably began to drop behind. First a few yards. Then 5, 10….I kept on it but when Mike stops at the bottom of the traverse I was a good 2 minutes behind—doesn’t sound like much, but I’ve seen this movie before and I have a pretty good sense of what comes after….
Mike is again pretty efficient with this stop and by the time Gina arrives, we have less than five minutes before we go. I decide to hang back and travel with Gina—the traverse ahead looks to be 20+% and on a slide slope with a long slide/fall below—much more serious terrain than walking straight up the snow field so far. We are about 4 hours in at this point and we have ascended just shy of 3,000 vertical and close to 60% of total required to get to the summit.
Mike announces time to go and I stash the big puffy and get packed up and hoist my pack up as Mike, Anders, Aaron and Varun head off. I look at Gina and she still needs a minute or two more. I don my Jublo Revolution goggles as my glacier glasses have been fogging (and I wear them for pretty much the whole rest of the climb—they work great). Gina and I head off and I look up the trail and we are already a good 50 yards behind.
It’s clear and cold (about 12-15 degrees F) and quite windy. My fingers are numb and I get a bit of frostnip despite my very wear gloves. Nothing serious, but my fingers seem to be more sensitive to the cold now. We are heading around the southern flank of the Eastern summit and directly into the face of the gusty wind. The wind is strong enough that it adds to the difficulty of climbing. I’m all over the place and really struggling as I still haven’t accepted that we are separating from Mike and the rest of the team. I stop and ask Gina, who is right behind me, as well as several other climbers who I gather are Russian, if they want to take the lead but they all seem quite content to let me lead.
I drop my pole and it slides 5-6 yards down the slope before coming to a stop. Our little group stops and I carefully edge off the route onto the steep side slope and carefully retrieve my pole. It’s a rookie mistake to drop one’s pole but I can’t seem to get the pole straps over all of the clothes I wearing (5 layers). Of course, if I was thinking straight I could have easily made the loops bigger.
The good news about dropping my pole is it kinda’ snapped things into focus for me. I had an internal dialogue where I said: “RC this is GAME TIME and you need to get your shit together and do it right now!” I was panting heavily and stopping and starting and it was clear to me that I needed to establish a more manageable and repeatable rhythm. I quickly settled into a 4-count pattern where I went: step—2—deep breath—4—exhale/step. I did this for a minute or two and things became much more controlled. My breath settled down—I felt my heart beating and it felt more like an Ironman effort—around 145/150 bpm.
I asked Gina how this pace felt and she said it was perfect. There was no complaint from the Russians either—at least none that I registered. I felt much more in control and I felt a surge of optimism. I said out loud to myself (under the roar of the wind) that: “you’ve got this RC, you can do this.” I turned to Gina after about 5 minutes and said loudly: “We’ve got this all day girl—we’re going to the summit”. She laughed.
Looking up the trail, the rest of our team had now disappeared over a rise above us. The wind would gust and we had to hunker down to maintain our footing. It was helpful for Gina that I was leading as she probably weighs 50 pounds less than I and I was able to block some of the gusts for her. At one point I asked her if she was on top of and OK with the large amount of exposure we faced to our left. She was on it.
The slope seemed to stretch endlessly above us. Step-2-breath-4, rinse and repeat. Again and again. About 15 steps a minute. About 2.8 feet/step. 42 linear feet every minute. A near 25% slope and so our vertical rate of ascent was about 10-11 feet/minute (600-700 vertical feet/hour). This was pretty much my sustainable redline at this point.
After about 80 minutes of this I took stock of the situation. Behind us the Russians had fallen away and it was just Gina and I. The rest of our team was nowhere in sight. We were bending around the Eastern Summit slopes and beginning to see into the saddle or col between the two summits. The wind was gustier and stronger here and we had to exercise great care as the slopes were very steep and more wind blown (and therefore slippery) than before—it was easy to see how people could slip and slide, especially in white out conditions, a long ways down the slope and presumably into one of the many crevasses that crisscrossed the slopes far below us. Definitely a no-fall zone.
I needed a break and was feeling a bit dehydrated. My breath was coming more quickly now and I could feel myself slipping into an increasingly non-equilibrium state. We climbed a steeper incline as we began to face north and I estimate that we either surpassed or came very close to 18,000 feet. At this local high-point we could see a lot more of the path ahead. It clearly descended quite aways and ultimately out into the saddle proper. I could also now see groups of people ascending the Western Summit in what I correctly guessed was the steep, lower approach to the ultimate summit. What I couldn’t see was Mike or the rest of the team.
It didn’t seem prudent to stop in such an exposed area and my assumption was that Mike had confidence in me and expected me to continue to lead this pitch on my own. It occurred to me that I really didn’t know the path and it certainly had some modest objective danger (although, I was very confident I could self arrest if I fell and started sliding)—I had my pole in my left (lower) hand and my axe in my right hand above my body. I felt a sense of quiet satisfaction that even though I was struggling quite a bit I was indeed competently leading this pitch on my own.
After about another 20 minutes, I could see quite a distance ahead, near the bottom of the Summit ascent four people which I assumed were Mike, Anders, Aaron and Varun, waiting for us. I pushed on and after a total effort of about 135 minutes we reached them—they had been waiting for 30-45 minutes at this point. We were at about 17,770 feet having climbed some 1370 vertical feet over the course of about 1.1 miles. I was breathing heavy, a little wobbly on my feet and in desperate need of a rest.
Anders came up to me and helped me get my pack off and with a clear look of concern in his eyes, asked if I was OK. I huff and puff a yes but tell him I need a bit of a blow at this point—not just the normal 7-10 minutes. Mike comes up and asks the same question and I give the same answer plus my view that I can definitely summit this beast—at my pace. I know this is a challenge for Mike because he has three guys ready to go and two nowhere near so. He, being the great professional he is, says ok, get some food and drink in.
Shortly after this moment, we all spy Kristen with Sasha on her six besting the ridge that’s about 15 minutes from where we are—this is a godsend and a ready-made solution to our problem. After a few moments Mike ambles up and suggests that Gina and I wait and join up with Sasha and Kristen and he’ll take the three boys up before they get too cold. I smile (inside) and agree—Mike is one smooth cucumber.
Mike suggested I just drive a picket into the snow and leave my pack in the saddle while I attempt my summit up and down. Anders comes by and asked how he can help. I say that I’m good and I’m going to summit and he says he knows. He asks if he should take my camera and I agree—although I don’t need him to do so—but at the very least, I’m confident he’ll get good summit pictures.
Soon, Mike, Anders, Aaron and Varun are roped up and heading up a modest, but still dangerous climb up from the saddle towards the true summit. I revel in my chance to relax and absorb the sun while watching Sasha and Kristen work their way towards us. I drink and each a bunch (I’m obviously way behind in both as I took so much longer to do the traverse then Mike anticipated). I organize myself for a backpack-less climb (water bottles in the big puffy, etc.). Soon, Sasha and Kristen join us and I relay the new plan to Sasha and we all agree to leave in about 10 minutes. I’m worried about Kristen as she has just arrived but she seems pretty strong to me—certainly much stronger than I was when I straggled into this rest stop.
In total Gina and I have enjoyed close to a 30-minute rest as Sasha organizes our rope-up. Sasha says she’ll take the lead with me taking the anchor. I recognize the honor of this but at the same time question in my heart of hearts if I’m ready for this. I’m very confident I can climb the mountain but “forced marches” in a roped group can create challenges—I’ve certainly experienced them before.
We start up what is the steepest pitch on this climb. Sasha, probably just cruising, is soon pushing me into the red-zone. Being an old guy with no pride, I soon cry uncle. Sasha is a bit mystified as she looks down at me but both Kristen and Gina smile. I have this clear perception that if we just go easy, resting every 5 or so minutes, we’ll get up to the summit and have plenty left in the tank. I sense I need to press some leadership on our extremely fit 29 YO guide who can walk up this slope in her sleep…. Before I can figure out a plan, and about 5 minutes after our first rest, Gina asks for a rest—Sasha, with a bit of reluctance says OK….After a minute or so I let Gina and Kristen know that I’m 100% behind any and all rests. It’s still mid morning and while it’s cold and windy, the weather looks very stable—let’s take advantage of this fortuitous situation!
Over the next 30-40 minutes we methodically work or way up the very steep approach to summit plateau. Sasha clearly wants to go faster but she is a great guide and adapts to the consensus will of the three of us that want to move at a more measured pace. At some point during this pitch Igor, Jo and Daniela pass us going down having summited and being well on their way with their well-executed climbing plan.
After a much longer than anticipated push Gina, Kristen, Sasha and I soon find ourselves on the so-called “Summit Plateau”. My immediate reaction is “are you kidding me?” It’s clear to me that we have a lot more work to do. We un-rope, drink and eat a bit. Soon, we stand up and begin our final push to the summit of Mount Elbrus.
About 25% of the way up, we run into Mike and team heading down after their successful summit. (BTW, Mike, Anders, Aaron and Varun did the mountain in fine style summiting with limited drama. Not to say that they didn’t have to dig deep—they really did—but they were very much on their games and executed a beautiful and very strong climb!) The timestamp metadata from their summit photos shows them summiting around 10:45 am—about 8½ hours after our morning departure.
Mike stopped and talked to me and decided my nose was a little red and applied some extra high-tech sunscreen. I said hi to Varun and Aaron and most importantly hugged Anders and congratulated him on his 5th of the Seven Summits—Anders is a true mountaineer! Anders told me that I totally had it and that he was too tired to go up again with me—amazing he would even consider it and have the strength to do so. I said: “no worries” and that I would see him soon back down at the hut.
After we passed Mike and team we just kept on keeping on. Nothing special. Nothing notable. I dropped to last in our little group of four as Kristen and Gina were climbing very strong. I try to climb from route market to route marker. I can see the summit clearly—there or two or three people there. The wind howls but time seems to stretch—I have all day to make it.
Perversely, the last 40-50 yards are very steep and I stop and behold just 10 yards short of the summit. Then “girls”, my summit team are looking at me and smiling and encouraging me to join them I do and we all embrace and high-five. We reach the summit just before noon—some 9:40 after we left and about 75 minutes after Mike and team made the summit. I’m very, very proud to climb with these ladies—this took me deep and I have no issues with the challenges I’ve felt—and overcome!
We do a bunch of pictures and now it’s time to head down. The views are great but it’s quite windy. The weather looks mostly stable but there are clouds rolling in well below us and we certainly don’t want to climb down in a white out! The plateau passes pretty quickly and soon after we rope up for our descent through the team-roped section. Sasha asks me to lead (which is standard as the guide has the most likelihood of arresting falls if she is in the back on a descent). It’s very steep of course but heading down is for the most part both physically and mentally reassuring. As an aside, my lack of flexibility on my left side due to my soon to be replaced knee was generally not an issue on this climb.
However, about 5 minutes into the descent it did become, at least for an instant, an issue. I was leading the team down the 35+% slope in clear skies and gusty wind. Right in front of me, and very impressive, was the 400-500 angling downslope leading into a field of rocks. I felt under control and very comfortable leading the team down. And then, at one point as I reached down with my left foot, the build up of snow and (I‘m guessing) my fatigue and perhaps a lack of attention cause my left foot to slip out and for me to fall. I rotate to the right due to my left slipping and fall on my right arm and shoulder. I immediately feel gravity kicking in and starting my slide down the slope to the left. However, its my good fortune to have landed on my right side, where my axe is and before I slide more than a few inches I’ve got the pick of my axe in the snow, which immediately arrests my slide. Simultaneously, my team jumps into action setting their axes and I feel the relatively short rope pulling on my harness.
All is well, with the exception of my ego, which is a little bruised. I apologize and tell Sasha that I’m fine and I won’t let it happen again. I rest for a minute or two to compose myself and then I begin the descent again. True to my word, the rest of the down-climb goes off without a hitch. We collect our packs and stow the ropes and soon head off towards the southern mouth of the saddle and the long traverse across the Eastern Summit slopes.
Sasha moves ahead as Gina and Kristen have talked about taking a snowmobile down from the bottom of the traverse. I lead Gina and Kristen and I’m slow and steady. I’m very tired but am mentally focused on being very careful and safe. I suspect the ladies could and would have liked to move faster but I’m comfortable moving at a steady pace with a bunch of 10-20 second breaks thrown in now and then to keep things sharp and tight.
After what seems like a long time, though was probably just 45 minutes or so we join up with Sasha at the bottom of the traverse at 16,400 feet. It registers that all of the “dangerous” climbing is over and “all” we have to do is descend about 3,000 vertical feet down a simple snowfield with no significant objective dangers.
True to her word, Sasha has arranged for a snowmobile to transport all four of us down over two trips. Gina and Kristen immediately agree but I suggest to Sasha that I’m fine to just walk down. She counters that it would be much easier to ride down but I ask her if the weather looks like it would hold and she agrees that it does. So, I say that I’d prefer to complete my climb by just walking down. Gina tells me it’s fine to take the ride and I agree with her and tell her if I was in her shoes, I’d jump on the snowmobile as well—after all, we’ve already summited….
However, I offer that my situation is different. I’m getting pretty old and I don’t have a lot more of these adventures left in me and I might as well take advantage of this opportunity to climb down. Also, I say: “I know it will be important to Anders for me to do so.” The reality is it’s important to me. I came here to climb to Elbrus’ summit AND climb safely down again to base camp. That’s what I came to do and being tired is not a sufficient reason for me to deviate from my plan. It’s important to Anders, because he knows that’s how I am and it’s how we both approach our life goals—if we can, we finish what we start.
Gina tells me that she gets it and wishes me good luck. Sasha stays behind to accompany me down. I feel a bit guilty keeping her out here this long but at the end of the day, it’s what she gets paid to do. She smiles at me and says we can use “ass technique”. This is a new term but I quickly realize she means we can glissade or slide down on our butts. We’ve ditch our packs and crampons (they go down with the snowmobile) and put our Gore-Tex on to facilitate the slide. The snowmobile heads down and Sasha takes a seat and starts sliding down the moderately steep slope.
All right, this looks like fun! I follow in Sasha’s path and we begin sliding down the hill. We’re able to slide pretty good distances at a time, losing as much as 50-100 vertical feet in a minute. It’s quite an ab workout as you need to stay balanced on your butt while keeping your feet (with heavy boots) up in the air as you slide. We continue doing this for quite a while and soon find ourselves down to the upper portion of the Pashtuhova Rocks around 15,420 feet.
We continue downward in a more traditional manner until I note it’s possible to slide over to the right of the main path. I see no obstacles and it appears slicker and smoother as it’s away from the area where the snowmobiles and Snowcats travel so I decide to give it a shot. I quickly pick up speed and go shooting past Sasha. Soon, I feel like I’m sliding too fast and try to slow my speed but to no avail. I look down the slope and see no problems in front of me but I know it’s probably to my advantage to slow things down. I finally roll over onto my stomach and drag my gloves through the snow and finally I’m able to come to a stop—probably descending a good 300 vertical feet.
I’m huffing and puffing from the effort. Unbeknownst to me is when I rolled onto my stomach my tiny Narrative Clip camera (which had been automatically taking an 8 MP picture every 30 seconds for the last 5 hours was ripped off my jacket—so if you happen to be on Elbrus around 15,000 feet and find one—please let me know. Sasha catches up and asks me if my glissade was controlled. I ask her if it looked like it and she laughs.
We decide to walk the rest of the way down. The weather is pleasant as is our conversation. As we descend below 14,000 feet we see members of the Russian ski team practicing some GS skiing.
Finally, some 13:44 after I left this morning and just after 4pm local I arrive back at the hut and my climb is over. I fist bump Sasha and thank her for her patience. I walk into the hut and my team is there and stands and gives me an ovation. I see Anders and the big smile on his face and he comes over and hugs and congratulates me. He says: “I just knew you wouldn’t take the snowmobile”. Aaron says: “He told us that you wouldn’t because you’re a ‘Salty Dog’”. I look at Anders and he explains that this means I’m “old school”. Mike congratulates me and marvels that I just keep going and going. I laugh as I know what he really means is I’m very slow. Indeed, I arrive some three hours after Mike and boys made it down. I’m fine with that as I think comparatively about Ironman racing and how I’d be completely fine to finish three hours behind Anders in an Ironman.
What is most remarkable is all eleven of us summited—the three guides and eight clients—and we did it in three separate groups at three different times. A real testament to each guide’s capabilities and to Mike’s overall leadership and coordination of the climb. In high altitude mountaineering the guides you are with can make all the difference!
Physically, I’m exhausted. I’ve worked pretty hard for nearly 14 hours having ascended/descended over 5,000 net vertical feet and probably nearly 6,000 gross vertical feet. Very big day! I’m way behind on both my fluid and solid intake. I try to address both of those as I go through the process of getting out of all of my mountaineering gear and into my hanging in the hut clothes.
I try to rest up a bit and a couple of hours later I have a couple of big helpings of beef stew and mash potatoes, which really hit the spot! I drank a lot of water (avoiding the Russian beer entirely) and hot chocolate and was able to talk to Judy for about 15 minutes before I had to retreat back inside as it was just too cold outside and I was tired and shaking. She lets me know that Roxy has been acting weird and she is worried about her. Her plan was to take her to our vet in Wilmington on Monday (7/25) to see what’s up….
I chatted a bit with Anders about the day’s events and we congratulated each other once again before hitting the sack well before 10.
Day 10: 7/25
Pretty good night sleep—at least 4-5 hours, which given how tired and sore I was when I went to bed is about the most one can expect. I got up at 7 and noticed that I felt just fine—especially considering what I put my body through on summit day. I take advantage of being one of the first people up and organize and pack all my stuff for the climb down and departing Elbrus proper. Sasha whipps up a great bacon, egg and cheese breakfast bagel and that combined with a big cup of Joe had me smiling and ready to go. The whole team is in great spirits, as might be expected given the success we shared yesterday.
We rolled around 9:30 and hiked the 1000 vertical feet/1 mile or so down to the top of the first gondola. On the way down Mike, Anders and I stopped to get our pictures taken with a facsimile of Putin. In Azau, we had to wait for an hour or so for out bus but soon enough we were back at our hotel.
After a bit of organization, we walked down the valley a bit to a trout pond restaurant and we had a pretty good, traditional local style lunch with beers. I also talked to Judy during lunch and learned that Roxy had taken a significant turn for the worse on Sunday night—essentially going into a series of seizures every hour or so. We had been helping her deal with seizures (from a suspected brain tumor) over the past 24 months but this cluster was not a good sign. Judy took her to the local NJ vet over night and was going to get her and try to get her back to DE to see our regular vet. I felt bad for Roxy and for Judy to have to deal with the seizures on her own—they are quite unsettling to experience in person.
Back at the hotel Anders and I quickly reach agreement that it doesn’t make sense for us to hang in Russia for 5 more days (we summited on our first possible day so we had a lot of contingency days on the back end of our trip). We talked to Judy and began working on a new plan to get us home earlier.
We made a short appearance at dinner and excused ourselves to pack our bags and continue trying to find a way to leave where we were and get back to LA and Philly as quickly as possible. We had IMG’s travel agent, who is very good, but very dramatic, helping us. We didn’t know our plans when we went to bed around 11. We did know that Judy had taken Roxy to our vet in DE and things did not look good at all.
Day 11: 7/26
I awoke around 1:30, troubled both by Roxy and the logistical challenges of getting us out of Russia early. I worked with Judy and the travel agent and finally around 3:30am local it looked like we had a workable plan.
Anders and I went for a run around 6:30 out in the woods behind the hotel and found the area where all the local wrestlers come to train. We even grabbed a couple of big tractor tires with ropes and dragged them around for a while. Back at the hotel I called Igor at 7:30 and told him of our new plan. He agreed to arrange for a car to drive us up to Mineralyne Vody at 10 for our 3:30 flight up to Moscow.
We talked to Judy and Roxy has having a rough time. Jenny and her were going to talk to the vet but the emergency nurse wasn’t giving her much time to live. She was having seizures every couple of hours, even being drugged up on Valium. Roxy was at the forefront of our minds.
We had breakfast with the team (bread, butter and coffee) and said our goodbyes—they were heading off to climb one of the smaller local mountains. I’m sure that would be great, but I just wanted to get home to see Roxy, Judy and Jenny. We jumped in a tiny car where basically I had half of our luggage on top of me in the back seat and Anders was crammed in the passenger seat in front of me. Our driver didn’t speak a word of English but did speak plenty, and with animation, into his cell phone throughout our three hour trip north.
What entailed was by far the most objectively dangerous and terrifying part of the trip. We saw our lives flash in front of us countless times as our driver and apparently most of the other drivers in Russia, treated the two-lane road as a four lane with cars swerving into the shoulders, playing chicken in the middle (at 80 mph), and frequent passing on the right and left at the same time. That, plus several dozen cows in the road, which would randomly cross into traffic at fairly frequent intervals. I wish we had video but we were too terrified to shoot any.
We did make to the airport in Moneraldyne Vody. We endured 90 minutes of checking in with Russian males brazenly cutting in front of us—a level of rudeness not tolerated in the States. We had a crowded 3½-hour flight up to Moscow. Anders was in the window seat and I in the aisle with a nursing mother and fidgety baby in-between us.
I learned that Judy and the vet had agreed that there was nothing more to be done to extend Roxy’s life and I had already told Judy that I didn’t want to keep her alive just so I could see her one last time, if the more humane thing was to end her pain. Judy and Jenny were going to the vet to see and play with Roxy what would presumably be the last time. It was very hard to keep tears out of my eyes and off my cheeks as I went through the motions of travelling on this sad day.
Since our flights were in the morning, we got a room at a hotel near the airport and took a cab into the center city, some 20 miles away. We walked around Red Square and found an outside restaurant on it where we had delicious pizza, risotto, wine and beer. We toasted our little Roxy. We each got some delicious ice cream and walked around under the lights before finally making our way back to the hotel and ultimately to bed.
Day 12: 7/27
Anders left first through Munich and on the Los Angeles. I went through Frankfort and on to Philly. When I landed I learned that Roxy had been put to sleep but Judy and Jen had a chance to play with her and feed her chocolate before saying goodbye. I going to miss that little doggie—she was everything you could want in man’s best friend!
At long last I was back home and reunited with Judy—we had much to talk about.
I’m finishing this summit report about three weeks after returning—sorry for the delay. It was a great trip with Anders. These are special experiences to have with your son! The mountains are magical and a bit addicting. I’m proud of both of our summits. There really aren’t many people who have ever climbed 5 of the 7 summits—I’d guess 1000 or so—Anders is in fine company for sure.
We all really miss our little Roxy. We are pulling together pictures to remember her by. Alex and I are going to dedicate our Kili climb in September to her—more about that later.