Climbing Mount Elbrus
by Steve Bragg
We trooped into the baggage claim area. I followed the Russian/English signs to a luggage cart vendor, who took a Dollar and gave me a cart. Didn't anyone use Rubles here? I trundled the cart back to the REI Adventures group. Michelle Blesser hauled a duffel bag off the rumbling conveyor and dumped it on the cart. She was a part-time REI employee from Chicago, and at 23, the youngest person in the group. I spotted my luggage as well, and loaded the rest of the cart.
Pat and John Cahill did not look happy. The conveyor went round and round, but their luggage never arrived. Since they were only wearing shorts, T-shirts and sandals, this was a problem. One does not climb high peaks in sandals. Of course, it may be the up and coming "alpine" approach to the sport. They went off to file a claim with SAS airlines while Michelle and I worked our way through customs. We spotted a blonde guy by the exit door wearing an Australian bush hat. It was Andy Turnage, our American tour leader, and the water polo coach at George Washington University (except when leading groups through Russia). Andy never took off the hat during the entire trip, so it must have been grafted to his head.
After being waved through customs by an indifferent official, we pushed our gear over to Andy for introductions. With him were Natasha, an interpreter from Pilgrim Tours, and a driver. Pilgrim Tours was the Russian outfitter that handled our trip within Russia. Natasha walked us over to a foreign exchange counter so we could exchange Dollars for Rubles. She told us there wouldn't be much need for rubles. She wasn't kidding, as we later learned.
Pat and John arrived, grumbling (Pat) and mumbling (John) about not having luggage. A small bus pulled up outside, and we loaded the unexpectedly small amount of luggage onto it. Russians drive on the right side of the road (thank goodness the English never got their hands on the road system). We pulled out into traffic. Over the next few minutes, several things became clear. First, Russian cars break down regularly -- everyone seemed to be on the side of the road, looking under the hoods of their cars, pondering flat tires, or inspecting something underneath their cars. Second, cars were purchased from all parts of the world, for some had steering wheels on the right, and some on the left. Finally, there was a body in the road. It looked as though a pedestrian had tried to sprint across the road, and a driver had taken it as a challenge. The body had a jacket over its head; blood pooled around it. Andy took this opportune moment to announce that dinner would be served as soon as we reached our hotel.
The main impression left by our hotel was an excessive usage of concrete (which is the impression left by most Russian buildings). We entered, predictably, through the Izmailovskaya Hotel's lobby and headed for a hot dining room, where we were served eggs, caviar, and something dried that appeared to be dead. We were (rightfully) suspicious of foreign food, and only picked at our meals.
Traci Telander arrived. Never to be mistaken for a Russian, she is energetic, smiles a lot, and exudes good will. She immediately took a disliking to one of our Russian staff, named Victoria. She grabbed my arm and pointed at the Russian.
"Do you know who that is?" She hissed.
"No. Be quiet, you're supposed to be exuding good will," I replied.
She looked at me, puzzled. I impatiently gestured back to the previous paragraph.
"Look, you idiot. I give you a good write-up, and you immediately take a dislike to one of our Russian staff."
"Victoria. You don't know her name, since you won't be introduced to her until tomorrow," I replied.
"How do you know that?" She asked.
"Because I'm writing this story. Why do you dislike her?"
"Because I called Pilgrim Tours to find out where the group was staying, and she had no idea -- and here she is at the correct hotel!"
Traci had paid to spend a few weeks in northern Russia, building a bridge for the locals. We charitably ascribed this behavior to a degenerative brain disease, and avoided her to prevent infection.
Following the meal, we headed down to the first floor, took an elevator back up to another floor to retrieve our luggage, went back down to the first floor, went to another bank of elevators, and ascended to a different floor. Who designed this hotel, Lewis Carroll?
The elevator rumbled to a stop, and we stepped out. A large hare wearing a red waistcoat shot past, peering at a pocket watch and muttering, "Oh, I'm late, I'm so late..."
A concierge ignored the rabbit and opened an access door onto a corridor full of doors. The access door was normally kept locked, to prevent escape in case of a fire. We hauled our luggage to the correct door and stood outside it for quite some time while we fiddled with the lock. I leaned over Dave's shoulder while he swore at the lock, and made helpful suggestions, such as,
"Turn it left. No, left, you idiot. LEFT!"
It was at this point that, in some embarrassment, I realized that I had forgotten to introduce Dave, my roommate. This is probably O.K., however, since I'm sure that Dave has forgotten to introduce me in his version of this story. Dave Crandall is an environmentalist from Spokane who can't pick a lock to save his life.
Finally, our combined weight burst open the door, and we tumbled into the room. A moldy odor flowed from the bathroom like a vapor. Steve Kaplan, our resident entrepreneur, would have immediately thought of getting the Russian Lysol concession. Dave and I are not entrepreneurs. We staggered back into the corridor and lay against the wall, gagging.
Our guide, Andy, appeared with a bottle of vodka, which he carefully cradled in his arms. Keeping his eyes fixed on the precious fluid, he stepped over us, expertly picked the lock on his room (which was next door to ours) and disappeared within.
* * * * *
It was the ninth day of August. Andy had promised to wake everyone early the next morning so we could catch our $200 Aeroflot flight to Armenia. Knowing what he was doing the night before, we wisely set two alarm clocks for 5 a.m. Andy never showed up. We hauled baggage down to the lobby and loaded it onto a bus. We took a "shortcut" to the regional airport by going through the middle of Moscow. This was not a good idea, since we waited at dozens of stop lights.
However, the waits gave us time to see Moscow. It is filled with dirty concrete buildings, poorly dressed people, and several thousand kiosks that sell your choice of Coke or Pepsi -- and nothing else. The main thoroughfares are extremely wide, and surrounded by the best and biggest apartment and government buildings. Trolley cars rattled across our path from time to time, as did a few pedestrians. We stopped for the trolley cars. A swarm of small rivers traverse the city. Some people operate informal car washes by the sides of the rivers. They lower a bucket into the river for water, and use it to wash down your car by the side of the road.
We arrived at the airport after an hour, wistfully said good-bye to our luggage, and entered the airport lounge for a breakfast of eggs, tomatoes, peppers, and bread.
Andy led us out onto the tarmac, where we clustered at the foot of an enormous Illyushin 86 jetliner. A crowd of passengers milled about the bottom of the stairs leading to the plane. An enormous, severe-looking Russian stewardess frowned down upon us from her blocking position halfway up the stairs. Andy humbled ascended to the Personage and offered her all of our passports. She glowered and nodded slightly. We rushed up the stairs and crowded past her, spilling into a luggage storage area. Where were the seats? Someone spotted a spiral staircase , and we jogged up it to the second floor, where there were 300 seats -- all filled. We scattered towards the back and jumped into anything resembling a seat.
The jet ponderously rumbled to the end of the runway, turned, and trundled into the air with all the grace of an elephant. After two hours, the plane descended back to the ground. Just before landing, the air conditioning came on with a vengeance, forcing streamers of fog down from the overhead vents. The plane gratefully slammed back into the earth, doubtless creating furrows in the runway. Well before the plane had stopped at the terminal, a group of Mongolian tribesmen leaped from their seats and hurried about in search of their luggage. The enormous Russian stewardess grated at them harshly, but they took no notice.
We climbed down into the eighty degree noontime heat of Mineralnye Vody. A dog lolled in the middle of the runway, panting. We strolled into the ancient terminal for a lunch of cheese sandwiches while our baggage was rifled by the locals. A battered Intourist bus pulled up beside the terminal. We were disappointed to find that it was for us.
A thickset Russian in a cheap black suit supervised the loading of our luggage onto the bus. He was Mark, the owner of Pilgrim Tours. He said he was taking a "vacation" by coming along with us. Actually, he was trying to get into bed with Victoria (the woman Traci didn't like), who was the group cook. To succeed, he would have to elbow aside everyone else, for Victoria was a beauty. Victoria's boyfriend lived near the spot where we would be staying, and had previously beaten up Mark (perhaps accounting for his broken glasses).
There was no air conditioning in the bus, so we yanked down the windows and sweltered in the heat as the bus worked its way out of town and slowly up into the nearby farmlands. We passed a truck laden with bee hives, and later stopped at a roadside market. A group of women squatted beneath awnings to stay out of the sun, and flicked the buzzing flies away from the dead chickens they offered for sale. Steve Kaplan bought several bottles of beer from someone who sold it in unmarked bottles from the back of a truck. Andy came back with several loaves of bread that had cost fifty cents per loaf.
The bus was getting low on gas, so we pulled into a roadside station for a fill up. However, there was no gas. A tanker truck was due to arrive shortly. A line of cars built up over the next half hour as we clustered into the shade of a tree and swatted at flies. A small truck eventually arrived with the gas, and we went on our way.
We munched fresh bread, drank warm beer, and sweated as the hillsides gradually rose on both sides and rapids appeared in the roadside stream. A few peaks appeared with snow cresting their tops. Then a few peaks appeared with great vertical faces, plunging glaciers, and sharp ridges. We had arrived in the Caucasus mountains. The bus jerked to a stop, and the driver leaned on the horn. A sleeping cow snorted, jumped up, and waddled off the road.
Four hours from the airport, the bus turned into a long driveway that ended at the "Cosmonaut's Dacha." Back in the days of communism, the cosmonauts were sent here for rest breaks. Compared to the squalor of Moscow, it was a palace. There were acres of land on either side of the building, a large glacial stream right behind it, and a barbecue pit next to the stream. The main building had a pool room on the first floor, a kitchen, dining room and bedrooms on the second floor, and more bedrooms on the third floor.
We did not have long to look around. Two of our guides, Sasha and Sergei, led a two-hour walk along the side of the glacial stream. We had two Sashas as guides. Our guide for the day was "Little" Sasha, though he was not much smaller than "Big" Sasha. Little Sasha had a doctorate in nuclear medicine, but could not find work in his field. As a doctor, he would only be paid $28 per month. As a guide, he earned far more than that. Sergei was big, bald, and friendly. Unfortunately, he did not speak much English, so we were reduced to smiling at him and nodding.
The hike went through a pine forest for two miles, and ended at a parking area and a "pure" water spring. Since orange mine effluvia flowed past it, I chose not to drink. Upon our return to the Dacha, we found dinner ready. Russians typically eat the biggest meal at lunch, which is in the mid-afternoon. Dinner is late in the evening and not too heavy. However, vodka flows freely at dinner. The proper technique is to slam the shot of vodka and then sniff a piece of coarse bread. The sure-fire way to recognize a Russian drunk is to look for bread crumbs stuck to his nose hairs. Our Russian hosts gave several toasts; they tend to ponder their toasts, and then deliver soul-searching, beautiful speeches.
Since we were still suffering from a ten hour jet lag, we slept late. After a breakfast of porridge (a depressingly repetitive meal), we hiked 1,800 vertical feet up a valley located right behind the Dacha. On the way up, we passed a group of border guards; they were guarding the border with Georgia, which was only three miles away. After an hour of hiking, we reached a lovely meadow. I paused to snap my first photo of the trip, and found that my camera was dead. I then entered into a prolonged bargaining session with Traci, resulting in my giving her some very expensive Fuji film that she would use in her camera. In exchange, I would develop and get copies of the slides, bring some of her luggage back with me, plus get a half-price rate on a North Face tent and twenty-five percent off a Winter Park season ski pass.
In the midst of our discussion, a pair of astronomers hiked past. Like all astronomers, they were working at the bottom of a nearby mine, where they were trying to capture stray neutrinos. They mentioned that they had been hiking in the area the previous week, and heard gunshots at the Georgia border, which was now just two miles away. Then a Mountain Travel group appeared. This was proving to be a busy trail. Mountain Travel was on the same schedule as our group, and was planning to ascend Mount Elbrus at the same time we would be on the peak. They were staying at a luxurious Dacha a short distance from ours. Since they were with a competing tour group, we hated them at once.
The trail took us into a flat alluvial plain that ramped up into a long, serrated ridge that was the Armenian border. A pair of shepherds had constructed a hut to one side of the trail, and had scratched out a small area for growing crops. Little Sasha decided to turn around, since the route was wet and clouds were clustered overhead. We returned to find that the Cahill's luggage had arrived. This was a relief to all of us, if only from the standpoint of body odor. After a solid lunch, we returned to our rooms and passed out to the musical chatter of the brook in the backyard.
I astounded Dave by reading a Conan the Barbarian book. Dave preferred to read "real" books by weighty authors who had won Nobel prizes. I purposely annoyed him by chortling over the best fight scenes. He finally went off to read somewhere else.
To finish off the official activities of the day, we held a team meeting to go over the next day's preparatory climb, which would be at a ski mountain a few miles down the road. One of the people lecturing to us was Sasha Abramov, our chief guide. He was a member of the Russian National Climbing Team, and was rated as a Master of Sport, Alpinism. He had climbed more than 200 summits in the Caucasus, Pamirs, and Tien Shan ranges, and had just returned from reaching the South Col on Mount Everest. We were surprised to find that such a good climber was also a chain smoker.
I awoke with bruised toes; the bed was too short, and I had been pushing against the foot board in my sleep. After a short lecture about being on time for the day's hike (something we were rather leisurely about), we piled onto a bus and drove for ten minutes to the base of Cheget Mountain.
Cheget Mountain is a ski resort, though it falls far behind Colorado resorts. For one thing, the chair lift only had single seats. For another thing, it was 9 a.m., and the lift was not open yet. Andy went off to find the lift operator. The Mountain Travel group showed up in a more luxurious bus than ours. Steve Kaplan disappeared to set up a wool sweater concession at the local market. The rest of us shouldered our packs and climbed a set of concrete stairs to the chairlift.
A group of local families hiked up behind us. The chairlift operator proved to be a seedy-looking fellow in a battered wool dress coat. He threw a lever, and the ancient lift creaked into operation. I shrugged on my pack across my chest in order to sit in the chair, and jumped on. I clutched the orange seat as it swayed up through a gap in the trees.
Then the trees fell away, revealing an astounding view of a 15,000-foot peak to the left. It had an enormous vertical face, over which hanging glaciers brooded. To the right lay Mount Elbrus. It was my first sight of the peak. Elbrus has two summits, and is blanketed by 55 square miles of glaciers. At 18,510 feet, it towers far above any other peak in the Caucasus, and solidly anchors the west end of the mountain chain.
We waited at the top of the chairlift for the rest of our group to arrive. In the meantime, the Mountain Travel group came up and took off ahead of us. Starting at 8,900 feet, we climbed under beautiful, clear skies along a winding maintenance road. The Pilgrim Tours owner, Mark, looking constipated from another unsuccessful foray against Victoria, led the way. Traci and I were well acclimatized from living in Colorado, and trod upon Mark's heels. Dave Crandall was staying close behind us. The rest of the group gradually strung out across the face of the peak. Traci passed Mark at 11,000 feet, and set off at a hard pace for our goal, a sub-peak at 12,160 feet. I puffed to keep up, but she gradually pulled away.
I caught her at the top, where we plunked down in the sun and gazed in awe at the view. We were near the center of the Caucasus Mountains. It is not a large range, but its lack of size is more than made up for by the jaggedness of what is there. Everywhere, ice-encrusted peaks thrust up, spilling glaciers down immense rock faces.
More people arrived. I borrowed a pair of binoculars and focused on the slopes of Elbrus. The weather was spectacularly clear, so I could see every detail. The tram was clearly visible, covering the first few thousand feet of the peak's base. In August of 1992, a cable car broke and fell, killing a Russian passenger. To the right was a sub peak on which a group of observatory buildings was clustered.
Permanent glaciers fingered their way down from the upper reaches of the peak. Another set of chairlifts poked up through the glacier, anchored in patches of rock that showed black in the sunlit glare. The Priut (Pree - oot) Hut lay like a beached whale at 13,800 feet. Built in 1947, it is a three-story, metal-sheathed behemoth that can house a couple of hundred climbers. Above the hut lay a crevasse-free snow field, flanked on either side by rock bands, that led up to the Pastukhov Rocks at 15,700 feet. There was nothing special about the rocks, except that many climbers acclimatized by hiking up to them, and then coming back down to rest for a later summit attempt.
From the Pastukhov Rocks, I could see a line of climbers stretching up and to the left, wrapping around the flank of Elbrus and out of sight. They were traveling into the Sedlowina Saddle between the east and west summits. The east peak is 39 feet lower than the west peak, and is considered the easier ascent. From the saddle, the west peak is an additional 700 vertical feet, most of it on a slope that varies from thirty to forty degrees angle. The snow conditions on this slope are critical to one's success. If the snow is soft, the ascent is easy. If it is icy, then this can be a moderately dangerous, roped ascent.
An Englishman jogged up behind us, and claimed to have climbed Elbrus the day before in eight hours (round trip). Not willing to stay in place for long, he soon turned around and raced his girlfriend back down the mountain. The rest of our party straggled in. Sergei appeared last with a monstrous sack of provisions. We devoured it and then, suitably distended, trundled down to the chairlift. Rather than do something so pedestrian as to walk further down the peak, we elected to ride the chairlift down. We had a great view of the valley while rattling down on the old chairlift.
On the way back, we noticed a great deal of avalanche debris amongst the trees near our Dacha. An avalanche had roared down the opposing side of the valley during the last winter, crossed the road, and obliterated part of the forest on the other side of the valley. We entered the Dacha's dining room to find a feast spread out for us. It was the usual bland food, but there was an astounding amount of it. We ate it all.
It was late afternoon. Michele, David, Traci and I walked down the road to a nearby village. On the way, we passed a bus stop with inlaid ceramic tiles on its rear wall that depicted a religious scene. The construction work was not recent, so it must have been built while the Communists were in power. I was surprised at this, since the Communists had a reputation for stamping out religion wherever they found it. Perhaps the local authorities got away with this transgression due to the distance from Moscow.
We arrived at a bridge that led into the village. David and Michele wanted to inspect it at close range, but Traci and I quailed at the site of several aggressive-looking chickens strutting in the roadway, and elected to remain at the bridge. While we waited for them, a car pulled up at a turnoff. Several mangy-looking men hopped out and passed behind us on their way into the village. Traci and I discussed defensive techniques as they approached, but there was no trouble. When traveling through a country that is at war, and where the inhabitants have been taught to hate Americans, it best to be prepare for the worst. David and Michele passed the chickens unscathed, and we returned to the Dacha.
David and I both started taking Diamox pills. The drug may be able to reduce the effects of high altitude sickness, though it has not been proven. One thing it definitely does do is make your extremities tingle. My fingers and toes started tingling the next day, and at times one entire side of my face tingled.
There was a meeting following dinner, where we discussed the next day's move to Elbrus; perhaps I should say that we "listened to Mark extol the virtues of his guides." He told us that Sasha Abramov had climbed the peak over 100 times. He later told me that 20 ascents was closer to the truth. After receiving much advice on what to pack and what to leave, we returned to our rooms for an orgy of destructive re-packing. I regretfully left the Conan book, but could not part with a prized Van Halen tape. David chuckled that night as he scribbled in his journal -- probably something about me. I dreamt of his demise, and awoke the next morning in a good mood.
It was August 12, 1993. We were on the bus by 8 a.m., and drove a half hour up the valley to the tram station, which was based at about 8,000 feet. A group of local porters took the first tram to carry most of our provisions for us to the hut. We joked that they were really testing the tram to see if it would fall off, as it had the previous year. We boarded the next tram, and rapidly ascended over gravel-laced slopes to an intermediate station at about 9,500 feet. We switched to another tram, passed over the crumpled remains of the fallen tram car, and continued up to about 11,100 feet.
There was an additional chairlift above this, but it had been disabled by a lightning strike the previous week. Consequently, we were brutally forced to actually hike with full packs for 800 vertical feet. I shrugged on a monstrous load of chocolate bars, hard rock tapes, and toilet paper, and staggered up through slushy snow. It was hot, and sweat beaded on my nose. After a half hour, I joined our porters at the upper chairlift station, where a snowcat awaited us.
I heroically announced that I would climb the remaining 1,800 vertical feet to the hut, until I learned that the snowcat cost only $2 to carry up your pack, and another $4 to take you as well. I caved in after deliberating for two seconds, and climbed on the machine. Sergei grabbed Traci and positioned her in his lap. The snowcat jolted into motion, and we all slid into the lower end of the "cat," crushing whoever was sitting at the bottom. Ignoring their pleas for help, those of us near the top of the heap (myself included) sunned ourselves, commented on the scenery, and exchanged stock tips. The hut loomed ahead.
The Priut Hut is three stories high, and holds about 200 climbers. A rock outcropping looms over it from one side, and a gangplank reaches from the rock to a small door on the third floor. Another door opens onto the first floor. A ladder near the third floor entrance leads to the rounded roof. An amazingly squalid latrine is located near the first floor entrance. The kitchen is located on the second floor. There is no heating system, so those on the third floor benefit from any heat generated by the two floors below. The whole place is smelly, for there is no ventilation, save for the two doors. The best rooms are on the third floor. We got the third floor.
Little Sasha had come up the previous day to secure the best sleeping locations. He led us over the gangplank (a prime spot for nocturnal urination) and into the dim interior. John and Pat Cahill, David and I took a room for four that was the same size as a walk-in closet. Sergei immediately headed for the roof with Michele for some midday tanning. I wandered up later on to look around. The ladder to the top is not bolted to anything, and shifts alarmingly while using it. I hopped off the ladder and onto the hot metal surface of the roof (the entire building is sheathed in sheet metal). Michele and Sergei were enjoying some good microwave radiation as well as a great view of the Caucasus range.
Little Sasha gathered us together for a late-day hike to 14,500 feet (not far, since the hut is located at 13,800 feet). On the way, we passed a World War II memorial that was bolted to the rocks. Apparently, there had even been a battle up here! One of the guides mentioned that if you poked around in the snow, you'd be bound to eventually find a body. The reason for this is that Elbrus is frequently covered by fog later in the day. Returning climbers get lost in the fog and freeze to death.
We returned for a dinner of stuffed peppers. The room was toasty warm from the cooking stoves. Gene showed up with his video camera -- ah, I've forgotten to mention Gene Rockman and his companion, Donna Liming. They were 57 and 60 years old, respectively. Gene had successfully climbed a number of big peaks; Donna had not. Donna was going no further than the hut, and would stay there for the next few days. Gene had two annoying habits; using a pee bottle in his room at night (usually right next to Andy's head) and videotaping everything. A typical conversation (regarding the videotaping, not the peeing) went as follows:
Gene: "And here we are at the... Say now, just where are we, anyways?"
Unsuspecting Victim (with mouth full of food): "Mmphmphh!"
Gene: "Ah yes, I believe so. Now then, would you know what time it is?"
Unsuspecting Victim (glancing shiftily aside): "Nope. I only carry an altimeter."
Gene (pouncing): "Ah! Then at what altitude are we?"
Unsuspecting Victim (triumphantly): "Sorry, the battery just went dead."
We constantly plotted to steal his video camera and tape him while he was in the outhouse. The outhouse had the unique feature of leaning out over a very small cliff, so that an enterprising person (with a video camera) could work around underneath the toilet and aim it upwards.
Person Pulling World's Greatest Practical Joke: "And here we are at the Priut Hut. I wonder what time it is? Sir! Oh Sir! Would you know what time it is?"
That night, we discovered that Pat snored. A deep rumbling built into the deep, throbbing crescendo ofan approaching freight train, which hurtled right through the room. David is a light sleeper. David slept three feet away from Pat. He tried sleeping pills, ear plugs, and tugging at Pat's blanket. Nothing worked. David finally pulled out a pistol, but had trouble loading the bullets in the dark. I loaned him a spare flashlight, as did John. Not wishing to be an accessory, I got up to seek the comparative solitude of the outhouse.
I descended down through the progressively colder levels of the hut, laced on my boots, and stepped out into the cold night air. It was snowing. A set of radiator grilles had been inserted into the ground next to the doorstep to keep you from sliding down the hill. I carefully stepped beyond these and walked down to the outhouse. Someone had missed the hole completely. I used the shovel for a minute to take care of this problem. A bobbing light coming down the hill foretold the arrival of someone, probably another refugee from my room.
It was snowing at breakfast, but we decided to go up to the Pastukhov Rocks anyway. It was very wet. We climbed with our hoods pulled close and our heads down. The snow drove against us horizontally, and visibility closed down to a hundred yards. Since we needed to have dry clothes for the next morning's summit attempt, we turned around at 15,070 feet. Back at the hut, we hung wet clothes on anything we could find, and strung clotheslines around the room's perimeter. Lunch was in the mid-afternoon. Victoria looked radiant, for Mark had finally gone down in the snowcat, and was not coming back.
There was lots of discussion that night about whether the snow would stop. On the other hand, if enough snow fell, then the snowcat might be available to take us as far as the Pastukhov Rocks. Little Sasha squashed that idea; there would not be enough snow for the snowcat.
It was the fourteenth day of August. I got up at 2:30 a.m. and went outside. The sky was clear. I peacefully peed off the gangplank and reflected that it was so pretty to watch the steam rise against the stars. Meteorites flared and sputtered every few minutes. The temperature was in the twenties. I went back inside, put on expedition-weight underwear and shell clothes, and headed for breakfast. It was porridge -- yech.
We gathered outside in the dark and started at 4:15 a.m. I noticed lights bobbing far ahead of us. Clouds started to form, and I saw lightning flickering across the border in Georgia. Sasha Abramov took the lead, and three other guides positioned themselves amongst us. It was important to have a lot of guides, for we would lose them as people gradually dropped out of the group and turned back, requiring an escort to the hut. Michele was not feeling well at the mid-14,000 foot level, and went back. She was close enough to see the lights of the hut, and did not need a guide. Steve Kaplan was the next to turn back at 15,700 feet. We encountered ice patches right after that, which increased in frequency. I was right behind Sasha Abramov, and noticed that he did not bother with crampons -- the rest of us had worn them from the hut.
A trickle of people started to come down from above, all sick. A group of Germans had not bothered to acclimatize, and most of them were now having problems. The sun came up as we reached the top of the Pastukhov Rocks, so we stopped at another monument for photographs. I always get a headache at 16,500 feet, so I took Tylenol to keep it from happening. We headed up and to the left, gradually working our way around to the saddle at 17,600 feet. This was a difficult section, though none of us could figure out why. We ascended slightly above the height of the saddle and then dropped down towards it. The traverse seemed to take forever.
We finally reached the saddle. We had now split into two groups. The lead group contained Sasha Abramov, Traci, David, John Cahill, and me. The others were out of sight around the corner. We clustered in the lee of a shattered weather station and shivered in the freezing wind. Sasha yelled into a radio to tell the hut personnel where we were. I saw one group ahead of us, ascending a 40-degree slope towards the top of the west (and highest summit). Nearly everyone appeared to be climbing the east summit, however. The east summit has a reputation for being an easier ascent.
We left some of our gear at the weather station, and continued on our way, unroped. The fresh snow was from four to ten inches deep, and it balled up under our crampons. Traci kept belching, and Sasha offered her a Dollar to do it on demand. We switch-backed up alongside a band of scree, and finally topped out at 18,300 feet. The slope abruptly flattened as we stepped over a lip of snow. Sasha dropped all of his gear and raced off towards the summit. David and John were starting to look wobbly, and dragged along in the rear. We hiked up perhaps another hundred feet over the next quarter of a mile. Sasha awaited us at the foot of a short, steep twenty-foot bump that was the summit. We waited at the base for everyone to arrive, and then climbed to the summit at the same time.
We huddled together and slapped each other's backs and shook Sasha's hand. Traci was all teeth, she was smiling so much. I walked over to a shattered block of concrete that used to be surmounted by a bust of Lenin. The top of Europe. My teeth weren't as white as Traci's, so I smiled inside instead.
Clouds had been building all day, but they cleared enough for some limited views of the surroundings. We snapped the usual photos, and headed down. John and David were staggering like drunks, but kept up manfully. Sasha retrieved his gear where he had dropped it, and we then worked our way back down through the steep sections towards the saddle. On the way down, we saw a figure ascending slowly. It was Gene. For a 57-year old, he was slogging along doggedly, and eventually reached the summit.
We found Pat Cahill at the weather station. He had run out of steam, and was waiting to see how his son had performed. After the back-thumping his son received, perhaps John wished that he hadn't summited. We changed clothes into light gear, for the earlier cold had changed to blazing heat. The descent was slow, for the snow was deep and slushy, and Pat had an old knee injury that was acting up. Clouds crept up the slopes as we descended. Finally, Sasha told us to go on ahead while he escorted Pat down. We jogged off towards the Pastukhov Rocks, and were soon descending through fog. When we reached the Rocks, we though we heard someone calling to us from behind, and waited for a short time. However, there were no further calls, and we continued towards the hut. John improved rapidly as the air thickened, but David was very tired.
The hut coalesced into a dark mass as we peered through the gloom. A welcoming committee of Sergei, Michele, and Steve greeted us. David avoided them all and crept over the gangplank and straight into his bed. I followed him inside and got a big hug from Victoria.
I was far too smelly, and had been dreaming of a snow shower for most of the descent. I grabbed a towel and walked back outside. While looking for a patch of clean snow, I slipped on a patch of ice, shot down a short, steep section, and landed in the hut's garbage heap. Now I really needed a snow shower. I hid behind a boulder, stripped off clothes piecemeal, and rubbed snow all over my body. God, that felt good!
I returned to the hut to find that Pat had arrived. He mentioned that he had slipped on some ice above the Pastukhov Rocks and landed hard on his derriere, exclaiming "fucking ice!" Sasha did not speak English that well, and had immediately come over, looking for this new kind of ice.
"Fucking ice? Where is this fucking ice?" He asked.
Dinner was served, though not many of us appeared. That was a good thing, for I was hungry, and cleared the table. John had recovered well, and matched me bite for bite. There was some stomach trouble that evening, so those of us who were healthy played nurse for a few hours. There was an informal debriefing in our room that night. Apparently, Andy had gone to the bathroom somewhere near the saddle, and the results were red enough to scare him into descending. He didn't remember until later that he had eaten red peppers the night before, and that was probably the only reason for the coloration. I made the mistake of mentioning the Pizza Hut store in Moscow, for pizza was all we talked about for the rest of the evening.
I awoke at 4 a.m. with a bad case of diarrhea, and scrabbled down to the first floor, boots in hand. I beat someone to the outhouse and gratefully sank down in the darkness with half of my face tingling from the effects of Diamox; I wondered why all people did not take this kind of a vacation.
A few hours later, Andy and Pat started talking about a second attempt on the summit. They fetched Little Sasha, and talked about prices. It cost $30 for a snowcat to take them to the Pastukhov Rocks, and $30 for a snowcat to take them back down from the rocks. In addition, it would cost $20 for a snowcat to take them down to the lowest possible point on the mountain, $10 each to stay in the hut for an additional night, and $120 for a guide. They decided to try for the top the next day. The odds of succeeding are greatly amplified by started at the Pastukhov Rocks, for the vertical gain drops to only 2,800 feet, versus a gain of 4,700 feet from the Priut Hut.
The snowcat took everyone else down at 11 a.m., leaving Pat, Andy, and Sergei behind. We stopped at the snow line and carried our packs down to the tram. The entire conversation during the ride down revolved around omelets; we debated the political wisdom of ejecting the entire kitchen staff from the Dacha and concocting a vast brew of cholesterol-rich eggs and cheese. Once at the bottom, we rested on a patch of grass until an old, wheezing rattle-trap bus coughed up the hill to take us home.
Breakfast the next morning was a disappointment -- porridge. Few of us ate it, and left the table hungry. We cornered Victoria and wheedled a promise of omelets for the next morning. Traci went back to bed with a possible sinus infection, while I washed clothes. The others went on a short hike. I spent a few hours wandering through the pine woods next to the brook, and returned to find Pat and Andy accepting congratulations -- they had both summited, and then raced down via closely-linked snowcats, trams, and buses to arrive at the Dacha at 5:30 p.m. They had reached the Rocks by 3:30 a.m., stood on the summit at 10:40 a.m., and returned to the Rocks by 1:45 p.m.
The next morning, we had a taste of how Communist Party officials used to live. We walked through the trees to the Dacha being used by the Mountain Travel group. From the outside, it was a typical concrete structure. On the inside, it had marble floors, spiral staircases, a billiards room, sauna, and hot tub. However, we weren't there to view the floors or the staircases. While the women used the hot tub, the men gathered in the billiards room; billiards is the most aggravating gameever devised, for the pockets are only wide enough to admit a ball with a millimeter of space on either side. The game dragged on for an hour. The imported Swedish sauna and hot tub were more to our taste, as was the watermelon. Tough expedition.
We returned to our Dacha for an afternoon of sunning on the roof, followed by a feast of barbecued meat for dinner. Our Russian hosts, as usual, proved their depth of character by delivering a series of wonderful toasts. Pat responded with a speech praising Gorbachev, which the Russians did not like -- they still despise him, though Americans feel otherwise.
Andy and I got into a drinking match with vodka as the weapon. Every time we emptied a bottle (a frequent occurrence), we cried, "Emergency down here!" Another bottle was passed up the table to us. We drank one shot glass after another and sniffed dark bread while Sergei looked on approvingly at our good technique. Thoroughly drunk, we both staggered off to our respective beds.
I tossed all night, trying to assimilate my enormous burden of pure grain alcohol. We arose at 5:15 a.m. for the long ride back to the airport. I huddled into a bus seat, feeling slightly nauseous and burping alcohol fumes from time to time. We passed some farmers who were out early, using scythes to harvest their crops. Steve was excited at the prospect of starting a white water rafting business on the river we were traveling along. The driver stopped at a gas station for a fill up. However, there was an enormous line of vehicles waiting at the only operational pump (most fuel supplies are sent to the war front). We waited an hour, and amused ourselves by watching the drivers fight over who got to fill up next. One driver slapped another who had accidentally sloshed fuel on his foot. They stopped arguing after they saw us grinning at them and taking pictures.
After filling up, we continued down the valley, passing several police checkpoints. As we reached the end of the valley and turned left onto the plains, a beautiful view of Elbrus' snow-encrusted cap seemed to float in the air to our left.
We saw many places where people were illegally selling gas from the roadside. We reached the airport with very little time to spare, and were lucky enough to find a baggage attendant in the parking lot who took our baggage directly to the plane -- without a security check. During the flight back to Moscow, I devised a theory of how Aeroflot pilots are paid; they are encouraged to fly in a straight line to conserve fuel, even if it means flying right through a thundercloud. I know -- we hit an air bump that sent the plane a thousand feet straight up. There was a suitable response from the plane's 300 passengers in a dozen languages, all of which roughly translated into "Oh Shit!"
We went to the airport lounge and waited an hour for our baggage to arrive. Then we boarded a bus for a quick drive around the Kremlin's mustard and white-colored buildings. During the return to our hotel, we passed a large hydrofoil buzzing through the waters of one of Moscow's many canals.
A small revolt occurred when we reached the hotel, for our guides wanted to treat us like tourists and guide us through the city for that evening and the next morning. Being climbers, we were a free-spirited crew who resented any control -- especially now that our goal was achieved, and we didn't have to put on a false face of subservience. Consequently, most of us went to the subway, bought one-cent plastic tokens, and took escalators far down into the rightfully legendary Moscow subway system. Each station has marble floors, with heroic marble figures sprinkled about.
We got off at the exit nearest to Red Square, and walked past a loud political demonstration on the way to the Square. As we walked, street vendors accosted us to sell T-shirts and synthetic bearskin caps. They recognized us as foreigners by our shoes (mostly Nike) which were worth three month's pay to the average Russian.
Red Square is about 300 yards wide and 600 yards long. One end is anchored by Saint Basil's Cathedral, which is smaller than one might think -- perhaps fifteen stories high. One of the long sides of the square is bordered by the Russian equivalent of a three-story shopping mall, and the other side is composed of the Kremlin walls. The walls have pine trees planted in front of them. The bodies of many famous Russians are entombed in the wall. The most famous body of all, that of Lenin, is interred in Lenin's Tomb, which is a dark marble structure squatting in front of the wall, with reviewing stands both next to and above it. We waited for the changing of the guard at Lenin's Tomb at 10 p.m. A friendly police officer came over to talk to us in broken English. The Russian Republic's white, blue, and red tricolor flag floated above us on the Kremlin walls. It was very peaceful and quiet. The three incoming guards goose stepped past us, weapons clashing, and took up their posts. The off-duty guards marched back, and the crowd of onlookers dispersed.
We were starving for American food, and made a forced march up a nearby boulevard to a Pizza Hut. Even though we were among a throng of Muscovites, I did not feel safe. None of us suffered from any criminal activity while in Russia, but I felt that some criminal activity was nearby. The Pizza Hut served real American Pizza, real American Pepsi, and only took real American Dollars to pay the bill. It was worth it.
On the way back, we stopped to listen to a seven-piece band playing in the concrete tunnel leading under a major intersection. Pat asked for a selection, which they obligingly played. He dropped some money into their donation box. A drunk pushed through the crowd and tried to steal the money, but someone hustled him away.
Dave and I returned to the hotel and managed to break into our room after much cursing and fiddling with the key. The overhead light flickered wildly. We shut it off, and Dave tried to call home in the dark. He didn't have a PIN number to go with his credit card, and spent quite a bit of time trying to wheedle his way past the operator. Traci stopped by, and David launched a verbal attack on her; she was going from Moscow to Scandinavia, and he wanted her to come to Switzerland with him. I jumped in on David's side, maligning the flat Swedish countryside (which I had never seen) and praising the mountains of Switzerland (which I also had never seen). She finally caved in and disappeared to make some calls to the airlines to reroute her itinerary.
August the nineteenth was our last day in Russia. We took a bus to Lenin's Tomb. Sure enough, Lenin was still there. He looked rather small, and his right fist was clenched. Guards peered suspiciously at everyone as we filed through in silence. Gene used to be a mortician's assistant, and claimed that it was a real body, due to its shrunken ears and blackened lips.
The bus took us to the bazaar at Lenin Hills, which overlooks the city. The bazaar was really a long line of card tables where T-shirts, lacquer boxes, and wooden, nesting dolls were on sale. I shopped for a lacquer box with Andy's assistance (since he knew Russian and I didn't). The prices of the boxes are based on the manufacturer (whose name is painted onto the box) and the elaborateness of the design. At a rough guess, the boxes are about ten times cheaper than in the United States.
We headed back into town for lunch at a downtown casino. David left for the airport. Traci would be meeting him in Switzerland the next day. There was a break after lunch so a few of us used up our remaining rubles at a T-shirt stand; the T-shirts sold for five Dollars. A beggar woman and her child ran along next to us as we returned to the bus, begging for money. The child's face was covered with sores.
Our final tourist stop was the Sheremetov estate outside Moscow. This was one of a thousand residences owned by the Sheremetov family. Because of the shortage of funding, the caretaker had opted to let the outsides of the buildings fall into disrepair and just keep the insides in viewable condition. We donned oversized slippers to keep from damaging the wooden floors, and shuffled through a series of lovely galleries, filled with paintings and furniture from the era of the Czars.
Outside, it was raining. Michelle and Steve jumped into a different car and headed for the train station; they were going to Saint Petersburg for more sightseeing. Our group had shrunk to a small core. Our bus turned onto the Moscow perimeter road. The wipers clicked and swished as we rattled on through the dusk.