An Unguided Climb of Mt. Elbrus - Routhier Style - (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 20, 2020
I know it's been waaaay too long since my last post...
As many of you close to me know, I have been feverishly trying to sell almost everything I own...car, house, extensive wardrobe and this has taken up the majority of my time since I returned from Russia.
Before I digress too far, below is the1st part of a detailed account of our experience in Russia. As a reader, if you are looking for a "how to," this post is not for you. My goal is to share what it was really like as an American traveling to a region of the world the US State department specifically warns people not to go. I will be putting up a "how to" guide to climbing Mt. Elbrus unguided once this account is finished, so stay tuned!!
It was two days until departure and I was freaking out…We were leaving soon to attempt to climb the highest mountain in Europe and I couldn’t find my stupid kindle. I looked everywhere for the damn thing… but since time was of the essence and I had more important things to make sure I didn’t forget like my climbing harness, slings, carabiners and crampons, I broke down and bought a new kindle (glad I did because the book I read on the trip was phenomonal and called Red Notice by Bill Browder).
The countdown was on and Saturday at 13:00 was quickly approaching. That was the drop dead time to head to the airport. The hour arrived so we called our ride, arrived at the airport, checked our luggage, boarded the plane, un-boarded the plane because the 1st officer got reassigned to another flight, re-boarded the plane 15 minutes later when they found a new 1st officer and dozed off on our way to Heathrow.
The worlds 7th largest airport (LHR) was uneventful except for the fact I had the opportunity to buy a new selfie stick because I forgot to pack ours. It seems like I’m always forgetting to pack it. I probably subconsciously forget it, because consciously, I’m embarrassed to be using one. But, truly, they are so handy when trying to get pictures in remote places when there's no one around, I had to break down and grab another. In London, I struck the selfie stick lottery because this time I found one I LOVE by Joby.
Why do I love it so much, because it turns into a tripod and has a remote so it's great for taking more than just selfies.
After my little purchase, it was time to head to Moscow. Our British Airways flight was actually better than expected and after ~4 hours we in Россия (Russia)! We needed to change airlines so grabbed our checked luggage, navigated through the SVO airport and headed to the Aeroflot counter.
We reached the ticket counter, checked two of our 3 bags and then were told for our extra bag we need to, yes, get this...go to a physical ticket counter at the airport to buy admission to check any additional baggage, then we needed to head back to the check in desk to actually check it.
It really wasn’t that big of a deal, just a little nerve wracking when you want to make sure all of your mountaineering gear makes it to your final destination.
Once we got that all settled, we proceeded through a much less stringent than the awful and slow LHR security. We took Nalgene bottles full of water through without any issues, then found a good looking place to eat and had our first Russian meal.
I had what were like crab cakes, only make out of ground chicken and let me tell you, they were amazing! I was so hungry I dug in and forgot to take a pic so you’ll just have to imagine what they looked like.
They were doused in butter and accompanied by a large stalk of grilled broccoli.
Frank had some sausage thing accompanied by the best spicy mustard type condiment that we’ve ever tasted.
When it came to to board our flight to Mineralnye Vody, we must have stuck out for some reason (maybe my purple hair or Frank’s manbun?) because a mid 20’s Russian guy came up to us and typed in his phone via a translation app to ask if he could take a photo with us. We blushed and obliged, boarded the plane and were on our way to our next stop.
We landed safely in Mineralnye Vody where we also planned to stay for the night. What we hadn’t planned for, was the insanity of trying to get a Yandex (Russia’s version of Uber) to our hotel and the aggressiveness of our driver. As we found out later, that’s just how people drive in Russia.
...actually, it’s very similar to how I like to drive…
We spent our one night in Mineralnye Vody at the City & Business Hotel. It was perfect! After 30 hours of travel, it had just what we needed. A nice shower, comfortable bed and delicious breakfast. One food item that is still on my mind was the butter and jam sandwich and damnit, I once again forgot to take a pic.
Just picture it looking like this: Three slices of bread layered with delectable, creamy butter and freshly made raspberry jam. It was like a club sandwich of, well, butter and jam, no bacon needed!!
My mouth is watering for one right now!
After wrapping up завтрак, pronounced zavtrak (Russian word for breakfast), we met our driver in the lobby. Our good friend at Beyond Red Square helped us arrange a ride (among many other things) from Mineralnye Vody down to the Baksan Valley village of Terskol. It’s a 3 hour drive so it gave us a nice piece of mind to know we had an arranged/vetted driver to take us there especially after the ride from the airport the previous evening.
Little did we know it at the time, but our next adventure was beginning!! Navigating through a maze of livestock along and in the road! See actual footage below...
Once deeper into valley, the route became twisted and we went to and fro along and over the Река Баксан, pronounced reka baksan, or in Englilsh, the Baksan River. As we winded through the valley and drew closer to the town of Терскол (aka Terskol) where we would be staying, we began to see majestic snow and glacier capped peaks on both sides of us.
Finally, we arrived at our home away from home, the Moon Hotel. Waiting for us inside was an adorable, somewhat shy receptionist who graciously checked us in and then we were off to our room.
Our room was more than we had hoped for! A rushing river outside to give us white noise, a glaciated landscape from our patio, a hot shower, a flushing western toilet and comfortable bed.
It was perfect. Being the adventurous creatures we are, we dropped off our stuff, changed clothes and set out to explore! We had some acclimatizing to do (and we were hungry)!
The town of Terskol was a quaint little village between nestled between two other ski towns, Cheget and Azau. Terskol was the largest of the three which is why we chose to stay there.
During our stroll through town (we were at 2144m or 7034ft above sea level, just shy of the elevation of Santa Fe, NM) we stumbled upon the Ministry of Emergencies and decided to go apply for our National Park permit.
It was a bit of a process and a nice Ukranian guy who spoke a tad bit of English helped get the conversation started. Unfortunately, no one understood when we tried to explain the dates we would be climbing so our permit was issued incorrectly. We left the ministry building feeling a little uneasy and were still in search of food.
We found this little café right across the street and decided to grab some lamb, potato and onion soup. OMG was this the best, freshest broth I had ever tasted. In fact, all of the food the entire trip was amazingly fresh. Fresh dill and cilantro in almost every dish! It was hard to get enough of it. Everything tasted homemade (and pretty much was).
We finished up our modest meal and decided to head back to the Ministry of Emergencies to get our permit straightened out. We were in a foreign country and for all we knew, it had pretty strict laws. We felt it was better to go back and try to straighten things out rather than risk having a bad permit, and at the least, get kicked off the mountain whithout a chance to summit.
Turns out it was easier to just communicate with the official guy ourselves instead of trying to go through a nice stranger who didn't quite know enough English to get the message across correctly.
We simply showed the guy at the desk what our dates were in the Google Translate app and he easily changed them in his log book and updated them on our permit. Done and done. Now we were legit (or so we thought).
After a bit more exploring we headed back to the hotel, got cleaned up and headed down to the on-site restaurant where we enjoyed a nice simple dinner of “chicken steak”, potatoes, grilled broccoli, bread and wine.
The waitress called it a chicken steak and...she wasn’t lying…it literally was a chicken breast that was grilled just like a steak and it was delicious.
We must have been exhausted (and we were) because we slept in the next day until 11 am! We felt a bit of a panic when we realized how late in the day it was and hurried to get ourselves up to the village of Azau and further acclimatized.
When being exposed to very high elevations, one must have a schedule of climbing high and sleeping low in stages to help avoid serious altitude sickness conditions like high-altitude pulmonary edema and high-altitude cerebral edema (HAPE and HACE).
The base of Mt. Elbrus is actually a ski resort, so it’s fairly easy to reach a decent elevation using either an aged cable car system and rudimentary chairlift or taking the fairly new and advanced gondola system. We opted for the gondola and rode up to Garabashi Station at 3800m (12,467ft)…basically the highest you can get on the mountain without walking, taking a snowmobile or a snowcat.
Riding the gondola gave us access to amazing views of the valley and towns below along with many of the other peaks in the North Caucasuses. It was a sunny and simply gorgeous day in the mountains.
There are three gondola stations Krugozor (3000m/9843ft), Mir (3455m/11,335ft ) and where we were headed Garabashi (3780m/12,621ft) which in 2015 was named the highest ski lift in the world (7ft higher than the one on Mt. Blanc).
Our goal for the day was to get a feel for the elevation and figure out where the hut Beyond Red Square helped us secure was since that's where we would be staying once we started our final acclimitization days and push for the summit.
Mt. Elbrus is famous for being peppered with huts, giving mountaineers a chance stay on the mountain, rest and acclimitaze without having to bring a tent. The very first huts were oil tankers convereted into rudimentary living quarters.
Aside: So when traveling abroad, most people think everyone speaks English...not true! Where we were, barely anyone spoke it, or wasn't confident enough to speak it to native English speakers...at times this posed a bit of a hurdle, but thanks to google translate and my very rudamentary knowledge of Russian we overcame the language barrier. Below is an account of how the language barrier gave us a moment of terror.
We stepped into the coffee shop right next to the gondola station and started asking around to see if anyone knew which huts were owned by our local contact. Once guy told us in Russian he knew who we were talking about, but that guy didn't "own" any huts on the mountain. Our mistake was that we assumed the guy we were communicating with was the actual owner.
My heart started pounding and my mind racing, thinking "Oh my gosh, what if our hut fell through and we don't have a place to stay?" Cell service was amazing up there so I messaged our guy through WhatsApp (seriously THE BEST messaging app ever, IMO. I wish more of my American friends would get on it...hint hint) and he instantly put us in touch with someone who was already on the mountain. Honestly, our local contact was amazing, and our little scare was just because of a mixup with translation.
We figured out where our hut was, met some of the people staying in the camp, most Russian and a couple of Americans who were actaully attempting the summit that night (we found out later that they did indeed made it, so cheers to them!!).
With that out of the way, we headed back to the gondola and down to the town of Azau. We were starving so decided to grab a bite at Three Sisters Café (amazing kabobs). It was there we ran into another American! He recgonized us speaking english with American accents and invited us to have lunch with him.
Turns out he was originally from Alaska and an experienced polar guide taking some time to explore Russia. Probably one of the most interesting (and nicest) people we've ever met and someone who I hope we will stay in touch and adventure with sometime in the future.
Our food arrived and the three of us devoured our yak kabobs and fries, then decided to walk the 2km back to Terskol together where all 3 of us were staying.
With all of the basic logistical stuff sorted out and our first real acclimitization day out of the way, it was time to prepare to go higher up the mountain. This was quite an experience in itself and deserves an entire post to detail what happened.
Stay tuned to learn about the worst sunburn I've ever gotten in my life (including the inside of my nose), footage from our big acclimitization hike and to see if we made it to the summit. All of that to come in my next post!