I’ve always wanted to visit Russia, probably from reading so many Russian KGB spy books on my various expeditions, and what better trip than to combine sightseeing and touring Moscow with a climb of Europe’s highest mtn, Mt. Elbrus. I contacted my good friend Rob Schnare who climbed Orizaba and Aconcagua with me and he was immediately on board and excited to get to Russia. Our other good friend and climbing partner, Derek Drechsel, was on board and excited to do his first international climb with us. With Elbrus being relatively technically easy requiring mainly an ice axe, crampons, strong lungs and legs, and warm gear, we considered the possibility of bringing our skis and skiing off the summit and making a ski descent. However, after doing some research, we found out that the route would most likley be hard packed ice and probably not worth the effort of hauling skis and tele boots all the way to Russia for some pretty miserable skiing. So, we tossed that idea and just went with climbing in our plastic boots. After coordinating and obtaining our Russian visas, which was not an easy process by any means, Kristine and I flew from Denver to Boston, Boston to Madrid, and Madrid to Moscow and met Derek and Rob in Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow on June 2.
Our flight to Mineralnye Vody the next morning was at 7am on June 3, so we just decided to camp out in the airport until our flight rather than dealing with traveling to a hotel and paying an arm and leg for a cab to and from. One thing about Moscow that we didn’t know about until we had booked our flights and committed to the climb is that it is the most expensive city in the world. Not that it would prevent us from climbing Elbrus, we were just mindful of the cost of things and spending as little as possible. The process of going through customs, paying fees for overweight bags and rechecking bags for our domestic russian flight was taxing and pretty frustrating. Fortunately, Derek had studied up on some Russian and was a huge help in figuring out where we need to go and what we need to do. I’ve always heard the term “Russian Efficiency” in my many Russian KGB spy novels and realized for myself that the term really meant “Russian Inefficiency”. However efficient the Russians think they may be doing things, oh my lord, it is about the most inefficient and frustrating way to do things. I guess we had to get use to the typical Russian way.
So, after camping out in a corner of Domodedovo Airport, we boarded our Siberia Air plane for the 2 hr flight due south to the town of Mineralyne Vody on the northern end of the Caucus Mtns. I think we all had thoughts of this Siberia Air plane being some sort of a cargo plane with chickens and donkeys straight out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but we found it fairly nice and essentially a 1990s version of a US domestic flight. The food they served us was pretty strange with various meats, but Rob being the man he is chowed down everything without hesitation. However, they served us plenty of cafes (coffees), which I thouroughly enjoyed. We landed in Mineralyne Vody and gathered our gear bags and boarded a private minivan that we had previously organized. I think we were all just happy to have flown half way around the world on 4 different flights and still have all our gear bags. The minivan was about the most uncomfortable ride primarily due to it not having shocks and the bumps and holes in the road were giving us a very unpleasent and bumpy ride. The minivan broke down after an hour and we were stranded at a russian gas station for over an hour waiting for another minivan to pick us up. After reallizing I didn’t pay this old lady to use the outhouse-looking public restroom, we boarded the new minivan and we traveled the remaining 3 hrs to the town of Azau at the head of the Baskan Valley at the foot of Elbrus.
Azau is a very small town that basically looks and feels like a construction zone. Our small hotel looked like it was a building heavily under construction and the lobby consisted of dirt floors with random mattresses and beer bottles everywhere. The town was full of construction workers from Russia, Georgia, and other surrounding countries and a new gondola appeared to have just been completed to accompany the old, dilapidated tram that seemed to have been there since the 1950s. There appeared to have been a recent stimulus to the economy in this town with the addition of a new gondola and all the construction, and it may have been from Elbrus being recognized as the highest mtn in Europe and one of the 7 summits. Ever since the Caucus Mtns were considered part of Europe and not of Asia, Elbrus has been the widely accepted highest mtn in Europe at 18,510′ over Mt. Blanc (15,781′) in the French Alps. We checked into our hotel with the hotel manager, Tatyana, or “Tats” as we called her, who was the contact with Pilgrim Tours, the agency who helped us obtain our visas and set up out minivan and lodging in Azau. Tats was the only Russian who could speak decent, broken english with whom we could communicate. Rob and Derek had their own room and Kristine and my room had carpets on the walls as wallpaper and a bed that looked like it was a royal palace in the 1500s. Our lodging included breakfast and dinner, which sounded good at first, but when we actually came time to sit down in the dining room and eat, the meals were not too appetizing, especially the dinners. Strange soup with globs of meat was one dinner while long pieces of meat with “things” in it, which we dubbed “meat poo”, was another. However, unappetizing to us, Rob made quick work of the meat poo. Also, their salads are cabbage salads with strange sauce which was not too appetizing. The breakfasts were decent since how can you really mess up milk and cereal which I quickly ate 2-3 bowls worth. We spent a day organizing our gear and walking the 2.2 miles to the next town down the valley, Terksol, to get our permit, buy water, and go to the bank to withdraw enough rubles for the tram ride. The Caucuses are an amazing mountain range, very steep and dramatic, and we saw many ski lines down couloirs from the Baskan Valley that looked very appealing. We all had a good time touring around the Baskan Valley in the middle of backwoods Russia.
The next day, we loaded up our gear and got on the old, dilapidated tram complete with broken windows and no “in car” conductor unlike the Jackson Hole aerial tram. We met some Ukrainian construction workers who were very funny, though we couldn’t understand each other very well, and rode the tram with us up to the mid-mtn tram stop. The tram took us from Azau at 7,700′ to 11,500′ and we unloaded our gear and began the slog up to the Barrels Huts at 12,500′. The day was absolutely blue-bird gorgeous and the views got more and more amazing the higher we got. We had hauled our tents from the US and found a place outside the Barrels Huts to set them up and establish our basecamp. We realized we could have stayed in these “heated” Barrel Huts for 20 rubles each per night, but we decided to save the money and sleep in our tents. The Barrels Huts were large cylindrical barrels complete with bunk beds, stoves, etc that you could stay in. There were probably a dozen or so huts total. We had told Tats back in Azau we planned to just camp in our tents and not in the huts and her reponse was “we’ll see”. I’m not sure what she meant by that but I think she may have thought we were a little cuckoo. The mountain was relatively vacant of climbers as we had hoped for the busy months are July and August when the weather is more stable and warmer. However, there were still teams of climbers including a 20 person Norwegian team with matching climbing suits – it was a company sponsored climb. We basked in the sun all afternoon, got a sun tan with our shirts off, and made a nice pasta dinner on our stoves. The bathroom facilities were pretty funny at the Barrels Huts. You essentially climbed down a hole in the snow for 6 feet to an outhouse that was 6 feet under the snowline and there was a hole in the floor to do your business in.
The next morning, we woke up and made breakfast and talked about our plan to move up the mtn. Then, we were pleasently surprised by Jordan White from Colorado skinning into camp. Derek and I knew Jordan from an online climbing community forum in Colorado and knew he would be here but we didn’t know we’d actually meet up with him. So, we all introduced ourselves and he asked if he could team up with us and of course we all said he could. Jordan is a big time ski mountaineer and has skied many CO 14ers including many of the more difficult ones such as the Maroon Bells and brought his skis along to ski Elbrus. Jordan had just finished up school at CSU in Fort Collins and was beginning a job with a general contractor near Aspen when he got back to the states. He had traveled to Russia with his mom and sister and they were staying at the hotel down in Azau. So, we loaded up our packs and climbed the 1000′ or so up to the Diesel Hut at 13,500′ and decided to forgo our tents for a night in the hut. There was no one in it and we all threw our sleeping bags and pads down on a single circular bed that slept five. There was a single russian guy who had one of the rooms to whom we paid 30 rubles (like $3) to stay at the hut. The hut was very cold, dark, and dreary but it was out of the wind and had a stove we could use. Later that night, the decision to stay in the hut was a smart one as a big storm blew in and covered Elbrus with snow and winds that yielded sub-zero temperatures. The blizzard continued through the night and let up in the morning. We decided to at least get out and climb as high as possible to acclimitize before more weather blew in. We climbed up to around 15,000′, Derek’s personal elevation record, and decided that would suffice as our highpoint of the day and Jordan blew down past us back to the Diesel Hut on his skis. We got back to the hut just in time as another wave of storms blew in. I had heard the bathroom facilities at the Diesel Hut were among the worst in the world. It consists of two stalls with holes in the floor and the waste drops about 50′ down the side of a cliff. All in all, I didn’t think they were that bad. What made it hard was trying to pee with 50 mph winds gusting back up the hole in the floor. We spent the entire day eating and drinking around the stove and curled up in our sleeping bags in our dorm-style room reading books. We took turns the next night getting up and looking outside to see if the storm had cleared and whether we could see stars. Finally, Jordan went outside at 1am and came back in and said “guys, I think this is our break”. So, we got out of our bags, got dressed, made oatmeal and coffee, and soon set off on our long summit day around 3am. Some people establish a higher camp around Pashtukova Rocks at 15,000′ and set off from the summit from there, but the storms were way to fierce to even think about camping up there. So, we had 5,000′ to climb from the Diesel Hut to the summit. It would definitely be a long day but nothing we haven’t done before and couldn’t handle.
The climb up until the sun rose was very cold and windy, much colder than anything I had experienced on Denali. But, it was relatively easy going with our crampons on the hard, firm snow and ice. We had on our full down jackets, down mittens, and balaclavas which helped block the intense wind. The sunrise was absolutely amazing and warmed us up at about 16,000′. However cold and windy it was, at least it was clear and we could see the route. Apparently, there had been a recent adventure race up Elbrus and the route was still wanded with flags, so we just followed these wands. However, the route would have been relatively easy to follow without the wands. There was never a need to rope up as we are all very confident climbers on our own on steep slopes and what crevasses there were were completely avoidable. We made it to the 17,600′ saddle between the east and west summits of Elbrus and regrouped and ate a snack and drank some water. Then, we ascended the final 900′ to the higher west summit of Elbrus. Derek was unstoppable this day and cruised ahead of the rest of us and reached the summit first. Maybe it was the excitement one gets by summitting their first big peak – an excitement and energy I had on my first big peak, Orizaba, where I couldn’t wait for anyone and just had to motor ahead. I was very excited for Derek on his 1st 7 summit. I arrived on the summit shortly after Derek followed by Kristine, Rob, and Jordan. Jordan’s skis on his back had acted as sails from the wind all day long and I was impressed at the speed he was able to make it to the top. We were all very excited to have reached the top of Europe in tough conditions and were the only ones to summit that day. It was still bitterly cold and windy on top but we stayed long enough to take pics, eat some food, for me to get my summit rock, Derek to open a card from his parents, and for Jordan to throw his frisbee off from the summit. Jordan’s father had passed away a couple years back after falling down the Bell Cord Couloir between the Maroon Bells near Aspen while climbing the steep 1,800′ couloir with Jordan. So, in memory, Jordan throws a frisbee with his father’s picture taped on the bottom off from every big summit. He did the same on Aconcagua the year before. We then started the descent and Jordan clicked into his AT skis and skied off the summit of Europe. Jordan quickly passed us and skied the 5,000′ back down to the Diesel Hut while we were trudging behind in our boots and crampons. However fast it would have been to ski down, I think we made the right decision because the snow was indeed hard packed, windswept ice and crud. Jordan had packed up his gear and left the hut by the time we arrived at 2pm. Derek quickly packed up and headed down as well to catch the tram while Kristine, Rob, and I relaxed at the Diesel Hut and then made our way back to our tents at the Barrels Huts, which were still there – thank goodness! Derek had wanted a bed and a shower, so he made his way back down the tram to Azau. Jordan met his mom and sister at the top of the tram at 11,500′, gave them his gear, and skied the rest of the way back down to the mid-mtn station for a total of around 10,000′ of skiing for the day – not bad! Kristine, Rob, and I decided to relax, cook a great dinner of mashed potatoes and summer sausage and spend another night in our tents at the Barrels Huts at 12,500′ and savor our experince on Elbrus. From our perch, the sunset was incredible over the Caucuses and the Black Sea. The Caucuses are a seemingly endless range of very steep and dramatic peaks with amazing climbing and backcountry skiing opportunities. One peak to the south was always over our shoulders during our ascent to the south – the twin summits of Ushba (15,453′), most likely the steepest, hardest, yet most beautiful mountain to climb in the Causcuses. If we only had all the time and money in the world!
Kristine, Rob, and I met up with Derek and Jordan the next day at the hotel back in Azau and we all stayed another night at the hotel relaxing and organizing an earlier flight back to Moscow from Mineralyne Vody with Tats’ help. We made our daily walk to Terksol to go the bank and buy water and snacks and we visited the local market in Azau and bought a few souvenirs. We also saw our Ukrainian constrution worker friends again and wished them well. We then said goodbye to Jordan as he and his mom and sister left to go back to Moscow before us. We spent the last night in Azau drinking russian beer and watching the European Soccer Cup, which I really got into not being a soccer player. Rob and Derek love soccer and got Kristine and I really into it. Kristine used to play soccer too, so I was the odd man out. We then caught our minivan back to Mineralyne Vody and our Siberia Air flight back to Moscow.
Once back in Domodedovo Airport in Moscow, we gathered all our gear and did our best to find a cheap motel for the night before we took a cab downtown to our reserved apartment for three nights. However, a cheap motel does not exist in Moscow. Typical 3-star hotel rates for a double bed room are around $700-$800 per night! We had our Fodor’s guide book that said rooms were more like $200-$300 per night but then we looked and saw when it was published – 1995. Whoops! Fortunately, we found a nice gentleman who spoke decent english to help us and he organized hotel rooms for us about halfway into the city for $300 per night. We booked it and spent an extraordinary amount of money on a van to get to the hotel. Once at the hotel, Derek forgot he left his passport at the airport, but we quickly got on the phone and the receptionist found it and sent it to him on the next shuttle and amazingly Derek got it back! Also, we tried to see if we could get our apartment a night early but apparently they had lost our reservation. Fortunately, they had another apartment available for the same nights we had reserved. Jeez…russian efficiency, right! We quickly got cabs the next morning to take us downtown to the apartment on Tverskaya Street, essentially Moscow’s Times Square and a 10 minute walk to the Kremlin and Red Square. Kristine and I were in one cab and Rob and Derek in another, since all our gear couldn’t fit in one cab, and Derek was the one who had our apartment address. The traffic was horrendous and it took us an hour and a half to get into downtown. We passed endless seas of dilapidated apartment buildings on the outskirts of Moscow. Our cabbie dropped us off on Tverskaya Street apparently at our apartment but we didn’t know any better and Rob and Derek hadn’t yet arrived. The scary thing was we had no way to get in touch with them (cell phones obviously did not work). If their cabbie dropped them somewhere else, we could have never seen them again. Fortunately, they showed up after 15 minuntes or so and we realized we should never split up again. However, we got to the apartment and what a deal it was! A kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room with pull out sofa and a fantastic balcony overlooking Tverskaya Street from 6 stories up for around $60 each a night! Not bad for downtown Moscow.
Our time in Moscow was fantastic despite our first meal in Moscow being at McDonalds! Rob wanted McDonalds while the rest of us wanted something else, but we figured we shouldn’t split up so we all went int McDonalds. Once we smelled the delicious burgers, there was no turning back. Kristine and I ate McDonlads for the first time in 10 yrs! We walked 10 miles the 2nd day in Moscow touring everything from Arbat Street to Gorky Park. We visited museums and cathedrals and bought the required Russian KGB hats, something I’ve always wanted and I couldn’t help but buying several of them. We tried to visit the Kremlin on Thursday, June 12, but it was closed because it was Russian Independence Day, also known as Rob’s 30th bday. So, for his birthday, Rob really wanted to hit up the Russian bathhouses and so we did. There was a mens and womens bathhouse, so Kristine had to go in by herself. We spent 3 hrs in our towels, drinking good russian beer, sweating in the very hot saunas, and dunking ourselves in cold baths. It was as if we were in the movie “Eastern Promises”. We were the only americans and everyone else was your typical, burly russian. Kristine met a nice group of russian ladies and they took her under her wing. We had a great time and came out feeling fantastic and relaxed. We then made dinner back at the apartment and went down to Red Square and celebrated Rob’s 30th bday and Russian Independence Day…Rob and Derek actually sneaked into Red Square to get a glimpse of the festivities by shouting “Ruskia!” and following the russian mob into the Square. Kristine got her picture taken with the russian miitia and we spent the night drinking beers on the street, eating sushi at midnight, and dancing at a techno club until 3am. Unfortunately, Kristine and my flight out was at 6am and so we really didn’t sleep a wink before the cab picked us up and took us to the airport at 4am. One thing I’ll never do again is party and stay up all night before traveling 16 hrs on aiplanes halfway around the world. We finally arrived back in Boston and Kristine’s parents were nice enough to pick us up and drive us to their new house on the coast of Maine, 4 hrs north of Boston. Our time relaxing and catching up on our sleep in Maine was much needed and we had a great time with Kristine’s parents. Rob and Derek stayed in Moscow an extra two days and visited St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin and then flew back to the states.
All in all a great trip with great friends and my girlfriend on another 7 summit and in a city I’ve always wanted to visit. On the flights back to Colorado, Kristine and I were already brainstorming the possibility of Everest and climbing all 7 summits together.