To both experienced and amateur climbers the allure of standing atop a continental high point is irresistable. For the fortunate few who can achieve this on all continents the notoriety of having climbed the "seven summits" is well justified.
Within the geographic limits of Europe as defined in the narrow sense, the tallest mountain is Mt.Blanc (15,771 ft) on the Franco-Italian border. Extending the definition to include all land mass east until the straits of Bosporus near Constantinople, this title deservedly belongs to Mt.Elbrus in the Caucasus region of Russia.
Standing at 18,481 feet, Mt.Elbrus is a dormant volcano with two summits, the western being higher by some 29 feet. It is surrounded by several peaks, not nearly as tall, some of which pose formidable technical challenges on even their easiest routes. The entire region is reminiscent of the Swiss Alps with jagged peaks and glaciers flowing down to mountain valleys replete with forest and village.
Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union the highest mountain in that political unit were the Pamir near China. With four peaks over 7,000 meters (23,000 feet), these mountains are very challenging and beyond the consideration of all but those with considerable experience.
However within the confines of Russia, as the former Russian Socialist Federated Republic and with no less than eleven time zones, Mt.Elbrus is the tallest mountain. Thus to climb it means to stand at the top of both Europe and the largest country on earth.
For an American to visit Russia, and in particular an obscure region which happens to posess the tallest point on its landmass, remains a daunting task from financial, political, geographic and linquistic aspects. Hence a climb organized by a professional outfit with connections to Russian guides becomes a reasonable alternative.
Our tour/expedition commenced upon arrival by commerical airliner in Moscow. After a night's stay in the capital we flew by Russian carrier to Min Vody ("mineral water") in the Caucasus region.
After two days of acclimatization hiking from the mountain village of Terskol we ascended to a high altitude hut (13,700 ft) on the slopes of Mt.Elbrus.
Following an acclimatization climb to 15,700 feet, the western summit of Mt.Elbrus was attempted on the second of two possible mornings under initially very windy conditions. Most climbers succeeded but not without a fair degree of dehydration.
A few more days were enjoyed sighteeing, drinking and generally enjoying life in Terskol, whence the return flight to Moscow.
Most people elected to visit St.Petersburg by overnight train, while three others, including Adam Helman, returned stateside.
In this section I can only describe my personal experience as people did not meet one another until after arrival in Moscow.
My flights were uneventful and proceeded from San Diego via New York's JFK airport. I did purchase a bottle of Swiss chocolate hazelnut liqueur during the overseas flight, and this facilitated my plans to sleep off the inevitable jet lag owing to an eleven hour time shift. The bottle is shaped and colored as a brick of solid gold and, as such, is visually as well as tastefully appealing.
Our flights, with the exception of Rex White who arrived the previous day, brought us all to the Hotel Belgrad by afternoon.
In the lobby we introduced ourselves as some settled down to the bar. I spent considerable time with Robert Burcke, AKA Bob, who had a world of experience as a career Marine Corps Seargent.
Standing at the bar with a pair of foamy beers, he reminisced about times and places that one can only imagine. What struck one as remarkable was the enormous constrast between his life experience and that of Adam Helman.
As a theoretical chemist at a leading software firm in San Diego, the life of Adam Helman from San Diego, appeared simple and unassuming by comparison.
The group leader was Brett, a student of Russian language in St.Petersburg with family in Seattle. Part of his role was to act as a liason between us, as paying clients, and the Russian climbing guides. He had experience trekking in the Himalaya and also enjoyed bicycling.
For that evening Adam suggested that the Russian experience be heightened by a traditional meal with all the trimmings.
The entire group sat down to a fancy meal in the hotel, commencing with champagne and zakuski ("appetizers"). These included plates of smoked meats, smoked salmon, whitefish and, most unusually, sturgeon. A marvelous potato salad with chopped nuts, olives and assorted herbs was topped with shredded gouda.
The next course was borscht ("soup"), although, rather than the expected cold beet soup with sour cream, it was served hot with pieces of sausage and hearty wheat bread.
The entree was served, including a fish dish in a mushroom cream sauce that reminded one of chicken-fried steak. It was delectable, at least to Adam.
Normally each course would have been followed by toasting with vodka. We elected to forego that particular aspect of our experience.
Most people rode the Moscow subway after dinner, the Metro, for a very brief view of the city, while Adam remained to enjoy a dish of ice cream mixed liberally with French cointreau orange liqueur. He had not requested the ice cream, having received it from the manager in recognition of soliciting his establishment.
Indeed it can be said that Russia never was a first-class power. Their communications and transportation infrastrcture was that of a third world nation. Anywhere that the former regime had dealt its hand there was only extreme bureaucracy and inefficiency. It was quite despairing to an American accustomed to quick and quality service.
The in-flight amenities were acceptable, although a cold sandwich of fatty ham and cheddar cheese left much to be desired.
At Min Vody airport we met Elena - our primary Russian climbing guide. She is a charming lady who lives in St.Petersburg with her husband and eleven year son Eugene. She had climbed in the Pamir with ten ascents to her credit - including at least one climb for each of the four 7,000 meters+ peaks. I would imagine this makes her eligible for the title of "snow leopard" within the circles of the Russian Alpine Federation. She also has a background in probability and statistics.
The bus drive to Terskol lasted some four hours owing in part to mechanical problems. We passed through towns and several villages, reaching Terskol by 6:30 that evening.
On the drive Adam had an extended conversation with Mel, a synthetic organic chemist from the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo. He has well over 150 ascents of Colorado fourteeners to his credit (as a member of a mountain rescue team), and had the misfortune of spending five nights at 19,600 feet on Aconcagua prior to a sucessful summit attempt.
Adam learned about Mel's research interests, including the problems of performing research at a smaller institution. Adam covets very little on this planet, and yet he includes a bottle of xenon difluoride, as a white crystalline powder in Mel's lab, on that exclusive list. The mere existence of this compound is remarkable to anyone with a background in Chemistry.
Our lodging was the Wolfram Hotel. Wolfram means tungsten in many tongues, and so this was indeed a mining region long ago.
As in Moscow, Adam roomed with Bob, with the remaining people typically two to a room on the third floor. Dinner was unremarkable.
As this was essentially a climbing trip it was necessary to acclimate in a gradual fashion at increasing altitude. Situated at some 6,800 feet, Terskol served as a staging point for two days of hiking to higher altitude along the nearby mountain trails.
On the first hike we proceeded until rain and, more notably, lightning, thwarted further progress. We had gained perhaps 2,000 vertical feet rather than the planned 3,300. Yet lightning is the leading cause of fatality on what is otherwise a benign mountain.
Upon return to the hotel Adam found his travelers checks, hidden inside the left shoe, nearly destroyed by the rain. The wad of twenty dollar bills in the right shoe had fared better - damp but certainly usable. Evidently the American greenback is made of very sturdy stuff.
The meals in Terskol were not a gourmet delight. Nor were they timed with human digestion in mind. Particularly foreign to an American were the breakfasts. This consisted mainly of some completely nondescript bland hot dog with any of a variety of starchy foodstuff, e.g. rice, potato, kasha, or noodles.
ALL meals had this base of meat and grain, and was usually accompanied by a plate of fruit and cheese. The fruit was unpalatable since it was too risky to eat the unpeeled flesh owing to questionable water. The cheese was like paste - seemingly without the richness of normal cheese, the taste was of paper. Unacceptable. However the thick, coarse wheat bread and butter, plus tea, were ubiquitious.
Adam brought to the dining room a large tupperware container filled with spices, tangy manchego cheese, and assorted sweets. With it he managed to enjoy every offering by adorning it with all the flavor the country itself seemed to lack.
Bob was beside himself each morning until coffee got in his system. It was particularly silly when only hot tea was available and no hot water for his instant granules. Adam sometimes made do with chocolate tea just to make things interesting.
The coup de grace came when Phil, a physician from the East coast, left the dining hall at breakfast only to return with his camera. After photographing his plate of hot dog with rice, he left. My concern that complaining about food would bring the enmity of others was quelled when everyone complained as well, at least amongst ourselves. Since the food was wholesome and nourishing our concerns were more aesthetic than real.
On the second day we began our hike only to be turned back due to a bulldozer working on the road we had started on. An alternative plan was conceived and we reluctantly headed back, almost to the hotel, and proceeded up another trail.
The trail led up a meadowed valley strewn with rocks from retreated glaciers, and ended at a glacial headwall at some 8,800 feet altitude. We had a marvelous time enjoying our snacks, amidst glorious scenery that we can only thank the bulldozer operator for.
We returned to have lunch at 4 PM at the hotel, followed in quick order by dinner at seven.
That evening many of us found a nearby bar, purchased beer, and sat outside enjoying conversation. Adam partook of an assortment of liqueurs with chocolate/orange cookies using a Japanese sake glass.
The mountain hut was situated at 13,700 feet on the slopes of Mt.Elbrus. An aerial tramway brought one to within one thousand vertical feet, whence one could either walk or take a snow tractor the remaining distance.
The tramway actually consisted of three legs with the first bringing one to 3,004 meters (9,500 feet) and the second one to 3,500 meters (11,500 feet). At that point a ski lift is negotiated, one seat only, until 12,700 feet. Backpacks and duffle bags got their own seats.
A truer mountain climbing experience would consist of climbing the full vertical distance from the base, acclimating all the while as one ascended. It was somewhat demeaning to just hop on a tram and then, rather than assemble a tent, stay at a hut where beds and meals are all arranged.
A few people, including Barbara and Adam, elected to pay an additional two dollars to ride the snowcat, with the gear, up to Priut 11.
Barbara is a lawyer from Oklahoma with experience trekking to 18,200 feet in the Himalaya. She came on the trip with the chief goal of enjoying a foreign culture with the heightened awareness it brings. With goals considerably different from some of us, her healthy attitude was more in line with that of Adam who also considered the climb as highly desirable but not the end of all. Barbara was exceedingly kind and gracious in every respect and she devotes much of her effort to charitable concerns.
Upon arrival at Priut 11 one was shocked at the state of disrepair - the exterior is strewn with foul garbage that persists owing to the cold and dry climate. However the interior is relatively warm and comfortable.
Lunch was absolutely delicious! Although of simple fare, such as bread with jam and butter, plus soup, it was also all-you-can-eat. This was important since climbing, and even just staying warm, requires a lot of energy.
After dinner many congregated immediately outside the entrance and we enjoyed the company of other climbing parties while drinking beer purchased on site. Adam located a delicious bottle of sweet Georgian wine, akin to port, and had alltogether too much given the altitude and task at hand.
Four people fit in one room. In addition to Bob, Adam stayed with Richard and Brian.
Brian, age 25, is from New York City. He specializes in inert gas welding and is very outgoing. He is quite strong physically, and has climbed Mt.Elbert (14,433 ft) in the Colorado Rockies, the state high point. As such this climb would improve his personal altitude record by some four thousand vertical feet.
Richard, age 35, is also from New York and the two knew each other from before the trip. An automotive mechanic specializing in brake repair, he is attempting the seven summits with two far more difficult summits allready behind him. These include Denali (Mt.McKinley in Alaska, 20,320 ft), and Aconcagua (Chile-Argentina, 22,834 ft). He is a very serious climber who, apart from the considerable financial resources required is well qualified to achieve his goal.
Everyone on this trip was so different. We viewed this as a strong point and it made for both fascinating conversations and certainly raised the experience to a higher level.
Breakfasts consisted chiefly of cooked hot cereal, as oatmeal or cream of rice, plus the ever-present bread with assorted jams and butter, hot water for tea (coffee for Bob and others), and tasty cheese reminiscent of Monterey Jack.
Lunches were large by Terskol standards, and usually included noodles, normally with melted Jack-like cheese, in addition to fresh vegetables, more jam and butter, sweet biscuits, hot water, and the like. Soup was the first course and was a delicious and different variety each day.
Dinners were similar to lunch except that no soup was served. All meals were tasty and filling, a testament to the cook, Masha, a very nice lady who studied law and will return to practice in Moscow.
A hike to the Pastukhov Rocks took place on the morning after our arrival at Priut 11. As the snow was melting in the strong sun we did not wear crampons but did use ski poles.
The wind became progressively fiercer until, by the time we rested at the rocks, it felt quite cold. Adam descended immediately at the suggestion of Elena, as he was allready feeling chilled. The others remained a while longer before descending.
Later that day Adam felt progressively worse, unwilling to eat or get out of bed.
Brian was given lessons in self-arrest from fellow climbers in the event that such a skill would be useful on the upper slopes. It is always hoped that this is not needed. However it could mean the difference between a bruised pride and a thousand foot slide.
Late that evening Adam felt well enough to sneak into the kitchen and enjoy the ever-present bread with jam, butter and what-not. He ate a cheese sandwich left for him upon missing lunch.
The weather was too poor to consider climbing that morning, and so there remained but the following morning as the window for our ascent.
At some 2:30 the following morning we were awakened by Brett who advised us that, although the sky was clear, it was quite windy. We would climb by headlamp to the Pastukhov Rocks and then decide whether to continue or not.
All but Barbara and Bob donned several layers of clothing (his knees were hurting), ice axe, crampons, plenty of food and water, and began climbing at about 3:30 AM. We were accompanied by Elena, Brett, and two local guides who spoke not a word of English.
Adam was extremely concerned about the winds since he had noted a lenticular cloud atop Elbrus earlier that day and had heard Elena's estimate of 120 kilometer per hour winds at the summit. Nevertheless he started out with the others with the anticipation of tolerable conditions.
The gift of a Russian chocolate bar for each climber was intended to boost morale and provide additional energy. Adam saved his to this day seeing as he allready had seven candy bars for the ascent, and as a tangible reminder of the experience.
Just prior to the rocks the wind had gotten so bad that Adam made the personal and somewhat rash decision to turn back. He felt that the wind could only get worse and, since he was allready being blown off the trail, decided that the chances of success were near zero.
The remaining climbers continued and eventually summited on the west peak under a cloud-free and nearly windless sky. Evidently the weather had improved within one to two hours of the rocks, as the sun rose, in marked contrast to the ever-worsening scenario Adam had envisioned.
Bob, Barbara and Adam were treated to a wonderful breakfast later that morning. Much to the would-be envy of the climbers toiling above, they enjoyed cheese omelettes with toast. Plus bits of Roca Almond Buttercrunch candy savored with mocha from cocoa powder, Bob's instant coffee, and hot water.
The summiters triumphantly returned around three or four in the afternoon. All were understandably tired, most were dehydrated, and the last thing they wanted was to pack up all their gear and head off the mountain to accomodate more climbers who needed their beds.
Adam would have preferred the summit of Elbrus to 101 omelettes. However he realized that a return to the Caucasus was reasonable, and in the best of worlds would attempt the summit in a few years when Eugene was old enough for Elena to allow him the priviledge. He had established a rapport with Eugene, who was very intelligent, and the two happily spent many hours teaching one another their respective mother tongues.
The principal reason why Adam had turned back was the psychological fear of hurricane force winds near the summit - winds that never materialized. However he was (and still is) extremely skinny. Thus despite being in very good physical condition, able to keep apace with anyone else, he did not have the insulation to stay warm enough when everyone else could. He ate some 5,000 calories a day on the trip and yet gained almost no weight, if any at all. In this case his metabolism became a hindrance rather than a desired quality.
Given that his ultimate climbing goal is to scale Denali in Alaska, an exceedingly cold prospect, Adam will have to either gain weight, conquer his fear of cold, or reconsider his goals. At present the latter option is not in the running. He WILL be on the top of North America. It is merely of matter of staying warm.
On the snowcat Adam captured a nice photograph of Roger.
One would have thought that the descent by lift would be trivial. However it was late in the afternoon and so the ski lift was closed. It took some radio communication to get it started up, and only then after some hour and one-half stranded at the lift's top end while Rex felt progressively worse owing to dehydration and headache.
Rex White is a businessman in the food sector who had a very serious workout schedule. Routinely he would lift weights for a full hour, use a stair climber, and all this in part to eat more! He was just as intent to reach the summit as Richard, and, despite his current sorry state, recovered quite rapidly such that by dinner that evening he appeared all well.
The lift halted while several among us were seated in mid-air. I contemplated the possibility of a night in the open with minimal clothing. The lift resumed and Adam snapped some panoramic photos.
Dinner at the hotel that evening was, although welcome, the usual bland combination of meat and whatever.
We had two full days in Terskol to just lounge around. Unfortunately Terskol has virtually none of the amenities a westerner is accustomed to. There is almost nothing except delapidated, ill-constructed homes, with cows and sheep tended by the local farmers.
The Russian boxing team had come to train at altitude. They filled the dining hall at breakfast, the latter being somewhat upscale compared to our earlier, pre-Elbrus experience. There was meatloaf with rotini noodles, made more tasty by the addition of shaved manchego cheese.
There was also a dish of ricotta cheese with raisins, covered in a thick yogurt. It was delicious upon the addition of Equal, and would have been better served chilled with pistachio akin to Indian kheer pudding or, closer to home, rice pudding.
On the first day several of us walked to the local wool market located at the base of another ski lift. There many purchased gifts for the home crowd while Adam enjoyed ice cream many ways from a local vendor, but only after bribing her to open shop with a few dollars.
Around eleven we gathered at the entrance to a restaurant and enjoyed cold beer and the beautiful, warm and sunny day. Adam drank an entire bottle of Georgian wine and we sampled shashlik (shish-kabob), prepared on the outside grill with much dill and parsley. Plus some pierogi-like meat-filled pockets of dough.
Although there was little point in eating lunch, we all stammered back to the hotel, some three-quarters mile, and enjoyed yet more food.
On the second day everyone was well rested and we spent some 3 1/2 hours on an afternoon hike, with some two thousand foot vertical foot elevation gain, in the local mountains.
Elena had packed a great lunch with sausage, cheese, French bread, plum jam with butter, and, perhaps best of all, a fresh winter melon and tomatoes.
It was a marvelous way, that hike, to say goodbye to the Caucasus mountains.
That evening the entire group elected to avoid dinner at the hotel and eat instead at the same restaurant (it was the only one). Seeing as dinner was at eight, and noting from the previous night (when many of us had eaten there as well) that the standard protocol was to order food, in Russian, pay up front, and only then be seated, Adam decided to practice his Russian by arranging drinks for all, and the seating, in advance of everyone's arrival.
Adam ate in silence and greeted everyone at eight. The single bottle of champagne and six beers proved inadequate at this farewell dinner, and so the Russian guides ordered vodka, and much champagne, to toast the event. Eugene drank pineapple juice, which Adam found good mixed in even measure with champagne.
Do not drink with Russians! We were collectively far too drunk to drive, not a concern seeing as we had no car. Toast after toast ensued. The shashlik was again superb, and Adam had enjoyed four helpings of mushrooms in sour cream as an accompaniment and sauce for the entree. He passed around kirsch-filled chocolate.
Tips for the Russian guides were distributed in envelopes, while Brett received a fur hat. Masha, who had so expertly prepared our food at the upper hut, received compensation in absentia.
After the appropriate farewells, including a box of chocolates for Eugene and a round of group photographs thanks to a Japanese climb organizer, our bus rolled downhill for Min Vody.
Relative to the enormous hassle encountered on the previous Aeroflot flight due to excess baggage charges (we nearly missed our flight thanks to that bureaucratic bungling), the return to Moscow was quite painless.
Adam purchased a 90 gram tin of beluga caviar at the airport bar for a mere fifteen dollars. A $300 value, he opened it with friends the following week (indeed, just one hour after this paragraph was typed).
Upon return to the Hotel Belgrad gifts of nested dolls were purchased, known as kukla. These included a beautiful lavender doll, one within another with thirteen total, ranging from eleven inches to smaller than a thumbnail, for Adam's mother.
Everyone but Barbara and Adam enjoyed McDonald's of Moscow for dinner. Barbara was not feeling well. Adam presented her with a small parting gift and then attended the same restaurant as had everyone the first night. There was a smoked fish appetizer platter, a main dish with pike in a fried cheese batter, and six scoops of ice cream, appropriately dressed with cookies and liqueur, for dessert.
After visiting the Arbat with its street vendors and musicians, Adam could not resist the temptation of Baskin Robbins in Moscow. He remained on the streets until well past midnight, and visited a supermarket to purchase items which were exclusively of Russian origin.
A tour of the city had been arranged for those individuals slated to visit St.Petersburg by overnight train. For Mel, Bob and Adam there was only a return flight to New York followed by connecting flights to their respective destinations. It was a serious flaw in the trip itinerary to have not accomodated their desires to also tour Moscow, simply because of a time conflict with catching a van for the airport.
For Adam the trip had been a social and cultural success. He had learned much Russian since the conscious attempt had been made. In the long run he would return to re-attempt Mt.Elbrus and so he did not feel particularly let down by this aspect. He wishes to thank everyone for their company, tolerating his idiosyncrasies, and, in tribute to strength in diversity, for just being themselves!