We last left you with the story of our friend Pat who had arrived in a small Russian village in the foothills of the Caucasus, with his Lithic skis in hand….
Conveniently, the flanks of Elbrus are lit served to 12,000 feet- and the top of the lifts is where the huts are situated, and where we would be staying. We had our choice of a Soviet era tram, with ancient looking tram docks and a general air of noble decay, or the fairly new gondola that runs parallel to it- we chose the new gondola. It was still plenty exciting to watch the scenery change from lush green subalpine valley, to crumbling gray-brown volcanic rocks, to snow and glaciers as we gained altitude. The mountain and the surrounding range was truly immense. I was impressed by the bathtub ring of sediment on the glaciers below about 13000 feet- this was a windy, treeless place, and the Caucasus are wearing down at the pace of Deep Time.
We dragged our bags from the top station to a small row of the traditional Mt. Elbrus alpine huts, called the Barrels, situated at 12,500 feet. Evidently the most effective shelter for the area is considered to be large metal cylinders, laid on their side and equipped with doors, windows and bunks. Of course I tried to walk at a normal brisk pace and was startled by the suddenly thin air. There were other groups at the barrels we had chosen, and we opted to participate in the meals their cook was preparing; so cushy. It made our logistics so simple, just show up and climb the mountain. The cook was a delightful caricature of June Cleaver and every Russian mother figure put together-she always wore a bright apron, big hair, and clearly felt a deep personal commitment to making sure we were eating all the time. Once the table was set and we were all sitting down, she would turn on a Russian soap opera on her laptop and sit in the corner watching the show and our plates…..
The other climbers in the barrels were a father and son team with their guide. We got to know them a bit at meals, and the son had the best English we encountered on the mountain, so he translated the conversations. They wanted to know how we ended up with our current president, and we suggested they might know better than us!
After settling in at the barrels, we started getting laps at the bottom of the route to acclimate to altitude. Most of the Russians we encountered weren’t very engaging, or likely to interact at all. However, we met another skier from Armenia and he was easily the most expressive person we encountered on the mountain. He had a huge personality, and largely antique or homemade equipment. He was an electrician at home, and his ski poles were made of conduit with various types of plastic insulators for baskets and grips. He’d been to the summit dozens of times, and had spent two weeks skiing around the mountain once.
We’d been observing the weather closely and comparing it to the forecasts that were available, and chose June 8 as our summit day. The pattern was clear and cold in the morning, clouds developing by midday and occasionally full on murk by afternoon. The night before summit day, we discovered that for a few rubles we could ride with the other team in a snowcat to the top of the Pashtokov Rocks, and save two or three hours of climbing. Getting to the top just keeps getting simpler! We decided to catch a ride. We weren’t too concerned about climbing it in pure style, as we’d already used an airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean and a couple of continents. And some taxis and a gondola.
Stay tuned to hear more about summit day….