2005 IMG Elbrus Climb Trip Report
by Jeff Johnson
Talking with Phil after climbing Pico de Orizaba, he told me that I "needed to put that passport to use." I must have agreed with him, because here I was sitting on a plane on my way to climb Mt. Elbrus. My friend and roommate on this and the Mexico trip, Mike Lakotish, said it best, "I can't believe I'm going to Russia!"
Day two, and first stop, Amsterdam. I was relieved to find the airport easy to navigate. Already at the transfer gate waiting for our flight to St. Petersburg were Phil and Mike. Soon the entire group minus one was there: me, Mike Lakotish, Rick Etling, Andy Buroker, Steve Wilson, Dave McAvoy, Pat and Beth McCrann, Mike Bellamy Sr., and Mike Bellamy Jr. One teammate, Paul Torrence, was MIA, and would hopefully catch up with us later.
I think we could tell right away that we had a good team. Pat and Beth, doctors from Colorado, brought great humor and lots of climbing stories. Rick has climbed quite a bit and also had some great stories to tell, although how do you get started climbing from Pittsburgh? Mike Bellamy Jr., a talented artist from New York and his dad, Mike Sr., also from Colorado, climbed Kilimanjaro last year and were on to their second seventh summit. Paul (as we would find out later) seemed to be on a mission, heading off to Antarctica a few months after Russia. Steve was back to Elbrus after missing his chance to summit the prior year due to illness (and thanks Steve for making me look outgoing.) Andy, an attorney from Indiana is one of those all around good guys, fun to be around and someone you knew you could count on. Dave, also an attorney from Indiana kept us constantly entertained, never without a funny story to tell. Mike L. and I met last year on our Mexico volcanoes trip and said "hey, lets do another," so here we were. I was putting my passport to use.
Once through customs, we found our bags had all arrived, met up with Igor, our Russian guide, and were off to our hotel. St. Petersburg was not what I had envisioned much of the city seemed under construction or left unfinished. Phil told us the city was busy "preparing" for their tri-centennial (which occurred in 2003!) We checked into the Hotel Moscow, with rooms overlooking the Neva River. At dinner we did intro's and got our first taste of Russian cuisine much tastier than I expected. Although exhausted from the long flights, most of us went exploring after dinner, walking up the main street, "Nevsky Prospect." Mike and I observed that 1) people stay up late in St. Petersburg, and 2) most had either beer or Vodka in hand!
Day three was sightseeing day. After a buffet breakfast (I may have been too optimistic about the food,) we were off on our tour. We followed our guide Maria (and her raised hand) through the Hermitage, St. Isaacs Cathedral, and the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul, where Maria pulled some strings and got us behind the scenes on a tour of the Fortress bell tower. Maria was descriptive and knowledgeable, and also amused us by beginning many of her narrations with "why is it so? I will tell you!" The tour gave us opportunities for many pictures of this beautiful city and its monuments and lavish architecture. The store which greeted us with shots of Vodka was a crowd favorite. Before dinner our missing teammate Paul met us at the restaurant. He had quite a time with flight delays and rescheduling, but he and Phil had tracked each other down and he was now here and our team complete.
The next morning we were up at 5am and off to the airport for our flight to Mineralnye Vody. I was happy to be on the way to Elbrus, it was time to leave "tourist mode" and get into "climbing mode." The airport in MV was less than modern. We were herded into an empty room with asphalt floors and broken windows. A gypsy woman with a young son somehow had made it inside, talking to us nonstop in her native language, as if we could understand. We could only guess she wanted money but did not ask Igor for a translation, instead attempting a quick getaway. We retrieved our bags and quickly made our way to the bus. The gypsy woman followed, angry and yelling, particularly at Beth who had been friendly to the little boy, at not getting anything out of us.
We left Mineralnye Vody, driving through increasingly smaller cities and towns, fields of sunflowers, and finally into the mountains and the village of Terskol. After getting settled in our rooms at the hotel, Igor led us down the road to the village of Cheget and a delicious lunch of shish kabob and potato pancakes. The rest of the day included shopping at the market in Cheget, and exploring our new home of Terskol.
Days five and six included a training hike on a hill just up the road from our hotel and "practice" on the Kashkotosh Glacier. Both days were warm and sunny, and it felt good to be outside getting some work in. Back at the hotel, we packed and sorted, preparing for three days on the mountain.
Day seven and we were finally off to Elbrus! Just a few minutes up the road from our hotel was the tram station. It was full of tourists waiting to ride up for a closer look at the beautiful peaks of Elbrus. The trams were old and creaky, but got us to our next destination the chairlift. We jumped on the old lift (1950's?) as Igor threw our rucksacks on our laps as we took off. Drop your pack here and you were in for a long walk to retrieve it! Unless you paid for a ride on the Sno-cat, (we didn't,) the chairlift was the end of the ride and we were now on foot. After an hour or so we reached Igor's new hut around 3 pm. We eagerly got settled, passing the day eating, enjoying our new up-close view of Elbrus, taking pictures, and listening to Dave's wild stories (hard to choose, but my personal favorite being Andy unfurling the Indiana University flag on the summit of Mt. Blanc, angering the local climbers who thought he was "claiming" the mountain for IU.) Phil's dinner of tuna, noodles, veggies, and nacho cheese mix was much better than it sounds. We were treated to a fabulous orange-sky sunset and magnificent views of the mountains and glaciers below.
The hut was pretty spacious as far as huts go, with a common area with stove and table, and two separate bunk rooms. After a noisy night (am I the only one who didn't snore?!) we further acclimated with a hike to the Pastukhova Rocks at 15,300'. Now that we were up high, with the twin peaks of Elbrus looming directly in front of us, the climb was starting to seem a bit more real, and close. It was another warm and sunny day, and it appeared we were in good luck as far as weather, now all we had to do was climb this sucker! Back at the hut we did the usual packed, ate, drank, and got to bed early.
I borrowed a very effective set of earplugs from Mike and got a few hours of sleep. I woke early, around 11, and waited for the official wake-up call. I heard Phil fire up the stove and say "let's go climb Mt. Elbrus!" It was time to get going. With everyone up and moving about, the hut seemed small, but we managed. At 2 am we left the comforts of the hut and started out on what was sure to be a long day. The trail was fairly icy, and full of frozen boot prints from the multitude of climbers from previous days. We made our way as we had done the day before, but this time by the light of our headlamps. As we reached the Pastukhova Rocks and above, the sun began to rise and we were not only treated to a beautiful sunrise, but could see from the mountains below just how high we were. Above the Rocks we began the long traverse from the East peak to the West peak. This section was unrelenting. I felt as if I were on a long, circular treadmill, walking and walking, but gaining no ground. I tried not to look up so as not to measure my progress, but I was getting tired and occasionally looked, hoping to see some sign of the saddle and the next rest stop. Towards the end of the traverse I was really struggling. I found out later that I wasn't the only one. We were finally at the saddle, but I was convinced this was as far as I was going. I told Phil "I'm done, I've got nothing left," to which Phil responded with a shrug and a simple "give it a try." I knew he wasn't going to let me quit. My teammates were all very encouraging, and when Mike promised to buy me all the beer I could drink in Moscow if I kept going, I sat down to get ready for more.
We roped up and made our way up the face of the West peak. "Breath," and "one foot in front of the other" were the only thoughts I allowed in my head, and soon, we reached a point only a few hundred yards from the summit. The break was short but welcome. We unroped, dropped our packs, and headed to the summit. A system was moving in, partially obscuring our view, but that did not slow us down and soon the entire 2005 IMG Elbrus team was standing on the highest point in Europe! It had been a lot of work, but felt great. Andy risked another international incident by unfurling a flag (sure it was a good cause, but you never knew who would object.) Steve was his typical low-key self, but he must have been pretty darn excited after missing the summit in 2004. The oldest members of the group, Mike B., Sr. and Paul seemed to have done as well as anyone, both seemingly unaffected by the long day. The stronger climbers of the group, Pat, Rick, and Mike B., Jr. seemed to make it with no problems. I knew Beth was struggling, but she also made it. We shook hands, congratulating each other on the summit, and took pictures so we could always remember this moment.
The system was moving in quickly, so after a short while we left the summit and made our way back to the saddle. Once there, we unroped and headed out individually, agreeing to meet at the Pastukhova Rocks. The descent down the traverse seemed just as long as the ascent. We became spread out, but did meet at the Rocks. By now the storm had arrived in full, flashing lightning and clapping thunder very close, often seemingly directly overhead. The closer of the flashes made Mike and I move faster. Once on the East peak, you could see the area below where we knew the hut was located, and it seemed deceptively close. But it wasn't, and the descent was long, taking all of the energy we had left and then some. We made our way over varying patches of soft snow and hard ice, and by the time we reached the hut the snow was blowing horizontally.
The next morning we packed up, leaving some of our food and supplies for the next group and the hut caretaker. There was still a light snow, and we found the chairlift was not running, so we had to walk a bit farther to the upper tram. Thankfully, the trams were running, and before we knew it we were back in Terskol. The rest of the day, as well as the next, were "rest and recover" days. We explored Terskol in more detail, took a lot of pictures, played around on the Howitzers, and got online (a shock that such technology was available after seeing the switchboard phone system.)
Day twelve was a planned ice climbing day back on the Kashkotosh glacier. All but a few who were under the weather were in (even Mike L. after a bombardment of good-natured pressure.) Upon arrival at the trail, the light rain turned into a downpour, and the group vote was for a return to Terskol. Instead, we attended the "Phil Ershler C&Z Pulley System" seminar, forgetting more than we could ever remember! When the rain let up, we again wondered down to Cheget for more shish kabob and a ride on the ski lift which gave us breathtaking views of the entire valley.
We had tasty (and always interesting) breakfasts and dinners each day, but with our last night, our hostesses, Juliet and her daughter Isabel, really outdid themselves with a smorgasbord of food, desserts, beer, wine and vodka. We embarrassed Juliet and Isabel with our applause when we finished stuffing ourselves. After dinner was the Russian traditional sauna. All I can say is going from stifling steam to an ice-cold (literally) pool was, to say the least, refreshing. Something not to be missed if you are ever in Russia!
I think we all went to bed a little sad to be leaving in the morning. Terskol is not a thriving metropolis, and it appears as if the people barely squeak out an existence, but it would be difficult to find a more scenic and beautiful place anywhere. The people were not unfriendly, but seemed uncomfortable making eye contact, although most responded in kind when we said "hello."
Day thirteen began early with a 3:15am van ride back to Mineralnye Vody. Thankfully the departure area of the airport looked more modern then the arrival area (although the sleeping guard at the first x-ray machine did not inspire much confidence.) We debated whether or not having the Chechnyian soccer team on the plane was a good or bad thing, but in either case made it to Moscow safe and sound. After checking into the Hotel Russia, we ate lunch and were off for some sightseeing. Red Square and the Kremlin was less than a block from the hotel, and our guide Tania led us on a walking tour of the immediate area. After walking through Red Square and doing some shopping, we met up for dinner. Pizza was a great choice, and we amazed our waiter with our appetites I lost track somewhere around 13 pizza's.
After dinner we split up, Mike, Dave and I treated ourselves to a late meal at McDonalds just outside Red Square (maybe the busiest place in Moscow.) Afterwards we sat near St. Basils, in awe that we were actually in Red Square. I couldn't help but envision all of the images I had seen as a kid of military parades and Soviet leaders standing on Lenin's Tomb. They had all happened right where we were now sitting. It was an amazing feeling, as if I were in the middle of history. We got some great night shots of St. Basils, the Kremlin walls, and the Gum, and after shortly before midnight, called it a night.
The next morning we were off for some last sight-seeing. Among many of the sights that day were the Kremlin, including the Kremlin Palace and several of the cathedrals, the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and a walk through the Gum (government owned shopping center.) The sights were all breathtaking and spectacular, but none (for me anyway) compared to seeing Lenin in his tomb. After a short wait of an hour or so, we were led to the tomb through a cordoned off Red Square, about 20 at a time. As we entered the tomb, uniformed guards instructed us to be quiet, unclasp our hands, and take off our hats. The tomb was very dark, black granite from floor to ceiling. We made our way down stairs and through corridors, with guards at each turn, until finally we were there a glass case with one of the most famous men in history lying right in front of us. I would have stayed for hours, staring, but we were instructed to keep moving. It was an amazing 30 seconds, and alone made the entire trip worthwhile. After leaving Red Square we then boarded our bus and took a driving tour of the city, seeing many sights, including the Bolshoi, the Russian version of the White House (although Tania advised us to not refer to it as such,) and a few of the Seven Sisters. We stopped outside Moscow University for some final shopping, then said goodbye to Tania, and made our way to the airport. It was sad to leave such a beautiful and historic country.
At the airport we said goodbye to Dave who was off to Germany. The rest of us returned to Amsterdam, where we also said goodbye to both Mike B Sr. and Mike B. Jr., who were catching a flight to New York. The remainder of our now dwindling group made our way to the hotel. A few stayed behind while the rest of us took a train to downtown Amsterdam and a great steak dinner. After dinner, we couldn't resist a walk around the Red Light district (while in Rome you know.) The District was more than I imagined, with young women in neon-lined windows, clubs and shops, and many night clubs (trying to keep it PG-rated here.) We were offered drugs more than once, and had to tour the pot store, although we did not buy any of the many souvenirs with pot leaves on them (or any pot for that matter.) We were surprised at the people, including families of both young and old, touring the District as if it were a tourist attraction (which I realized that's exactly what it was for many, including us.) Mike and I stayed after the rest of the group departed for a few extra rounds, then took the train back to the airport, caught the last shuttle, and were soon back at the hotel, exhausted.
The next morning we said our goodbyes at the hotel as we couldn't all fit on the shuttle, and were soon on our flights home. I don't think it is an overstatement to say we had a great group. We enjoyed each others company, and worked well together as a team, on and off the mountain. I hope that each member will stay in touch, sharing both climbing and non-climbing adventures. Thank you to everyone on the trip, you made it a truly memorable experience that I can only hope to someday equal, but not surpass, on another adventure.
How could this recap be complete without a big thank you to Phil. As always, Phil had the logistics worked out to perfection, got us up and down the mountain in one piece, and took the time to pass on his lifetime of climbing and travel knowledge along the way. Absorbing the ups and downs of a two-week adventure like this must be a real pain, but Phil did so without missing a beat, allowing the rest of us to sit back and enjoy ourselves, which I believe we all did. I can't imagine the trip being planned out any better. We were always on the move, saw the sights, ate at the right restaurants, shopped at the right markets, and summited right before two-plus days of bad weather. Well, maybe Phil didn't control the weather, but he sure had the rest planned out to perfection. Thanks for a great trip Phil, looking forward to the next one.
Jeff Johnson, IMG Climber