10 November 2010

Elbrus - Tallest Mountain in Europe

High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of EverestThe most famous story in Everest history should be the first ascent, by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

You may be more familiar, though, with the events of May 1996. That was when a storm came down on several climbing teams, stranding them in a whiteout that left 8 dead. It was easily the worst day on Everest. You have likely heard about this fatal day because of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
In this book, Krakeuar describes the lead guide of another company as reckless for not using bottled oxygen, among other things. That lead guide, however, was the only person to go back into the storm, rescuing two climbers, and led the only commercial group that didn't lose any clients. 

The ClimbThat lead guide was Anatoli Boukreev. He wrote The Climb in response to Krakauer's version of the Everest tragedy. Prior to that Everest season, Boukreev had already established himself as the most accomplished Russian mountaineer. He won Soviet climbing competitions on Mt. Elbrus by running up the solid snow in sprinting cleats. You know, those thin little shoes that have small spikes on the sole and are designed for track sprinting events? Most climbers would be in waterproof, double-insulated boots with a steel shank in the sole. Boukreev redefined hard-core.
I have been dreaming about Elbrus ever since I read that book in college.

And now I can finally say "Here I am."

Sunrise on our drive to Elbrus. We're still probably 100 miles from the mountain, which tops out at 5,642 meters (18,442 feet)

Getting closer. Elbrus is distinguishable for it's twin peaks. 

Fore the first half of the first day, we were hiking with Denis, his lovely wife, and his friend. Later in the day we crossed this stream upriver, where it seemed so benign. Here, though, you can see the true power of water. 

We like to play on rocks. We are actually looking for a suitable campsite. 

Me and our tent, bottom right. It was a glorious spot for camping, except for the military helicopter that kept circling above us. It came back several times. Considering our recent history with Russian police, we did not feel safe. 

Purifying drinking water and hoping the clouds didn't turn into a storm. 

Our tent, bottom right, in late afternoon. We saw a red fox run around. It didn't seem to notice us, as we had climbed higher onto a rock outcropping. 

Eating chocolate, wearing puffy down jackets, and watching the sunset together. This is what life is all about. 

The mountains became more rounded the further away they were from Elbrus. Our trail stayed high on a hill, which meant we were able to get a better view of the valleys around us and the condors above us. That's right - condors! We frequently read about them South America, but only saw a few. Here, nobody even told us condors existed, yet we saw eight condors soaring on the up-drafts of the steep valley walls. 

Hiking away from Elbrus, we thought we'd take a shortcut. The trail went around this huge field, so we walked straight through the field. The ground was very uneven and the grass was thick and 2-3 feet tall. It was really a horrible idea. 

Initially, I toyed with the idea of climbing Elbrus. However, I discovered that it would be impossible. Elbrus, and the entire Caucasus Mountain Range, lies on the border with Georgia. Many of the areas are either off-limits or restricted to permit holders. The FSB (Russian equivalent of our FBI) recently changed the waiting time from a few days to two months for these border permits. I didn't find this out until too late. This kept us from seeing some of the more spectacular mountains in the range, but we still had some great hikes. Besides, I think we've suffered enough adventures already!

Thanks again to our good friend Denis who made this trip possible.

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6 months ago: Huaraz, Peru

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