When Julie and I made our last few steps down through the Marangu Gate after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, we both agreed that we would never climb again. While accomplishing something so far out of our comfort zone felt good, we had decided that climbing just wasn’t for us. But once we got home and started looking at the pictures, we somehow forgot about the cold and the exhaustion…we only remembered the adventure, the amazing people we met and the thrill of standing on the rooftop of Africa.
A month or so after returning from Tanzania I came across a book called Seven Summits; it’s the account of one man’s quest to climb the highest mountain on every continent. We had already knocked off Kilimanjaro so taking inspiration from the book, Julie and I decided to try a second one. The logical step would be Mount Elbrus in Russia, at 18,510 feet, the highest mountain in Europe.
Rather than sign on with an American guiding company, we chose to hire Russian guides who not only knew the mountain well, but would also provide a more authentic Russian experience. After a brief stay in Moscow, we flew to the town of Mineral Vody where we met our guides, Svetlana and Evgeniy. We had heard reports about the corruption in Mineral Vody and sure enough, just five minutes out of the airport, we were pulled over by the local police who threatened to take our passports away if we didn’t pay up. While Julie and I waited in the van, Svetlana called their bluff and after about an hour delay, they decided to let us go.
I’m not sure what Julie and I were thinking when we signed on for Elbrus….neither of us had been on ice before, had never worn crampons, and had never climbed while roped together so before heading to the mountain, we were required to do some training on one of the glaciers near Elbrus. And since we came basically from sea level, we needed to climb some smaller mountains in the area to acclimate.
After a few days of preparation, we traveled to Elbrus base camp and settled into one of the barrel huts to sleep. The huts provided more warmth than a tent but you had to be willing to put up with a occasional mouse…one of which took a liking to Julie and hung out on her shoulder during the night.
On summit day, we started out in the dark using headlamps. Soon the sun started to rise which warmed us up and provided some much needed inspiration. We settled into a line of other climbers and slowly plodded our way to the top. Unlike on Kilimanjaro, I don’t remember having that overwhelming feeling of relief and accomplishment on the summit of Elbrus….I was simply too tired to have any emotion. After a few pictures, we headed down to base camp for a well deserved rest. It wasn’t until the next day that it dawned on me that we had, in less than a year, knocked off two of the Seven Summits….and that felt great.
Tired, dirty and starving, we checked back into our hotel and then went straight to the restaurant. Having grown up in Florida and having spent a lot of time in the sun, Julie did not feel the need to use much sun screen on the climb. Let’s just say that was a mistake. The sun in the mountains, reflecting off the glacier, was much more intense than what she was accustomed to on the Florida panhandle and Julie’s face took the brunt of it. Her tolerance for pain has always amazed me….I would have been in the hospital but Julie shook it off saying it was just an inexpensive chemical peel.
Looking back on it, our trip to Russia was one of the highlights of our lives. Just standing in the middle of Red Square in the shadow of Lenin’s Tomb staring at the magnificent St. Basil’s Cathedral is something that I never thought I would experience. Another highlight was a private tour of the Kremlin Palace where we walked in the footsteps of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and stood in the bedroom of Nicholas and Alexandra. Growing up during the Cold War, I had always thought of Russia as the enemy. I came away from Russia with a totally different impression and for that I can thank climbing.
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