Climb Elbrus with our guides
Moscow. June 7, 2012
I arrived, along with my wife, Sara, in Moscow in the afternoon of June 7th. We had flown from Katmandu, Nepal to Washington, DC, arriving at home on June 3rd, giving us three busy days at home to visit my daughter in Colorado Springs, do laundry, pack, and get back on a plane June 6th. With the 12 hour time difference from Katmandu to Washington, we had just begun to adjust to U.S. time, only to be thrown ahead 10 hours, almost back to “ Katmandu time.” A driver from the Russian climbing company Mountainguide picked us up at the international airport and we made the approximately one-hour drive into downtown Moscow and the Hotel Russia overlooking the Kremlin. The language barrier was apparent as we had our visas processed and registered. We made our way through the maze of this huge, dark, dreary, hotel, carrying our own bags (as bell men are apparently a modern western convenience), and searched for the floor attendant, who held the key to our room (as giving your room key at the front desk is also, apparently, a modern western convenience). While the rooms had been recently upgraded, they didn’t quite hit the mark, at least as western standards go. We had read that, even though Moscow is somewhat westernized, many things lag behind a bit, including water treatment, so we didn’t drink the water, using bottled water even to brush our teeth. Nothing different from Nepal and Tibet there!
After a brief nap, we look a short walk around the city near the hotel, including a walk over to Red Square. One might have thought, looking at it from the outside, that it was a magical Turkish-style castle with all of the brightly colored towers and gold plated domes. I had never in my life imagined that I would be here; and, in fact, if I didn’t have my sights set on the Seven Summits, I probably never would have made the trip to Moscow. Or, would something else eventually have brought me here? We wondered at being a “farm boy from Kersey, Colorado ” and a “little girl from small-town Minnesota,” standing at Red Square !
Our evening meal was upscale hotel bar food for the “mere” price of 80 U.S. dollars. We were quite surprised at the price, and disappointed at the quality and quantity of food it purchased. As is common when first arriving in an unfamiliar country, we later learned where to eat more economically, including noting that the further away from the center of town (which is the Kremlin), the better (lower) the price. Eating at small cafeterias with walk-up counters, or even from street vendors, also proved to be an economical and enjoyable way to satisfy our appetites.
As we made our way through the streets of Moscow it was hard to believe what we had been told for decades that the Russian people are (or certainly were!), anti-American. It was hard to believe that we, Americans and Russians, were both afraid of each other not so long ago. It reminded me so much of personal relationships when people disagree and things get out of hand—usually due to poor communication or not understanding the other’s point of view. Ultimately, the result is a warring attitude, evolving into a viscous cycle of more misunderstanding and an ever escalating warring attitude, which takes on a life of its own.
Double beds seem hard to find in Russia, so Sara and I had to make do pushing the two twin beds together, finally settling in for the night. Not more than a couple of weeks ago I was on the top of Mount Everest, and then home for only three nights. Now, I’m trying to make this strange environment (our hotel room), feel as much like home as I can. The mind is amazing, as it can create a sense of tranquility even in such a strange – and foreign – place as Moscow.
Mineral Vody, the Azau Valley, and Terskol. June 8, 2012
We had a great breakfast buffet at the hotel, repacked our bags, and headed down to the hotel lobby to meet our expedition group. In addition to Sara and I, we would be climbing with five Irish and two Israeli climbers. It became apparent that this group would “gel” as they had such a fun loving attitude and didn’t take themselves too seriously. The Irish had climbed together on Kilimanjaro the previous summer and had met the Israeli’s during that climb. When they decided to give Elbrus “a go,” the Irish invited their new friends to join them. It always amazes me how much we all have in common—many of the same likes and dislikes (such as wanting to be cared about and respected, and not taken for granted), as well as many of the same fears (of not reaching the top, holding the group up, or just plain not measuring up). We think these same thoughts but, in my opinion, need to verbalize them more than we do. After all, we are all in this thing (called life) together. Talking about some of the many things we have in common could go a long way in making this journey much more pleasant.
After storing a good portion of our gear and extra “tourist clothes” for after the Elbrus climb at the hotel, we loaded in the van and were whisked away to the regional airport, which was actually much nicer and more modern than the international airport where we arrived the day before. During check-in the airline charged us for excess domestic weight baggage, and we were off to board Siberian Airlines. That’s where the modern facilities ended! It was too much, as the plane looked to be straight out of the 60s with the orange décor, seats with metal meal trays, and completely open baggage storage. One could have easily imagined Austin Powers strolling in on brightly colored shag carpeting with his beetle hair cut and paisley bell bottoms. As we clutched our loosely attached armrests, we prayed the plane into the air.
Our fears were put to rest as we touched down at the Mineral Vody airport where we were picked up by a rundown, truck-towed enclosed trailer that took us to the crude terminal. There we waited for our luggage to be unloaded, which was kept behind a locked door. We met Sergie, our guide for the trip to, and on, the mountain. He was young, fit, and spoke excellent English. He made us all feel welcome and addressed all of our concerns and questions at the airport and during the entire expedition.
The van trip away from Mineral Vody, through lush farmland, which changed to hillsides dotted with small towns, finally turning up the Baksan River and into the Azau Valley took approximately 4 hours. As the road followed the river further up into the valley, grassy slopes dotted with wildflowers gave way to evergreens further up the slopes, which themselves gave way to snow capped mountains reaching well above the 14,000-foot mountains that we are accustom to in Colorado. The beautiful scenery of the Baskan River valley, and getting to know the members of a group a bit better, made the drive a pleasure.
We arrived at Terskol, which is just down from the end of the Azau Valley, at about 7,000 feet. Only the Elbrus Ski Area lies beyond Terskol, marking the end of valley – and the end of the road. From there (yes it’s true) there is a gondola that goes up the lower slopes of Mount Elbrus. Although it was early June, skiers were still taking the two gondolas up the mountain. Some skiers were going even further up the mountain on a small chair left (when it was operating), and some traveled even further up the mountain by snow cat, allowing them to ski from as high as 15,000 feet using commercial lifts and rides. From there, some people hike even further up the mountain – even to the top – and ski down from the 18,481-foot summit of Elbrus. A “problem” with this easy access is that some people take the mountain, and the weather and other dangers that it presents, too lightly. When we arrived, the death toll on the mountain was already 16 for the season (the death toll on Everest for the spring season of 2012 was 6 on the north side, plus 1 on the south side, for a total of 7, much less than the 16 to-date on Elbrus). On Elbrus, many of the 16 deaths this season were snow boarders and skiers that came unprepared for the climate. Others were climbers that also came under prepared, or got lost in storms on the mountain.
After a quick meal, we walked back to the dormitory style room in the crisp cool night air. The smell of pine and fresh air reminded Sara and I of nights at our home in the mountains of Colorado . Having been away from home for such a long time while on Everest (and Sara, having been away for a trip to South Korea , as well as her trip to meet me at the end of my Everest expedition) made us long for the comforts of home. Aware of this, we once again pushed the twin beds in our room together and settled in for the night.
Terskol and Mount Cheget. June 9, 2012
After a reasonable nights sleep and breakfast we were ready for the first acclimation hike from Terskol, at 7000 feet, to the upper slopes of Mount Cheget at approximately 10,500 feet. We followed a trail up a grassy, wooded slope beneath a ski lift that makes its way to approximately 10,000 feet and the start of the remaining snow fields on Mount Cheget. On the way up the steep slope, Sergie seemed to be pushing the pace, apparently so he could determine the stronger climbers and determine what might be a comfortable pace for the group. Occasionally he would have us take our pulse, with the goal being to keep everyone under about 150 beats per minute.
As we climbed on the slopes of Mount Cheget, Mount Elbrus came into view through the trees, on the opposite side of the valley. Mount Elbrus has two summits connected by a saddle; the first summit seen from this view is the east summit at 18,422 feet. The second, highest summit is the west summit which stands at 18,481 feet. Our goal, of course, will be to climb the west summit of Elbrus and reach the highest point on the European continent.
As we reached the top of the ski lift clouds moved in, the temperature dropped, and it began to snow. Everyone had expected a moderate day with warmer temperatures but, to the groups’ credit, between us all, we had enough appropriate clothing (including jackets, hats, and gloves) so we could continue higher up the snowfield. It was snowing harder now. Just short of our goal of about 10,500 feet, we turned around and started down the snowfield. Most of us post holed, skied (using our boots), and glissaded down the slope in a hurried fashion. It reminded me of when I was a kid and we would use just about anything to slide down a snow packed hill, sacrificing our bodies to the slopes.
At the foot of the snowfield, and top of the lift, a dirt road meanders back down to Terskol. We took our time going down as the temperatures warmed and the snow subsided, giving way to a light rain. The wild flowers were beautiful and the views of the valley magnificent. While the climb was short, everyone seemed content with the day’s acclimation hike, and we all looked forward to climbing on the other side of the valley where Mount Elbrus loomed above.
Upon reaching the bottom we all clamored into a pub where we ate a late lunch. It was nice to be moving again (since Everest)—and best of all climbing with Sara. The rest of the day we spent exploring the area, its stores and dwellings. The ski areas at Terskol and on Elbrus are in rural areas, and cows were free to roam along the roads. Everyone in these small villages seemed to know each other, and Sergei said that the area is dominated by certain families that have lived here for generations. It was quite quaint, and since I grew up on a dairy farm, many of the sights, sounds, and smells reminded me of those days gone by.
It was good to settle into bed that night. My mind was still on Everest and I was grateful for the luxury of not having to stare at the top of a tent night after sleepless night. I thought to myself as I lay listening to Sara breathing softly beside me, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Azau to Mir. June 10, 2012
Our backpacks full of the necessary items, we loaded the van for the short drive up to the end of the valley where the Azau Gondola waited to take us part way up the mountain – our first trip actually up the side of Mount Elbrus. Once again, it was like being thrown back into the 1960’s (or even earlier). As we tried to board the gondola, it became apparent that the Russian’s don’t quite handle lines the way Americans do. It was like a free-for-all and if you didn’t hold your ground and stand abreast of each other adults, as well as children, would cut ahead at will. After waiting and doing our own game of “running interference” we finally got on one gondola as a group. After an exchange to another gondola at “old viewpoint,” we continued up to Mir Station at 11,381 feet. From there we unloaded and hiked another 500 feet to Garabashi, known more commonly as “the Barrels.” This was a military training ground at one time and huge tanks, probably about 50 feet long and 8 feet in diameter, were cut to allow for windows and a door. They were insulated and lined on the inside, and then crude beds were constructed and line the walls. Each barrel accommodates nine climbers and has a somewhat effective electric heater and lighting. An old trailer next to the Barrels houses the kitchen and mess hall.
We checked out our new “digs” – the place that, after tonight, would serve as our base camp for the remainder of our climb. The day was clear and we got a great view of the route that we would be taking up the mountain, to the saddle, and on to the west summit of Elbrus.
After a short stay, we headed down to the gondola and enjoyed spectacular views looking below into the valley. Later on, after dinner, Sara and I were amazed as we looked above through the trees at the clear starlit night. Tomorrow we would be treated to climbing higher and coming closer to our goal.
The Barrels to Priut Hut. June 11, 2012
On the morning of June 11th we prepared all of our equipment for our stay at the Barrels and upcoming summit attempt on Mount Elbrus. It was a less than perfect day for climbing, but still acceptable. The sky was threatening and it looked as though it was already snowing up high on the mountain, where we were scheduled to do an acclimation hike. This lower part of the mountain is non-technical, so we didn’t give much thought to it, other than to take colder weather gear.
After breakfast we again loaded in the van, and fought the people to get on the gondolas. Today the small chair lift between the final gondola at Mir Station and the Barrels was running. This “line” was even more chaotic than those getting on the gondolas, with young children being assisted by their parents to cut in line, and doing very well at it on their own. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to keep our group, and our equipment (large bags rode a chair by themselves) completely together, but eventually we got off the chair lift and lugged our stuff into our assigned barrels and settled in a bit.
After a quick lunch, we departed from approximately 11,881 feet at the Barrels and began to slowly move up the mountain in line, as a group. As we progressed it had already started to snow, which was driven by 10 to 15 mile an hour winds. It was pleasant climbing as the temperature never seemed to get much below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, even with the wind chill. The snow began to accumulate and soon we were in about six inch deep snow. I couldn’t help but think of snowshoeing in the Colorado mountains and what a difference snowshoes would have made. We were climbing with only our plastic, insulated boots and without the aid of crampons, making it a bit ineffective to move along the gently rising grade.
After about three hours of the mesmerizing step, plant pole, step, plant pole, through the all-white landscape, we reached a point just below the old Priut Hut at approximately 13,634 feet. The new Diesel Hut is being constructed here and is just a shell with the interior incomplete. The Priut Hut loomed about 100 feet above us – now just a foundation with burned and charred dimension lumber that looks like kindling that fell in fashion reminding me of “pick-up sticks” (a game we used to play when we were kids). Before burning a few years ago (an electrical fire, perhaps, judging by the electrical wiring in the Barrels and many other places in the country), this three-story structure was complete with a restaurant. Apparently having such a large structure was deemed unnecessary, as the small, one-story Diesel Hut that will replace it is a much more conventional mountain hut, with sleeping quarters only.
After grabbing a quick bit to eat, we quickly descended back to the meager (but more than adequate) comforts of the Barrels. Everyone seemed to be doing quite well; with no altitude difficulties and high sprits. The weather was persistent and the snow accumulation was about 8 to 10 inches, but posed no problem. If anything, it was quite peaceful and pleasant. The only thing that was lacking was an anticipated view of the mountains in and around the Prielbrusie National Park, including the towering double-summit of Mount Elbrus. We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the differences between cultures and attitudes as viewed by the Irish, Israelis, and Americans. The food at the evening meal was excellent (even better than at the mess hall below at Terskol), and we took advantage of accumulating calories that would be needed for the next two days of climbing. In other words, we “pigged out!” After stepping outside the barrel briefly to look at the INCREDIBLE starlit night, the switch for the lights was turned off, and the dreams of climbing higher flooded our heads.
The Barrels to Pastukhova Rocks. June 12, 2012
Blue skies greeted us on this last day of climbing higher for acclimation. This would be a long day (compared to the day before), as we would gain twice the elevation and cover twice the distance to obtain an altitude of 15,383 feet. After breakfast we gathered things together, put our crampons on, and started up the gentle but ever increasing slope that would lead us above the Diesel Hut to an outcropping of rocks, called Pastukhova Rocks, that rested about halfway up to the summit of Elbrus. They were in plain view, even from the Barrels, looking like distant specks peppering the mid-mountain slope. The rocks were clumped together and directly below them, on each side, additional rocks lined a football field width (and double the length) runway leading up to where they rested.
We had climbed for close to six hours, and were anxious to reach our goal for the day. The grade had increased significantly as we reached the bottom scattering of the rock formation. It was a beautiful day and we had gained an altitude which put us above almost all of the surrounding mountains. We looked down upon the lush grassy slopes in the Azau Valley that gave way to the alpine trees eventually choked into submission by lack of oxygen that allowed only rocky slopes, and ultimately predominately snow- and glacier-covered peaks. Surprisingly, the snow covered Elbrus and the surrounding mountains as completely as the snow on the peaks surrounding Mount Everest. The views were similar to my mind’s eye – the Himalayas of Asia and the Caucuses of Europe. Dramatic. We had climbed above most of the clouds that puffed over the horizon. They were like gentle, heavenly beings pursing their lips to blow the gentle breezes that we felt this day.
All was well and we started down toward the Diesel Hut and our final destination of the Barrels, thinking of nothing but a great day on a spectacular mountain. We were suddenly aware of an individual that was to the far left of us, sporadically and quickly descending – then suddenly stopping and sitting down – only to repeat the cycle. We had noticed, even at a distance, that he was alone and seemed disoriented and confused. Suddenly, Sergei, our lead guide, started chasing him down the side of the mountain, and we knew something was wrong. After Sergei caught him, Sergei came over to us, and told us that someone was up on the saddle with “a broken head.” We quickly made our way over to a small camp, just two tents, across from the Diesel Hut. The man we had been watching also reached the camp, and told us that his name was Mathias, from Sweden Two other young men (all appeared to be in their mid twenties) were also at the camp, and seemed unaware of what all the commotion was about.
To his credit, Sergei and the other two assistant guides of our expedition immediately decided to assist in the rescue attempt. Despite not being dressed for a climb further up the mountain (in what would soon be the dark) and with limited acclimation himself (this was Sergei’s first climb of Elbrus for the season), he gathered as much water, food, and necessary equipment and clothing as he could from the small Swedish camp and members of our group, and headed back up the mountain to try and aid the victim.
The remainder of our group tried to access the situation and determine what needed to be done. Decisions were made, and I ran down to the Barrels with hopes of contacting mountain rescue while everyone else, including Sara, stayed with Mathias. He was clearly disoriented, as he didn’t know what day it was, and he kept on taking his gloves off and dropping them, despite the wind and cold that were both increasing with the coming evening. Eugene, one of the Irish, realized that Mathias was in shock, and insisted that he come down to the Barrels with our group, where he could get fluids, hot food, and have warm place to sleep. They gathered Mathias’ pack and sleeping bag, and headed down the mountain to the Barrels.
As I reached the Barrels, it was late afternoon and everyone had gone down below to the valley except for a couple of maintenance men and groundskeepers. Knowing that a desperate situation was at hand, one of the groundskeepers got an old snowmobile running, but something was wrong mechanically, so he was unable to utilize it for rescue. Instead he headed down, apparently trying to catch someone at the Mir gondola station. I saw the snowmobile stall about a mile below the Barrels, before reaching the station. As I looked up, the rest of the expedition was coming over a rise about a quarter mile above.
Sara walked down the mountain with Mathias, giving him some water, and keeping him talking. Slowly, she pieced together the rest of the story. Mathias had been climbing with three others on his Swedish team. They had all climbed the summit of Elbrus earlier in the day. Two from his group had quickly descended, and had reached camp earlier in the afternoon, leaving Mathias and his climbing companion to descend, at a slower pace, from the summit of Elbrus. During Mathias and his companion’s descent, only 15 to 20 minutes from the top, Mathias described an icy spot on the route that retreated down to a 200 meter slope ending at a rock field. He had explained that they did not have ice axes and that his friend had possibly “caught a crampon” on his opposite boot, causing him to trip, and that he went first head over heals, then slid, the 200 meters down the slope, crashing into the rocks below, where he came to rest. Mathias said that he ran, as quickly as he could, trying not to fall down the slope himself, to where his companion lay. He said his friend had a “head injury” and possibly broken bones and internal injuries, pointing to around his own chest. After reaching his friend, Mathias said that he descended the mountain as quickly as he could, traveling for (what at least seemed to him) about two hours before reaching a group on the mountain to tell them about the accident. Apparently this group was part of the Russian army, there to acclimate and train for mountain rescue. They had radioed to our guide, Sergei, to tell him of the situation, which had caused Sergei to start his own run down the mountainside to reach Mathias – who was desperate to reach his other friends to tell them of the accident. That’s where our group’s involvement started.
When everyone arrived back at the Barrels we found out via cell phone that mountain rescue had been notified (at the same time that Sergei had received the radio communication) and they were on their way up from the valley. Sara and the rest of the expedition tended to Mathias and when I arrived in the mess hall he had eaten some hot food and had drank lots of water and tea. He was “coming around” a bit more, explaining more of the story in small pieces as his mind was struggling to make sense of it all. About an hour later, the mountain rescue team, including guides and managers of Mountainguide.ru that we had met a few days earlier down in the valley, arrived via snow cat. Sara brought a female guide, who spoke some English, into the mess hall to talk to Mathias. Finally, when she asked if they were going up to try to rescue his friend, he said no. He was able to divulge that, after reaching his friend following his fall, that was not able to find a pulse and, putting his hand in front of his mouth, “no breath.” In addition, his friend’s skull was split and, again pointing to and around his own chest, he said he probably had multiple internal injuries as well. He, finally, was able to say that his friend was certainly dead.
As we watched the rescue people pile on the snow cat late that evening, we knew that they could only hope to return with a body. The recovery would consist of the snow cat taking the rescuers to Pastukhova Rocks at 15,383 feet, and then the team would continue up, climbing to approximately 17,750 feet to where Mathias described his friend’s body had come to rest – high on the north side of the saddle. Meanwhile, Mathias’s mind was already turning to his friend’s family, and how could he possibly tell them what happened? Already questioning himself, and what he “could have” or “should have” done. Our hearts went out not only to the family of the young man that died, but to Mathias as well.
Sara and I spent the night mostly sleepless, often listening to the breathing and tossing and turning of Mathias, who was staying in our barrel. About four in the morning, I heard the sound of the snow cat returning. No one in our barrel stirred or made a sound.
Rest Day at the Barrels. June 13, 2012
The snow cat was outside running and what turned out to be the search and recovery team was getting ready to leave as we began to stir in the Barrels. One member of the recovery team came clamoring in and addressed Mathias, saying that it was time to go. Mathias gathered his things and we followed him out to the snow cat. The mountain recovery team was already on board the flatbed that was mounted on the back of snow cat. They had wrapped the body in a green plastic tarp, tied around with rope, and it lay flat between the feet of the team members. Sara and I hugged Mathias, wishing him well, trying to reassure him that it was an accident, and certainly not his fault. Sara told him to take care of himself, and get all of the love and support that he could. He clambered on board amongst the recovery team and we watched the snow cat slowly make its way down to the valley. Our hearts ached for Mathias, as we couldn’t imagine the pain he was feeling having to ride down with his deceased friend at his feet.
At breakfast, everyone was somber. The rest of the day was spent discussing logistics for Elbrus summit day, which would be tomorrow, weather permitting. It is possible to hire a snow cat to take team members from the Barrels at approximately 11,881 feet up to Pastukhova Rocks at 15,383 feet (covering just over 3,500 feet of elevation gain – more than half of the total 6,600 gain – and about half the approximately 5 mile distance from the Barrels to the summit of Elbrus), and the rest of the team decided to take the snow cat. I felt that this was not an option for me, as the Barrels, in my mind, could be considered “base camp,” and I felt obligated to climb the entire distance from there in order for my climb to count toward my goal of completing the Seven Summits. That being said, I opted to start out at 2:30 a.m. the next morning, with one of the guides accompanying me—so it would be the two of us starting early. I felt that it would take the two of us about two-and-a-half hours to reach the rocks, so the remainder of the group, riding the snow cat, would leave around 4:00 a.m. meeting us at approximately 5:00 a.m. halfway up the mountain at Pastukhova Rocks.
With this in mind we made further plans to travel together above the saddle (elevation 17,164 feet) and to travel “roped up” (or roped together utilizing safety harnesses and ice axes for travel). We felt a need to be very cautious after the accident that happened the day before at that spot above the saddle. Many of us then spent much of the remainder of the day preparing and sharpening our crampons, by filing them, so as to gain as much purchase as we could when climbing on the icy sections of the route.
We were all still upset about the previous day’s events, Sara seemly most of all. We all understood the dangers of being up high on this mountain, or any mountain for that matter, and the potential consequences of climbing. We could only maximize our chances of staying safe by making sure that we all were equipped correctly and by making wise decisions. The day went by quickly and we all turned in early—with great anticipation of the Elbrus summit day tomorrow.
Elbrus Summit Day. June 14, 2012
Having slept restlessly the night leading to summit day, Sara and I woke early. She helped me get organized as I nervously fumbled for clothing and equipment in my usual fashion. She then kissed and hugged me goodbye, and I was off to the mess trailer for breakfast. The guide and I hurriedly ate, checked our harnesses and equipment, and headed up the mountain in the crisp, cold, starlit night. It was great climbing as we ascended steadily, breaking the dead silence of the night with the noise of our poles and crampons sinking into the snow, with our breathing seeming far away and mesmerizing at times. The time went by swiftly. When we were over half way to the rocks we looked back and saw the single far distant light of the snow cat. We picked the pace up, and by the time we had climbed up Pastukhova Rocks, the other members of the team were jumping off the snow cat just below the rocks. As we waited at the rocks I counted heads, and it appeared that everyone was accounted for. But wait. As they came closer I looked for Sara, as I would have recognized her clothing and stature. I was still searching the group when Eugene (one of the Irish) told me that he had some disappointing news: Sara had decided to stay behind. Given her past experience of being the only survivor of three that were trapped in the hull of a capsized boat, Sara understood more deeply than the rest of us the pain and suffering caused by the recent accident, and had lost the drive to climb. Reaching the top of this mountain seemed very unimportant to her, and she chose not to make the attempt. She had been one of the strongest of the group and after having summated Kilimanjaro with me the year before, she was more than capable of summiting Elbrus. Her empathy toward Mathias was strong, and her priorities have always been straight, so I understood perfectly why she would opt not to climb on that day.
The extra person that had confused my head count was a photographer that had decided to ride along, climb, and photograph the expedition as it progressed up the mountain to the summit of Elbrus. We gathered and slowly started out climbing. As the sun came up over the horizon, it was extraordinary! We saw the shadow of Elbrus cast over the opposite horizon, imprinted on the dense atmosphere. It was extraordinary and lasted for a few minutes. Then, it was gone against the background of the fiery orange color cast on the far distance around us.
We climbed higher and higher until we finally reached the saddle at 17,164 feet. Everyone was feeling fine and we traversed around the east summit and walked over and up the saddle to the foot of the west summit of Elbrus. There, we roped up and could see the poles that were left to mark the spot of the accident and the rocks that ultimately caused the death of the Swedish climber two days ago. Thoughts of the accident were with all of us and we talked about it with respect and made sure that we were all roped together properly.
The group to Elbrus was lead by Russian guide Sergei Baranov. As we started up toward the summit of Elbrus, we were mostly quiet, other than reminding each other to be careful and to keep the slack out of the ropes. Three of the members of the expedition were starting to suffer effects of altitude; including headaches and vomiting that are somewhat common at high altitudes. We continued up the side of the hill and came to a flatter spot that would mark the final four or five hundred vertical feet to the West summit of Elbrus. Maybe a quarter mile, at best, separated us from the west summit of Elbrus. We unclipped from the ropes and continued on an individual basis. Having summited Everest just over two weeks ago, and thus having the advantage of having been at even higher altitudes recently and being well acclimated, I felt great, and quickly climbed to the summit. The others followed behind and reached the summit shortly thereafter.
Despite some of the expedition members having been sick, they persevered and it was awesome to be on the top of the continent of Europe with a great group from around the world! The clouds were far below and the sky was a brilliant blue. We gave traditional hearty congratulations to each other and took lots of photos. Then, we headed down from the top of Europe .
The trip down was uneventful. There was a great sense of accomplishment and peacefulness that accompanied me on the way down. This feeling allows a person to forget about being tired and all the aches and pains associated with climbing a mountain over the course of a week, and truly relish such a great moment in life.
Late that afternoon we came over the same rise that I had watched Sara, Mathias, and the others descend two days earlier. There, standing with arms open wide, was Sara waiting outside of the Barrels. The only thing better than reaching the top of Elbrus on that fine day of June 14, 2012, was falling into those arms and gazing into her eyes.