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The Story of a True Character

Due to the well-known events, the climbing from South side of Elbrus was closed in 2010, and we switched completely to Elbrus North side. Beautiful landscape, less crowded route (and its total absence on altitudes above 3700 m because of constant snowfalls) allowed to enjoy the climbing Elbrus from the North more than usual.

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Right in the middle of the season Indonesians arrived planning to climb Elbrus on their Independence day and I was this group’s chief guide. There were seven of them in the group: five had minimal if any experience, two others knew how to climb. One of the latter two was a mountain guide (though Elbrus climb was the first place he ever walk on snow), and the other one, Sabar, was the key person of our expedition. He had one leg missing. Summit of Elbrus was going to be the highest ascent in their lifes.

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Members of my Elbrus group were also the ambassador of Indonesia in Russia, his assistants and Indonesian media. However, their activities were limited to a few group photos on the first day and a brief interview. Then they decided that they “didn’t want to hinder us” and rushed back to Pyatigorsk. And that was a pity: we could have had more fun with them on the mountain.

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There are people who climb mountains on prosthesis. Even an Everest climb was once done by a British man with his both legs amputated below knees. Still, thing were a bit more complicated with Sabar: as a young man he got overridden by train, and what remained of his leg was not enough for attaching prosthesis. And there he was going to climb Elbrus. Climb Elbrus by North face. And as we know, there are no such bonuses as cable cars or ratraks while climbing Elbrus North side to ease the climb till 5000 (and sometimes even till 5200) m.

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As self-confident as I was, I had little trust in Sabar. We had the experience of working with 8, 9, 10 year old kids on Elbrus and people over 80, and with Arab sheiks, and with businessmen who didn’t know about stadiums and exercise even in theory, and held concert of rock-group Tequilajazzz on Elbrus. We had a client with his arm in plaster bandage, clients with mental disorders, and almost all of them made it to the summit with me. But this case was somehow totally different.

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The very first acclimatization climb made it clear that Elbrus climb is going to be hard. On flat areas Sabar would even pretty much pass us, but climbing – especially on larger rocks and rockslides – was so much harder for him. To the ends of his crutches he attached self-made crampons of stainless steel. He made handles’ length adjustable, too.

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At his age of 50, Sabar was very well trained physically: he had crossed a desert (800 km) on a bicycle in 7 days, swam a lot, and hiked a lot, including mountain climbing. Ironically, being an Indonesian, he was denied a permit to climb Carstenzs Pyramid – the highest peak in his own country since it was dangerous and he was disabled… Thus, Sabar came to Russia to demonstrate that he can climb the highest peak in Europe.

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I assume this kind of successful climb could pave the road to other summits for my client, since sponsors would take him more seriously, and he would receive more media spotlight.

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However, there was still another challenge – my clients planned Elbrus climb without any reserve days, and the ascent should be made right on the independence day of Indonesia, with no possibility of second attempt. I always wonder how people can do such calculations, completely leaving out the factor of the weather.

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On the second day we set the camp with all equipment and things. The camp was ready waiting for us but we had to have Sabar’s personal things carried by a porter. It is worth mentioning that Sabar was the only one in the group who never took my helping hand among the huge rocks in front of the camp. And the next day we failed to do our minimum program – acclimatization climb to 4 700 m. Two of the group turned back in the very beginning, and the other five failed physically later. And that wasn’t even the climb for Elbrus summit! The only hope was to set off from a location closest to the summit on a summit day.

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For overnight stop, we climbed to a location on 4800m altitude, with a newly crushed helicopter nearby. We had about 200 meters to reach the last camp on Lenz rocks, when we got caught in snow storm… a tough one, with visibility under 10 meters and with rattling wind. In situations like that, when you need to make decisions regarding other people, you can ask for advice anybody, and still you will be the only person who bears the responsibility, particularly the moral one. So through the years I get used to make decisions by myself and I was never sorry about it. Climbing down would have taken longer than reaching the camp location – we had a chance of proving that the day before. The speed of climbing both up and down was nearly the same.

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I gathered all members and sent out a group with my assistant up. Together with one of them I stayed with Sabar. Snow was reaching knee level, and it was growing harder for Sabar to move his crutches and leg, and we had no idea how to help him. We were trying to dig the trench better but with the wind that strong its effect lasted just a few seconds. Elbrus is Elbrus.

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Near the helicopter we rapidly set up the tents, coiling slings on pitons and ice screws, and settled the clients in, lest the wind should tear the tents off. Meanwhile one of the guides boiled some water, but when I was pouring it into the first thermos I sensed the sharp smell of kerosene – the snow was gathered from the spot of the copter tail’s crushing, where 200 liter of hydraulic oil spilt from the craft. And so we were back to washing the pot and doing it all over again. Our clients had never camped in tents in such weather (technically, Elbrus was the first place they saw snow at all), and their will to live was sinking. The enthusiasm to cook was suddenly gone, and we nearly had to force them to eat the soup we prepared. They’d had enough of climbing fun that day and quickly fell asleep. Elbrus was furious.

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The evening left less to be optimistic about but due to my habit to hope for the best I set my alarm clock for 3 AM. At night the wind was howling, rocking the copter. For me, safety was always a priority over the ambitions, and again due to my habit, I set the alarm clock for 5 AM. The sun was slowly lighting up the horizon and slopes of Elbrus, the wind grew weaker giving us some hope. Everyone was depressed but my command was to rise, lunch packs were distributed, breakfast – ready, and Elbrus was waiting for us out there behind sporadically torn clouds. By the way, from the altitude of 4800m everything looked way more heart-lifting than from 3700 m.

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What can be more fascinating than fresh morning wind in the mountains! Even if this wind knocks you off your feet. Elbrus was full of sun but was still playing with us. Shortly after, we tied everyone into two groups. And again it was very hard for Sabar to walk through the snow, even though we were doing our best treading a path for him. I should say that the others weren’t trying to beat a speed record, too, and demanded nearly as much tendance.

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Yet, Sabar was very well-exercised both spiritually and physically. When we were reaching the saddle, the weather was almost fine, but the sight of Elbrus pre-summit rise enervated him and he announced that was going no further. I really saw it is just a minute weakness and took a 10-minute tea break. The other four of the group were still willing to struggle their way through to the summit of Elbrus. In situations like this, along with moral struggle guides face such dilemma: one guide can’t carry the disabled back; if you send two guides with him, you will remain alone with four tired clients, which is not the right thing to do, given their experience and challenges of the route. However, along with moral tools, guides have many others in their arsenal such as sweet hot tea or ampoules of adrenaline and dexamethasone. To cheer up Sabar, it took just some words and hot tea.

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And then summit struggle began. The hardest part for Sabar was the huge rocks of moraine in front of our camp. Altitude, strong wind, steep slope and apparently extreme fatigue – all this added up to make it harder for him. On the other hand, the summit was almost there. We were fixing rope for him, and lying on the slope he was drawing up on it. The slope was steep and icy, normally, people are looking for easier ways and Elbrus classical path is much easier than there. He made some attempts to walk but the slope was too steep. We tried to draw him a couple of times but he protested loudly to it. Sabar was also the only one of my clients on that moraine who never took the helping hand I was offering. He needed to accomplish everything ON HIS OWN.

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And here we are, on the summit Elbrus plateau, after what seemed to be an eternity of struggle. Strangely enough, other clients hadn’t gone too far, and the Indonesian guide even fell behind. Sabar got a second breathe and no one could stop him anymore. He broke into tears upon reaching Elbrus summit, while my assistant and I were estimating our chances of climbing down to 3700m before dark together with our entire unique team, in which Sabar was the only one at the moment who felt great.

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Elbrus summit was great, but the weather was growing worse. Visibility dropped down. It was 4 PM. We still needed to pass a long slope to reach our camp location, set tents, and eat a dinner. The latter was the only attractive thing, since we had our previous meal (breakfast) so long ago and gave our lunch packs to the clients. So make sure to have solid breakfast before every climb.

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Of course, when descending, we had Sabar vigorously roped down. He didn’t object to it anymore, but only was looking back in surprise at the thickening clouds and was helping us, dragging with his hands. The other clients were looking at him with exhaustion and envy, but we said a firm “no” to their suggestion to transport them like that, too. One guide strong as a mule can handle two clients, but what’s the point? In the end you may as well ride down this mule. Then there was an escaped satphone that the Indonesian guide suddenly took out in the middle of descending and couldn’t grip it firmly, then thermoses and mittens flying down the slope… nevertheless I was doing my best to maintain out pace.

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Down from the elevation of 4800 m, having to carry the camp, too, we, the guides, grew as slow as our exhausted clients. To give them their due, they did try to help us – so much heavily loaded we must have looked.

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The last sun beams had long gone out on the altitude of 3700 m where our main base was located, but on 4 500 m altitude we still could enjoy some subtle warmth of the sun. There was no need to hurry any more: we managed to leave the clouds behind, failed to make to the base by daylight, our huge backpacks wouldn’t let us be cold even if wearing nothing else but thermal underwear… Down there somebody was signaling us with a flashlight.

We were slowly roping Sabar down. His answers to my regular questions were hardly audible. When asked for, he was pulling with hands. The strain subsided for good when we overcame the zone of crevasses. My assistants and I might have been in some sort or euphoria about what we’d done, since we weren’t longing for a shower and hot Pyatigorsk with its cold beer, but for the winter Kukurtlu wall and traverse of the Bezengi Wall, talking at length and making estimations. If our clients could understand what we were talking about, they would have surely thought we had gone crazy…

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Participators of this crazy Elbrus climb:

  • Victor (Kasik) Yershov – shared with me all the efforts, supporting Sabar’s ascend and descend during all that long day.
  • Danya Timofeev – the leader of the second roped party, who undertook other Indonesians besides the guide and Sabar.
  • Vitya Avtomonov – unfortunately withdrew a day before the climb with two other clients that were not ready to ascent.
  • Sergey Baranov – me.

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