One of the challenges we face in Manitoba when preparing for a climb is the fact that we have to drive over 1,000 kilometres to find anything that resembles a hill. This makes training difficult, and forces us into some creative ways to recreate our time at altitude. On our last climb to Aconcagua, both David and Adam dragged truck tires behind them in the snow on an adjacent golf course for hours at a time to recreate the effect of altitude on their bodies.
Adam relies heavily on mountain biking and hiking long distances with a heavy pack (especially between business meetings in the back hills of Sydney, Australia) - it isn't uncommon for him to do 100 kilometres in the course of a day of two. Along with regular work in the gym, his experience in endurance racing also provides a great basis for pushing himself to his physical limits. A recent family vacation to the Rockies will have him in tip top shape for our trip.
David spends 6 days a week year-round running and in the gym, trying to get into "mountain shape". On summer weekends, he will also load up his pack and go walkabout in the Lake of the Woods area, which actually has some hilly terrain. A dedicated couch potato, David had his trainer, friend and drill sargent, Syl Lemelin put together a training plan to get him into peak condition four years ago - the results have been astounding as David has put on close to 20 pounds of muscle, "grown" almost an inch, and can run half marathons in a respectable time (thanks Syl!).
This climb only entails two days of carrying gear, which is the most draining aspect of any climb - climbing a 35 degree snow slope with 50 pounds (or more) on your back will test your physical and mental capabilities very quickly!
While this may not be the most difficult climb physically, we are ascending more quickly than any of our previous climbs, so being in top shape will aid in the acclimatization process.
So long as the flu bug stays away from us,we should be ready for the mountain!
With all of the upheaval in Ukraine coming to a head recently, when friends and family hear that our next climbing trip is to Southern Russia, we are invariably asked if we are going to cancel our trip. The answer for me, at this time, is no - while I will continue to monitor the situation, I believe our itinerary doesn't present any undue risks to our personal safety.
I am not what most people consider a thrill-seeker or a person who "lives on the edge". I do enjoy getting outside of my comfort zone to experience new places, people and challenges, but carefully think out what the risk is to myself and my family before embarking on such an adventure. Believe it or not, climbing has actually taught me to assess risk in any life situation, with the realization that even the smallest decision can have a life-changing impact.
One of the first things a climber learns when getting onto the mountain is the difference between objective hazards and subjective hazards. An objective hazard is an aspect of climbing which you largely cannot control, such as bad weather, an avalanche or rock fall, while a subjective hazard is something within a climbers control that can be avoided, such as poor conditioning, dehydration or sloppy footwork.
Eliminating subjective hazards should be a straightforward task - generally, training and education can overcome these issues. While this may seem obvious, it is shocking how ill-prepared many climbers are when they tackle a mountain; they often ignore their own inexperience and physical shortcomings to put themselves, and neighbouring climbers, in danger. Adam experienced this first hand on Aconcagua, where he and our guides rescued some climbers who became lost on the trail, and, in another incident, helped climbers who couldn't even put their crampons on properly! Both of these incidents, coupled with the bad weather on the mountain, could have proved fatal had those climbers not received help from our group.
Subjective hazards come up frequently on guided climbs, as there is such a large variance in individual climbers fitness and experience. This makes the guide's job very difficult, as he/she has a duty to make sure each climber is safe, while trying to get as many climbers to the summit as possible, at the same time recognizing each individual climber's physical and mental limitations.
The situation is very different after identifying an objective hazard - a climbers task is to determine what risks are acceptable and which ones are not. This can often lead to a subjective decision based on a persons risk tolerance and experience. A perfect example was the summit push on Aconcagua - Adam, who was obviously the strongest, most experienced climber in our group, made the decision to try and summit, while the rest of us, who were not nearly as strong, decided to defer to the nasty weather and make our way down the mountain. The guide has the final say, which is why having a competent, experienced, strong willed guide is a must for a safe trip.
I use the same objective hazard analysis when traveling in order to decide whether to travel to an area that is seen as unstable. In our case, we are not traveling over or through the Ukraine, where all of the violence has been contained. While some people are worried about the political climate in Russia, hundreds of thousands of people have traveled to the country under much more tense circumstances (the Cold War comes to mind) and reports of travelers and climbers in Moscow and on Elbrus right now are that all is normal.
Objective hazards are found around us every day - when we step into a car, drive a motorcycle, or play sports. Being educated on these risks, knowing your limitations, and realizing that living a full life requires some degree of risk are all vital to making the most of our short time here on earth.
If the situation in Russia changes, I would have no hesitation pulling the plug and cancelling the trip - at the moment, however, it is all systems go for our departure in 19 days!
One of the unique aspects of this climb is the different style of accommodation on Elbrus. While the tent remains the primary means of shelter on most mountains, Elbrus presents a much more comfortable and spacious way to sleep - the barrels.
The barrels ("bochki" in Russian) are steel cylinders in which 6-8 climbers can spend their nights. They often have electricity (at least until the generator is turned off or is broken), and provide much more shelter and warmth than a tent. They also provide significantly more room than a small tent (Adam and I won't have to play twister and sleep with each others parts near our respective faces) . The other advantage is that there is no tent to carry, set up and dismantle.
The barrels are rather old and not exactly what you would call 5 star lodging - I wouldn't take my wife here for our annual holiday - but they are a welcome sight after a hard days climb.
But wait - what if there was a new award winning accommodation at 13,000 feet that used state of the art technology for heating and cooling, had wifi, a dining hall, and even an indoor bathroom? While some traditionalist climbers might find these types of amenities heresy, this sounds like heaven on earth for a lazy trekker like me.
Well, my prayers have been answered - enter the LeapRus shelter, which opened at the end of last season. At 3912 metres, it looks like it ticks all of the boxes, and is still shiny and new! You can read an article on the entire LeapRus complex HERE. The shelter even has its own entry with reviews on Tripadvisor!!!
We plan on making use of this shelter on our way up the mountain - while it may not have the romanticism of sleeping in the wild with just a piece of canvas (or synthetic material) separating you from the elements, it does have an indoor toilet!
Where would you rather lay your head?
Every climbing trip has common elements that motivate us to tackle the next mountain - for me it is the stunning scenery, the camaraderie, and the chance to push yourself past what you think are your limits. However, it is the differences and quirks that make each individual mountain trip truly memorable. Funny thing, but the scenery often takes a back seat to some seemingly minute detail when you are focused on fighting your way up the mountain.
One of the most unique aspects of our Elbrus climb will be the inter-modal methods of travel to get to the summit. While the traditional way up a mountain is one foot in front of the other, Elbrus provides a different (and somewhat easier) take on mountaineering.
From the base of the Baksan Valley, we will take a series of chair lifts to our base camp (shown as st. Gara-Bashi on the above picture) at 3800 metres / 12,500 feet. These chair lifts are used year round - in winter by skiiers, and in summer by mountaineers. As you can see by the picture of the Baksan Valley above, there is an extensive system of chairlifts and cable cars up to many of the lower peaks.
Our gear will be loaded precariously on the single chair lifts and shuttled to the next station. We have utilized human power, mules and vehicles on previous climbs, but this will be a new mode of transport. We will follow behind on the same lift, saving energy, enjoying the view, and hanging on for dear life!
While transporting gear to Base Camp by other means is not unusual, getting mechanical help going further up the hill is. From our Base Camp, we have decided to take a snow cat (or series of snow cats) up to Pastukhov Rocks at 4700 metres / 15,500 feet. The snow cat is essentially a ski slope groomer modified to cram a dozen or more climbers in the rear and then climb the steep slopes of the mountain, often lurching and sliding back down the hill.
This experience has been called the scariest part of the climb, as the snow cats are proceeding up the hill in total darkness! There is also some question as to the capability and sobriety of the snow cat operators (this is Russia, after all!).
From this point, our climb becomes more conventional, and we must take ourselves up to the summit and descend the Northern side on foot.
Picking a guiding company is the first, and most important, step in our climbing preparations. There are a wide range of operators that offer varying levels of service, support and experience, so choosing wisely is vital to having a rewarding, and most importantly, safe trip.
Safety is always the first priority for us - with a little bit of internet research, word of mouth from other climbers, and from observing guiding standards on our previous mountain travels, it is fairly simple to weed out some of the marginal operators. However, there are still many organizations out there that appear to run safe, solid trips.
Many of the larger commercial operators offer climbs around the world with one of their established guides coordinating logistics and partnering with a local company. This ensures a consistent level of quality and service, much like a big hotel chain such as Hilton or Sheraton.
For us, the journey is every bit as important as the summit, so we look for a company with roots in the region offering small groups, as well as a chance to interact with surrounding communities and cultures. Many climbers just want to climb the mountain and leave, but for us, learning and experiencing even a little of the place we are visiting is just as important as the challenge the mountain presents.
We were really lucky on our last trip to Aconcagua to not only spend some quality time in Mendoza (watching soccer and drinking wine), but also to climb nearby Cerro Vallecitos, which gave us the opportunity to interact with local climbers. Our assistant guide, Rodrigo, was a gem who seemed to know everything and everybody on both mountains. Simply put, having a good guiding team is the most important factor in determining how memorable your time on the mountain will be.
This trip we chose 7 Summits Club, a Russian operator headed by well known climber Alex Abramov. 7 Summits Club runs more than a dozen climbs on Elbrus every season, have a permanent presence on the mountain, and also offer some other intriguing climbs to far flung parts of the world.
Mr. Abramov is known for more than just his climbing - he is infamous for "driving" a Land Rover to the top of Elbrus, as well as hosting interesting theme parties at Everest Base Camp. As you can see from these two stories (HERE and HERE), that joie de vivre has continued on Elbrus the past few years. Here's hoping for a safe and fun journey!
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS MOUNT ELBRUS?
This is a question I have been asked constantly when people inquire about our next climbing trip. The easy answer is it is the highest point in Europe and located in Russia, but since Russia is the largest country in the world (almost twice the size of Canada!) this response doesn’t provide very much help.
Elbrus is located in the Caucasus mountain range, in Southern Russia. The mountain is on the border between Russia and Georgia, to the south. The easiest way to describe the location of the mountain is to say it is 200 kilometres due east of Sochi, the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics – people have at least heard of Sochi!
The Caucasus are the gateway between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, so the area is rich in many different types of cultures and races. This has contributed to the area being a strategic point for the military and for trade which has resulted in periodic instability in the region over the past 500 years – the latest being a border war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and skirmishes with Chechen rebels on and off for the past 20 years.
Mount Elbrus is not the easiest place to get to. You must first fly to Moscow or St. Petersburg, and then take a 2.5 hour flight into the city of Mineralnye Vody. Mineralnye Vody was voted the worst airport in the world by one magazine, and “a lower circle of hell” by Economist Magazine (you can read some hilarious articles on the airport HERE, HERE and HERE). From Mineralnye Vody, it is a 3 hour drive into the Baksan Valley, where we start our climb.
We plan on spending 3 nights in Moscow sightseeing prior to our departure for Elbrus, as neither of us have had the opportunity to travel to Russia.
Judging from other trip reports, the cultural part of our trip will be as interesting as the climb itself…