After easily summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, I got a little cocky about my hiking abilities and although I had no desire to be a “peak bagger” (someone who has summited every peak on every continent), I did decide I would sign up for a trip to tackle another summit.
The mountain I chose to summit this time was Mount Elbrus in Russia.
Mount Elbrus, at an elevation of 18,510 feet (5642 meters), is the highest mountain in Russia and in Europe, and the tenth most prominent peak in the world. A dormant volcano, Elbrus is in the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia, near the border of Georgia.
The company I signed up with was some obscure crap company, RMI Expeditions, which assured me because I had previously hiked at altitude (Mount Kilimanjaro), I should have no problems hiking Mount Elbrus. THIEVES AND LIARS! I relayed the information to this company that I had never ice hiked before and wanted to be sure I could successfully do this trip. That RMI crap company again assured me I would be totally fine and needed NO prior ice hiking experience to successfully do this trip. So I trusted the bastards and signed up for the trip.
Years later after I googled the difference between summiting Kilimanjaro vs Elbrus and learned much too late that Kilimanjaro requires only basic hiking skills, while Elbrus demands a person have crampon and basic ice axe skills. Elbrus is not normally roped climbing, however, if you fall, you must be able to stop yourself. But did the thieves and liars at RMI happen to mention that to me? Oh no, they most certainly did not. They also failed to mention that at least 15-30 hikers die every year trying to summit this mountain, mostly those who were ill-prepared to make the summit and probably should not have attempted in the first place. Interesting fact.
I became a bit more apprehensive about my ability to be successful on this trip as the necessary rented gear started showing up at my house: big black ski boots and crampons to give added traction for scaling the ice on the way to the summit, an ice ax, a helmet, and some weird harness that would attach you to the rest of the group. When I unpacked the equipment, I immediately made another call to the crap RMI company to again let them know that I was very unfamiliar with this equipment and was feeling unsure of my abilities to be a member of this trip. Once again, the lying bastards at the crap RMI company told me I would be fine and I would get all the necessary training during the trip. Ok. Fine. If you say so. I had faith. I believed. I was an idiot. I don’t really care how many good things people might say about this company or how long they’ve been in business; spare me the details; they suck.
When I showed up in Russia to meet the rest of the group, it was clear which one of us was not like the others. On all the trips I’ve ever been on, there is always the one: that one person who causes trouble, has a strange personality, or somehow does not fit into the group. It was clear on this trip, I was ‘the one.’ The other 8 people in the group were previous, current, or wannabe peak baggers: two young boys in their mid 20s who had hiked Mount Rainer in Washington state, their middle aged tag along man friend who was bound and determined to keep up with kids 30 years younger than him, a guy in sort of good shape going through a mid-life crisis and divorce; one guy who had already done Denali and was in training for Everest (peak bagger); a rugged hiker/mountain biker/skier girl without an ounce of body fat on her grisly frame; and a prissy spoiled brat girl and her dad who looked like Mr. Rogers. And then me: a girl from the Midwest, in pretty good shape from recently summiting Mount Kilimanjaro and hiking the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. A smart, energetic, girl in cute clothes with no previous hiking experience with any of this gear.
After a night in a crummy hotel higher up on the mountain (probably a great hotel by Russian standards), we traveled via ski lifts to our next camp where we would spend time acclimating to the altitude, practicing our ice hiking and rescue skills, and waiting for the best break in the weather to make our summit attempt. Notice the operative word here was practice our skills; there was no mention of learning our skills.
The lifts carried us, all our gear, and lots of food such as eggs, milk, bread, butter, and cheese, which we gave to the camp chef to prepare our nightly meals. Our destination was the Barrel Camp at 12,467 feet (3800 meters). From Barrel Camp we would make our summit attempt.
Now a word about the Barrels; the name literally meant THE BARRELS as we learned we would be staying in actual oil drums which had been pimped out to be huts for crazy people trying to summit Mount Elbrus. These nine recycled oil barrels at this camp had been festively painted red, white, and blue, and housed six persons per barrel. The tiny entry room of the barrel had a little storage for our gear. In the main area, three beds were lined up end to end on opposite sides of the spacious (ha) barrel. Each person was given a cot with a filthy mattress and pillow, and an electric heater and outlets were in every barrel. Inside the barrels it stunk like borscht farts and kerosene and death in general. No one bothered to wash (no showers at The Barrels) so we all smelled pretty bad by the end of our time here. The baby wipes I bought with me to use in lieu of a shower did only a paltry job at best. Plus with four guys and one girl sharing my barrel there was very little privacy; and to try to use the outhouse bathroom was not even close to being an option. Barrel camp had a mess hut for group meals and the “bathrooms”. The bathrooms were comprised of two small wooden outhouse style accommodations with a hole dug into the ground. Unlike traditional throne outhouses, the user had to strategically place their feet opposite the hole and squat over this hole to do their business. Although I did not know it at the time, those bathrooms are known by hikers as the “houses of pain and horror” for very good reasons; hikers in Russia cannot cleanly piss and shit into these holes to save their summiting asses! All around the hole was slick with putrid slime from the numerous poor attempts at aiming. Each time I used this hell pit I prayed to not get my pants on any of the yucky stuff outside the hole and to not throw up. Despite it being colder temperatures, these doom chambers smelled horrific.
Around the camp were warning signs posted that if you were caught using the snow instead of the house of horrors for your bathroom needs you would be kicked out of camp and off the mountain. Those signs and the current conditions made me want to do my business in broad daylight right at the base of the sign! PLEASE someone! Kick me off this mountain!
Now a word about the food. Remember we brought up all those eggs, bread, cheese, etc. on the lifts with us? Do you think we ate any of that? No. I swear to the God that brought me down from that forsaken mountain, we were served a kitchen slop ingredient porridge every day and some version of borscht every night. I HATE beets; which means I, of course, HATE borscht!
I was going to spend a day with Olga, the kitchen cook, and teach her how to make grilled cheese sandwiches, but one look at hardened Olga and I thought for sure a helpful tip such as this would certainly land me a bitch slap and an extra serving of nasty borscht to eat. So no grilled cheese sandwiches the entire time I was on the mountain.
So back to my actual story of the summit attempt: for two days at the Barrels while waiting for the perfect weather to attempt the summit, we practiced our ice hiking skills. For those two days I first learned and then practiced those skills. I learned how walk in crampons and to jam my toe into a wall of ice as I made my way up a wall of ice and I learned I’m not a fan of these cumbersome boots.
I learned how to use my ice axe to assist in cutting my way up an icy trail. The axe could also be used to make an “ice arrest” in the event you started flying off the mountain uncontrollably. While stopping your 150mph descent into oblivion using the ice axe, you also needed to be very careful so as not to slice off an ear, your face, or worse, imbed the axe into your abdomen or a femoral artery in the process. This was actually a warning from the guide. Since I sort of like to wear earrings, like my face and guts where they are currently located, and need my artery to keep my leg, I was freaked by this warning and visual.
There was actually quite a process involved in the ice arrest: while lurching madly down the ice covered mountain, you need to save yourself: so you grab your ice axe, put it up to your shoulder and across your chest and jam the pointed end of the axe into the snow…then quickly! ram your crampon encased feet into the ice, and end up in a quad position with your head now down in the snow along with your feet and the ice axe; your butt pointing to the heavens you have been praying to….all the while not slicing off bits of yourself along the way. Ok. And then what?
I learned how to become a tripod by placing my helmeted head in the snow in the event my fellow hiker had slipped and was now careening down the side of the mountain. As I tripod, I guess you are more stable. I think in reality, I would have gone along for the long last slide had this happened. I learned how to properly rope myself to others using a variety of knot tying techniques that would make a seaman proud. Much pressure here: get the knot wrong and it’s bye-bye to you and your hiking buddy. I learned how to drop trough and go to the bathroom when the urge needed to be answered all the while being harnessed to the other hikers in my group. Nice.
During those 48 hours of “practicing” the skills I should have had prior to embarking on this trip, my confidence in myself and my current abilities had drastically eroded into a house of horror shit pile. By the time we were ready to make our summit attempt on day three at I was beet mash.
Summit day: We left camp at 2am. The ascent takes 6-9 hours; the descent another 3-6 hours. I gave it my best shot but turned around at our first break after I saw someone’s backpack and gloves fly off the mountain in the 45 mph winds we were battling. I was doing ok but ok was not good enough for me. I’d had enough.
I was the first to turn around and head back to Barrel camp. About an hour later came Spoiled Brat Girl (who blamed her failure on ill fitting boots); and of course her father, Mr. Rogers, whose excuse for quitting was that because he had to bring precious baby doll child home safely, he had to turn around with Miss Brat. Another two hours later into camp comes Midlife Crisis Man and Man Who Can’t Accept He Is 50. Mr. I’m-Still-25 said his fingers and toes were getting frostbit so he needed to stay safe and come back. He assured me if he had the proper hand and foot gear he could have made the summit no problem. Riiiight. Mr. Dickwad is a better name for him. Mr. Midlife Crisis out rightly stated he wasn’t prepared mentally or physically for this trek and suddenly I had the utmost respect for someone finally telling the truth. I concurred with Mr. Midlife.
In the end, four of the group of nine made the summit. I didn’t care. I still got drunk on cheap Russian vodka that night most likely made from beets and petrol to celebrate the victory of those who succeeded. As for me; it’s been almost 10 years since that trip and just like I decided on that trip, my peak summiting days are behind me. My guts, face, ears, and arteries can breathe a sigh of relief as they are currently safe.
Final Note: There were actually some good points to this trip. I was still fortunate to go, get this story, and come back. I saw two very interesting Russian cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg) and a very remote area of the country. I learned lots about myself and others. I enjoyed the best grilled cheese sandwich immediately upon my arrival home which turned out to be the best grilled cheese sandwich in the entire solar system. So despite my non-summit and all the trials along the way, it still was a worthwhile endeavor in the end.
Oh, and the photo of the house of horrors outhouse was not an original. I would never have considered taking a camera into that vile pit. I think my descriptions here were more than enough to fill in any imaginary gaps.