When I look back on 2016, my surprise trip to Russia will always put a huge badass smile on my face. As my 54th birthday is just hours away and 2016 is coming to a close, I couldn’t think of any better way to celebrate than reliving and documenting my amazing Russian adventure.
What a year I’d had up to June 2016! The year began in Cuba with my family, followed by 2 half marathons through the winter then the Ottawa marathon the end of May and, of course, my unplanned and very 1st Ultra marathon. My 2016 goals were exceeded, I could just head up North every weekend for the rest of the summer and coast out the rest of the year.
Who am I kidding, you remember how I ended that last blog post, just hours after completing my 1st Ultra marathon I was telling myself, “It would be a real shame to waste my fitness and not do what I really love to do, climb mountains”. I was already scheming to beat down the door on a new adventure.
As soon as we got back to Toronto after my Ultra, I sent an overly spontaneous and fateful email without doing a stitch of research about travelling to Russia or climbing Mt Elbrus. In fact, the only thing I knew about this climb was what I learned following another mountaineer on Instagram last summer. EatPrayClimb, like myself, was relatively new to mountaineering, she began with Kilimanjaro then did glacier training on Mt Baker which is when I started to follow her journey on social media since we were doing the same climb less than 2 months later. She was honest and transparent and entertaining. I felt a bit of kindred spirit with her, loved the way she documented her journey and couldn’t wait to follow her trip to Russia in July. What she presented was all I knew, it stuck with me for a whole year. Clearly not enough to make such a big leap. Or was it? I checked the internet and figured out there was a climb with the same guide she had the previous summer. The trip was only 13 days away. What are the chances? One thing is for sure, you don’t get 100% of the chances you don’t take. I want life to be interesting that’s for sure but I don’t want to take silly risks, maybe just silly enough to be interesting.
Within minutes of sending that email there was a back and forth of questions; “Karen, what kind of climbing experience do you have?” then “Who did you climb Mount Baker with? Did you summit?” and finally, “All right, Karen, I am checking with our team in Russia to see if we could pull this together. If he says that we can do it (there are logistical questions), we’ll need full payment for this trip up front.” Whoa! I better talk to my family, they are upstairs watching a movie while I am quietly yet hastily planning my escape to far off lands. Would they support me? Did they really have any choice? Of course they know me, their biggest challenge would be trying not to talk me out of it cause they know that would force my hand. I knew it was a lot of money for something I hadn’t put much thought or research into but I will always sacrifice on ‘stuff’ for a good experience.
Blessed by the family, now what about the boss? Monday morning I heard back that Russia was working on getting the invitation. Quite frankly I thought this plan would have been axed by this point. Now I’d have to bring the boss up to speed but still did not believe it was possible to pull this together in 12 days. Less than 4 months into a new corporate job, here I was asking short notice to leave for 2 weeks. Working in an open work space, I asked to speak with my boss in a meeting room. His response was, “you better not be giving your notice” Lol .. it’s nice to be wanted. He followed me into the room then listened fascinated while I asked for time off to “do what?!”, “you call that a vacation?” Lol … “Who am I to hold you back from your dreams?” … I was pleasantly stunned by his response, happy to have a boss supportive of even the most crazy of challenges. While I am sure he’s used to dealing with millennials, I’m well outside that age range. The adventure now felt real! Less than 24 hours after writing that fateful email, I was plunking a whole pot of money on an adventure without a formal invitation or visa in hand or gear or flights or recent mountain training.
I better check what the Canadian government thinks of travel to Russia? Apparently Russia isn’t encouraged for Canadians and in all the vastness of Russia, Mt Elbrus is definitely not located in the safest part of the country. Might even be in the war zone. Well I am just going to let my naivety get the best of me on this one, who the heck would be interested in a bunch of mountain climbers? I have to be honest that I do my best to avoid the news, going in blind might seem ignorant but it also didn’t prejudice me away from an adventure. The government page did it’s best to change that but I decided to let the cards play out.
Tuesday morning my boss approaches me with excitement, “you didn’t tell me it was an 18,000 foot glacier you were climbing” … he actually did research, he knew more than me at this point and he was clearly excited and impressed. I felt very blessed and a bit scared by his ‘impressed-ness’. His excitement tipped me over the edge, I was officially going to gear up and start packing. Waiting to get that formal invitation was a big unknown, I’d never had to deal with a visa process requiring an invitation before and the Russian government wasn’t making any commitments tighter than 5 days on a rushed visa. I was now down to 11 days.
Completing the paperwork for a Russian visa required an intrusive amount of personal information plus resume, bosses, references, a passport photo and $475 Yikes! The cost of the visa and extra health, life and evacuation insurances while climbing a mountain (not covered) in a war region (not covered) amounted to over $1200; non-refundable of course. This little adventure was adding up pretty quickly. It took 5 days to get the official invitation document from Russia. I now had 4 days to get the rush visa, the Russian government couldn’t commit to anything less than 5 days, there would be no guarantees even if I gave them everything correctly up front. I decided to roll the dice and just wait it out. Definitely an ‘experiences over stuff’ decision. Oddly, I wasn’t stressed, just eager.
I distracted myself by pretending it would all work out. Added a vacation alert to the bottom of my work email signature, worked extra hours to complete my work, started gear shopping, packing and scoping out the best deals on flights. I wanted to try and save booking the flights until I had the visa in hand but the seats were selling out and the prices were rising so I purchased both flights. I was all in now. I either invested in a very big adventure or a very big learning experience.
Then Thursday, June 30th, my last afternoon at work, the phone finally rang. My Visa was ready! I bid a hasty farewell to my colleagues, hopped on the TTC and literally ran to the visa office in my pride attire. With the next day being Canada Day and a statutory holiday, I was literally 2 hours from not being about to go on this big adventure.
My passport was returned to me with a permanent page added for Russia. All those spy movies I’d watched made me laugh out loud as I examined the page I couldn’t read. Everything was in order. I sent a quick picture and email off to my work buddies “It’s Official – I feel like a Russian spy. Thanks for all your support, interest and good wishes”. I was actually going to Russia and climbing Mt Elbrus …. by myself!
The reality that my adventure buddy would not be coming with me this trip was sinking in full force. I would be travelling alone, taking on my biggest challenge so far with strangers and this 2 weeks would be the longest (by far) we had ever been apart in our 15 years together. There was no denying I’d become an adventurer. There was also no denying that this relationship allowed for us both to pursue our dreams. Trust, encouragement and love.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow!
…. Iet’s hope for the worn out part and not the grave part …. To Be Continued