The true excitement of a trip kicks in for me when the bags are finally in the car, the engine starts and I’m heading to the airport. Whatever I’ve forgotten to pack at this point, it just doesn’t matter, except this time I will get told off by a world record holding mountaineer. Typically arriving at the airport and making it to the bar for that celebratory vacation drink goes smoothly, not this time. Flight delays began as soon as I entered the airport in Toronto and caused a chain reaction for the next 31 hours through New York and Helsinki. I finally landed in Russia 8 hours behind schedule, but, I was standing on Russian soil. Nothing else really mattered.
I wasn’t the only late comer to this party so I got to meet Taylor at the airport. A young male nurse with an awesome smile living with diabetes who loves saving really ill babies and already had several major summits under his belt. How could anyone not be inspired by him? Look out for his cat though! The stories had already begun and I was already a bit in awe. I also met Carole, one of our prolific climbing leads, responsible for smooth transitions and already making them happen.
Arriving at our home for the next few days in central Saint Petersburg, The Petro Palace , I also met another teammate Richard. Our lone Aussie, who had a penchant for taking on endurance treks. He was just returning from filing a police report after being pick pocketed just hours into his Russian adventure. We all head off to join the rest of our Alpine Ascents expedition team at a lovely restaurant up the street. They all seemed to be familiar friends already, I was definitely late to this party, not only had many climbed together previously, they had also been emailing over the last few months. The benefits of pre-planning your adventures! All of their resumes were quite impressive! I was quite happy there was another woman, Caroline, who would be my lovely roommate for the next 2 weeks.
July 4th we woke to a rainy day but that would not dampen our spirits as we toured the city and took in the sights of old Saint Petersburg. Our leader, Vern, gave us homework to come up with a creative team name as we filled our brains with Russian history. We toured the many canals inspired by Czar Peter the Great’s love of Venice, visited the fort, jail and cathedral of The Peter and Paul Fortress, witnessed a noonday gun which was important for the navigators of this port city and got a picture in front of The Death Gate where condemned political prisoners passed through on the way to execution. We visited several cathedrals with St Isaac’s being the 4th largest in the world. My personal favourite was The Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood which is basically a lovely memorial to Alexander the Great who was assassinated on the spot. Inside and out covered in billions of mosaic tiles.
No visit to Saint Petersburg would be complete without a tour of the Hermitage. This palace turned into a museum by Catherine the Great in 1764 is one of the largest, oldest and most beautiful museums in the World with over 3,000,000 artifacts. It blew us away, it even made some jump for joy. While waiting in line, the jump training began. At this point not many teammates were willing participants, they might even think I’m a rather odd character, but you know how much I love a good challenge. I know they were smiling inside just a little bit. Goal – To get 13 mountaineers jumping at the same time! After hours of history and artifacts we headed to the airport for a flight to the town of Mineral Vody in the south of Russia.
After a few days of touring, negotiating and much talk about the many Greats and Horribles (really Horrible!) in Russian history, our expedition team arrived on the name of ‘Peter and the Sputniks’. You can guess who had a preference for including Catherine The Great in our name. With 13 climbers and only 2 of us women, there was definitely a leaning toward some of the great male rulers of Russia. There was no debate about our expedition team Czars though, they all had quite the impressive resumes!
Vern Tejas holds the record for not only being the 1st to climb all 7 Summits 10 times! Yes, 10 times! He’s also climbed the 7 Summits in a record 134 days at the age of 57 and climbed them all twice in just one year. He’s climbed Denali in Alaska over 60 times, holds the speed record, also did the 1st solo winter ascent and in 2012 was awarded ‘Alaskan of the Year’. Wow, nothing like climbing with the best!
Carole Tejas who has more than 25 years of climbing experience, been a professional guide for over 7 and helped many novice mountaineers build their passion for the sport. When she and Vern aren’t guiding teams up mountains, they are climbing for fun around the world. You know that saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.”
Then there’s the 77 year young Russian climbing legend, Nikolay Cherniy who led Russia’s very successful Everest Expedition in 2004. He’s absolute proof age is just a number, he works very hard to keep his youth but let me tell you he could royally kick the whole teams butts … as you will find out.
Our team consisted of 13 climbers; 11 Americans, 1 Canadian 🙂 and 1 Australian. 5 of the teammates were over 50. With Alpine Ascents being the chosen company for many serious climbers, it’s easy to see how friendships can blossom along with plans for more climbs. Friendships and challenges had already been born.
We landed in Mineral Vody and continued south by van through farmland right down to the border of Asia past fields of daisies with the mountains drawing closer with each mile. The next few days would be our time to acclimate to the altitude, we would do daily treks into the mountains, eat well, sleep well and enjoy the friendliness of the locals while wandering through villages and markets at the base of the mountains at a sleeping elevation of 7000 feet.
Our team was the sole occupant of the Alamat Hotel in the small village of Terskol in the Baksan Valley completely surrounded by the Caucasian mountain range. Everywhere we looked were mountains. Everywhere we walked we were on a mountain, go figure. The hotel was like a well kept rustic chalet on the side of mountain. We ate homemade Russian stews, pancakes and donuts. Russians really enjoy their sweets and they appeared early in the morning by adding cookies, chocolates and sweet condensed milk to everything at breakfast. Condensed milk can get addictive! We were mountaineers though, we needed the extra calories. The best way to deal with altitude is time, food, water, slow climbing treks and we were doing it all in abundance.
Gear check! We all brought our glacier gear to the main floor for inspection by Vern and Carole. We’d all been provided exhaustive lists from Alpine Ascents, seems that the list might have been updated since some of the early registrations which meant that I wasn’t the only person missing items. Buying last minute mountain gear in sea level Toronto during the summer was definitely a challenge. It was clear who the more experienced glacier climbers of the group were, definitely not me with just glacier Mt Baker under my belt. One of the veteran mountaineers had even cut all the labels off his clothing and gear on another trek just to save some weight in his bag quoting something he did during a tough climb in bad weather, “I’m not going to let a few ounces prevent me from summiting”. This is the same climber, Jason Lawless, who was treating Elbrus as a training climb for his 1st 8000 meter climb Cho-Oyu a few months later and planning Everest for 2018. He helped me cut down my personal care items to the size of a small ziploc, a fraction of the original. Duct tape is now my simple blister solution. Too much of some stuff, not enough of the right stuff. I screwed up on 3 items and heard about it from Vern who would look at Nikolay and shake his head; my hardcore North Face mitts would impede my ability to manage a rope and ice axe, I couldn’t find the insulated pants on the list and thought layering my gortex zip-offs would be enough, I also didn’t bring a pee bottle on purpose since I wasn’t going to be peeing in my sleeping bag at night any year soon. That is a talent I wasn’t going to practice on Elbrus. Vern insisted these were ALL mandatory so I had to rent gloves and Vern actually lent me his zip pants and pee bottle. Seriously, I would be wearing a legends pants while climbing Elbrus. I might not want to give them back.
We were in the foothills of the Caucasus mountain range and our 1st major hike would take us to 10,000 feet on an alpine mountain slope that resembled the sound of music with flowers in full bloom. We watched the small village of Segat get smaller then almost disappear as we climbed the steep ridge. It was hot, regardless we had to be completely covered to avoid burns. I was blaming myself for the heat, “It’s followed me on every challenge this year, even to Russia”. Our guides wore neck and head buffs, long sleeves, pants and gloves and layered the sunscreen and lip balm on at every opportunity. We were learning – the hard way. As the lack of oxygen was starting to affect us it was hard, impossible for many of us, to cover our nose and mouth. We would pay later but right now I was absolutely in awe of my surroundings and how good I felt. The whole team climbed to the border sign for the country of Georgia at 10,000 feet no problem, we were above the clouds already and even seeing patches of snow. Hike high, sleep low.
The Spukniks taking a break high above Segat. Video of our amazing view.
We had a new teammate, we named him Benji. He bounced his way all the way up the mountain stopping once in a while to give us a look ‘you guys coming?’. Benji would follow us through 2 days of climbing on 2 different mountains. He introduced us to our 1st view of the Mount Elbrus summit. What a beautiful sight!
The altitude headache started, I was doing my best to guzzle water but it lingered and my stomach was feeling off. Going from sea level to 10,000 feet in 24 hours will do that. I knew in the morning I’d feel better.
Day 2 of climbing 3000 feet up a mountain was another stunning day. I ate a hardy breakfast, popped some Tylenol and decided to start taking Diamox after getting approval from our guides. I would have to drink even more water now to counter the affects of the altitude medication. We climbed to an observatory tower today at 10,000 feet looking back at the mountain we tackled the previous day. High above the valley floor, the crest of the Caucasus mountains provided us with an awesome backdrop.
On the way down we swung by Maiden’s Hair waterfall and got to experience Vern’s musical talents. He summits Everest with a small guitar and he clearly brings his harmonica everywhere. Now we definitely feel like we’re in the foothills. Vern on his harmonica.
We had an awesome climb day! We were all strong, feeling more acclimated and ready for the next stage. We practiced putting on our crampons, packed, re-packed, double checked and organized our bag to go and our bag to stay. Ate a hardy meal and did what we thought might be our last social media’ing. We were very ready for the final stage of our climb.
Tomorrow morning we would exchange our hiking boots for glacier boots and head to high camp on Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe and one of the 7 Summits.