I interrupt this blog for another adventure. Whoops, sorry, I got a bit distracted by some volcanoes in Guatemala. Experiences over Stuff! Finally finishing my last post on Russia, you may want to refresh on Part 1 and Part 2 first.
Team Spudnik, quite the group of adventurers. You’ve already heard about Jason climbing his 1st 8000 meter. Since writing Part 2, more climb successes. Taylor has successfully conquered Mt Vinson in Antarctica in his efforts to take on the 7 Summits and raise money for diabetes. Then there’s Patrick who very recently summitted Aconcagua in Argentina and recovered from it by running a 100 MILE race. Caroline heads off to the Himilayas soon. Erik, Mark, Jeff and David are set to climb Denali in Alaska together. Who dreams up this stuff?
I love following goal oriented, life inspiring people who train hard and play hard. Someone I follow motivated me all the way to Russia where I would be surrounded by people who would push me in ways I’ve never experienced. I hoped I would not be the weakest link but the potential for that was real.
We were all packed in the vans and heading to the base of Mt Elbrus. I had no idea what to expect but as we approach our destination it is clear we are driving to a ski resort rather than trekking to a base camp. So far this climb is very different from my other remote wilderness treks. We arrive to the base of gondolas with our glacier boots on and must quickly jam as many North Face bags and humans into a gondola as possible. I was a bit surprised we were being transported instead of climbing.
“This feels like we’re cheating”, I said as I looked at a man far below walking with a backpack. Carole quickly shut me down with “would you rather walk”. I hoped that moving quickly through altitude wouldn’t have a bad impact on my unusually tender place at altitude this trip. It can be a crap shoot. 2 gondola’s later we were at the top of the ski hill portion and loading our heavy packs to climb to high camp through a whiteout snowstorm. It wasn’t too far a trek but without the bright winter gear vertigo could be an issue for some. It was hard to see the ‘huts’ until we were right beside them given the weather but when the skies cleared, it truly looked like a small village of space capsules. High Camp on Elbrus was at 13,100 feet and the space capsules were called LEAPrus 3192 built in Italy and transported up the mountain by helicopter. Way better then the ‘Old Barrels’ I was expecting.
Our ascent today was over 6000 feet (with cheating). We were all used to climbing to 10,000 feet but we hadn’t slept at that altitude yet. We would go from sleeping at 7000 feet to sleeping at 13,100 feet. Fingers crossed tightly! Oh.My.God. though, it was so beautiful up here it would all be worth it. I had a glorious 360 degree view of nature and it had a meditative effect.
The whole team of 16 fit into one capsule. Given the storm, Vern made the call to do rope training inside rather than deal with the nasty elements outside. We tied dozens of knots all afternoon. Saved from the wind but bundled to keep warm with no heat.
After training, free time involved all of us trying to squeeze into the front of the capsule so we could listen to everyone’s climb stories. This became a daily event, we would all rush to organize our gear so we wouldn’t miss any tales of climbs.
For food and water, we all piled into the next capsule at very specific times. A small team of 2 lived at High Camp to support climbers living in both capsules; one as cook, another focused on maintenance. The food was hearty and you couldn’t beat the view!
You would think with all the snow around us that water wouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately the conditions didn’t allow the snow to thaw fast enough so the toilets became more adventurous then just taking your business outside. This all got fixed by Day 2 and the floor heating even started to work.
Waking up a High Camp Day 2 was a delight! Beautiful blue skies, 360 degree view of nothing but mountains. It was sure to be a great day for climbing.
Today we would trek to Pastukhov rocks at over 15,000 feet. My headache was back but I wasn’t too fussed given I knew we had a few days of climb high/sleep low. During our ascent we visited the Pruit 11 site, referred to as the highest hotel in the world at just under 14,000 feet. The story goes, a small fire turned tragic when someone tossed fuel instead of water on it. Behind the hotel site is a big rock covered with plaques. These are placed in memory of fallen climbers. We’re told 10 climbers a year die on Mount Elbrus.
We are to be very focused on pressure breathing as we climb today. It’s difficult and we hear “breath like a dog, die like a dog” too many times. Pressure breathing is basically letting the air out very slowly through pursed lips. It helps keep more oxygen in your body. Most of us can’t tolerate the buffs protecting our faces from the sun. We will pay later with bad burns.
As we got to our high point for the day, Vern partnered me with Nickolay and tells us to start our descent while the rest of the Spudniks take a break. No break for me. I consider maybe he’s concerned about my 1st descent in snow given I wear a brace. Regardless, climbers know you never question your guide on the mountain. Our descent is fast and we must wait outside since neither of us has a key for the capsule. It feels like forever waiting in the cold when you’ve built up quite a sweat. I wondered why I was sent ahead. Vern didn’t say a word and, unlike me, I didn’t ask.
It was a good four and a half hour round trip today with great weather. We all took a short nap and tried to connect with back home using sketchy mobile connections. Things were definitely heating up in the capsule and dinner was extra enjoyable tonight with a special surprise to celebrate Caroline’s birthday. Vern and Carole had somehow delicately managed to keep a cake flat and intact during our journey to High Camp.
I felt so blessed to be teamed with this group of strangers. Each day learning more about their families and life back home. They were all complete gentlemen. A group brought together by a passion. Police officer, business leaders, medical workers, Directors of non-profit and colleges, even someone working in an Embassy in India. The common theme I guess is people who like to travel, hike, be outdoors in all elements and challenge their bodies and mind with high goals. They were all champions.
Here’s the TMI part that I get asked about from my last post. How does a woman use a pee bottle in a sleeping bag? The short answer is THIS woman doesn’t. The longer answer is; first you need to master using a female urination tool (pStyle, GoGirl, SheWee) then you move to the advanced stage of not leaving your tent, or for some experts, your sleeping bag at night. I have not mastered the first skill. It would be a much noisier and messier affair doing this then quietly leaving the capsule at night. I was expecting a lot of noise with 16 sleeping in a confined space but it really wasn’t an issue until the snoring began after the summit.
Day 3 at High Camp my headache and dizziness was worse. Vern and Carole decide to double my dose of Diamox. I would have to significantly increase the 4 litres of water I was already drinking to compensate for the diuretic effect of the medication. Altitude was also affecting my appetite but I struggled through and started to entice more eating with treats. Energy was needed as much for climbing as for helping my body acclimate more quickly. Vern tells us it will be an easy workout today. Famous last words!
Today would have us climbing a steep ridge and careening down in various positions with our ice axes practicing our self arrest … over 20 times. To warm us up we practiced walking with our crampons, then he put us on a fixed line and we practiced changing directions, keeping pace, clipping off and on safely until Vern was convinced we all had it. Serious stuff and we all got yelled at a bit. On a mountain, you are only as strong as your weakest link. If someone falls, the line goes into self arrest. It needs to be an instinctive reaction. The repetitiveness of the training is a must. At the end of it we are all happy as we headed back to camp. I was relieved, my stomach was acting up, I felt dizzy and my head was booming.
After lunch Vern and Carole talked about summit day. There were 2 options in case the weather turned bad but all was looking good for tomorrow. Not only do Vern and Carole have a good handle on the weather, they also have experts to check in with at Alpine Ascents and, one of our teammates Neal, is a pilot and able to provide his expert opinion. We were in confident hands, the rest of the day was spent packing and napping. 2:30 am would be blast-off time to the top of Europe. If only it were that easy and fast.
Summit Day. I did not sleep, likely most of us didn’t. I felt ill but just going through the motions of prepping was a good distraction and there was a lot of hustle in the capsule. It was blowing and snowing all night so there was some doubt that we would launch but it appeared that it would clear and result in a perfect day to summit.
We were put into snowcats before 4am. The plan was to ride to the highest point we’d climbed (not slept) and start our ascent at 15,000 feet. It would be more than 3500 of ascent to reach the summit and the upper mountain was covered with a foot of fresh new snow so the going was slow. As soon as I got off the snowcat, I felt dizzy, I was mentally trying to push it aside and hoped to lul myself into a drone-like state climbing through sunrise.
There would be a break every hour for 10 minutes. A break is NOT a break. In a short 10 minutes here’s what has to happen before you get back to climbing:
- adjust your layers of clothing
- drink water
- find privacy for a pit stop if needed
- eat, nutrition each break was real important
- check your crampons
- check in with the leads
- apply sunscreen
- take pictures
- catch up with teammates since chatting and climbing don’t pair well
- Rest?! NOT!
It wasn’t a break and quite frankly, I was relieved to continue trudging … until 5 minutes into it again. When you’re climbing you dream about taking a break. When you’re taking a break you’re wanting to just get closer to the top. For each hour of climbing I was trying to distract my mind with how I would spend my next 10 minute break and trying to concentrate on breathing properly but my pounding head and dizziness wasn’t allowing me to get outside myself. It was becoming a problem.
Vern had me right behind him so we would set the pace for the rest of the team. They had added 2 local guides for summit day which meant there were 18 of us now soldiering up the mountain. I had to step into Vern’s very step on time with his footsteps and the whole line had to follow suit. Being so close to Vern he could hear every single breath, even with the wind howling and his random singing, he knew how the climbers closest to him were doing with their breathing. He cut our trail through fresh snow like the pro he is and he kept us all on his radar. Every few minutes there was a comment about our breathing, “breath like a dog, die like a dog”. I found it hard to breath anyway and I was getting dizzier with each hour. The interruptions weren’t letting me get into drone state and I was starting to feel very anxious. I was just trying to make it from break to break. An hour felt like an eternity and I was starting to get scared; not normally a word in my vocabulary.
We climbed through the dark, then somehow the sun rose without me noticing and it was now a beautiful day. Every single step was a mental and physical challenge trying to step into Vern’s exact footprint. It got harder and harder with each hour and then there was a point when Vern was checking on the back during a switchback and I was able to see behind me. Our team was a long snake with 3 coils of climbers winding down a steep slope. That’s when things started to fall apart for me. We weren’t on a rope at this point, all it would take was me at the front losing my balance (only I knew how tentatively I was taking each step). I could take out a whole whack of teammates with one misstep. The thought of potentially hurting others was absolutely more scary then me hurting myself. It really got to me. I wanted to be at the back, I couldn’t stand the pressure of being at the front and affecting everyone else’s climb. Finally, another break!
Nickolay came from behind and told Vern he would go ahead and break trail. Here I was struggling like I never have in my life after hours of climbing and this 77 year old badass goes ahead to break through a foot of snow at 17,000 feet. He wasn’t breathing heavy when he spoke, he wasn’t even moving slower than at lower altitude. He just kicked ass and snow.
I’m sure there’s a whole good cop, bad cop thing going on but Vern was being real tough on me at this point. Saying you’re dizzy and scared to someone of his caliber just sounds like whining I’m sure. Their goal is to safely get their whole team to the summit. Why would someone pay so much money, come all this way and not see it through? I told Carole how dizzy I felt, that I didn’t feel safe and she talked me off a ledge to keep me going. She said if I didn’t feel safe and felt like I was going to fall that I should just sit down, “Vern will have to stop, the team will have to stop”. Even though I wanted to pack it in at this point, somehow her words got me back in behind Vern and trudging for almost another hour.
Every second was painful as much mentally as physically. I could not get the thought of falling out of my brain, my breathing was laboured, I was dizzy, my stomach was churning, head pounding but, more than anything I was scared. It was emotional and I was rationalizing one step at a time, just get another one in. Then I started to want to sit down every single step and tried counting steps to keep me going. Then I couldn’t take it anymore and I sat down on the mountain. Death to climbers on summit day! Immediately Vern spit out some harsh words while Carole rushed up from the back to rescue me. I was done. I wasn’t taking another step up that mountain no matter how many times they asked if I was sure. I would not have sat down on that mountain if I hadn’t already had that discussion in my brain, I don’t give up, I had reached my limit. Not my pride or anyone else’s pride was going to have me push any further beyond my limit. I didn’t want to spend another second worried about my life or my team’s lives. This was my summit.
Of course there were more words to try and motivate me to continue. If I could just make it to the top of this ridge there would be a really long and flat traverse. It would be flat, I wouldn’t need to be scared anymore. How perfect is the weather? There’s an option to take a snowcat down most of the way if I could just get to the summit. How I might regret it later, not be proud of myself. These words. These words were a turning point for me. I appreciate none of us really knew each other. We didn’t really know how tough each of us is, how hard we might push ourselves, how hard we could push ourselves. There could be judgements, assumptions. I had an immediate personal reaction to the comment about not being proud of myself. Without even having the brain power to really think properly, I told Vern through my tears that I was already proud of myself. Carole looked at me and didn’t say a word.
This was the biggest challenge I’d taken so far and I wasn’t going to let 900 feet take anything away from what I’d accomplished. And with that I mustered the energy to take the Canada flag out of my knapsack and asked for a picture right on that spot. My Elbrus summit, at 17,539 feet.
I bid the Spudnik’s summit success and began my descent with one of the local guides. I’d parked my butt on quite a steep slope so the guide roped us together in case I fell. Mind you falling would have gotten me down a whole lot quicker. It was going to take several hours to get back to camp. Quoting Ed Veisturs, “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory”.
While we trudged lower, I replayed the last 6+ hours in my head. Could I have gone further? Will I regret this? Did I try hard enough? Was I really at my limit? Every question resulted in the same answer. NO. It was all about what I had accomplished. Then I became happy, really happy. The pictures show it.
We took lots of breaks on the way down. Not because of me, the guide was a huge smoker. Despite his almost 100 ascents up Elbrus, he smoked over a pack a day. I was in no rush to get down except for the hope of a dry, warm sleeping bag. I had great photo opportunities and took advantage of the time to check out the gorgeous view at an altitude I wouldn’t see again in Russia. It was all good.
On every summit I tease there should be a helicopter waiting at the top. Coming down isn’t a lot of fun for me but I’ve never actually had an opportunity to make the decision of getting a ride down. When we got back to about 15,000 feet there was a decision to make. Snowcats could take me back to camp (for a price). I had absolutely no interest. If anything, I now know that climbing down is as important as climbing up to me, it’s all part of the journey. I wouldn’t hop in the helicopter and I didn’t hop in the snowcat.
I cheered when we could finally see camp, or as I prefer to call it, the village of space capsules. Round trip was 8.5 hours. I was soaked, pooped, raw and relieved. I bathed with a whole package of wet wipes, changed into dry clothes and bundled myself quickly into my sleeping bag. I had emotional calls with Jeff and my Mom from Mount Elbrus then fell asleep as soon as my head hit my makeshift pillow of down filled coats. I expected to be awakened by my team’s return but, when I finally woke several hours later, there was still no sign of them. I entertained myself with an internet connection, writing in my diary, organizing my gear and now it was turning to dusk. I was getting worried.
The longer it took my teammates to get back, the more any doubt about reaching my limit was evacuated. I could not believe another 900 feet up and down a mountain could take 6 hours to complete but that’s the reality of climbing at high altitude. The higher, the harder.
Finally, 14 hours after take off, the Spudniks started returning to High Camp. Most seemed to opt for the snowcat after a hard climb. They all summitted! The Spudnik badasses climbed more than 3500 feet to the top of Europe. I was absolutely proud of all of them. Some were definitely worse for wear. A few didn’t even have the energy to take off their coats and hats, they just sat on the edge of their bunk for a very long time with their heads down. No energy to celebrate or talk, in fact, lying down wasn’t an option since it would required mustering the energy to sit back up. I just stayed bundled in my sleeping bag and watched the aftermath. A while later one of my very fit bunk neighbours looked at me and said, “there is absolutely no shame in what you did today, that mountain kicked ass”. His words made me emotional, I didn’t want to show it, I mouthed a thank you and tried to smile.
I’ve had unfinished business before from an injury. I took the challenge seriously and finished that unfinished business. Mount Elbrus will never fit into this category. If anything Elbrus showed me what I’m made of and helped me truly figure out my mountaineering goals.
There is nothing as raw and emotional as being pushed to your physical and mental limit at the same time. I’ve experienced how life altering that state can be on other mountain challenges. It’s you against nature, you against you.
The side effects of Diamox and altitude illness stayed with me for another week. Totally out of character since I usually have an iron stomach, but I wasn’t able to eat solid food until my 2nd day back in Canada. Day 7 my beloved crunchy peanut butter kicked in. I lost 6 pounds in Russia. They could make some money off this altitude thing if it weren’t so much hard work!
I pushed myself to my limit on the highest mountain in Europe. Hit my personal summit on Mount Elbrus at 17,539 feet. Not only was 900 feet not going to stand in my way of being very proud of myself, it was still 2000 feet higher then the top of Mont Blanc which is the second highest summit in Europe. What’s there not to be proud of?
There’s something about limits though, they are a moment in time. They are a moving target. Each step forward, every change you make, every workout you do, every adventure you take on has the potential to evaporate a limit. Never let them define you! Never!
When’s the last time you pushed yourself to your limit?
Thanks Neal for creating this video of our Elbrus adventure.