I had just spent 4 days traveling from Switzerland thru France and up high into the Italian Alps, and back. This was a warm up hike in preparation for Mt. Elbrus. My plane landed at 4:12pm in St. Petersburg, Russia and I was being stopped by the Russian immigration officer. After examining my passport for 10 minutes, she signaled for another officer to take me away. The airport seemed in worse shape than the Moroccan airport I fly into the city of Tangiers, a city that is literally 100 times smaller than St. Petersburg. No one wanted to ask me any questions, and no one was answering any of my questions! That pisses me off. After about 25 minutes of silence I was free to go. I picked up my bags, a large North Face duffle and an Arctyrex Bora 95. I immediately met Vern Tejas, our American guide, when I exited the airport. Shortly after Jason and Georgina followed. We rode a bus into town and checked into our hotel. That night the entire team arrived and we had a group meeting. We discussed our itinerary over the next two weeks. We would plan to spend two days in St. Petersburg, two days in Moscow, and the rest flying down to the Caucuses and climbing Mt. Elburs.
7/14-7/15 – St. Petersburg, Russian Federation – 36 feet
St. Petersburg the city is much better than its airport. The buildings are endess and the city is a labyrinth of rivers crisscrossing each other. We stayed in the Azimut Hotel (I would not recommend this place if your looking for a nice hotel) and my roommate was Joe from Tacoma, WA. The next day we took a tour of the city and had a chance to view the Hermitage. I felt like I was in a history class. By this time I was itching to go south and get up some mountains.
7/16/08 – Mineral Vody, Russian Federation – 1,020 feet
The 13 of us boarded a Russian flight from St. Petersburg to Mineral Vody. The flight sat on the tarmac for 30 or so minutes and everyone was instantly sweating as the AC doesn't even work! The plan appeared to have been built in the 1960's. After a few hours we landed and took a 4.5 hr. bumpy bus ride to the Baksan Valley. We met our Russian guide Nicolai, checked into the hotel and slept.
7/17/08 – Azau, Russian Federation – 7,500 feet
After breakfast we all hiked up a mountain closest to the boarder of Russia and Georgia. Here we had to carry our passports and there were tensions between Russia and Georgia and Russian military was patrolling the area. They could ask you for your passport on demand. The plan was to acclimatize. We took a chair life up to 8,700 feet and continued to hike up to about 10,985 feet. It was a sunny and beautiful day in the mountains. That night Vern played his harmonica for us. He told me he learned how to play in the Alaskan back country, which is where he is from.
7/18/08 – Azau, Russian Federation – 7,500 feet
The plan again was to continue to acclimatize. This process is extremely important in high altitude mountaineering. The human body needs to adjust when going up so high. If you climb high too fast you can suffer from AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness). Pulmonary and Cerebral Edema can be life threatening. So we took our time going up and down several days before getting on the big glaciers. Today was about a 3,000 foot hike up to about 10,000 feet in complete rain. It was a bit chilly, but when I got moving I warmed up quickly.
7/19/08 – Barrel #7 (Base Camp) – 12,000 feet
I wasn't comfortable riding up gondolas and chairlifts to the base camp of the Barrels (ill get to this later), but hey, that's what the itinerary called for and I was sticking to it. We took up two gondolas and a chair lift to take us right to the Barrels. How convenient? I was staying in Barrel #7 which was next door to the Norwegian team. I noticed that the Norwegians like to roast in the glacial sun. They don't get enough of it in Norway. Once settled in we pulled out all of our sharps and practiced our mountaineering techniques and self arrest moves. The weather was perfect.
7/20/08 – Barrel #7 (Base Camp) – 12,000 feet
After breakfast we headed higher towards the Postakov Rocks (4,700 M). This is a rock formation created by lava flow the last time this massive volcano erupted. Several people set up tents here and this would be considered a Camp 2 area for those trying to climb without using the huts or the barrels. A few days ago however they had white out conditions up here and 16 tents blew off the mountain. Most of the team headed back after the reached the bottom of the rocks, but me and a few decided to continue to the top of the rocks up about another 100 meters. The day was mostly sunny, with clouds on the descent. I ran down to the barrels in 50 minutes.
7/21/08 – High Huts (Camp 1) – 13,700 feet
We hiked up 1700 feet from the barrels to the high huts and immediately began to start packing our summit packs and resting. We would plan to summit tomorrow. The teams plan was to take a snow cat from the Huts to the bottom of Postakov Rocks (where most left off yesterday). I decided that I would rather hike up to Postakov vs. the snow cat. Dr. Jeff Prchal, a Czech native living in French Canada decided to join me and skip out on the snow cat.
Me and Jeff work up at 1:15am, had breakfast with Nicolai, and had our crampons strapped on and ready to go by 2:30am. We met the rest of the group at lower Postakov at 4:30am. Me, Jeff, and Nicolai had been waiting about 15 minutes. My hands almost froze off at this point. I wanted to keep moving, but Nicolai insisted we wait and stay. The Russian tolerance for the cold is amazing. The temperature was better than expected at about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The entire team was together after the snow cats arrived and we pushed upward at a slower pace than what me and Jeff were going a few hours earlier. This was good because I could feel a headache coming on. My plan was to not take any medication (diamox) at all, and climb this mountain el natural. I had done this before on Kilimanjaro the year prior and was confident I could do it again on Elbrus. I was pressure breathing like crazy, with three short power breaths in one long push. This helped tremendously. When the sun came up with was scorching. The weather was the best Vern could remember that high up. We all made it to the summit and took some photos and congratulated each other. We then hiked back down and made back to the High Huts safely. It took me 12:20 round trip to summit with a net gain of 5,080 feet.
7/23/08 – High Huts (Camp 1) – 13,700 feet
After getting some rest, and some calories, we all hiked down to the barrels and took the first chair lift down, and then two gondolas down back to Azau and crawled back into our hotel rooms. After a few hours of rest several of us went out to eat. After lunch I felt like going for a run! I ran down the road away from Azau and back to the hotel for a total of 11 miles. I lost about 1,200 feet of elevation while running down and gained it all back on my return. During my run I had thoughts of the climb being too easy. The lifts made it so much easier. For this reason I had planned to get up early the next morning and hike up to the Barrels from the hotel room. Basically hike up what the two gondolas and chair lift would take you, about 4,500 feet of elevation gain. I ate dinner, packed what I needed for the next day, and slept early while the entire team was out celebrating the success of the summit.
7/24/08 – Azau, Russian Federation – 7,500 feet
I woke up at 4:30am. I had everything read to go, so I was on the trail within 10 minutes. Today was a planned buffer day for bad weather. Because we had amazing weather and summated a day early, I had the opportunity to hike up this section. When am I coming back to Azau, or Russia for that matter? I was determined to take the opportunity and hike up while I had the chance. It took me 3 hours to reach the barrels. This section of trail was definitely less than 3 miles. This gives you an idea of how steep this section is. It's made up of scree and you can slide around easily. The most difficult part was the last 1/3 mile up to the Barrels when I hit the glacier. I had carried an ice axe with me, but didn't feel the need to carry my crampons, as I wanted to run down, and move lighter. I took me a long time getting up on the glacier and I was slipping all over the place (not recommended). We I finally reached the top of the Barrels I was pleasantly surprised by anther European sun lover! They were not expecting someone running up the backside of the mountain this early in the morning. I snapped a photo and began my descent. I ran down in about an hour. My total time up and down was 4:03:53.
7/25/08 – Azau, Russian Federation – 7,500 feet
After waking up casually and having breakfast we took the same bumpy ride back to Mineral Vody. We pit stopped along the way for lunch, and then took a flight to Moscow.
7/26/08-7/29/08 – Moscow, Russian Federation – 830 feet
Several days after returning back home to the states war broke out between Russia and Georgia.