Alan Arnette is an
Alzheimer's advocate for individuals, their families and anyone impacted
by this disease through his professional
speaking, climbing and website.His objectives for the Memories are Everything® climbs
Educate the public, especially youth, on the early warning
signs and how to prepare
Increase awareness that Alzheimer's Disease has no cure
CURE, always Fatal
• No easy, inexpensive method of early detection
• 3rd leading cause of death in the US
• New case every 68 seconds, 4 seconds worldwide
• Impacts more than 5+m in US, 25m+ worldwide
• Devastating financial burden on families
• Depression higher for caregivers
• Issues are increasing rapidly as population ages
Climbing the highest peak in Europe was more of a cultural experience than a mountaineering accomplishment. That said, the climbing on summit day was challenging and rewarding and I found Russia a great place to visit.
Click on any picture to enlarge.
Violence in the Elbrus region had made my August 2011 climb on the south side with International Mountain Guides (IMG) tentative at best for many months. US, European and local Russian guide services cancelled one trip after another when local authorities officially closed both sides of the mountain for climbers.
The south side is the more popular option given that it is easier,
shorter and has more facilities. The north, on the other hand, requires a long drive
on horrible roads, a longer summit day and more load carrying. But Elbrus, being
one of the 7 Summits, has a strong appeal so some teams continued to bypass checkpoints
and successfully summited from the rural north side, albeit taking a few risks and
I got the word from Phil Ershler, co-owner of IMG, while on Denali
in mid July that he was forced to cancel our south side trip but he would do everything
he could to help me find a quality guide service if I wanted to climb from the north.
You see, Phil understood my 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer's and my strong desire
to keep my 2011 schedule.
And with Phil's above and beyond professionalism and friendship, I signed with AlpsIndustria (Alps) out of Moscow at the last possible minute to climb Mt. Elbrus' north slopes. I Skyped with Alp's liaison Victoria the week before I left to arrange a Russian Visa. I rebooked my flights with CTT Destinations (Pirjo) and got my head wrapped around a more difficult climb than I had been anticipating. It was only 15 days after I had returned from Denali that I arrived in Russia. Without Phil, Pirjo and Victoria's help, this climb would never have happened
Getting to Elbrus
I flew directly from Denver to Frankfurt and on to Moscow. After a
night at the overpriced airport hotel, I flew on to Mineralniy Vody where I was greeted
by Victoria at the airport. She introduced me to one of their senior guides Viktor
who grabbed my 57lb (26kg) duffel and threw it in the back of the aging Land Rover.
We drove the modern two lane roads, navigating traffic jams, to the picturesque spa
town of Pyatigorsk. Vicki helped me get checked into the hotel and I took a nap before
my American roommate, James, arrived.
Our team consisted of 7 Russians, all from Moscow, plus James and I. We
had a briefing with Vicki who spoke good English but we struggled with some of the
nuances. For example if we were to summit the east or the true summit; the western
one. She said it depended on weather, the team and the guide. Kind of important for
someone wanting to make all the true 7 Summits!
We left the hotel the next morning in a caravan of one Land Rover, one Land Cruiser and one Russian version of a Volkswagen van, complete with custom seats facing one another. All that was missing was shag carpet on the ceiling. I felt like I was back in the '60s.
The drive to Base Camp took us through a maze of roads leaving the asphalt for well maintained dirt ones and onto barely functional dirt paths. The Russian van performed flawlessly. It must have some kind of low-end torque with the engine mounted over the front wheels that allowed it to climb very steep, muddy hillsides. Our driver Yuri, who also rented gear, drove with total confidence and abandon. Did I mention there were no seatbelts?
It is an understatement to describe some the roads as "roads" because they were simple wheel tracks in grass or dirt. If it had been raining for days, the roads would be impassable. We only saw 4-Wheel drive vehicles. Many times the road would make hairpin turns or go up or down at steep angles banging us around the van. All of this was well above tree line but the countryside was covered in green grass, the towns felt like relics of the past and the cows looked like cows.
Arriving at Elbrus north base camp was a mixed feeling. There were multiple companies with their tents spaced quite close together but within plastic fences. You see, it was in the middle of a huge cow and sheep pasture so the fences not only marked the companies' spot, it kept the livestock out as well. Overall it was a pleasant scene with the green grass and steep hillsides surrounding the pastures. You could easily see both snow covered peaks of Elbrus from base camp.
We slept in 2 person tents and ate in a large Weatherport style one complete with a long table and folding chairs. We had a dedicated cook who was very friendly and made some nice meals. They had a generator to recharge electronics and for lights at night.
The route to the High Camp was very similar to climbing a California or Colorado 14,000' mountain. The clearly worn path rose steadily through sharp river gullies onto large fields and then back up rocky moraines until it reached the High Camp at 12,000'. I estimate it was only a few miles and a gain of 4,000'. It was hot in the mid day sun.
Elbrus is a volcano so the entire area is covered with volcanic rock and interesting lave flow formations. The High Camp is located right next to the glacier, or snow fields, edge also on volcanic rock. There is not a lot of space so once again the tents are spaced very close to one another and if the neighbors are noisy, it an be a long night without ear plugs. Elbrus is directly in front of the camp but you cannot see the true tops of either east or west peaks from High Camp.
The schedule had us arriving at base camp, take a hike to the High Camp where we left our summit gear (boots, layers, harnesses, crampons, ice axe, etc.) and return to Base camp. We never had to carry any group gear. Then we moved to High Camp and took an acclimatization climb to 14,000' to an area called Lenz's rock, a series of large boulders and rocks jutting out of the snow. The next day was a rest day then the summit push.
Our team of 9 was slowly coming apart with one person leaving early and two others questioning their ability to attempt the east summit. But I was driven to make the west summit to claim the top of Europe for my Alzheimer's cause.
I quietly explained to Daniel in simple broken English that I was climbing the 7 Summits and already had three completed (Vinson, Aconcagua, Everest) and needed to get to the west summit. He immediately understood and smiled and simply said "west" so we had a plan. James was also interested in the west summit so we had a team as well.
We rose around midnight on August 11 and ate a simple breakfast of rice and raisin, the same breakfast every day at High Camp. Our team of three left and a separate team of five left a few minutes later. The wind was blustery but the temps were in the mid teens so overall it was not too bad. I never needed a heavy down jacket as my Patagonia belay jacket along with a couple of mid layers were perfect.
The route takes a direct line to Lenz's rock up the glacier. It was frozen hard so we made good time. But the lower glacier had open crevasses so we roped up in that section. I had punched though one a few days earlier. We took a quick break at the rocks for Daniel to have a smoke, as had become a standard procedure. We took another direct line along the rocks to the saddle between the east and west summits before veering to our right, west, towards the west summit. About midway through this section we roped back up as we crossed another area of open crevasses.
Nearing the west summit, the area took on a different feeling. In the saddle, you could finally feel the true height of Elbrus. Daniel pointed out a few yellow tents high on the north side of the west summit where 9 climbers had died in a storm. A reminder that this was a serious mountain if the weather took a turn for the worse. But we were lucky with clear skies, a bit of a breeze and acceptable temps so we made the push up the final 1,000' to the summit plateau of the west summit.
From here it was a short 15 minute walk across a basically flat snow field to a final climb of about 50' onto the small true summit of Europe. A sign in Russian marked the spot along with a large rock that resembled a head (?).
The view was excellent with Daniel pointing out the “Russian Alps” and all the famous peaks in the surrounding Caucasus Range. The Black Sea was to our west and the Caspian Sea to the east. Georgia was to the south and of course, Russia to the north. While a bit hazy, I felt the touch of all the cultures on top of this peak. And also, I felt grateful to once again send the message of hope, need and urgency for Alzheimer’s.
We spent about 15 minutes on top and took about 4 hours to return to High Camp and Base Camp the next day.
The country side was similar to other parts of the world with grass covered rolling hills leading up to the rocks of the high altitude mountain environments. Elbrus itself was unique with it's snow covered twin peaks.
I found it interesting that so many professionals from Moscow were climbing seemingly with no intention to summit but just to enjoy the outdoors, nice. My teammates were incredibly friendly and helpful with my 3 words of Russian: yes, no and thank you!
Thank you Russia and Mt. Elbrus for your generous hospitality!
The Alzheimer's Immunotherapy Program of Janssen Alzheimer
Immunotherapy and Pfizer Inc. funded my climbs for the 7 Summits
campaign and ongoing efforts between November 2010 and November
2012. All money I raised then and now from donations goes directly
to the organizations I have selected. During the campaign, content
posted here was my own but subject to certain limitations in
conjunction with the support of the AIP.
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