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Climbing the World to End Alzheimer's
Aug 052011

My Kavminvodyavia Airlines Tupolev Tu-154

The 747 hit the Frankfurt runway with the finesse of a fighter jet landing on an aircraft carrier in a hurricane. Wow, I thought, if this is Lufthansa I wonder what my intra-Russian flights will be like? And with that I was part way to Mt. Elbrus and my hotel in the Southern Russia town of Kislovodsk.

For some of these 7 Summits, it feels like just getting there is an adventure. For Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, I flew a Russian cargo plane crammed between the cargo and a stand-in for Sean Connery at the controls. For Carstensz Pyramid in Irian Jaya, I might have to trek for a week in the jungle bribing cannibals and pealing off leaches.

I left my overpriced airport hotel in Moscow this morning a bit apprehensive about finding my flight for an airline I couldn’t remember the name of much less pronounce. I put my single 56 pound duffel through the x-ray machine and entered the large Moscow airport terminal. I searched the monitors for my flight number by departure time and found the check in gate. I was 3 hours early.

Through a series of smiles and blank expressions, I checked in but needed help from a friendly lady in line behind me to understand that I needed to pay for excess baggage – 6 kilos about US$10- at a different location and they were closed until 7:30. So I had breakfast of a slice of pizza and a Pepsi in the terminal, people watching to pass the time.

I was amazed how many men dressed like John Travolta and how many women looked like Olivia Newton John. And, no I did not watch Saturday Night Fever on the flight over. Just saying. 🙂

I boarded the bus to take me to my flight enjoying the sea of old airplanes parked in the grass beside the modern runway at the Moscow main airport. We arrived at my plane parked on a far away concrete strip. I thought about my duffle. The plane was a Soviet era Tupolev Tu-154 jet. Similar to a Boeing 727 with 3 engines mounted on the back of the airplane, it looks like it is going light speed on the ground with it’s swept back wings.

I boarded the plane along with John and Olivia and went back to glacial speed with a Wright Brother’s era interior. The seats were firm and narrow. Did I mention firm? And the legroom was, well did I mention firm? Anyway, the crew was friendly – didn’t understand a word they said and the flight was short, about 2 hours.

I arrived at Mineral Vody and found my duffel on a wayward carousel. Life is good! I was met by AlpsIndustria’s owner Vicki and one of the guides, Viktor. Both right out of central casting. Viktor, with his long flowing blond hair and over-sized forearms,  grabbed one end of my duffel and grunted for me to grab the other. I did so promptly as we threw it in the back of the scared Land Rover. He drove us to the hotel ignoring the heavy traffic, signals, lane markers and pretty much everything else.

I am now in the small town of Kislovodsk nestled at the foothills of the North Caucasian mountains. With the mineral rich area, it is also a city of spas attracting many visitors each year. Like much of Russia, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it attracted musicians, artists, and members of the Russian aristocracy.

Coming off my Denali climb, I had no need and thus forget this time to bring a converter for my American style electrical plug. I had tried in vain to find and one back in Moscow and was met with blank looks at my hotel in Kislovodsk. They suggested I go shopping a few blocks from the hotel and good luck.

After I stashed my beloved duffel in my room, I went for a walk. The city is nice. It is neat and orderly. The hotel is near a large park complete with grass and flowers. There are a lot of trees lining the streets and neighborhoods. I wandered aimlessly looking for a Russian version of Radio Shack or a store window with computers in it. In my semi jet lagged state, I stumbled into a large department store attracted by the well dressed mannequins in the window. Not sure why I thought I would find a plug adapter here.

There was a small kiosk section selling CDs and a young man behind the counter staring at a Windows XP dialog box on his computer, some things are universal. I pulled my electrical cord for my computer out of my pocket and held up the business end to my new young friend. “Do you speak any English?” “Yes, a little” “Do you have a converter for US to Russian for this?” I asked with low expectations. He smiled and turned away, back to his computer. Then came back to the counter holding the magic piece.

He took my cord and to see if it fit. It did. He just smiled. I just smiled. I think we were both in shock. “Can I it” He shrugged his shoulders “I don’t need it.” he said. I fumbled for words as he said I could borrow it, have it or give him whatever I wanted for it. Having spent most of my Rubles on pizza earlier, I only had 200 in my pocket. “Is this enough?” I asked, again a smile and a shrug. I gave him my money and shook his hand. We exchanged names and I thanked him again as I walked back onto the streets now power enabled.

Walking back to the hotel, I noticed several families walking with young children. Holding hands, laughing. A furry grey cat preened on a small lawn, snapping her head towards a sound alert for lunch. A soft breeze rustled through the leaves of the trees providing a momentary respite from the warm humid air.

I was in Russia.

Funny how the world can be so different yet so much alike. People are people around the world. A smile is a smile. A gift is a gift.

I meet the rest of the team later today: 7 Russians and another American. We leave at 5 AM tomorrow, Saturday, for the Base Camp of Elbrus. The 5 day weather forecast looks good with some snow predicted for Tuesday and the lows in the mid teens. Hopefully it will continue to be good for our summit bid late next week. I will turn the SPOT on at base Camp.

I am excited to get to the summit of Elbrus. I want to send our message of hope and urgency from the top of Europe. As I looked at messages today in the hotel, I read this:

“You are my hero!! Stay safe and god bless you for all that you do to raise awareness for the disease that my mom has been fighting for seven years!”

I am not a hero, the people living with this unwanted and unexpected disease are the heroes. They are the ones who are doing above and beyond all human expectations. And their families, their caregivers, the ones working tirelessly for a cure – these are my heroes. This is why I am here. This is what the “summit” is all about.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

  9 Responses to “A Russian Smile”


    Hi Alan

    Good story, never mind the climbing!

    It reminds me of a work trip to Samara in Russia many years ago. The same dodgy Tu154 and a weird sense of strange familiarity. In those days i had to take a set of modem adaptors and a small electrical kit with me to ensure a dial up connection. Sometimes this involved taking the wall socket off and simply joining the wires up! Anyway, I digress, people are people wherever you go and I dare say Russians get Alzheimers too. Keep up the good work and have a good climb.





    Yes, all those people you mentioned are heroes.

    But, you know, the funny thing about heroes is that they disclaim the fact that they are heroes. They were just doing their job or what had to be done, or working to fulfill a mission of their own, or whatever. But, they never see themselves as heroic. Yes, you are a hero to those of us who understand what you are doing and why you are doing it, and who can only donate money to support your efforts.


    Good luck in this adventure Alan , stay safe and take care , hope to see you in Australia later this year. Enjoy your ride.


    I am laughing out loud, on a Friday l;ate afternoon. Such a great story already !! And yes, Heroic!
    Climb on Alan!


    Great story as usual! I smiled the whole time I was reading it 🙂 Larry and I went through a similar experience when we went to Russia. Alan, thank you for always making me smile! Tkae care and have fun.


    What an adventure. We all appreciate you putting yourself out there on behalf of Alzeheimer’s s and their families.


    Well said Alan – the heroes are the caretakers, the families, the friends, the researchers, etc all making a difference for those affected by this disease. Safe travels to Elbrus! Climb on!


    Thank you for the article! Hopefully the rest of the trip will go as well.

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