It felt a bit surreal to be standing in the middle of Red Square. Granted, over two decades had passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent opening of Russia to western tourists, but I had grown up during the Cold War, with Ronald Reagan famously describing the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." So it took me a couple of days to shake the feeling that the secret police might suddenly appear to shake me down and ask to see my "papers."
I had come to Russia after a friend persuaded me to join him on an excursion to climb and ski the highest mountain in Europe. Mount Elbrus (5,642 metres/18,510 feet) is a dormant volcano in the northern Caucasus Mountains, near the border with Georgia. Never mind that the boundary between Europe and Asia is more cultural and historical than physical; for most Seven Summiteers (people aspiring to climb the highest mountain on each continent), Elbrus is the one that counts for Europe.
Inclusion on the Seven Summits list means that climbing Elbrus is not much of a wilderness experience. It can be a bit of a circus, really.
Between the Barrels Camp at 3,720 metres, and the 4,800-metre level on the south side of the mountain, the snow slopes accommodate hikers, skiers, and snowboarders, as well as the snowcats and snowmobiles that operate as high-altitude taxis for those who desire some assistance getting partway up the mountain. The Barrels Camp itself is an industrial-looking blight on the mountain landscape, but when it's storming outside, sleeping in a giant metal barrel on a lumpy old bed is arguably still a step up from tent camping.
We went with a local guiding company, not so much for assistance making our way up the mountain, but for help with virtually everything else. The logistics and language barrier can be daunting on a trip like this, so paying for a package that includes transportation, permits, food, accommodation, and several guided acclimatization hikes prior to the summit attempt is money well spent.
The guided journey began upon our arrival in early June at the airport in Mineralnye Vody, which is a couple of hours by road north of the mountains. The driver who picked us up spoke no English and, behind the wheel at least, had no fear. With our ski bags sticking out from the trunk of his Lada, a bungee cord holding the lid down, and gypsy klezmer music blaring, we headed south at an alarming rate. Jet-lagged and uncertain what was next, we knew we had embarked upon some genuine adventure travel.
The police and military roadblocks reminded us that we were entering a troubled region, an area of Russia with a majority Muslim population and separatist sentiments. High unemployment and a low standard of living contrast sharply to the wealth on display in Moscow. The town of Tyrnyauz looked especially grim, with crumbling concrete apartment blocks and men idle in the streets. Our guide later told us that the town's reason to be, a tungsten-molybdenum mine, had shut down, leaving thousands jobless and stranded beneath the rugged taupe mountains in the Baksan Valley.
The proximity to the Georgian border does nothing to ease tensions in the region. As recently as 2008, Russia and Georgia fought a brief territorial war that sparked ethnic violence and displaced many. A few weeks after our trip, the route of our first acclimatization hike on Cheget Mountain was arbitrarily made part of the border zone, essentially closing the hike to most visitors.
Such troubles were not on our minds, however, when my friend and I locked in our heels for our first ski run on Elbrus. While the others in our group followed our guide, Anna, on foot, we skinned up on alpine touring gear. Each acclimatization hike took us a bit higher above the Barrels, where the wide-open slopes were like giant high-altitude blue runs ripe for the shredding. After a few words of caution from Anna, we would take off toward camp, carving GS turns down the evenly pitched volcanic slope. The familiar joy of skiing corn-snow on a sunny spring day was augmented by the realization that we were doing so in a distant, foreign land.
Summit day was an 11-hour slog that started in the middle of the night under starry skies and ended with an 1,800-metre/6,000-foot ski descent through a snowstorm as altitude illness set in. The pounding headache that started during the bumpy ride over sastrugi off the summit led to nausea as we carried on, making only about 15 turns at a time before stopping to catch our breath. This wasn't nearly as fun as the skiing we did on the acclimatization days, but we sure were glad to be skiing, rather than walking, down the mountain.
Our filthy barrel hut and my lumpy bed were welcomed at the end of the day by this exhausted traveller.
Descending to the valley on rickety ski lifts the next day felt like a return to Earth. Although we were still higher than the top of Whistler, the air felt lush and warm on the face and in the lungs.
My brief bout with altitude sickness was a fading memory, swiftly replaced with a feeling of gratitude for a successful trip and the inspiration for more mountain adventures.
Pilgrim Tours offers eight-day and 10-day Elbrus packages from late May through mid-September. The 10-day itinerary is recommended for proper altitude acclimatization. Information can be found on their website (http://www.pilgrim-tours.com). Early to mid-June is best for skiing and is also less crowded than July and August, which are the most popular months for climbing Elbrus without skis. A visa is required for Canadians or Americans to visit Russia and can be obtained from the Russian Visa Application Centre or through a visa-expediting agency.