The Russian myths of my youth were the ones where we dived under our desks at school in bomb drills, where the people all starved and anyone good was banished to Siberia, which was described as being like Colorado in a perpetual blizzard.
I knew it wouldn’t really be like that. But subconsciously, as the plane circled Moscow and dropped towards the airport, the fear of Russia the Red, the KGB and Siberian prisons and grim-faced informers all surfaced. What would Russia really be like?
“On entering the country of the Russians, one sees at a glance that the social order as arranged by them can serve only for their use. One must be Russian to live in Russia, although on the surface everything proceeds as elsewhere. The difference is in fundamentals.”
Photographer Joe Blackburn and I had added support on our journey as Sandy Wyle, a Scottish Stockbroker who had been on our Everest Kangshung Face expedition, had agreed to join us, carrying cameras and assisting in the logistics of traveling around Russia.
Our arrival wasn’t helped by the need to enter the country carrying all the cash to pay for our trip to Mt. Elbrus. Cash, we were told, was the only worthwhile way to negotiate. So we walked into Moscow with US$ 8,000.00 stuffed in our pockets.
Consequently, I had no desire to be detained by customs and followed the ‘nothing to declare line’ which was empty. I was whisked straight through customs, something I later found that unlike other countries, was absolutely unheard of, and proved to be the first of a number of lucky breaks in our travels.
By early evening we were in Red Square – with the towering walls of the Kremlin, soldiers pacing in front of Lenin’s tomb, tourists, both Russian and foreign, milling about. It could almost have been the base of the Eiffel Tower.
There were two Russia’s for us to experience, the move towards the new, evidenced by the youth and their fashion and the dreams of the future, balanced by the old: the cement tower blocks, the chugging Ladas, the rules posted prominently on the wall of our hotel and the multiple doormen who proliferated in doorways, filled with a sense of seeming self importance at controlling an entrance of little significance.
“We have a well developed sense of occasion,” commented our guide Tatjana on one of our frequent walks in Moscow, when I asked, “Why the endless statues?” Yet there was also the undercurrent of tension, the occasional rock piles with the stature in a heap, replaced by a wooden cross and crude graffiti. The Soviet Union was crumbling and what was next was still an unknown.
Travel guidebooks are often dubious introductions to a country and ours depicted Moscow’s nightlife as nonexistent. Our local area guide had better information, and after a taxi ride through the unknown depths of the city after dinner, we found ourselves deep in the bowels of a sports stadium at 2 a.m. The RedZone had a dance floor packed with 300 people, a light system that would have felt comfortable in New York and at least another 1,000 people sipping cocktails from five different bars. There were no tourists I could see, a few Russians with enough English to talk to and an endless supply of dance partners looking more like Vogue models than babushkas. “There are ten, maybe fifteen nightclubs like this one,” the bartender told me. “We’ll be open until 4 a.m. or a bit later during the week and 8 or 9 a.m. on the weekends.”
Obviously the guidebook had been under-researched. Or perhaps we had already drifted into an underground life that existed in parallel to the more common one often reported. Maybe the ‘climb every mountain’ approach to travel in Russia would yield up the true view behind the curtain.
Mt Elbrus is on Russia’s southern border, perched between the Black and the Caspian Seas. We flew south from Moscow, cosseted in a plane wider than a 747 with endless rows of seats and no first class, only a special area for highly placed comrades. The oft-described Aeroflot service consisted of a dirty mug of tea served from a rusting trolley pushed by a large troll. On landing, our bus awaited us and we rolled off into the countryside, through fields and forest, and up into the remote Baksan Valley at the foot of Mt Elbrus.
With our tour guide Sasha’s Uncle a prominent member of the KGB, we were booked into their Dacha, a three-storeyed Swiss-style chalet. With smooth rock floors, high-backed and thick cushioned beds, pale pink marble bathrooms and draped red velvet curtains, the atmosphere was everything you’d expect of a spies holiday hut with a large budget and a unique decorating sense. As Sasha pointed out when I asked if we needed to lock the rooms “are you kidding, this is the home of the KGB, nobody even comes close to this place.” After a day we did’t even worry about closing the doors.
Another hotel in the valley had been a less successful tourist venture: a multistory building that had been under construction for 17 years was still unfinished, a not uncommon sight. The one store in the valley had a supply of vodka, a few pairs of shoes in small sizes, a few tent stakes, half-melted candles and acres of empty shelves.
From the moment we had arrived in Russia it had never been long between one large meal after the next. In Moscow I’d made the mistake of eating my way through the entree courses of soup, salads, breads, sliced meats and vegetables to the point of maximum capacity, only to have the main course arrive, generally based on a significant amount of meat in a thick sauce. This was followed by a dessert that covered a full dinner plate, from thick custards with fruit or pies topped with cream piled into mountains. We needed to get to the peak soon or we would be far too fat to climb anything.
On the way up the Baksan Valley to Elbrus, sparkling and naturally carbonated mineral water poured from vents in the rock and we filled our water bottles with the alkaline blend, said to cure all manner of diseases, and certainly good for acclimatization.
Our climb to the top of Europe started appropriately enough with a series of trams. The first whisked us up the sloping sides of the volcano, creaking and finally stuttering to a halt at the first station. Normally this would have led to tram 2, but a week previously the higher tram had derailed, dropping the tram car and six passengers 100 meters to the rocks below, landing them all in the hospital in critical condition. Walking seemed a safer, if slower, alternative.
Inside Pruitt 11, the hut below the slopes leading to the summit of Elbrus, private rooms with tiny desks and short beds opened off the central corridor. The small silent man who had taken our tram tickets, operated the tram and shadowed us to the hut now turned out to be the chief of the hut as well.
With rows of empty rooms, space for 120 people, low lighting flickering from bare bulbs and tiny thick-glassed windows, the place lived up to its haunted reputation – wind whistling brought the portholes and creaky footsteps padding the hallways. In the days of World War II, it had been briefly occupied by the Germans, and in the aftermath, the enthusiastically large bathhouse next door had been bombed, never to be replaced. Now it has long since burned down, to be replaced by the barrel huts, or the far more salubrious Leaprus Hut.
Our dinner was set in the dining room. Plaques to alpinists past dotted the walls and thin checkered tablecloths were covered with plates of cucumber, that seemed to appear everywhere, cold sliced roast beef, thick sausages, chunks of cheese, huge cups of tea with milk and crisp green apples – our ascent feast. The concept of carbo-loading hadn’t reached here. Ascending the Seven Summits seemed to be as much a gastronomic as a climbing challenge at times.
Elbrus is more famous for its foul weather than its climbing difficulties. As a volcano it offers only a consistently rising slope from any side, with crevasses cluttering its lower reaches. The warm temperatures of autumn days were non-existent at our 5 a.m. start, the wind was blowing gusts, blasting up the glaciers and circling the concentric ridges – pure ice air. I was snail-like and cold, wrapped in wind gear and balaclava, breath a frosty blast.
The horizon tinged red, then orange, and as the sun rose behind me, Elbrus’s shadow grew on the horizon, a phenomenan I’d only observed before from the heights of Everest.
Nature’s magnificence woke me up, and my snails pace had been faster than expected. I’d already climbed above the crevasses and could curve over to the ridge high on the peak leading to the summit. The great fear of the day, a cloud bank that had been hovering over the Caucasus to the south, had dissipated into a light breeze. The sun rose until it showed as a bright orb set in a pure blue sky, suspended above a heavy purple horizon as I climbed higher through the altitude.
The shallow ridge led ever upwards, steepening to become interesting, weaving through a trail of volcanic ribs and ice runnels, the final swoop ending abruptly on the crater rim, changing from the steep slope below to perfectly flat ground and a 360-degree vista in one step. Half an hour later I’d circled the crater and stepped onto the top of Europe, five and a half hours after leaving the hut.
I sat down on top for an early lunch. To the south, the Caucasus Mountains cut a dramatic swath across the horizon, immense cliffs, towering peaks and tumbling icefalls cascading from their heights. Sweeping around to the north the land flowed into gentle forests and deep shaded valleys extending forever out onto the plains of the Ukraine, somewhere beyond reality’s reach. The sun was warm, the breeze a mere breath of air, the top of Europe proving as civilized as the rest of the continent.
By the time we started our descent even the possibility of an afternoon storm had faded, and lower down the top layer of the glacier was a knee-jarring slush cut by rivulets of water, crampons skittering from ridge to ridge. The hut was a cold shell but more food was on order. Soon there were large bowls of borscht, cups of tea, and stories to be told.
With a combination of audacity, natural talent and enthusiastic encouragement from his Russian Guide Olga, Sandy Wylie had reached the summit as well. I’d strapped his borrowed and rather strangely designed crampons onto his feet that morning and when he asked how to take them off, I simply recommended he didn’t. It was his first and perhaps last time in crampons.
Our rapid ascent and perfect weather left a day to lie in the sun, rising at noon to eat a few more servings of meat, cheese and bread, wash it all down with a bracing swish of vodka and retire for a nap.
At dinner we were rewarded with the quiet arrival of the ‘people from Perm’, a brother, sister and friend from a city of a million people in the heart of Russia we had never heard of. They were on a climbing holiday, but their $10 a month jobs as engineers and scientists didn’t allow them the luxury of paying the dollar hut fee, so they were camped outside under a rock. We invited them to dinner, our food supply generous enough for all of us. Sasha retrieved his guitar from the back of his pack and played a series of songs he described as ‘a man, a woman, and a river, like all love songs.’
We had by this time discovered that all Russians carry a litre of vodka in their back pocket, which the Perm-ites produced as a thanks for dinner, which it would of course been churlish to refuse. Luckily the descent was gravity assisted on the following morning.
View from the slopes high on Elbrus, down to the forests a few thousand meters below.
Adapted from my book, 7 Summits Solo.