There is a part of me that wants to forget the Elbrus epic experience and just dismiss it as a freak phenomena featuring five mountaineers who on one August day were fortunate to have narrowly averted tragedy. But, over the past two years as I have been building my climbing resume, I am compelled to be transparent, face up to mistakes, learn and move forward. In this regard, documenting our story on Elbrus is important.
Mt. Elbrus is so easy to underestimate. As one of the Seven Summits, it appears to be a pretty straightforward mountain to climb. The truth is that I was more concerned about getting to Russia and to the Elbrus region than I was about getting to the summit. In early January of 2012, the ideas of doing the trip was conceived when a friend named Ike invited a few of his climbing friends to consider Elbrus. Initially it was thought that there might be two world-class mountaineers joining the team. Over time people were added, people cancelled, and others could not get permission to enter Russia. There were many last minute changes and significant logistical issues to overcome resulting in five climbers; a blind Iraq war vet Steve, Iraq war vet Dan, airline pilot Matt, journalist Brian, and myself – a retired business owner.
I was the oldest member of the team at 54 with Steve the youngest at 28. Every member of the team had previously been to 20,000 feet. Each member was keenly aware of how to acclimatize. I had been above the height of Elbrus at 18,500 six times in the previous 9 months and felt that altitude was not going to be a problem. I take preparation pretty seriously and put in what I felt the necessary regimen to be in the best physically shape possible. Leading up to Elbrus I had climbed twenty-one 14,000 foot mountains in Colorado in a few months. Earlier in 2012, I had completed several mountain summits in Ecuador and Bolivia. In the past two years, my summit list has grown to 80 peaks around the world.
We made our way to Mineral Vody, Russia via Yerevan, Armenia where Ike and his wife Sarah are work in the US Embassy. Our original plan was for the entire team to meet in Yerevan and then literally drive from there, across the country of Georgia and through the southern border of Russia. But, due to security risks from potential terrorist groups inside of the border of southern Russia, Ike and another climber Miles were declined visa which prevented them from joining the rest of our team.
Arriving into Mineral Vody at midnight, our expectations were high and we were anxious to get to the base of Elbrus, which was four hours away. The goal was simply get to high camp, put in a couple of acclimatization climbs, get to the summit and then get out of Russia, returning back to Armenia where we would celebrate with Ike and Sarah. After clearing customs and immigration in Mineral Vody, we were picked up by our transportation source from Pilgrim Tours. Several hours later and a few armed checkpoints, we arrived at our hotel for the night and proceeded to get a few hours rest.
The next morning, we headed to the base of Elbrus only a few miles away. Access to high camp on Elbrus is quite unique to most mountains around the world. There were three ski lifts that transported each of us, and all of our gear to barrel huts. This was our home for a few nights before making a summit attempt.
The barrels were much better than we had anticipated and it worked out that just our team was housed in our own barrel. So the camaraderie was great as we did our gear checks, made meals and discussed our plans for the next few days. I am certain that our spirits were soaring when we arrived. Within an hour of arriving and getting our sleeping gear setup of the night, we decided to hike up to the Diesel huts to gain a better view of the surroundings. Most of the barrels seemed to be unoccupied except for a few. As we were cooking dinner, a team that had summited that day shared their story of horrible weather, white out conditions and overall a very difficult day. Perhaps it was a premonition of our day to come. One of the climbers shared that they would never do a mountain like Elbrus ever again.
From our vantage point, the route up Elbrus was very straightforward. A snow cat would take us to Pashtuhova Rocks leaving at 1:00 AM in the morning. We would start out at nearly 15,300 ft. We proceed literally straight up to a shoulder, hook a left at an eleven o’clock position until reaching the saddle between the two peaks and then proceed to the left up to the summit of Elbrus. From afar, it was very straightforward. From the barrels, we could literally see the trail most of the way to up to the saddle where the clouds obscured our view to the top. But, Matt and I had studied the route extensively before going to Russia and we had a very good feel for exactly what we needed to do.
Prior to making the trip, we were warned about bringing a GPS devise. US State Department recommended against bringing GPS devices. Pilgrim tours advised against bringing a GPS device for fear of confiscation by Russian immigration and customs. In retrospect, we could have and should have brought this device. Secondly, we had been assured that the route to the top was properly marked with wands. Even the day we proceeded up High Camp we were told that the route was adequately marked with wands. This was simply not the case. We made this assumption and it was clearly a mistake.
After getting a decent nights rest, we awoke the second day, pulled together a good breakfast and then started out on our way up to the Pashtuhova Rocks. Going from 12,000 to 15,300 feet was a great way to acclimatize and to be ready for the summit attempts. Go high and sleep low. The setup was perfect on Elbrus. It was a super warm day and the glacier we traversed on our way up to the Pashtuhova Rocks, was covered with hundreds of rivulets of melting ice. We stepped over minor crevasses that were 6 inches wide and leisurely made our way higher. With each 100 new feet of vertical, the winds steadily increased, the temperature dropped a degree or two but overall it was nothing out of the ordinary. We headed down in the noon timeframe to rest for the rest of the day. As we made our way back to the barrels, I turned around from time to time to observe the weather conditions on the upper section of the mountain. Increasingly the ceiling was falling until it obscured the rocks that we had just been to. As we made our way back, all but the lower section on the mountain was in a white out.
The rest of the day was about inhaling protein rich food, sleeping, listening to music, another gear check, and checking our blood oxygen saturation levels. I devoured 10 spoonfuls of peanut butter knowing every ounce of energy is required on big summit days. All of us made it point to check out early to get as much rest as possible before waking at 1:00 to get our day started. Matt, Brian and Dan woke up at 10:00 and looking out the window of the barrel, which faced Elbrus, remarked that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and that they could see the summit. Waking at 12:00 midnight, I went outside to take a bio break and marveled at the millions of stars that I could see. When I came back in the barrel, everyone was wide-awake with anticipation. There was no possibility that we were going to go back to sleep at that point so we just decided to gear up, eat an early morning breakfast, and get ready.
At just after 1:00 AM our team of five and another team of five saddled up on the back of the snow cat and made our way to the Pashtuhova Rocks. Within one minute of getting seated on the snow cat, it started to snow very lightly. Once underway, the rate of snow increased. Forty-five minutes later and at the Pashtuhova Rocks, what started out as a few snowflakes with no breeze was now a full-fledged blizzard. Winds were a constant 30 mph and we were in near white out conditions with visibility of no more than 30 ft.
Climbing off of the snow cat and adjusting our gear, we realized that we couldn’t see where to go. We couldn’t even see the first wand on the route. We made the decision to follow the other group of five who had a guide. I figured that we could follow them and maintain a pace that would enable us to see exactly where they were going because of the glow from their headlamps. If there were no other group, that morning we would have been stopped at the start of the climb. They had a guide who knew where to go and what to expect. We did not have a guide, compass, or GPS. The following topographical map reflects key positions on the mountain, the standard route and our route for the next 15 hours.
For the first hour, we were able to follow them as the storm grew in intensity. But with each passing minute the distance between our two groups grew. Dan and I tried our best to bound up and down the mountain serving as an integral visible link between our group and the group in the lead. Unfortunately one of our team wasn’t feeling well and a second climber was becoming nauseous. Our pace was becoming slower and slower to the point that the glow of the lead team was becoming more faint. We were not keeping up.
Dan and I discussed our options on what to do. My altimeter registered our altitude at 16,400 feet. We had been climbing for two hours and had progressed 1,100 feet with another 2,100 more feet to go with two climbers not feeling well. Experience and common sense indicated that going higher was unlikely to produce a better health outcome. We also believed that the storm was going to be worse the higher we climbed. We were moving pretty slow at that point and were concerned that we could maintain a pace that would put us within view of the first team.
I told Dan that he should catch up to the first team and that I would go down and talk with our remaining team and lead them down the mountain. It was clear to me that we would not be able to summit as a team in the weather conditions at the pace we were moving with the potential for greater altitude sickness. It was a difficult choice to turnaround. After travelling thousands of miles to get to the mountain we were only 2100 vertical feet. But I believed it to be the right decision. What does a man gain if he summits but those friends he is with somehow encounter a worse or fatal situation on their way down. I know individuals who have been to the funerals of many of their climbing friends and I never want to have the guilt of a bad decision on my soul.
I talked to the remaining three climbers. There was debate about going down. There was understandable regret. We discussed options, but I felt strongly that we had to go together. That was the best option and to split up leaving 1 or 2 individuals to make their way down in that storm was just unacceptable. So we headed down while the storm raged and at times became more intense. Sometimes the winds would increase 40-50 mph. The snow at times became biting ice resembling hail. Instead of falling vertically, the snow/ice/hail combination became horizontal propelled by high wind. Our exposed skin and our goggles were being shot blasted by this abrasive substance.
We managed to only proceed 30 minutes or so following the wands that we could see and then they disappeared. Some of the wands were sticking out of the ground 2-3 feet high. But other times, there was only 6 inches of wand showing. They were erratically spaced. Sometimes they were only 20 feet apart. Other times they were 60,70-100 feet apart. With darkness, blizzard whiteout conditions, we got to a point where we couldn’t see where to go so we made the decision to just hunker down until the day break which we estimated was only an hour away.
We had noted the previous two days how the ceiling would rise and fall on Elbrus and giving us confidence that this storm would eventually lift if we waited. We attempted to dig out a snow break on the glacier but after just digging a mere foot we hit solid ice. There wasn’t much we could do as we squatted down in this small depression as the weather howled around us so we just shivered together. With daybreak, we thought we could see our way more clearly and make our way down. So we hunkered down for one hour.
At daybreak we could slightly better perhaps 20-30 feet and we could make out shapes a little bit better. But the storm did not lessen its intensity. At times it grew even more severe as we made our way down the mountain. Our goal was to find the Pashtuhova Rocks at 4670 meters (15,321 feet). We were confident that once we found this landmark, we could just follow the snow cat trail and make our way to the barrels. I was on point and I saw off in the distance, a shadow shape. I was pretty jazzed, as I was certain these were the rocks. The closer we came to the shape; it became apparent that we were looking at the far wall [that created a shadow] of a huge crevasse that had opened up on the glacier. It was easily large enough to swallow several GMC Suburban vehicles. Quickly remembering the pictures that I took the day before and reflecting on the route guide of Elbrus I had studied prior to the trip, I thought we had unfortunately veered to our right coming down the mountain and was in the crevasse fields that I had made a mental picture of. In retrospect, I was terribly wrong. Instead of being in a crevasse field to the right of the Pashtuhova Rocks, we were in a crevasse field to the left of the Pashtuhova Rocks. So when we decided to ascend a few hundred feet and veer to the left, we were actually moving further away from the standard route on Elbrus. With low ceiling, ongoing severe weather, visibility of any recognizable shape was non-existent. Meanwhile, we kept moving to our left thinking that could avoid the crevasse field.
Higher up on the mountain where we were, there was no longer evidence of crevasses, just a firm glacier. The incline of the glacier was not particularly steep and we could easily see one another. In retrospect, we should have been roped up together. Once again, this was my miscue. Each of us was properly geared up with a harness, carabineers, and ice axes; we just weren’t roped together. The previous day we had created the appropriate spaced knots and clip in loops so as to save time on the mountain. I was actually carrying the rope in my summit pack ready to go when needed.
As were moving along, I was guiding Steve. We had long since abandoned the use of a bell to guide him Matt had brought was used between Steve and me to guide him accordingly. Matt and Brian who were not roped up were in front of us. Without any warning and in a surreal moment, Matt veered to the right of what looked like a huge crevasse while Brian veered to the left. I said a few words to Steve and where we were going and did not want to get close to the crevasse –where Matt somehow had stepped his way over and around the crevasse. We followed Brian and were yelling at Matt who didn’t seem to be able to hear us. Finally, everyone stopped as Brian, Steve and I faced Matt on the other side of a huge crevasse. We were approximately 100 -150 feet apart.
As we were trying to figure out what to do, we couldn’t hear one another so I proceeded to walk towards the huge visible crevasse with Steve in tow. My goal was to get close enough for Matt and I to be able to communicate across this huge gap. Meanwhile the storm raged unabated. Approximately 25-30 feet away from edge of the huge visible crevasse, I stepped through a hidden crevasse and instantly caught the lip of the crevasse under my right armpit leaving my legs to dangle. The left side of my body was unable to touch anything except when stretched to its furthest extent; I could barely touch my left crampon to the far wall. I stared down into a 75-85 feet deep blue abyss and realized instantly, this was not a good situation. Steve [let me remind you that he is a blind vet] had the presence of mind to instantly fall to his butt and dig his crampons in to support my weight with the short five-foot leash.
Without Steve, I have no doubt; I would have been at the bottom of the crevasse. Who knows what the final outcome would have been. I had the rope in my backpack and even if I had survived that fall, how would Brian, Steve and Matt have retrieved me? How would they have made it out of this dangerous crevasse field without a rope? If they left me and later that day one of the other climbers fell into another crevasse; how would they get them out? If Steve hadn’t reacted so quickly, perhaps both of us would have been at the bottom of the crevasse. In that moment, I was struck with the understanding of why so many people perish on Elbrus.
Brian and Steve managed to pull me out of the crevasse. We immediately proceeded to rope up and decided to ascend the mountain and find the route that led Matt to the other side. But to no avail we could not find our way. The blowing snow erased any evidence of tracks. Several times while on point, I would find new hidden crevasses while Steve and Brian secured my fall each time. It is a mystery to me how we managed to avoid these crevasses on our way down before the separation of Matt from the three of us.
If the threat of falling through crevasses were not enough, it started to thunder and lightning in the midst of the snowstorm. This happens occasionally in Colorado where I live but I never expected to experience this at 16,000 feet in a blizzard. We would see the flash and within a nano-second the thunder would boom. Suffice is it to say that this was definitely unnerving as we were natural lightning rods sticking up on a glacier with our metal ice axes affixed to our back packs. In retrospect, I remember seeing many huge rocks dislodged lying helter skelter on the glacier at the first crevasse encounter. I wonder now if those rocks could have been dislodged as a result of thunder and lightning from a higher band of rocks on the mountain. And here we were standing within spitting distance!
In addition to thunder and lightening Steve and Brian would occasionally shout, “Did you feel that or did you hear that?” They were referring to the glacier moving and the creaking and groaning often associated with glacier movement. Perhaps due to the hat I was wearing and the placement of the goggles, I never could hear the sounds. Maybe because I was so preoccupied with finding hidden crevasses as we made our way across the glacier, I never did feel the glacier move. The glacier movement and sounds alarmed Steve no less than a dozen times during the day!
After nearly two hours, gingerly scooting [with lightening, thunder and moving groaning glaciers as the backdrop] across the most precarious of snow bridges on other crevasses on our backsides, we managed to reunite with Matt. I can’t begin to tell you how Steve, Brian and I felt. It is safe to say that we had only one goal in mind for that two hours and that was to make sure that the four of us were together. Sometimes climbers talk about being fully engaged in the process. I completely understand the meaning of this. For the first time that day, I became keenly aware that we were in a real difficult situation and that our every move, action and decision was key too not only making it off the mountain but our very survival. It was approximately 1:00 PM in the afternoon and we were miles from where we needed to be in a crevasse field that could swallow all of us and leave no visible reminders to our lives. That day, I knew that four lives could just disappear forever.
While Steve, Brian and I were skirting our way around crevasses to get to Matt, Matt managed to find a few hidden crevasses himself and managed to self-rescue. In addition, he slipped on a few steep slopes and had to self-arrest twice. Matt was smart in that he minimized his movement in order for us to find his location. Initially, the three of us had to move away from Matt and out of his view in order to find a safe route to the other side. Matt’s patience paid off and our efforts to find the best way to him was cause for true celebration when we finally connected with him.
Again, as I think back, it must have been very difficult for Matt to wait by himself not knowing if we were going to make it to him. It was bad enough to be lost but to be lost alone on a glacier – that would be very difficult to overcome. And then there was Dan who we hoped had made it to the summit but figured had already made his way down to the barrels. What was going through Dan’s mind when he arrived at the barrels and we weren’t there? So many concerns that day that could have easily played on our emotions.
I have already shared the mistakes of the day of which I bear full responsibility. The good decisions of the day were staying together. In addition, we made a few common sense decisions based on the little that we could see when the clouds lifted for a few minutes. As it turned out this only happened three times for 2-3 minutes during the daylight hours Each of us were equipped with the proper number of layers as to not get too cold in the ever present storm. We did not panic or at least there was no panic evidenced in our expressions to one another. I am certain each of us had the “what if we don’t get off the mountain today” thought but we never allowed this to paralyze our decisions and actions.
Each of us took on a role, which eventually led to our successful escape off of the mountain. We were all roped up with me in the lead, followed by Matt, followed by Brian with Steve pulling up the rear. Brian was super for Steve as he communicated what we were doing to Steve. That day must have been difficult for Steve without his sight but the truth of the matter was none of us had much sight that day due to the weather. At one point Steve shared that he was felt bad because he was unable to help. Steve saved my life – he did his job that day.
I figured that Matt, being an airline pilot was probably in the best position to navigate us out whenever there was visibility. I was on point trying to find routes around the crevasses both seen and unseen. That day, I must have plunged my trekking pole into the glacier 10,000 times. The motion was the same minute after minute; stick the pole in the snow 3-4 times every 18 inches and then step and then repeat the process. We zigzagged all over the place and rarely were in a straight line. About every 75-100 feet I would turn around and Matt would point to the direction that I needed to walk. Whenever I would come across a hidden crevasse and had to reroute, I would turn to Matt, alert him to the danger and tell him half jokingly “save my life today”. Sometimes the storm would regain new ferociousness and we would be unable to talk to one another without closing the distance between our positions. Most times there were no words just Matt pointing us to the right direction and slow movement over the glacier.
We are not really sure how many crevasses that we circumvented around that day, but my guess is close to 100 crevasses. Hour after hour we made our way until we could see a few metal buildings that were perched on top of rocks. We had seen the previous day and were visible when the clouds lifted momentarily. There was no direct route as we continuously walked around crevasses. Finally we found ourselves on the lower end and on the backside of the Pashtuhova Rocks with the last set of crevasses to navigate around. Once again, there was no direct route but we managed to move through these obstacles with anticipation of finding the snow cat trail. At approximately 4:00 pm we found the trail and celebrated with a group hug. We had done it! We were now certain of the route down and turned all of our attention to the final hour of descent and reconnecting with Dan.
Dan had summited Elbrus and returned to the barrel huts by 10:00 that morning. Astonishing! He had proceeded with the other group, which also faced difficulties higher up on the mountain. But true to our suspicions the weather and conditions grew worse. With some of their team not feeling well, their guide turned all but one of their team around leaving a Russian woman and Dan to summit alone. Fortunately, the Russian woman climber had been to the summit several times before, she knew her way, and despite a language gap between Dan and her, they made it to the top and quickly headed back down.
Dan was the lone member of our group to successfully summit Elbrus. Dan is a really determined individual and when he sets his sights on achieving a goal, it takes a freight train to stop him. He is mentally tough, physically strong and not prone to altitude sickness. When he separated from our group, I had no doubt that he would summit as long as he could see/find his way.
When Dan arrived back at the barrel huts, he was quite surprised. The door was locked and Matt had the key. He instantly knew that we were still on the mountain and that was probably not good. He attempted to speak to the pseudo Russian caretakers at the huts but because of the language difference, was unable to really communicate. They suggested he get a shot of vodka. They said that we might be up at the diesel huts. He strapped his crampons back on and made his way up the snow cat trail looking for us and made his way over to the diesel huts but obviously we were not there. Dan has shared confidentially all of the things that ran through his mind that day and they ranged the gamut. Hour after hour he wondered where we were and what he should do. Candidly, I think this must have been pure terror for Dan. I just can’t imagine the helplessness of not knowing what to do.
Walking into the barrel huts camp at 5:00 pm was pure joy. We were exhausted but we had made it. We found Dan and started to share our story. He shared his experience and what it felt like to wait 7 hours for our return. We shed our gear, stripped down and put on dry warm layers and tried to eat some food. We were so tired that it was nearly impossible to exert the energy to consume much food. Brian was great in that he purchased a can of beer for each of us. We managed to down one and then crawled into our sleeping bags. What a day, what an adventure. What a life lesson on the highest mountain in Europe.