My earliest experience of the Caucasus came from my Grade 8 school reader – a storyfrom mythology. I have a vivid memory of a macabre drawing of Prometheus, a Titan actually, the son of Zeus, being bound strongly to a rock – in the Caucasus. A vulture was devouring his liver which would eternally regrow as it was eaten, propelling Prometheus to a life of suffering. He had displeased Zeus by showing humans how to utilise fire. His agony became a symbol for creating triumph out of adversity.
I was hoping for some of Prometheus’s strength. I intended to travel to Russia, to the Caucasus, to attempt to climb the highest mountain in the Caucasus, Mt. Elbrus. Indeed, Mt Elbrus at 5,642 metres is the highest mountain in Europe.
Just travelling to the Caucasus was an adventure. It started out with some pantomime. Leaving Brisbane in a brand new A380 airbus on the way to Dubai, our plane suddenly dropped from 33,000 feet to 23,000, a cause for some concern. The Captain informed us the front window had cracked, even though it had three enamelled layers. He explained we would have to divert to Singapore to allow engineers to check the situation.
As it happened, the damage was serious, and it would take twelve hours to repair. As there seemed no other solution for me, I realised I would not be able to meet my connections and I would miss this chance to get to the Caucasus. Very disappointed, and with the 470 other displaced passengers, I prepared to be moved into a hotel in Singapore. Because I had accepted my situation, I was relaxed and lagged behind. As luck would have it, an Airline Official selected myself, amongst 25 of the last passengers, to be spirited onto another plane leaving now for Dubai. Serendipity or Zeus may be working with me. I was able to reprogram all my connections and I reached Moscow only ten hours late – I was back on the team.
Here I was met by my Expedition Leader, Mike Roberts from Adventure Consultants, a New Zealand Mountaineering firm. Mike had a splendid CV, having summitted Mt Everest seven times as well as leading many mountaineering expeditions around the world. This was to be his 11th expedition to Elbrus. He was a Kiwi and also a qualified Physiotherapist. I felt an immediate rapport with him and soon experienced great confidence in his leadership abilities. I met my other team members, four enthusiastic and experienced mountain climbers. Three young men, thirty-ish, Mike, an entrepreneurial developer and berry farmer from Christchurch, Maurice, a gifted I.T. whiz from Perth who kept all our iphones and ipads working and Aaron, a Kiwi and a geologist, working in the Pilbara in Western Australia. Aaron kept us well informed on the geographical formations around us. And, Leah, who embraced mountain climbing and love of the wilderness as a continuing journey of self discovery after the death of her son at 19 from motor neuron disease. Our last team member was Mishka, a beautiful and large Teddy Bear who was to accompany Maurice on his backpack.
The next morning we flew for three hours deep into Russia. We landed at Mineralny Vody, (mineral waters) an industrial town between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
From here, we were driven in a mini-bus for three hours to our base in the rugged mountainous regions of the Baksan Valley in the Caucasus. Here we met our first Russian guide, Oleg, who reinforced the validity of the Prometheus myth. To my surprise, he volunteered that the rock Prometheus was alleged to have been bound to was indeed Mt. Elbrus. Marvellous: in this aspect, my experience of life had done a full cycle.
For the next two days, we then set off on acclimatisation hikes. We tackled surrounding peaks around the base of Mt Elbrus, climbing higher each day. On the first day, while embracing the breathtaking panorama of green and blue mountains with yet more white capped mountains unfolding behind, I heard and saw a red helicopter way down below, making its way toward Mt. Elbrus. I made a mental note it was comforting that there was a helicopter in the vicinity in case of an emergency.
We then packed all our gear and moved by cable car and chair lift to the head of the valley. We bunked in Barrels Hut at 3,900 metres. The cold immediately snapped us into the realisation we were now at the serious part of our mission. The cold was difficult. From here, we would continue our acclimatisation by walking in crampons up the snow slopes.
In the meantime, we received disturbing news, relating to a rare incident. Three days previously a Russian man and his wife had reached the summit of the lesser cone of Elbrus. While posing for a photo with both hands and metal walking poles raised high in victory, a sudden lightning strike flashed from the heavens to the poles, instantly earthing through the man. He died tragically celebrating his moment of triumph. His wife dug a hole in the snow and stayed with him all night. The next morning, his body was retrieved by helicopter, the same one we had seen earlier that same day. Zeus, the keeper of the weather, was still around, amusing himself and randomly reminding us humans we were now in his territory.
After two days of heavy workouts in the snow at about 4,800 metres, Mike considered we should have an early attempt at the summit ; a large snow dump was due the day after and gave us a small window of opportunity if we moved right now.
Next morning, summit day, we woke at 1.00am, packed and got dressed in our warmest high altitude gear. We had breakfast at 2, and then hit the snow fields at 3.00am for the climb of Elbrus’ West Summit, 5642m. It is now seriously cold, minus 15 degrees, and a small wind adds to the chill factor. It is a brilliant, clear night. Snow streaks the ground with brushstrokes.
At 5,100 metres, above the ski and snowboarding fields, we tackle steep 60 degrees snow slopes and ascend along a traverse across the volcano face. We are aiming for Elbrus Pass, the Saddle, between east and west summits of Elbrus. This, I find, is extremely difficult and indeed, rather dangerous. The exercise requires strong cramponing. It is dark, and my head-light illuminates the very narrow snow path, nervously noting that one wrong slip could send me hurtling down the icy, snowy mountainside for hundreds or even thousands of feet.
At about 6.00am, as the sun begins to rise, a fleeting glance of the surrounding vista revealed a magical, staggering, rugged snow-covered mountain landscape down below – achingly beautiful to my eyes. Flickering lights from the darkened valleys emphasized dozing villages. It also revealed a steady stream of headlights following up the same path as more climbers methodically hammer towards the summit behind me.
Then, chillingly, even though the night is cloudless, and the stars fairly blaze above, below me I notice ‘dry’ lightning flashes crash onto the base of the volcano, an eerie and unusual phenomena. Zeus is out tonight and launching warnings.
The pressure is unrelenting; I find it difficult forcing a path through the fluffy snow. At about 8am, I had become extremely exhausted. For each step, I had to suck in seven lungfuls of air, a situation which quickly became unsustainable. I forced myself to reach the saddle at 5350 metres, less than 300 metres from the top, but still one and half hours climb away. I had stumbled several times at this stage, and I was aware that I was beginning to hallucinate. I would momentarily close my eyes, my brain grasping for sleep and I would visualise unfamiliar images. I intuitively understood this was serious. In fact, it is a sign of HACE (High altitude cerebral edema). Our very experienced second guide, also named Oleg, insisted I turn around. In 16 years of guiding, he knew of only two other 70 year olds who had reached this point. Mike, our team leader, agreed I should stop. This would have to be ‘close enough’.
There is a point when the body screams ‘enough’ that the mind can take over and push further. However, I was aware I had very little in the tank at that moment. If I heroically trudged on, I reasoned the effort could be dangerous. HACE can alter perception, often leading to euphoric and poor judgements. Regardless, if I did manage to get higher, I realised I would certainly have had trouble descending.
Indeed, as it was, coming down was dangerous and extremely difficult. My legs were like jelly now, my quads simply collapsing. Oleg fastened a rope between us and steadily assisted me down the same treacherous pathway. I fell several times, but the rope and his strong hands kept me from sliding away. Realising the seriousness of the situation, he phoned below for a snow mobile to meet me at the 5,100 metre mark, the upper end of the snow fields.
This was to be an unexpected upside in terms of excitement. The machine was driven by a character that would have fitted the mould of a fearless, cocky, fighter-pilot. I was grateful for this assistance, but I didn’t quiet expect the extent of the thrill I was in for. I sat behind him, braced my weakened thighs with my feet locked into the runner and numbly held on to bars behind me. He nudged the snow-mobile over the rim of the ledge. My heart leapt. It faced a 1300 metre, 60 degree straight down descent.
He accelerated and I gasped, barely muffling an expletive. The machine dropped away, flashing down the mountainside. Within a few seconds, I was intoxicated by the speed – dopamine and adrenalin racing through my body. No seatbelts, no metal protection, just a rapture of freedom, motion and thunderous speed. It was inherently exhilarating – he didn’t throttle back once. The snow mobile reached speeds of 85kph, the driver skilfully manoeuvring and zipping around other wide-eyed climbers and snowboarders who would suddenly appear in his vision. I was barely mindful that if he simply tapped an unseen rock or hard snow, the machine could career out of control with both of us spinning uncontrollably in different directions.
My already exhausted thighs were now burning as I tried to push my feet further into the runners to stop sliding off the seat. Similarly, my shoulders were aching from fighting with the bars, yet I didn’t really want the moment to stop. It was addictive. Eventually, the driver spun to a halt at the bottom of the snow field – suddenly releasing the tension. By now we were both laughing involuntarily, reacting to the thrill of the moment – two boys enjoying the unadulterated rush of speed.
In the meantime, three of my team friends had summitted, Mike, Aaron and Leah. Maurice turned back at the same level I did, but one consolation was his Teddy Bear Mischka, reached the summit with one of the other climbers.
Certainly, it would have been my ambition for me to reach the summit, but curiously, I wasn’t seriously distressed by this. I really wasn’t competing against anyone else – only myself. The victory was in the attempt. I was wholly satisfied that I had found my upper limits. I appreciate life from a long perspective. Elements of my life began 3.8 billion years ago. Selective adaptation by my ancestors over countless generations of my line has produced the best life form that it can. I have been given one sliver of that life to savour. I would live it passionately. I simply wanted to take the Ferrari for a burn – see what it is capable of. Along these lines, I have found that it is important for me to challenge myself in all components of my existence – physically, intellectually, psychologically and creatively.
When most people look back on their life, I believe, they don’t have so many regrets about things they’ve done, rather things they haven’t done.
As the Oracle of Delphi says – ‘Know Thyself.’ Insight is gained by action. Indeed, the 4th Century Indian Mystic Kalidasa reminds us – to make the most of this day by the ‘glory of action’, and, for completeness, he also exhorts us to appreciate ‘the splendour of beauty’.
Time in this mountainous wilderness gives one the opportunity to do this, to reflect. It presents the total package – extreme altitude, fun, challenging climbing and manageable danger. Notwithstanding the presence of Zeus, all the ingredients are here for understanding and appreciating a journey towards oneself.