Sunday, June 17, 2012

Flying onto Denali...!

And I'm off! I'm about to fly onto the glaciers of Denali on a 1:30pm Talkeetna Air Taxi flight. I arrived in Anchorage yesterday and did my gear check with my six expedition guides: Joe Butler, Yoshiko, Ted, Ian, Sam, and Travis--my Aconcagua guide. We went out to lunch at a fantastic restaurant called the Bear Tooth Grill. Yum! I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman with Greg Harris, an expedition teammate who arrived early. I'm actually heading onto the glacier a day earlier than everyone else so that I can do a skills course with Yoshiko and Ted. We are going to focus on crevasses and avalanches. On that note, I wanted to extend my condolences to the families of the four Japanese climbers killed in the Avalanche on Denali two days ago. Mountain climbing is a dangerous sport and at moments like this we must pause to reflect on our choices and make sure we have said all that we would like to say to the people we love. It is very sad that the climbers died, and very amazing that one climber was able to survive. I hope he is able to recover from his injuries and grief. We will go on the same route as these climbers did, and I am praying that we and all the other climbers on the mountain have a safe and successful trip. On a happier note, I am very excited to be heading onto such a beautiful mountain. I never expected it to be this beautiful. Soon the lush green forests of lower Alaska will be replaced by snow and rock. Before we fly, we ate at the historic Roadhouse Cafe. The portions were huge! I had the lasagne. It was delicious. Ok well this will probably be the last blog post for a while. In the meantime, you can stay updated on our expedition progress through my Spot tracker, on the RS Facebook page (, or on the Mountain Trip website under Trip Dispatches. See you on the other side!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Brief Reflection...

Some Reflections on Elbrus...

I can’t believe it’s already over…it feels like just yesterday that I told Anastasia that I wanted to switch to the north side expedition. And I sure am glad I did! I got to spend 10 days with an awesome group of men and women, see beautiful scenery, and have the usual group of unanticipated highs and lows that come with climbing a mountain.

In reflecting on this particular expedition, there are two comparisons I’d like to make. First are the differences between a local operation (like this one) and a Western company trip. Second are the differences between Elbrus and Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro.

1)   Western company vs. Local company

This expedition was a quarter of the price of the cheapest Western operation. Going into it, I expected those price differences to be reflected in the smoothness of the operation and the presence of a Western guide, with few additional disparities. Unfortunately I discovered that one big area of difference is food. I have never been on an expedition on which I have been fed such little food, and such low quality food. For lunch, we could expect—at most—a piece of fruit, a pair of crackers, and a chocolate bar. We were never given more than that. For dinner, the food ranged from a bowl of soup to mashed potatoes and a sausage (which we ate for three nights straight). I understand that we are on a mountain, but clients should not be expected to hoard food (such as ramen, which I hid away like a crazy man), or to bring additional food to the mountain, to survive. In terms of guiding, having a Western guide would have helped with communication and to sort out differences in opinion and perspective that were lost in translation with Andrey. Other than this, I don’t see many major differences. One simply must consider these things when deciding between a local operation and a Western one.

2)   Elbrus vs. Aconcagua vs. Kilimanjaro

I would say that, depending on one’s specific strengths and weaknesses, Elbrus’s north side could be harder or easier than Aconcagua. For me, endurance on an expedition isn’t much of an issue. In other words, whether it’s a week or two months, it doesn’t matter—I’m mentally fit and in it 100%. So, while Elbrus was only a week and Aconcagua was three weeks, I found Elbrus to be harder due to the extremely intense summit day. There was no day like that summit day on Aconcagua or Kilimanjaro. Technical difficulty is pretty equal on Elbrus and Aconcagua (Kilimanjaro is completely non-technical). So, if you prefer a shorter expeditions, Elbrus would probably be easier, but if you are worried about the long summit day, Aconcagua might be the easier bet. I’m very curious how Elbrus will compare to Denali…more on that in a month!

Overall, I am very pleased with how this expedition turned out. Yes, it had its lows (the food! Or lack thereof…) but it also had its highs (my teammates and the beautiful mountain). Even though I only have two days before I head onto the glaciers of Denali, I am already keen to get back onto a mountain. I’ve certainly caught the mountain climbing bug hard. I think I’m addicted…

Denali, here I come!

Home, Sweet Home

Day 11, June 13th, 2012: Moscow to the US

And now it’s back to the U.S. after a fantastic two weeks in Russia. I flew on United from Moscow Domodedovo to Newark through Washington Dulles. The flight was uneventful, and I watched some good movies (notably Safe House with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds (whom Laura Chng and Steph Lee never ceased to remind me was Canadian). I’m hoping that I retain some of my acclimatization for Denali. Now that I’m home I have a full day and a half before I set off for Anchorage. Lots to do in the mean time though… Gotta get started washing my clothes and re-packing my gear!

What?! The Red Square is CLOSED?!

Day 10, June 12th, 2012: Kislovodsk to Moscow

I didn’t really get to spend much time in Moscow on the way over, so I was very excited to have one day on this side of the trip. Even better, today was the Russia National Day! I landed in Moscow and headed straight into the center of the city to explore. My first stop: the Red Square. After struggling a little with the metro stops (Russians do use a different alphabet, after all…), I made it to the right stop…only to find fences surrounding all entrances to the Red Square. Apparently, there was a concert going on to celebrate the National Day. I was crushed. No Red Square! How can someone go to Moscow and NOT see the Red Square. It was a travesty.

I met up with my expedition buddies Laura, Chad, and Steph for dinner at their hostel. We reminisced and laughed and had a blast trying some local Russian cuisine.

Still simmering about my failure to see the Red Square earlier in the day, I decided to go on a late-night adventure and see if the square had been opened up. As we arrived at the perimeter of the square, the crowds began pouring out and I realized that we had arrived at the perfect time. We snuck in and I got to see the Red Square! Wow…what a huge place. Though Basil’s Cathedral is not nearly as large as I had expected it to be. (The Kremlin is though…)

We headed back after that so I could sleep. I do fly back to the US tomorrow after all!

A Family Business...

Day 9, June 11th, 2012: Base Camp to Kislovodsk

Ugh. Logistical issues can be such a pain. Especially when people don’t speak English at all. In Russia, this is a common problem. We arrived back in Kislovodsk from Base Camp without incident but, instead of being greeted by Anastasia, the tour organizer, we were met by her mother. Apparently, Anastasia had gone on vacation to Poland. We had also been moved to a different hotel, and half of us were missing bags. After a lot of haggling in broken English, we managed to secure our stuff and settle into the new hotel. The new hotel was “nicer” which I guess in Russian means gaudier…but all in all it was a much more comfortable place to stay than base camp. I called my parents and checked in with them for the first time all expedition. They were very excited to hear from me, and had thought I hadn’t summited! This is especially ironic considering my brother David had retweeted by summit tweet two days prior…I guess Anastasia’s family isn’t the only one with communication issues!

We went out for some celebratory beers in town with our guide Yura. The Basque boys are heavy drinkers and I think they consumed approximately 15-20 liters all night. I headed back early to get some sleep ahead of my big day in Moscow tomorrow.

Alfredo sticking his head out of his tent. "Is it time to pack up yet?"

A Heavy Carry

Day 8, June 10th, 2012: High Camp to Base Camp Descent

To be honest, I wasn’t so keen to carry down my 25kg of gear from High Camp to Base Camp. With Denali coming up so soon, I didn’t want to risk over-exerting of—worse—injuring myself on the descent. I struck a deal with a porter so that I only had to carry down half my gear. This was a life-saver for my knees. I was able to enjoy our last day on the mountain and soak in the beautiful high alpine flora for the last time.

The view from my tent at High Camp in the morning.

The highlight of the day was when we passed by a high alpine lake. I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed this before, but there are several high altitude lakes on Elbrus.  I’m not sure if these are formed because it is a volcano or what, but they make for an unexpected and gorgeous addition to the traditional alpine scenery.

Back at Base Camp we feasted on bangers and mash (again!) for the third time in four days. Yum. I have to say that the food has been the major low point for me on this trip. And I’m not a picky eater…

Anyway, back to Kislovodsk tomorrow (and normal Russian food…yay!).

And then back at Base Camp before you know it.

Number Three!!!

Day 7, June 9th, 2012: Summit Day!

Yay! I can’t believe I made it to the top of Elbrus today. And woah was it a long day. Without a doubt, my Elbrus summit day was the longest and hardest day of physical activity I have experienced so far.

Though technically we were planning to summit today, we didn’t actually believe it would happen considering the horrendous weather of the preceding two days. Even our guide Andrey was doubtful we would summit, but he said that if it cleared he would wake us up around midnight. By some coincidental fluke, I woke up at 12:01am and didn’t hear any disturbances, so I went back to sleep thinking our summit day would be postponed. Lo and behold, 6 minutes later Andrey came around and woke us all up with a loud call of “Get up! Get up!” I stuck my head out of the tent and was greeted by a cloudless sky and a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. We got our gear together, put on our layers, and gathered in the kitchen tent. At around 2:30 we were all set to go and we started the long trek up the mountain.

No more clouds...a good sign!
Summit day on the north side of Elbrus is a long affair no matter how you cut it. Unlike the south side, on which you take a snow cat up half way on summit day and only have a 5-hour hike to the top, it’s between 10 and 15 hours up on the north side, with a 1,800m vertical rise. That is not easy.

Despite the difficult day ahead of us, the first four hours were pretty peaceful and relaxed. The temperatures were cool but surprisingly manageable…nothing like the freezing cold I had experienced on summit day of Aconcagua. At around 5:30am, the sun’s rays began peeking up above the horizon, lighting up a beautiful inversion layer of clouds. We took some pictures and, before we knew it, were up to Lenz Rocks—the same spot we had gone up to for an acclimatization hike two days before.

The sun begins to rise over the clouds.

By this time the sun was fully up and the temperature was starting to increase. The mountain’s pure white glaciers reflected the sun, magnifying its effect tremendously. We continued up a path along Lenz Rocks (which goes from 4,600m to 5,200m), before heading west towards the west summit of the mountain (the higher of the two cones).

Lenz Rocks in the daylight. As the sun rises, the heat rises...
It looks so close! (Elbrus is the large mound behind my head...)

Then came the Death March.

What had looked like a simple traverse to the saddle between the two cones was much steeper than it seemed. Moreover, the temperatures had soared—the lack of cloud cover brought the heat up to painfully steamy conditions. Because we were the first group up the mountain that day, our lead guide was having a tough time breaking trail, which meant that our progress kept starting and stopping—not what you want 9 hours into summit day.

The painful "traverse" also known as the Death March.

Somehow we managed to survive this Death March, only to find a path of flags leading up the west summit that seemed much, much too steep. We were only 200m from the summit—there’s no way it could be that hard! Luckily, by this time we were all operating on adrenaline and we gutted out the last two hours, finally ending up on the top of the mountain.

100m of horizontal traverse brought us to a 5m hump in the flat peak—the true summit of Elbrus. Laura and I were the first to make it up there, and we waited about 10 minutes before the rest of our team arrived. Soon it was full celebration mode, with hugs, kisses, and lots of crazy, joyous dancing all around.

Number Three! 

The group picture on the summit. 11/13 made it all the way to the top of Europe!

Total time up was just over 11 hours, with our precise summit time of 1:42pm. And we were only half-way there…we still had to get down.

Unlike Aconcagua, the weather held up and the descent wasn’t overly strenuous. The only frustrating aspect was the heat, which had turned the morning’s hard, icy snow into deep mush. We were slipping and sliding down the mountain for another four hours before we made it back to High Camp.

Some food and water were much needed at that point, as we had only 2 liters of water and 3 chocolate bars during our 15 hours of exercise. Even more necessary was sleep, which we all got a lot of that night.

All in all, 11 of the 13 of our expedition made it to the summit, and spirits were very high at the end of the day. 

You can see our path going almost all the way up the mountain! Notice the black rocks below the left (East) peak--those are the Lenz Rocks. Believe it or not, they are still 1000 vertical meters below the true summit.

“I Just Came to Say Cheylo” And Rest Day Boredom

Day 6, June 8th, 2012: Rest Day

Don't you just love a little facial edema (swelling) to wake up to in the morning?

Don't worry--soon I was back to normal. Isn't our tent nice and...cozy? (Read: stuffed.)

I was so eager to just get up there and summit, but after yesterday I was very happy to have a Rest Day. We didn’t exactly have a choice, though. The weather continues to be very bad. There were huge thunder and lightning strikes less than 1km away last night, and the “white out” conditions continue. The lightning was so bright that, with my eyes closed, it felt like someone was shining a flashlight directly into my eyes from a couple inches away. It makes sleeping a bit of a challenge… Other than that though, it was pretty boring. (I kept wishing that I hadn’t forgotten to bring my deck of cards to the mountain! Oops…)

To satisfy our boredom, Laura, Steph, and I decided we would film a music video with my GoPro Hero II camera. We were debating which song to do before Laura had the most brilliant idea: “Hello” by Dragonette. But we would add our own twist to the song. Instead of singing the refrain the traditional way, we would replace the “hello” with “cheylo”—the Russian pronunciation of the word. This might be way funnier in person, but it certainly gave us a good laugh and kept the spirits light throughout the day. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it…) we weren’t actually able to film the video… Next time…maybe on an Elbrus reunion trip? ;)

We stayed up late tonight—around 9pm—even though we are technically supposed to head off to the summit at 2am tomorrow. The weather is so bad that we are very doubtful it’ll happen. We’ll see… The weather on a mountain is exceptionally unpredictable, so you never know. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong!

Music video rehearsal with Laura (left) and Steph (right)

And the Bad Weather Arrives...

Day 5, June 7th, 2012: High Camp to Lenz Rocks Acclimatization Hike

And up we go!
Today started beautifully. Clear blue skies, not a cloud in sight. In fact, it was our third such day. Today’s agenda: climb up to the black rocks that appear (falsely) to be near the summit of the mountain. In fact, it is only a climb of 800 vertical meters (3,800m to 4,600m). It wasn’t so bad actually…long, but pretty and uneventful. I listened to my iPod the whole time and it seemed to pass pretty quickly. I was so absorbed in climbing and listening to my music that I didn’t notice when white clouds began to fill up the sky. It wasn’t until we were resting up at Lenz Rocks that I noticed a wave of cloud and fog rolling towards us. Andrey, our guide, warned us to move away from the actual rocks, as they attract lighting in electrical storms. That kind of freaked me out. I hadn’t really ever thought about what one might do when caught in an electrical storm on a mountain. We hurriedly finished the rest of our snack and descended in record time, making it back to base camp in an hour (it had taken us four to get up there…).

Bad weather = warm clothes... this was actually the only time I wore my parka all expedition!

Movin' Up

Day 4, June 6th, 2012: Move Day from Base Camp to High Camp

Phew. I expected to be so sore after yesterday’s big carry, but only felt a little tension in my neck and shoulders. Luckily, because I carried so much up yesterday, today I only had to carry ~7kg of gear. The trail seemed to go much, much quicker, but I think that was just because we were repeating it and so we knew how to manage our expectations. Also, the weather stayed very nice the whole day. (Good to know that there’s some consistency up here!)

I’m too tired to write anymore right now. Good news is that I feel great acclimatization wise. Bad news is that the food has not improved at all. I don’t think they are feeding us enough, and that will be bad for both our physical strength when climbing and for how well our body acclimatizes. For example, for dinner tonight we had soup. Just soup. For lunch, we had a pack of crackers, an orange, and three mini chocolate squares. This feels like fat camp. Ugh. Seriously, this food situation better improve.

I hate ending a blog entry on a negative note, so I just want to say that the whole group is in generally good spirits and is getting along great. Despite not being able to communicate easily with the Basque guys, we all make jokes (some make it through translation, some don’t) and the laughing is non-stop. I hope this continues throughout the rest of the trip!

My First Big Load

Day 3, June 5th, 2012: Carry Day from Base Camp to High Camp

When I decided to go for the north side route of Elbrus instead of the much easier south side, I knew I would have to carry much bigger loads. I was hoping that I would be fit enough to do it, but it was a bet…I hadn’t actually ever tested my load-carrying abilities. Well, not until today. Luckily, I came out positively. I loaded up my 85li Osprey pack with almost all of my gear and with 7 additional kg of group gear. In all, I was carrying over 25kg on my bag. Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad at all. At first it was a bit of a slog, but over time you get used to the weight and it turns into any other hiking day. About halfway up to High Camp, the weather went from beautiful to very bad, very quickly. I decided not to change into my high altitude boots and stuck it out with my durable Asolo Fugitive GTX Trekking boots. In the end it turned out to be a pretty good decisions, as my feet were fine when we reached High Camp and I didn’t have any blisters (an affliction that effected most of my teammates, unfortunately).

Heading out of Base Camp with my 26kg pack.
The snow was very wet and we kept slipping deep into it, especially as it got deeper closer to High Camp. This was a big frustration, but most of us made it up without too much trouble. Unfortunately, one member of our team—Ranjan—decided he wasn’t cut out for it and returned to Base Camp. He won’t continue up the mountain with us and will return to Kislovodsk tomorrow. I give him a lot of credit for sticking it out as long as he did, though, especially since his home in Southern India is vastly different climate wise from the slopes of Mt. Elbrus.

Eeee! Bad weather alert! Gotta grab some layers...

The weather had improved significantly by the time we made it back to Base Camp. After today’s long day, we are all in the mood for a long night of sleep. Then we repeat today’s track tomorrow, albeit with much less gear.

One last thing... I really do have to say that I was nervous for today. When you’re training for mountain climbing not on a mountain, you never know what will apply and what won’t. At home, I do a lot of walking on the treadmill (with it inclined to the max) with a heavy pack on. I hoped this would prepare me for days like this, but I wasn’t sure it was until today. I’m glad I did well because this validates my training regimen and is an encouraging sign for my upcoming Denali expedition. 

A Visit to Magical Mushroom Rock Land

Day 2, June 4th, 2012: Base Camp to Mushroom Rocks Acclimatization Hike

Today was our first real acclimatization hike, since the previous day’s hike actually was a decrease in altitude. We went up along the path towards High Camp before veering off to visit the mountain’s famed “Mushroom Rocks.” This is basically a collection of rocks that resemble mushrooms for their convection shape. We hopped up one and ate our lunch looking over the northern Caucuses. It is certainly a beautiful sight! The only unfortunate part of the day was the last 50m of the ascent, when the rocky path turned into a dangerous scree slope very similar to the one that nearly took out my friend Pearl Going on Aconcagua. Somehow we all made it up (and down) safely. It was a good lesson in mountain safety though.

I’m excited (and kind of nervous) for tomorrow…it’s the first time I’ll have to carry 20+ kg on my back on a real mountain. I’ve been training for this (as it will become even more of an issue when I get to Denali…) but have yet to be tested “in the field.” I hope it goes well!

Our first real acclimatization hike, with Elbrus in the background.

Arrival and some not-so-Hot Springs

Day 1, June 3rd, 2012: Kislovodsk to Base Camp, Hot Springs Acclimatization Hike

As I wrote yesterday, I was given the choice of climbing the south side of the mountain with a guide but no one else or joining a large expedition going up the difficult north side of Elbrus. I chose to do the north side based on my life philosophy that everything happens for a reason. I had signed up to climb the south side but it wasn’t meant to be, and now I’m on the north side… I hope I made the right choice!

Anyway, we drove the 90km between Kislovodsk and Elbrus Base Camp in five hours this morning. Due to a recent downpour of rain, we were warned that we might have to hike the last 20km of road to Base Camp. Luckily, the mud wasn’t too bad and we made it all the way in our crazy, communist-looking 4WD jeeps. Since we arrived around lunch time, we were able to take a fun hike over to the nearby hot springs. Elbrus is a volcano, and has sulphur and iron hot springs located on the north side close to Base Camp. It was roughly 40mins walk, but instead of the 80-90˚ F temperatures we were expecting, the water was a chilly 70˚ F. Despite this, I and three of my teammates (Tim, Mikael, and Ali) got in. It was quite an experience! The spring acted like a (very aggressive) massage if you pressed your back up against the stone wall. It was a bit too much for me, to be honest.

We headed back after and ate a light meal before heading to bed. Our first night on the mountain! Woo hoo! I hope we have some crazy altitude dreams...those are the best.
Approaching the mountain in our Russian van.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

South/North Switcheroo

Well, like all adventures, nothing is set in stone until it happens.

I got a call yesterday from my guide company saying that the other people in my group had cancelled and that I had the option of either going alone to do the South Side or joining a group of climbers and guides scaling the (much harder) North Side. I wasn't sure what to do. I flew to Moscow to Mineralyne Vody and still hadn't decided. When I landed, however, I met up with a bunch of guy (and girls) who were in the North Side expedition. I hit it off with a bunch of them and decided to hop onto their trip.

So it's now 10:30pm and we're about a 5 hr drive to Elbrus' North Side base camp. It's 90km but all off-road...should be an interesting time. I'm lucky that I'll have good company in the jeep though. There are 6 guys from the Basque country, 3 Canadians, 2 Indians, 1 Belgian, 1 Russian, and me, an American. It's quite the diverse group--men, women of different nationalities, backgrounds, and ethnicities, and I'm excited to be spending the next week and a half with them.

Anyway, I'll try to post one more update before I head onto the mountain, but no promises. If I don't post one in the next 24 hours then remember, no news is good news!

See you in a bit.

Waiting at the Mineralnye Vody Airport with the Basque boys

Off to Russia...

Well I'm off to Russia now. I've got all my gear packed and ready to go for my Elbrus South Side ascent. It shouldn't be too hard and, with good weather conditions, I'll expect to summit in a week.

I've never been to Russia before, so it'll be quite an eye-opening experience for me in that respect. Russia isn't the most gay friendly country, so I'm both wary and curious how the locals will react to my project. (The locals that I choose to tell about it...)

More soon!