This week’s adventure is undoubtedly the biggest 52-weeks has embarked on to date. In fact, it’s as BIG as they come on the European continent. If you didn’t already know, I’m a passionate mountaineer. It’s a trait that seems to baffle many of my friends and family, leaving them begging the question, “Why would you want to punish your mind and body for weeks, if not months on end, just to walk to the top of an icy peak?” Theoretically, it sounds miserable, and I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes it is.
Ultimately, the reason these mountains continue to have a pull on the direction of my life, is discovery. Discovery of the remote and stunningly beautiful regions surrounding the icy peaks; landscape that most will never dare to venture to. Second, and more importantly, the discovery of myself. I know, I know, to most that passage sounds like something the guy on the corner eating granola and driving a vegetable-oil powered car would say; but it’s true. I learn more about myself, and those I climb with in a week above the clouds, than I would in years tucked safely at home.
A much more accomplished climber than myself summed it up near perfectly:
“Climbing is akin to love. It’s hard to explain; we endure pain for the joy that comes with discovering ourselves and the planet.” Cory Richards
That’s why I climb. It’s why I wake up at midnight and venture into the black, ice covered environment that awaits. It’s why I made the decision to take on Mt Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak and one of the 7 Summits, and why I continued to march till I reached the summit at 18,510ft (5642m).
For those who don’t know where Elbrus is (don’t worry, I didn’t have a clue till I planned the trip), it lies in the Caucasus in Southern Russia, on the Georgian/Russian border. Unfortunately, it is in a very volatile area, and in the past there was more danger in getting to the mountain than climbing it. As stated in Week 38, the regular route up the mountain was closed 2011 and 2012, after a terrorist attack on tourists. However, the situation has improved, and during my visit, I witnessed none of Elbrus’ ugly past.
I took the shortest tour available, both for the sake of time and to save funds. It was an 8 day tour, with really only 3-4 days spent on Elbrus itself. The rest of the time is spent taking practice hikes and acclimating to the altitude. Something most people are unaware of, is how much time it takes the body to simply acclimate to handle being at high altitude. Elbrus is relatively small compared to giants like Everest, K2, and other monsters in the Himalayas, so I was able to spend a very short time acclimating. However, on mountains like those, climbers will spend a month alone just acclimating. That is a lot of time reading and writing in a tent!
Hands down one of my favorite aspects of the climb- The Barrel Huts! I’m used to roughing it in a two man tent with little room to breathe, much less stretch the legs. But on Elbrus, there are “Barrels”, that were first used to house the Russian Olympic Ski Team, our guide told us. They are basic, but what else do you need on the side of an icy mountain. The little round structures I came to call home can house 8 people, and they have temporary power in the evening. When it comes to mountaineering, that’s the 4 Seasons!
After a cozy couple days in the barrels, and time spent practicing self-arrest training with our ice axes (SO FUN!), in case I was to fall in a particularly steep section, we headed out. On summit day we began the climb at 2 am. We’d had fairly cold, cloudy conditions the days approaching the climb, but on summit day, the mountain showed mercy and gave us excellent conditions. A stunning sunrise crept up behind us as we scaled the massive snow fields leading to the saddle between the two Elbrus peaks. At the final push, I felt strong (a result of training in the Singapore-Sauna), and again, I was lucky to find incredible conditions at the summit. Breathtaking vistas in every direction. A layer of billowy clouds gently rested on the side of the monster, and the occasional razor sharp peak could be seen determinedly reaching its way through the cloud cover and into the heavens. Miraculous. It’s a sight I’ll never forget.
It was a bonus that for Mt Elbrus, I was lucky to pair my passion for climbing with my love of kids. I learned of The Lotus Children’s Centre in Mongolia sometime back, and was inspired by the stories of these wonderful and resilient kids. Not long after, I decided to climb Mt Elbrus, and I tied the two together to create a fundraising project, and Climbing for Kids was born. It was great to see others find the same inspiration that I had, and watch the donations add up. For all those who donated to these beautiful souls, a thank you from me does not say enough, but I hope the knowledge that you truly helped bring light to these kids lives is.
As I arranged to head to the orphanage for the summer, I tried to prepare myself any way I could. No matter how you try not to, I think most people, including myself, have preconceptions about what an “orphanage” will be like. The sad faces. The tattered clothing. We’ve been fed these images most of our lives through stories and media, and often, they may prove to be accurate.
Not at Lotus. The first thing that any visitor to Lotus is guaranteed to see, are smiles. It fills you with a level of inspiration and belief in the human spirit that was previously vacant. It’s a revelation that will stay with me for life. These children have been through more in their short time on the planet than most will endure in a lifetime, and yet, they still smile. They laugh. Despite it all, you come to realize they are just kids. Wonderful, wide eyed kids that are happy to get to know you.
I will never forget my time with the kids, and I will miss them daily till the day I get to return to Mongolia, and spend another summer taking them on adventures.
(Below) An article written about my journey in a Colorado Newspaper.