Until now, the weather had been mild and there was no wind, yet both Mason and I got cold hands as we slowly made our way up the huge mountain. During our pre-summit brie ng the day before, Mason had asked that we move as a group, thus precluding me from breaking away to shoot video footage, as I had previously done during the acclimatisation outings. However, urged on by the beautiful daybreak light, I turned to Zoltan and told him that I was going to press ahead just a few metres so that I could stop and lm. My timing was perfect. As soon as I pulled out the camcorder, inserted the battery and regained my breath, Elbrus’s impressive, massive shadow emerged to the west, covering the valley oor and lesser peaks alike. It reminded me of the shadow of Aconcagua in Argentina a couple of years back, and both Mason and I immediately used our cameras to capture this moment of other-worldly magic.
By 8:30 am, we were still heading north on fairly steep terrain towards the 5,245-metre saddle that sits between the mountain’s two peaks. Increas- ingly icy conditions were making it very dif cult to climb, and I nearly lost my right ski when I slipped and the alpine touring binding came loose. This was exacerbated by the fact that, overcon dent due to the previous day’s trouble-free outings, I hadn’t bothered to wear the safety latches that would pre- vent me from losing a ski in the event of a binding release.
As the temperature dropped even lower, I noticed that the sealskins were no longer sticking to the soles of my skis, but instead were sliding from side to side with every step, and were held only at the tip and tail by the top elastic and bottom hook. This was partly because, having waxed my skis at the Barrels the day before, I hadn’t scraped them down properly, resulting in excess wax on each base. Add to this the thick layer of frost that, during a break, I found on the sticky part of the skins, and it isn’t surprising that I experienced a problem.
For his part, Boz was moving extremely slowly and, as we approached the saddle, we decided to abandon the idea of skinning all the way to the very top. From now on, we climbed with our skis strapped to our packs and our crampons to our boots. Zoltan, Mason and I reached the edge of the saddle several minutes before Boz, so we ate, drank and sat on our packs, waiting for him to catch up. The weather was visibly closing in on us – even Zoltan had never seen clouds approach so rapidly from the east – and when Boz nally appeared, staggering along while his skis swung back and forth with each unsteady step, he stopped a few metres away and cried loudly, “Hey, Mason! Come and give me a hand before I take a tumble!”
The weather kept closing in on us and, as we began our nal ascent towards the top, the wind picked up – this time from the west – and we experienced our rst snow akes, pelting our hoods and faces.
Mason rushed towards Boz and removed his bag from his shoulders. Yet, before either of them took a step, Boz announced, “It’s time for me to call it quits.” He had gone as far as he could, and his body and soul couldn’t take any more beating. A wise decision, I thought, knowing how much he had already suffered. After Mason and Zoltan discussed the situation, they came up with the only plausible solution, which is standard procedure in such circumstances: Mason would take care of Boz and accompany him back down to Camp, while I would continue heading towards the west summit with Zoltan.
At the far end of the saddle, Zoltan and I stored our skis, as we knew that the conditions ahead wouldn’t permit us to use them safely either on the way up or on the way down. The weather kept clos- ing in on us and, as we began our nal ascent to- wards the top, the wind picked up – this time from the west – and we experienced our rst snow akes, pelting our hoods and faces from the left side. All the while, the route kept growing steeper and steeper, with a gradient that ranged from 40 to 45 degrees, yet Zoltan and I made rapid progress, marking our trail with small, thin bamboo wands, and taking just a single break at a rock ridge that’s about half- way between the saddle and the summit.
The rooftop of Europe was less than 40 minutes away, and so we continued to climb at a fast pace, as dictated by Zoltan, who was a step or two ahead of me, until I assumed the lead following a short break. With the summit now in sight, despite the poor visibility, I had no intention of stopping or slowing down. I just looked behind me every once in a while to check on Zoltan’s progress.
By the time I eventually did make it to the top, it was snowing really heavily and the wind was howling. Unlike the last time I had climbed this mountain, there wasn’t any sunshine or even a scenic view. Instead, with no climbers to be seen either on the way up or on the way down, we truly had the summit to ourselves. After Zoltan had joined me at the engraved rock that denotes the summit and lmed me holding the Lebanese and Bank Audi ags, we began our descent, again at a blistering pace, with me taking the lead. I removed every other wand on the trail, he did the same, and soon we arrived at the saddle.
Although Elbrus is not comparable to many Himalayan peaks, it is both unpredictable and capricious, its pro- ximity to the Caspian Sea enabling it to generate weather that sometimes de es even the best meteorological forecasts.
As the ever heavier snowfall reduced visibility to just a couple of metres, my mind turned to all the people who had perished on this seemingly easy mountain. For some reason, the Russian authorities do not record fatalities here, yet we climbers know about them, thanks to word of mouth. Certainly, although Elbrus is not comparable to many Himalayan peaks, it is both unpredictable and capricious, its proximity to the Caspian Sea enabling it to generate weather that sometimes de es even the best meteorological forecasts.
In worsening conditions, including strong winds, removing our crampons and then the sealskins from our skis was a very unpleasant task. So was the start of our ski descent, on extremely steep and icy slopes where the fresh snow was being blown by those winds. “Stay behind and in sight of me,” I told Zoltan, as we headed towards clearer weather and better snow conditions. Further down, I eventually began to enjoy myself when what initially seemed like a torturous, dangerous and icy descent turned into a pleasant and exhilarating soft snow ski run. By the time we reached the Pastukhov Rocks, Zoltan and I were having a ball, yet we were still trying to be careful. Yes, I was acclimatised, but lactic acid that had accumulated in the thighs, combined with shortness of breath at around 5,000 metres, made it virtually impossible for me to carve more than a few dozen turns before stopping for a breather. For- tunately, the clearer weather did at last reveal the Caucasus range down below and, once back at the Garabashi Barrels, I said a short prayer, thanking God for my safe round trip. The next day was July 4th, an extra day on the mountain and, in celebra- tion of American Independence, I decided to treat my U.S. colleagues – as well as our Russian ally – to the sight of me skiing in my skimpy running shorts. After all we’d been through in such a short space of time, it was the least I could do.