Peak: Mt Elbrus

Continent: Europe
Country: Russia
Summit: 18,500 feet
Date: June 13, 2002

Special Achievement: First blind ascent and ski descent

Skiing uphill

Two long days of travel from Moscow brought us to our hotel in the Baksan valley at the foot of Mt. Elbrus. A place 1/2 finished or 1/2 demolished I had a hard time telling the difference. As I gazed upon the hills and mountains around us, the beauty and magnitude of this region mesmerized me. It was everything that the Alps of Western Europe were and higher – rugged, glaciated, high peaks offering every type of challenge for mountaineers and skiers alike. From the photos that I brought back, however, this appeared to be a bit of a posh trip staying at hotels and eating foods prepared for us by our Russian cook. What you don’t see from the photos are the excruciatingly cold showers and the grumpy floor mom who tells us when we are to take showers with a hand signal showing us the number of fingers she is holding up so that we will know when the water will, or should I say could be hot. Nothing like a cold day on the mountain followed by a cold shower in a building with no heat. But hey – we are rugged mountaineers right? We did, after all just climb Everest and we are not about to start complaining now.

Slowly we filter into the kitchen for our first meal and we are excited to try some of the regions food. What came next was a nice bowl of Borsch. The first time it was good but after 2 weeks it began to remind me of the menu at base camp on Everest. A menu that never changed. We tried to fatten up for our ascent the following day and the cheap Russian beer probably helped us to do this more than anything. After having spent a couple of days skiing and acclimating we went for Elbrus.

The Russian crew we had with us had never seen a team with so much gear – we had a film crew with us and then of course we had all kinds of computer and communications equipment as well. I don’t think it is possible to climb a mountain without this stuff any more. The Russians that were with us thought this was crazy and couldn’t understand the necessity. We on the other hand saw it as fun and didn’t mind the effort especially when it kept us in close contact with loved ones at home.

Day one would bring us up an old tram – it was old, but at least it was poorly maintained. As we departed the terminal in the overloaded cable car I made the mistake of looking back at the terminal and seeing there the support for the tram: a broomstick wedged in below the cable to act as a bushing and thereby reduce friction on the cable. What a great time to be blind!

At the top we were greeted by a bit of a storm and shuttled our gear over to the “barrels” – recycled fuel barrels would serve as our home for the next couple of days as we acclimated some more. These were quite nice really. No need to worry about the wind or shoveling snow off of them, they had heaters and even lights inside. I am at this point beginning to feel like a very fat American climber. Where are the danger, the risk, and the hard nights out, the challenges? I suppose the heart of adventure is not always in the challenge itself, but as much in the soul of the people who make up the team and the excitement of doing something new. It doesn’t matter that this mountain has been climbed before and even skied before, it never had been by us and never by a blind man and this was our adventure.

After some more Borsch we made our first foray up the lower slopes of the mountain. We were hit by 58mph winds and blowing snow. I take back what I said earlier – here began the adventure. Yelling over the wind to my blind friend making sure to steer him away from the rocks and other dangers of the mountain. We made our way up to 15,000 feet; the highest we would get before summit day. Moving from the Barrels camp to the priut hut was really not much of a day. A short climb of 3,000 feet and setting up camp left us with a little extra time for some skiing. Here we set up three tents and had a hut available for some of the team. This hut was perched on the edge of a steep hill above the glacier and we were thankful that the construction was so shoddy. Perhaps the most interesting thing here was the John and how it was tied down with cables sealed by a thin particleboard door. When someone would go in they put themselves in harms way. There was nowhere to sit and when the person inside assumed the position all the others on the outside would gather the hardest snowballs they could and bombard the precarious tin structure. This stopped when Kevin on the inside received a near fatal blow that went through the door and hit him in the face. It sure made for some good laughs and still does today.

It was the typical alpine start – 2:30 a.m., cold and dark. We got up and couldn’t see through the snow. Waiting two hours, again we find trying to keep a schedule doesn’t work in the mountains – they don’t care where you need to be or when, just that they are the boss. At 4:30 a.m. finally the weather calmed enough for us to get out and give it a try. Erik, Chris and myself went for the summit together with the rest of the team up ahead. Slowly we made it up and as we did, to our surprise, the weather got better. It was never very cold, as we pushed up through the snow and fog.

It seemed as though Erik was struggling a little this day, and after spending the entire winter training for this I couldn’t understand why. We made our way up over the steep icy section and then over the final crest at which time we saw the entire team waiting for us in the form of a gauntlet line. As we went for the summit we passed through and each person smacked Erik on the back letting him have first crack at the summit. This kind of camaraderie made my eyes well up with tears. There is something about achieving a goal as a team at which time the entire team gives back the success to an individual that makes one feel all warm and fuzzy no matter how cold it may be. For a few moments we stood on top and reveled. We were able to make contact with family back home and share the moment with loved ones ten hours away. It came time to ski. Erik looked my way and said: “Ya know, I really don’t feel like skiing. I think I‘ll just walk down.” I got so mad that steam started coming out of my ears. If someone is incapable or unable I am the first one to support the idea of stopping – I guess that is just the ski patrolman in me, but Erik was just not in the mood so it seemed. I understand he was a little tired, but we had just spent the last six months getting ready for this moment, hours of time on the phone, making deals, organizing, preparing, skiing together, coordinating, planning, and now he didn’t want to ski! I went over to him and gently said –“Oh, your gonna ski!” “We didn’t go through all of this so that you could be the first blind guy to think about skiing off the top – no you actually gotta do it.” He buckled up and skied off the top with me. We had the longest run of our lives (9,500 vertical feet of descent. It was a blast.). Conditions ranged from crust to powder, to blue glacial ice, to knee-deep slush. This was certainly a good challenge for a tired blind guy and his merciless friend.

As we neared the bottom, we again came into whiteout conditions. I could see generally where we should go but could not see the terrain, so I used Erik and his bright red jacket skiing in front of me to let me know where the drops would be – again a case of the blind leading the blind. When he would suddenly drop I knew there was a big roller coming. This was fun, especially when he was interviewed on the Today show telling the world that he got us off that mountain that day – kind of like Rudolph guiding Santa’s sleigh. At the bottom Erik turned to me with a big ‘ol grin and said “Do ya wanna go back up?” “That was possibly the best run I have ever had”. Erik later thanked me for making him click into his skis that day, and as much as I kid him I have to thank my friend for helping to realize many dreams and see the possibilities in all things. He gave it his best effort. We made it off the mountain unharmed, and even more impressive is that we made it down the tram unharmed. Standing back at the bottom one of our Russian friends said to me, in his thick Russian accent “I did not know invalid could ski like this.” Erik having overheard this turned and said “Yeah, but he does pretty good doesn’t he!”

A celebration at the Dacha of former President Breshnev awaited us at the bottom, and after a few cocktails a new plan had been made to paraglide off of Australia’s highest summit – the final chapter of Erik’s quest to be the first blind man to scale the seven summits.