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Climb for a cause

Climb For a Cause: Mt. Elbrus Climb to Raise Money for
THAI Children Missions

After my first climb on Kilimanjaro in July 2013, I had become obsessed with mountaineering and climbing the seven summits, which are the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Prior to climbing Kilimanjaro, I had expected that i would never attempt to summit another mountain again, but something about the experience was so illuminating and so cathartic that I felt as if i couldn’t live without going on another trip to another mountain in the future.

After a few months of thinking, I decided that my next destination would be Mount Elbrus, located in Russia, and of course, I looked at the climb as a perfect opportunity to fundraise for T.H.A.I. Children, and i began collecting sponsorships before the climb in August 2014. At 18,510 feet, Mount Elbrus is a bit shorter than Kilimanjaro, but it posed a significantly larger amount of challenges than did Kilimanjaro in so many respects. Of course, my father and I had to choose the appropriate route up the mountain. After researching a bit, i realized that the south side up the mountain is a relatively gentle, more relaxed climb that has “hotels” and huts up the mountain that include heating and near-gourmet food. On top of that, it has a cable car that drops climbers off near the top.

To me, it seemed both foolish and arrogant to take that way up because i felt that i wouldn’t get a true mountaineering experience if i were to attempt a summit bid without proper acclimatization and climbing. As a result, we chose the north route. The north route has little to no facilities for climbers, and the most grueling part comes in the form of a 2000m climb to the summit in one day. That’s almost 6,562 feet. I didn’t know what i was in for. Mt. Elbrus Climb - Day 1 Me and my father arrived at the airport and we were promptly introduced to our guides, Nikolai Cherniy and Vitaly (i do not know his last name). Nikolai, I learned, had climbed Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world — twice. He had over 50 years of climbing experience, which explained his grizzled, 75-year-old look. On top of that, he had attempted to climb K2, the deadliest mountain in the world, but had to unfortunately turn down since one of his climbing mates was killed after freezing to death during a storm.

Vitaly, on the other hand, had only four years of climbing experience, but already, he had climbed Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, at almost 23,000 feet, and he was in fantastic shape. We loaded our gear into the military-like truck and were told that it would take 3 hours to get to base camp. My father and I fell asleep until we were woken up by a harsh rocking sensation that we soon learned was our transition from paved roads to a dusty path that spanned for miles across the mountains. Looking over our shoulders and out the windows of the truck, we saw a cliff that led to a 700 foot drop straight down — and it was about three to four feet away from the edge of the truck. We were promptly told that the roads were wet and muddy, and that we would probably have to hike a long way if the roads got too bad. Nonetheless, the driver drove extremely fast down this path for 2 consecutive hours. Obviously, he was experienced.

After the truck stopped, we picked up our gear and trekked to base camp, which luckily lasted for only twenty minutes. Base camp was more accommodating than we were led to believe, having a mess tent and a few larger tents with sleeping tents inside. We set up for the night after eating dinner and slept.

A view of a peak in the Caucasus from a paved road early on in the trip.
Base Camp
Our tent at base camp.

Mess Tent
The mess tent at base camp.
Nikolai, our experienced Russian guide up Elbrus.

Mt. Elbrus Climb - Day 2
We were woken up at around 9:00 to begin our climb to the next camp for an acclimatization run. At this point, we were already at 2700 meters altitude. The camp we were going to was at 3700 meters. It was a cloudy, muggy day with clouds, mud, and rain. The trail was slippery, and only once in a while we could see the snow-capped summit of Mount Elbrus in the distance if it peeked at opportune times through the clouds. Somehow, we were told, the climb would take only about three hours. Optimistic, me and my father packed our gear and headed out. At first, it was a climb through the grasslands on relatively steep terrain. It soon morphed into an even steeper climb over rocks and boulders that soon turned into a climb over a small patch of ice just before the next camp. After four hours, we were exhausted, but we were excited to have completed the climb. We were taken into a hut, almost to our disbelief. We were told that we would be staying there for the next few nights before our summit attempt. We ate a cold lunch consisting of bread, cheese, and blended chicken, and we were treated to tea by the nice Russian lady who cooked for the German group that was currently staying there. After about thirty minutes of rest, we descended, which took another two and a half hours. It was tiring, but we had completed the first day. We only had six more to go.
On the way to the second camp.
Some of the steep slopes on the way up.
My father and I.

West Summit
The domineering west summit of Mount Elbrus. This was our destination.

Mt. Elbrus Climb - Day 3
We were woken up once again at 9:00. Today was the same climb as yesterday, although this time, it was less cloudy and a bit more sunny. As we trekked through the grasslands and valleys we could see Mount Elbrus’ daunting twin peaks in the distance. Our guides continuously pointed out that we would be going to the one on the right, which was the west summit. After four hours of climbing, like the previous day, we set up our sleeping bags in the comfortable hut and took a short nap. We would be staying there for a few days, so we decided that we should find ways to pass the time, like playing cards. We were given a hearty dinner, and we eventually slept.

Mt Elbrus
A great, cloudless photo of the twin peaks of Mount Elbrus during our climb back up to second camp. The right peak is the west summit, our destination.

My father and I posing in front of the twin peaks. It was a beautiful day.

Two Summits
The two summits from the second camp.
The sunset.

Mt. Elbrus Climb - Day 4
Today was an interesting day, mainly because it was the first day that we would be using crampons, which are spikes that climbers attach to the bottom of their boots to grapple and balance easily on slick ice and snow on certain mountains. We were woken up at 6:00 am, and we ate a nice breakfast before heading out for an acclimatization climb to Lenz Rock, which is at 4600m. Along with our crampons, we needed to use trekking poles and ice axes for balance, as well as carabines and ropes so that we wouldn’t lose each other in the midst of a storm (the rope was also used in case someone in the group fell into a crevasse, which was a constant danger.) The climb was extremely difficult. It was at least twice as steep as the previous days, and it was on ice. It was extremely cold, and by the time we had reached the camp at Lenz Rock after four hours (we wouldn’t be staying there), the wind had gotten almost out of control, dropping the temperature another 10-15 degrees fahrenheit. I am not certain about the temperature, but i can assume that it was at least -10 degrees fahrenheit. Mind you, this was during the day. After resting for a good fifteen minutes, we were forced to go down since the wind was becoming almost storm-like. The descent was shorter, at around and a half, but descending with crampons is something difficult and dangerous. At one point, my father fell into a small crevasse, but luckily he wasn’t hurt. We were told that the next day would be a rest day before the summit attempt. We ate dinner and slept.

Lenz Rock
On the slopes to Lenz rock.
Crevasses during a steep part of the climb.
Mt. Rucu3A good shot of the crampons. They are a spiked apparatus that hooks into snow and ice in order to keep the user’s balance. Mt. Rucu
At Lenz rock!

Mt. Elbrus Climb - Day 5 Today, we were taken on a simple one hour warm-up climb that took us about 100-200 meters up the mountain. We came down quickly, and for the remainder of the day, we rested. Me and my father passed the time playing cards and eating to gather enough energy to make the summit the next day.

Me and my father before the gentle acclimatization climb that day.

Mt. Elbrus Climb - Day 6
Today was the big day. We were woken up at around 1:30 am, and of course, me and my father were terrified. We went outside, and in the dark, the temperature was around 5 degrees fahrenheit. We packed extremely heavy jackets for when we were near the summit, since the temperature would drop radically without warning. Looking up, i could see the summit domineering over us in the distance, and i realized that it was the first good view of the mountain I had seen.

We began climbing. This was short-lived, however, because at around 3 hours in and 100m below Lenz Rock, we were told by a Russian group that Lenz Rock was extremely windy and dangerous, and that we should turn around. They weren’t lying. We had already felt an extreme amount of wind during the climb up to this point, and the amount of blinding snow was too much for us to handle. So, much to our chagrin, we descended. We were told that we would rest for the remainder of the day, and that if the weather proved favorable, we would attempt the summit the next day. Around mid-day, a message came down from base camp. A porter told us that a man had froze to death that day because of the weather. To be honest, i was mortified. I was shocked and scared and i didn’t want to go to the summit the next day because I was afraid to die. For the remainder of the day, I worried about what lie ahead.

Mt. Elbrus Climb - Day 7
Outside was silent. I was awake at 2:00 in the morning after being shaken to consciousness by Nikolai and Vitaly. They told me and my father that the weather was perfect. When me and my father went outside, we saw no clouds above, and only the twin peaks 2000 meters above us. It was time. We put on our crampons and gear and began climbing. With the fear still looming over me, I tried to beat the mental game by staring directly at the ground without looking ahead. This worked. By the time four hours had passed, we were at Lenz Rock. I was already exhausted, but I had to remain energized for the rest of the summit day, because it was nowhere near being finished. We climbed higher than ever. We climbed through glacial valleys and extremely steep slopes that got as steep as 45 degrees.

The temperature plummeted to less than -20 degrees fahrenheit. Luckily, we had extra layers, so we all slipped on heavy coats to protect from frostbite, which was an omnipresent threat. After eight hours had passed, we were so exhausted that every few steps felt like a marathon. I found myself leaning over quite often to catch my breath as i waited for the rope to gain tension before i moved forward in the line of four that was comprised of me, my father, Nikolai, and Vitaly. I only thought about the summit now. I didn’t care if I died along the way. All i wanted was to reach the top of this mountain. All I wanted was to make the children that I would be saving through this sponsorship fundraising happy and content with their new lives. I stuck it out for another hour before we came to the most difficult part of the climb. Above us was about 200 meters of precipitous slopes that had to have been as steep as 50 degrees. As we climbed up, our crampons would often slip. The steep terrain became so precipitous at one point that I literally slipped and fell when the trail was two feet wide. I almost slipped off of the 200 meter cliff below me, but thankfully, Vitaly helped me up and pulled the rope between us to create enough tension to bring me to my feet. Nearly in tears after almost dying, I carefully slid my ice axe into the snow around me until we finally came to the last push before the summit.

In the distance, Vitaly pointed out the summit. It was a mount of snow that almost looked surreal. “Fifteen or twenty minutes until we arrive,” he said, pointing to the top. At this point, me and my father were filled with adrenaline. We pushed on for the last twenty minutes until we took our last steps atop the highest point in Europe. We shared a few hugs and took pictures. After only fifteen minutes atop the summit, we began our descent. The descent was more strenuous than difficult. It took another four hours to get back to camp, so in total, the climb to the top and back was fourteen hours with only twenty minutes of cumulative breaks. By the time we had got back, we were so exhausted and dehydrated that all we did for a few hours hours was drink water and sleep. By the time we had eaten dinner, we had acknowledged the fact that what we had done that day was something more difficult than we could have ever imagined. To be blunt, it made Kilimanjaro look like a walk on flat ground.

A shot of me while climbing. You can see the ropes I am attached to as well as the numerous crampon marks in the snow. This was a very steep part of the climb.
Andrew Crampons
Me during the summit bid. You can see my crampons near the bottom of the photo and the long rope that I was attached to.
Mt. Rucu4
At around six hours in, we still had a long way to climb.
We’d finally made it to the tallest point in all of Europe! To my left is our guide, Vitaly. To my right is my father.

Mt. Elbrus Climb - Day 8
Today, we made our official descent to base camp, which took a short three hours. We almost laughed at how easy it was compared to the summit. When we got back to base camp, we packed our belongings and said our goodbyes to Nikolai. We waited for the truck to arrive before me, my father, and Vitaly loaded up the truck to go to the airport. The drive to the airport was almost as nerve-racking and unexpected as the drive to base camp. It was just as bumpy but it was a bit more terrifying because we were ascending, not descending, so we couldn’t control gravity if it decided to bring us downhill. But, it never did. We said our goodbyes to Vitaly, and got on our plane back to New York. When I describe the climb to people, I realize that they never truly understand how difficult and taxing the climb was. It was so much harder than I expected, but I conquered it. I have since gained a sense of confidence in my ability to accomplish things. But even more than that, I have raised over $15,000 in sponsorships for T.H.A.I. Children. That, to me, is something truly amazing.
Goodbye, Russia!

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