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Europe » Russia » South » Caucasus » Mt. Elbrus
August 24th 2010
Published: August 24th 2010
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....by the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down. Ehr we wept, when we remembered Zion.....

The train that carried us away from Berlin had a ghostly feel not unlike the chariot that carried Jonathan Harker away from the Bistritsa pass in the opening chapters of "Dracula". Prior to this we had travelled in European luxury in the hands of typical Deutsch Bahn comfort, but the transfer ride from the glassy, modern Berlin central station to the Kiev connection told a different tale. Drunks sat about mumbling to themselves, security was nonexistant and the air around us filled with the unmistakable sound of Slavic tongues. Goodbye Europe, Hello Bloc. The faces of those around us also changed from the virtually post-ethnic intelligentsia of the worlds most developed countries to the pure bred, blue eyed stare of the mother land.
Ета не Европа....It was as if we were already in Russia. Again, the wide range of the old Soviet sphere of influence is staggering.
The friendly folks at Deutsch Bahn told us that we should not buy advance tickets for the train to Kiev because it was likely that the surly train agents would not let us board with our 150+ kilos of gear. As we waited on the platform for the aformentioned ghost train, we pulled our bikes from their boxes and broke them down further. It was hot and we were sweating like rock hounds in the Gulag. When finished with our task we simply threw the boxes and packaging off the end of the platform like corpses. We had a desperate feeling and we had not eaten for hours. This type of travel is not a vacation and moments like this, where we work and scheme like criminals, ready to pounce any obstacle for the next goal in the mission, are a perfect reminder of the difference between trips and expeditions.
Our fellow travelers looked on with an air that blended interest and disgust. The masses here were made up of an eclectic mix of peasant types, shirtless Ruskies, dark eyed polish maidens, and a few eccentric artist/intellectual types. One of the latter was Israeli by creed and German by upbringing. He was off to make a film with his father, a seemingly mad social alchemist, in the hinterlands of central Ukraine. He offered to take a bag for us should the officials try to bar our passage. This gesture of kindness, accompanied by an otherworldly smile greatly disarmed us and we thus moved forward more peacefully. As it turned out a rather unkempt Ukrainian with gold teeth met us at the door. He was at least amused by our Russian language skills and allowed us on the antique of a Soviet era train with our impositionally large payload. The two of us were assigned different cabins which was fortunate given the task of packing two bikes and several heavy duffels of climbing gear into the tiny living compartments. Following that we sat dripping with sweat in the stewards cabin negotiating a fare for the two of us using a language we had not spoken in a year. The priceedings were good natured and ended with the usual question: "what the hell are you guys doing with all this stuff?"
We shared one compartment with two Brits (as pure luck would have it) who were also headed to the Caucasus. These proper gents would prove to be arch comrades in our kampf to get ourselves to Sochi. Along with our German/Israeli buddy the five of us were a fine image of young, passionate intellectualism: Nationally transcendent, culturally diverse, ready for anything..... Confident. For several days we drenched our lives in the sweat of the young and free while stuffing ourselves with pierogies and cheap beer. In Kiev we were able to procure tickets to our intended Russian base of operations in Sochi. Conrad and Tim were already ticketed for the same train and helped us to drag our load to the platform. For the next two nights we shared vodka and ideas; amongst ourselves and with a cabin full of Ukrainian construction workers. Having those two around to share the whole transport experience with was quintessential. It converted the irksome obligation of a ridiculously long approach into a lesson in cultural transcendence. We rolled into Sochi mutually full of venison sausage, vodka, and respect.
The two weeks that followed were a whirlwind of beaurocracy, cold toes, and high mountain majesty. We spent two days in the joke of a future Olympic city getting the blessed visa registrations required for a legitimate stay in the gloriously corrupt Russian Federation. Sochi is not such a bad town but all of the nasty reputations of a corrupt state come to a head in a place with so much glitz. Corrupt cops, gangsters, six inch high heals, surly public servants, the place has it all. Hard to say how things will proceed but from this perspective it seems that the 2014 games have all the makings of a perfect Russian tragedy.
We left our bikes with a friendly family in Sochi and took a sweaty 16 hour ride to the north side of the Caucasus. En route we were briefly relieved of a thousand roubles by two police officers who threatened a jail sentance for urinating behind an abandoned building. Fortunately they made the mistake of turning their backs on an American criminal and the money ended up back in our posession! The thought of their dissapointment when they realized their flounder still puts a grin on our hearts. The satisfaction of stealing from thieves is indescribable, especially when they seem so confident in their prowess. Next time perhaps we will steal the shirts from their backs, their guns, badges, maybe a finger or two. We pulled into Terskol at the base of Mt. Elbrus in the back of a seemingly hell-bent taxi. The border issues with Georgia, paired with the constant exchange of ethnic strife and retalitory measures by the Russian government have much of the main ridge on lockdown. Disgruntled guides and locals estranged from their families on the southern slopes are the norm at this juncture. Moscow seems to have placed a moritirium on anyone having fun in the high peaks for the time being so most are relegated to the high planar slopes of Elbrus, 20 kilometers north of the border. It is ironic that a political boundary separates this region. With so many tribes divided and so many interests wanting to be served it is barely remarkable that some decide to take the drastic measures of terrorism. Faced with a non-negotiatory, industrialized military regime, what other choice do the underdogs have? It is a story that has been replayed again and again, time and world over.
We found a place to stash some gear in Terskol and headed up to Elbrus. At this point thousands of dollars of equiptment were left on little more than common trust in atriums, bedrooms, and barber shops in two cities. It is always amazing that perfect strangers are willing to offer such trustworthy service. Elbrus itself is dump. Lifts carry people up to a sort of base camp from whence cats deliver people to the higher altitudes where many simply vomit and walk back down. We took up refuge in a fuel barrel converted into a hostel with a group of Moscovites and waited out some dismal weather. On the second night we woke at midnight and assesed the weather as bad and getting worse. We had hoped to summit but decided to delay our plans by a day in hopes of a positive tilt of the barometer. Two hours later our barrel mates rose at the behest if their 71 year old guide with different plans. They were clearly unacclimatized and the two who slept near us suffered from characteristic apneic breathing cycles in the night. Victor (the guide) was clearly nervous but inspired the group with his confidence. He asked us to join them and it was clear that he found the idea of going up with a foreign guide appealing given the large group. Beginning our ascent in a smokey snow cat did not appeal to our idealistic side but the sick bastards in us wanted to see the shit show. We were also tempted by the opportunity to observe an elder guide at work and climb with a group of friendly Russians. In the end their hospitality won us over and into the back of a vintage (K)assbohrer we went. It was like cat skiing only, well, no skis. At the Pastuchev rocks we hopped out and snapped into our crampons. The group looked ill and we started up at a snails pace. An hour or two into the plod we found ourselves at the front of all groups with 30 cm of snow in our path. Victor, who had been triumphantly leading until this point seemed relieved when we stepped up to break trail. At this point the weather took a turn for the gnarly and soon it was just a few of us pushing up in a whiteout. At sunrise a sucker hole offered a superb psychadelic view out to Ushba for a brief moment before the clouds closed in again. On the summit block it was only the two of us and a Swiss man. Moments later we were joined by two Ukrainians and a plastic bottle of Cognac. Ten minutes late several random Euros pulled up under the guidance of a resident dog from the barrel village that we will loosly call "high camp".
In the following days we made our way up into the Terskol river valley to climb a mountain called Irkchat. The sublime alpine scenery was reminiscent of the Tyrol and the lack of people, coupled with an abundance of raspberries formed a paridisical respite from the crowded, dirty environs of the local giant. This was a contingency plan quickly formulated when we found the peaks of the main ridge to be on beaurocratic shutdown. While the rock was loose and the approaches arduous, this climb allowed us to address this mighty range on our own terms and move in an alpine style that felt closer to our roots. We also achieved maximum panorama which filled our minds with dreams of our next climb in the might Болшой Кавказ. Elbrus is famous for being the highest peak in Europe but calling the Caucasus Europe would be like calling Canada America. Perhaps geophysically true but from a wholistic view we can say it no better than the locals: Ета Россия, ета не Европа! We concur.
The day we descended from the mountains we hopped into a minibus without delay and raced back to Sochi on an overnight ride from hell. So surreal to be back on the coast, sleeping on a porch when the previous night had found us laying our tired selves down amongst alpine flora with bellies full of raspberries. A quick dip in the sea, a few hearty Russian meals, and off we now go on a boat to Turkey. Sending our alpine gear home from Sochi was bittersweet but now that our bikes are built up, our panniers loaded, the old game is quickly coming back. With so many kilometers of riding through Turkey and the Balkans ahead, so much balaclava and kebaps to fuel the machines, we can only be elated to be hitting the road. It is for us as natural as the cycle of life itself. Another month, another nation, our needs are the same..... Food, a place to sleep, daily time to hear nothing more than the mighty beating of our hearts. Bike living is simple. Enough said.


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24th August 2010

Very inspiring
Excellent travel commentary from you as always. Wishing you good luck, good food and wind at your backs. Safe travels, Heather Segale
24th August 2010

Life
It all sounded miserable and delicious at the same time. One of those trips that gets better as you move away from it. Best wishes. Greg
24th August 2010

This could be a movie!
Wow! That says it all! Thanks for sharing!
25th August 2010

Best ever
Hi guys, that was the best blog yet! I hope that as you have lightened your loads and are back to the bicycles, that as you peddle Northward toward "europe" proper especially as JP n Julie come in your "expedition" becomes just a little more "vacation"! :-) Thanks for writing! Mark
25th August 2010

On the Road Again!
Thanks for planning another amazing trip for us to live vicariously through! Alison, I can't believe you brought that bikini top and skirt with you, very hot!! ; ) Hope you guys have a great trip! I'll be thinking of you and excitedly checking my e-mail for your next blog! You guys are awesome!
26th August 2010

Beware the Bandits
I don't know if you're familiar with the 1894 journey of Frank Lenz, one of the first bicyclists to try to navigate the globe on a two-wheeler. He met a still speculative, but ill fate in Turkey. I read about him in a 2009 issue of American History magazine on Sunday afternoon. A synopsis is at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Lenz,_adventurer . 100+ years later, the roads are better, your ability to telecommute distress assured, and the Turks are more agreeable--so have fun. (BTW, also slightly tweaked your front page, although you'll prolly not notice: http://www.angelfire.com/md/Wiles .)
30th August 2010

Simply awesome
It's great to see you guys living out your dreams. Keep it up!

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