Mount Elbrus – My 6th Continental Summit

  • Elevation : 18,510 feet (5,642 meters)
  • Continent : Europe
  • Location : Russia
  • Mountain Range : Caucasus
  • First Ascent : 1868 By Douglas William Freshfield
  • My Ascent : June 2002

Mt. Elbrus, my sixth summit, is located in the Caucasus, which straddles the war-torn boundary between European Russia and Asian Georgia. Mt. Elbrus is Europe’s established continental summit. However, Some critics argue for 15,781 foot Mt. Blanc as the tallest peak and place Mt. Elbrus in a middle ground called Eurasia. The Caucasus Mountains are actually closer to Iran than Western Europe.

Mt. Elbrus is known for ferocious weather and howling winds. The only reprieve from the weather is a set of barrel shaped metal huts, left over from the old days of the Soviet Union, where climbers stay the night before ascending to the summit. The mountain still hosts an old Soviet style ski resort, with a dilapidated tram and creaking ski lifts at its base. A dormant volcano, Mt. Elbrus’ twin peaks are conical and are ideal for ski descents. That was just what we had in mind.

Excerpt from “The Adversity Advantage”

My friend Eric Alexander and I trained for an entire year, devising new ways to communicate while speeding down a mountain together with only one ski length between us. Every word out of Eric’s mouth had to translate to a precise and predictable action on my part. Ski turns have three sequential steps—getting the skis up on edges to initiate the turn, facing straight down the fall line, and bringing the skis around for the finish. So Eric learned to call out turns in three syllables, “Turn…a…left! Turn…a…right!” With each syllable, I’d know exactly where I needed to be in the maneuver.

One of the exciting, or terrifying, parts of skiing blind is that I’m only able to react to variables like sudden drops, as I feel them under my skis. So to ease the transitions, Eric learned to call, “Steeper!” or “Flatter!” In the narrower sections, where we wanted to maintain our speed, Eric could extend a pole to me, enabling me to stay in sync with him on each turn. Eric and I even practiced with a new high-tech radio that let us communicate the turns when gale-force winds kicked in.

The element of speed, combined with a lack of sight, leaves no room for error. My worst nightmare was tumbling into oblivion or hitting a rock at 30 miles per hour. We practiced relentlessly to get the new systems hardwired so we could count on them working in any conditions.

When the day of our summit push finally arrived, it took everything I had to make it to the top. I was completely spent, and my legs were rubbery with the weight of the extra gear. I turned to Eric, and admitted, “I don’t know if I can do this.” He was silent for a minute, and then I felt the sting of his gloved hand smack me on the side of the head. “We trained for a year,” He said, clearly annoyed. “We’re skiing this mountain!” So I wobbled up to my feet, clicked into my skis, and—rubbery legs and all—careened down the ridge.

The fear inspired by hanging from my finger tips high up on a rock face is nothing compared to hurtling blind down a high-altitude peak. The conditions would go instantly from deep powder to rock-hard snow, frozen into waves by the wind. Although Eric did his best to avoid drop-offs, I went over a few small ones; when you can’t see the landing, even a second of being airborne is unnerving. After every five jostling turns, I’d hang over my ski poles, gasping for air.

On the long traversing sections, Eric took my pole and we skied side-by-side, our skis only six inches apart. Later, he stayed right behind me, navigating us down icy gullies, past cliff bands, and around rocks. When the afternoon winds kicked up, we had our high tech radios ready to go.

Later in the descent, Eric and I became immersed in a whiteout. In these conditions, it’s hard for sighted folks to distinguish the ground from the sky; everything loses its contrast. Eric didn’t skip a beat as he called turns from behind me, but later he admitted he had used the bright red contrast of my jacket several times to tell him where the drop-offs were. Some things are better learned after the experience.