The growl of the snowcat and the orange glow of it’s exhaust faded to leave the crunch of crampons in the frozen snow and the shadows of the climbers cast by the full moon as they gathered their energy for another step. At 4am on 28th July 1999 we were finally on our way to the West summit of Mount Elbrus in the Caucus Mountains in Southern Russia, to go to the top at 5642 meters.
I reached the summit at 9am feeling fine, and finding it empty, had 30 minutes to think, drink, and take some video and photos before the next Russian climber came into view. Two of the three Norwegian climbers in our team along with our guide had beaten me by about an hour and a half, but about another 20 Russians, Austrians, and the final Norwegian climber were still spread out along the route to the summit, all of whom I had passed in the darkness as their pace dropped with the decreased oxygen.
Our decision to summit a day early had paid off, and we had absolutely perfect weather for the whole climb. We were well acclimatized, and were down in the valley resting the next day when the weather again closed in, making for snow storms and strong winds on the long icy route to the top of Europe.
The trip started with a flight from Amsterdam to Moscow, a few days exploring Moscow, another flight south to Mineral Vody, a 4 hour minivan ride into the Baksan Valley, and seven days of climbing to increasing altitudes on the peaks and ridges of the Caucus mountains to adapt to physical effort in high altitude.
I cannot see the tourist industry in Russia booming, as the customs officers at Moscow airport could not possibly process more than 200 passengers an hour, meaning a long wait and a great deal of patience is required when entering the country through this depressing concrete bunker. Exiting the country was even harder, requiring great patience, and if you are well prepared, a comfortable chair and enough food and water to last 90 minutes. You cannot take Rubles out of the country, so have to line up with your luggage at a moneychanger to convert them to dollars before filling in the exit forms and standing in line to clear customs. After this long wait, being constantly pestered by various depressing beggars tugging at your shirt sleeves, showing you their deformities, crying, and telling their sorry tales in Russian you are then allowed to line up to check your luggage into the airline desk. Then you line up for immigration control, and are free to shop duty free until boarding time. I have never before seen people break down and cry at the customs post when they discovered their papers were not in order and they could not leave the country.
Checking into an internal flight is even worse. At Mineral Vody the check-in was as follows. Park the van in a stinking hot, dusty carpark, pick up your luggage, and evade the beggars to reach the shade of the departure hall. Pay to have your luggage wrapped to avoid theft from your bags during handling and carry it up the fire escape to an unmarked desk behind an unmarked door on the third floor. There a woman will inspect your ticket and passport, and scribble boarding details on a scrap of paper. You then give your ticket, bags, and 10 Rubles per bag to a man, who will carry the bags down the ground floor, weigh them, write the weight on your ticket, come back up the stairs, and show you the weight. If your baggage weighs over 20kg then you need to pay 1% of your ticket price per kg over this limit to the man who will then give you a sticker to reclaim your bags when you disembark. Passengers must then wait in a lounge until a woman comes in, announces the destination, and all must follow her down the stairs, through papers check, metal detector and x-ray, across the tarmac, through the hot hangar used as a waiting room, and to the plane to wait in the sun while your ticket is checked again.
It was amazing that we had to pay for extra baggage at all when the crew had stashed tons of watermelons everywhere they possibly could on the aircraft, including under empty seats in first class, and in all luggage lockers, cupboards, and disused galley space. As soon as we took off a loud noise started in the wall next to my head, something like a power drill in sound and volume. This noise continued intermittently through the flight and eventually I determined that it was probably the air compressor compensating for pressure lost when the toilet was flushed and a load was shot into the atmosphere to take a freefall attractive to any skydiver and eventually fertilize the wheat fields of Southern Russia. Smoking is banned on the flights, but there is a regular stream of people heading to the toilets who come out in a cloud of smoke trying to look innocent. The army officers on the flight did not bother to even hide the fact that they were going to smoke, openly walking down the aisle to the rear of the plane with guns on their hips, and unlit cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.
At least the tires on the return flight had not worn through two layers of rubber and weave and we had enough seats. On the flight from Moscow to Mineral Vody the plane was filled with passengers, then an extra 10 crew were shoved on, and seats found for them in the toilet, galleys, and aisle for takeoff and landing. This flight also did not have doors on the luggage racks, so whenever the plane turned our arms went up to protect ourselves from potentially deadly falling ice picks, crampons, and backpacks.
I stayed in the Rossia Hotel in the middle of Moscow. It used to be the world’s biggest hotel, with 3200 rooms, and is on the banks of the Moscow River, across the road from the Kremlin – perfect location, dodgy hotel. To check in you go to the front desk, hand them your passport and they hand you a scrap of paper with your room number and you head off in search of your room. On each floor there is one reception desk on each side of the building, and you must go to the desk closest to your room, where you can trade your paper for your key. Upon leaving your room you return to the desk, trade the key for your paper, and can leave the building to explore the city. 15 minutes after entering the room the phone rang, and worried that it was some problem with my passport I answered. The girl on the other end, on recognizing that I spoke English said, “Hi, I am super girl, super sex, super massage, you want me to come to your room?” These random calls from prostitutes continued every 10 minutes, making it impossible to sleep unless I disconnected the phone.
Actually making a phone call was more trouble. I dialed the number for the hotel operator, and was told in Russian by a rude woman that for international calls I should phone reception. I phoned reception and was told in Russian by a rude woman to phone a certain number and to dial my number afterwards. When I left my room in the morning to go to breakfast the lady at the desk on my floor nearly jumped on me, indicating it was most important for me to go to the main desk on the ground floor to pay for the phone call.
In all it took approx. 55 minutes standing in line to pay for my phone call along with everyone else in the 3200 rooms stupid enough to use the phone the previous night, upon which I could return to my floor and retrieve my piece of paper which entitled me to have breakfast. This was enough to put me off making another phone call from that hotel, but I did try again from the Baksan Valley. I hiked 4km to the nearest phone, walked into the huge concrete bunker next to the large radio mast, handed the phone number to the operator sitting at the 1920’s era plug and cable switchboard, and she showed me the price of 376 Rubles for 3 minutes with a look on her face like this was her month’s salary. I agreed, and she tried unsuccessfully for 10 minutes to phone Australia, before giving up and leaving to hike 4km back up the mountain to the lodge.
The hotels we stayed at in the Baksan Valley were worse than the Rossia Hotel. The first was the Chigett Hotel, a 10 story monster that used to be home to the Russian Olympic ski team, but which now is only habitable on 2 floors, is run by some very dodgy gangsters, and has no heating or hot water. The second was a much nicer mountain lodge, again owned by the Mafia, but managed by a nice family who insisted on feeding us until we nearly burst.
The Caucus Mountains and Southern Russia in general is the most beautiful area I have ever been. Glaciers at the end of every valley perfect for ice climbing, snowcapped mountains all around perfect for hiking and climbing, rivers swelled by thawing of the winter snows (wish I had a kayak), thick pine forests, wild strawberries all over the ground, and wildflowers, butterflies and bumble bees in the mountain meadows. Most of the large wildlife has been hunted out in the Baksan valley, but more remote areas still have lots of deer, bear, and wild long horn sheep roaming. You could hike and climb forever, or just sit by a river eating strawberries and watching the birds in the trees and the avalanches thunder down the glaciers high above.
We ate Russian food the whole time in the Caucuses, mostly of Georgian origin, consisting of lots of watery soup made of cabbage, beetroot, potato and barley, with a large helping of lard or butter floated on top, and a second course of barley, tomato, cucumber, and either chicken or meat balls. Oat porridge was the main breakfast, sometimes substituted by American-style grits.
The whole time in the valley we paid protection money, per climber per day to the local Mafia boss, Camel, who controls the whole valley. I guess the protection worked, as when one of our Norwegian climbers was beaten up by a local thug he was in turn beaten up by the Mafia. Not all violence can be protected against though, and the day before we arrived a couple of climbers were shot dead by some Georgians who have developed the habit of lying in wait behind rocks on top of the ridge that forms the border between Russia and Georgia and robbing climbers as they reach the top. The guide of another group was severely beaten by Russians in an attempt to rob him, until he told them that he was not a tourist and they brushed him off and let him go. Some Romanian climbers left their car at the bottom of the mountain and the first night the fuel was stolen, the second night the car’s contents were stolen, and the third night the car was stolen, presumably by the same people who stole the fuel. Being nice to the family that ran the lodge definitely paid off, and on our last day we were treated to a huge plate of strips of raw bacon fat – apparently a delicacy to the Russians who could not understand why the Norwegians asked for it to be fried.
It amazes me that in the Caucuses it is possible to buy Coke, but not petrol. All along the highways from Mineral Vody lie disused petrol stations, built in haste when the Soviet Union collapsed, and now rendered next to useless by the breakdown of the distribution systems, and oil shortages caused by the war with Chechnya. The minivan we took from Mineral Vody to the Baksan Valley stopped just outside one mining town, and a car came tearing down the road, stopped next to us, the driver got out, opened our fuel tank, and began siphoning out fuel. It turned out he was the brother of our driver, and this was the only way he could get fuel.
The critical shortage of fuel also meant our driver in the valley tried to use the engine as little as possible. When we left our lodge at the top of the road in the morning to go hiking, we began a long ride in a red 1950’s vintage Russian built Lada go-cart with hand woven Afghan carpet seat covers. We would hurtle down mountain roads, avoiding potholes, cattle, children, and speeding through the hairpin bends in the hope of maintaining enough speed to reach our destination without the driver having to disengage the clutch and push the ski-pole gear shift forward to hill start the car. You could almost see a tear form in the drivers’ eyes when a whole heard of cattle stubbornly forced the car to a full stop, and we again had to slowly build up speed when they had cleared and use the engine to complete our journey. Never worry about how you will get home in Russia – every car is a taxi – just hold out your arm.
Three large Russian climbers checked in to the mountain lodge on our last night there, and after we had been talking to them in broken English for about an hour I asked what they did, and they answered honestly – Mafia. Two of them warned us to keep away from the third as he was a “bad man” when he had had a lot to drink, had a “big gun” and had “killed far too many people” when drunk.
The Mafia controlled every aspect of life in the valley, but in Moscow there was less of an air of violence, and the kidnapping, prostitution and extortion there are carried out in a more civilized manner, with thugs cruising in black tinted Mercedes 4WDs, and hanging around outside my hotel drinking. Sitting on a street corner in Moscow I was surprised to see about 40 young beautiful girls sitting along a wall. The pimp arrived, and the girls went one by one to him to receive 100 Rubles each to start the night, and instructions as to where they were to work that night.
Given the amount of crime on the streets, the police have a right to be nervous. When a couple of nearby drunks got into a fight and one was about to grind a broken bottle into the other’s face a young policeman of small stature but serious face was quick to draw his pistol, cock it, unlatch the safety, and jam it into the drunk’s ribs before escorting both off.
In Moscow I tried to fit as many touristy trips into the 2.5 days I had to play with, and managed to see Lenin in his tomb, the Kremlin with its many Orthodox churches (not as good as Jerusalem) and the Kremlin Armory, full of collections of arms, carriages, and jewels owned by the former rulers of Russia. I also stepped into a working Orthodox Church, being hassled on the way in by a priest collecting for the “poor Orthodox Serbs made homeless by the UN”.
Our lead guide was a very experienced Russian by the name of Oleg who worked nine months of the year as a top nuclear physicist, and three months of the year as a mountain guide to actually earn money. He was 63, but fitter than I will ever be. At 10 he picked up a landmine and lost two fingers and a thumb on his left hand, and went on to be the best rock climber nine years in a row in the USSR, as well as doing research, and teaching physics, mathematics and biology at a Russian university. He spent a miserable winter living on the summit of Mount Elbrus training for an Everest climb, only to have the Soviet Union collapse and lose his source of funding. I spoke to another Russian who had summited Everest twice, and an Israeli who had summited once.
The Russians invested immense energy and resources into developing central Asia as can be seen by the structures now falling into decay. Driving through the mountains you can see hydro-electric power stations spewing plumes of water hundreds of meters in the air from holes in metal pipes, power lines and towers rusted and fallen over, disused mines, and crumbling administration buildings. There are times when you don’t want your guide to translate a sign – one was when crossing a bridge across a raging river and the guide laughs and says “That sign back there said the bridge was in poor condition and vehicles should not carry passengers – and there were three spelling mistakes on the sign.”
From Moscow to the Caucuses, Russians are hopeless city drivers, but are skilled in avoiding cattle and holes in the road. In the Baksan valley the power lines have fallen, and now a cable snakes along the ground beside the road. The stormwater pipes have filled with sand and rock, and rainwater has returned to small creeks on the surface. Down the hill from the hotels a farmer has broken a hole in the sewer pipe to water and fertilize his crops at the same time. At regular intervals along the valleys are artillery cannons in perfect working order, and initially I thought that they were to protect in a skirmish with Georgia, but later worked out that they were protection against the avalanches that have wiped out some of the villages in recent winters with heavy snowfalls.
Much of the trouble in modern Russia with Chechnya and Georgia is due to the shortsighted borders drawn up when the USSR was being developed. Initially the borders of internal states were drawn up for administrative reasons, each to contain 10,000 CPM (Communist Party Members) which then voted a representative to the Duma (parliament). When the union broke up, some of these states with a majority of people wishing independence broke away, taking with them large minorities that were unfortunate enough to be in that state but did not wish to be independent. As the states lost their funding from the USSR, their economies collapsed leading to a great deal of internal conflict in the states between pro- and anti-Russia fighters.
The strong control of the Mafia in the Baksan Valley has controlled the violence and enabled all to profit from the wealth that the foreign and Russians climbers and skiers bring. If the Mafia leader Camel were not so strong, then the thugs would be more opportunistic, violence would spiral out of control, and the tourist industry would die. In a way, it is the Mafia who have made the valley safe, and without their protection and the fear they use to control the people it would have been impossible for me to enter the Baksan Valley, as it still is in many of the other valleys in the area where there is no control and violence is unpredictable.
Even with the injection of money by the tourists people are still desperate. While I was in the valley an Israeli climber who could speak Russian got talking to the local mountain rescue people and ended up buying much of their climbing and rescue gear for almost nothing. The next time someone is dying on the mountain there will not be any equipment to rescue them. Police are always looking for a way to get a bribe, but I escaped without having to pay. In Moscow when you check into a hotel they take your passport for 24 hours to register it with the police. You are not allowed out on the streets without your passport, but no-one is going to stay in a pest ridden Russian hotel for 24 hours, so everyone risks getting caught and goes off exploring in the city anyway. I was lucky and narrowly avoided the police checkpoints where I would have been asked to show papers, but others were not so lucky, and were jailed for four hours until they realized that all the police wanted was a bribe.
On the bright side I did summit Elbrus, got a tan, had a fantastic time, learnt lots, got a little fitter, and managed to buy three hand knitted wool jumpers and two pairs of socks for US$20.