Elbrus - A long awaited journey.
Part 1: A journey full of expectations, adversities and suprises.
I have already been sitting for over sixteen hours in the bus from Istanbul to Erzurum, the eastern capital of Turkey, which lies almost 2000 meters above sea level on a high plateau in eastern Anatolia. As I leave the bus at 08:00 in the morning in the middle of an endlessly long road, I catch sight of an extremely vast and barren plain. The tiredness in mind and limbs I felt a moment ago is displaced by the sudden freshness of an early autumn day, and I look almost ruefully after the bus, which slowly but noisily drives away from me. Since no one but me has gotten off, I now stand here alone. It is sensitively cold and the complete lack of people, buildings, traffic and bustle seems to intensify this atmosphere. Around me lies an amazingly barren, expansive plain in earthy hues. The air is clear and dry. In the distance, the city still lies under a light, pale gray morning haze, and above it tower the ancient three-thousand-meter peaks - strung side by side as if on a string of pearls and in sublime white. I enjoy this sight and the silence around me and become completely calm.
I shoulder my backpack and hang my second large travel bag with my glacier equipment in front of my belly and walk with heavy steps along the main street to the bus station, which is located outside the city. From here I hope to find another connection to Tbilisi in Georgia to get a bit closer to the Caucasus Mountains. At the counters I inquire about further connections, but unfortunately there is no direct connection to Tbilisi, only a connection to Batumi, a well-known vacation and coastal city in the west of the country, located directly at the Black Sea. As always, I have to bargain hard to avoid the tourist bonus so that I can pay the locals' price. After a short wait, I take the bus to Batumi and from Batumi on to Tbilisi. Again I sit more than fourteen hours in the bus and watch how the mountains rise up left and right with their high steep rock faces. My heart beats faster at the sight and my anticipation rises, because I finally want to hike up there again and climb over rocks, breathing in the fresh, cool air while gazing over the precipices and peaks. I cross the Turkish-Georgian border and change trains in Batumi and continue to Tbilisi.
It is already 01:00 at night when I arrive at the bus station in Tbilisi. As expected, at this hour there is no other connection across the mountain pass to Russia, more precisely to Vladikavkaz via the border crossing Verkhny Lars. Fortunately, I find a place to spend the night right nearby, because I am extremely tired from the long journey, although I have hardly been physically active. I was able to persuade the somewhat grumpy lady at the reception to give me an extremely good price for the overnight stay, since I show up in the middle of the night and promise her to be gone by 07:00 in the morning. She doesn't register me in the system, puts the money meaninglessly in her own pocket, shows me to my room and tells me, "No longer than 07:00 tomorrow." It's a win-win situation for both of us, I get a cheap overnight stay and she can increase her low salary. I assure her that I will be gone tomorrow morning and close the room door.
Since my socks and my feet stink as I take off my shoes, I decide late at night to take a shower and wash my socks before I go to bed.
The alarm clock rings after five hours at 06:30, I dress quietly, grab my luggage and leave the hotel very early, as agreed. At the bus station, a minibus is already waiting to take me across the border to Russia for 35 Lari, the equivalent of about 12 Euros. It is cool and rainy on this morning on October 18th 2022, when I sit down in the bus.
Many young men and two women are sitting with me on the bus and you can hear nervous and worried conversations from cell phone calls or wives and mothers saying goodbye to their husbands and sons on the way to Russia. I also have a slightly concerned feeling this morning, because Russia is currently at war with Ukraine and the political situation between Russia and the West is extremely tense. Of course, I haven the basic trust that nothing will happen to me and that the Russian border crossing should be possible without any problems, because it makes no sense at all to detain a climber and tourist like me or something similar. Moreover, the Russian Embassy has granted me the visa and I see no reason whatsoever why the border officials and inhabitants of the Caucasus should be hostile to me because of the political situation. In my opinion, the Russian state has no rational interest in further deteriorating relations with other states through incidents involving tourists like me. Nevertheless, I am also aware that anything is possible in such tense exceptional situations, which is why I am not completely naive and light minded in my approach. As an experienced mountaineer, you weigh up all the risks and eventualities in your head and stomach at all times; it is virtually a permanent risk adjustment process that serves your own safety and survival and can never be turned off. We are constantly re-evaluating the situation long before the tour even begins, one evening when our mind is "infected" while researching an idea, a plan or the sight of a mountain, right up to the very last moment when we descend from a summit we have reached and think we are safe at the end of a tour. This does not mean, by the way, that we live in permanent fear or think things through too much in our heads, no quite the opposite, it rather frees us from fear and increases our confidence, because we partly unconsciously constantly gather information in order to form as real a picture as possible of the situation and dangers. On the basis of these risks we actively choose the dangers and challenges and if we are honest with ourselves, we also admit to ourselves which factors we cannot influence and humbly acknowledge when we are exposed to the arbitrariness of nature and the mountain and how we must attentively interpret the signals in these moments. This often results in a positive excitement, which is nevertheless accompanied by a certain nervousness when the challenge seems very dangerous and intense. Friends and acquaintances and especially my family are extremely worried and concerned, in contrast to me, because they fear the worst due to the reporting, some even advised me against this project and tried to make me rethink and that I should postpone this trip and thus the ascent of Mount Elbrus. Also the fact that I am once again solo in winter conditions on the highest mountain of Russia and the Caucasus, worried many of them. The people who know me however also know that such doubts, objections or fears rarely influence me enought to change up my mind. The arguments and circumstances must be very logical, rational and extremely weighty from my point of view, so that I let myself be diverted from my goal.
The drive to the border takes about three hours and as soon as we leave Tbilisi, the road goes steeply uphill very quickly over many serpentines and winding paths. At the Georgian border we all have to leave the bus and cross the border on foot with our luggage. At the counter, the border official looks at me somewhat incredulously as she inspects my German passport with the Russian visa. She makes two phone calls to her superior and finally lets me leave the country somewhat reluctantly in the direction of Russia. Apparently, she was also worried about me. This border crossing is the main escape route for many young Russian men who have left the country for Georgia since the partial mobilization in order to avoid being drafted for military service at the front. I find one last Georgian ATM and take the opportunity to withdraw $200 cash, as the many sanctions have cut Russia off from most of the global payment system, which means my bank and credit cards will not work there now. Effectively, this means that I can only exchange my Euros and Dollars into Rubles locally and hope that my cash will last me until I leave the country again.
Arriving at the Russian border crossing Verkhny Lars, I wait in line for what feels like an eternity until I finally stand in front of the border official's counter. He looks at me and my passport and seems confused. He picks up the phone, because he too is asking his superior how to proceed with me. After two or three phone calls, he puts my passport aside separately with him and signals me to please step aside and wait. I stand somewhat irritated on the side, where already another "sorted out" border crosser with Ukrainian passport waits. The border guard processes the rest of the travelers in his queue until only the two of us are left. He picks up the phone again and calls his superior. His superior comes to us shortly afterwards and examines the Ukrainian and the dark-skinned and somewhat exotic-looking German climber, not quite knowing how to classify us. I look at his epaulettes and insignia and realize that he is much higher in rank. Apparently I'm now probably getting special treatment, I think to myself slightly nervously. In the meantime, the bus driver comes to the counter and inquires whether my border crossing will take much longer. After a short Russian exchange of words with the border guard, he shows me a photo of a license plate of a Mercedes bus and tells me that he has to drive on and that this bus will drive me to Vladikavkaz on the Russian side if everything goes well with my control. The two border guards take the Ukrainian and me outside into a separate building and say to me, as I look at them questioningly: "special control" in Russian accent. We pass through two security gates and are instructed to wait in a room with two large wooden benches painted green against the walls. First they call the Ukrainian and question him for a very very long time. After more than an hour, they call me into a room with two desks and ask me to take a seat. The supervisor questions me at great length about my intentions and motives in Russia, where I had last been, and whether I had any dubious connections. I explain to him that I am a mountaineer and that I want to climb Mount Elbrus. Fortunately my travel history, my appearance and my equipment underline my explanation whereby the two border officials understand very quickly and can credibly understand that I am indeed only a tourist and mountaineer and have no further political intentions in mind. Nevertheless, they ask me to hand over my cell phone including my pin so that they can further screen me and my cell phone. Of course I don't argue and hand over my cell phone including my access data and pin codes. I am sent back to the waiting room and wait another eternity until a young employee in plainclothes, probably some sort of cyber security guy hands me my cell phone and passport again. I look at him questioningly as to what will happen next and he makes me understand that the Ukrainian will be interrogated and screened further and that I can then travel with him across the border to Russia. While waiting for Dimitri to finally be released from interrogation, I watch a woman crying in Russian begging for help to a border guard. I don't know her story, whether she wants to go from Russia to Georgia or the other way around. I only understand that she cannot be helped and her request is rejected. Desperate, she bursts into tears and keeps calling "Пожалуйста" Pozhaluysta, which means "please". After a while, they are ushered out and I continue to wait for me and Dimitri to be allowed to continue to Vladikavkaz. Finally the wait is over. Dimitri and I are free to cross the border and are led out of the building to the other side of the border. There, a bus driver approaches us and explains that the second bus, which was supposed to wait for us and in which my luggage and equipment is, also had to move on and therefore he takes us into the city.
We both get on the bus and sit on the rearmost back seat. We close the sliding side door and drive off to Vladikavkaz. Visibly relieved, we both take a deep breath that we have made it through the border crossing and look thoughtfully out the side window. Dimitri pulls two Snickers candy bars out of his backpack and benevolently offers one to me. I thankfully accept the gift, because I could use a little bit of sugar right now. I let the recent experience and the thoughts and emotions pass in review and think about it, while I watch the surrounding mountains and the downward flowing river. As if in a trance, I look out and am grateful that there were no complications at the border and that I was merely screened a little longer and more thoroughly. Having mentally arrived back in the here and now, I pull my cell phone out of my pocket and check to see if I have a signal. Of course I don't have a signal. Neither my German or Turkish SIM cards work here. I'm thinking about what to do next in Vladikavkaz when I remember that the first thing I have to take care of in Vladikavkaz is my equipment, which is stuck in the trunk of another car. I ask Dimitri if he can translate the driver's statement about where my equipment has gone and how to get it back. I speak and understand a bit of Russian and can read the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, having studied Russian for a rather substandard four semesters, but that bit is not nearly enough to follow a complex or fast spoken conversation let alone articulate myself. It is just enough to read and understand signs and simple texts and to be able to follow the simplest and slowest conversations. Dimitri explains to me that the driver will come to a gas station on the opposite side of the bus station with my equipment and bring me my gear. We leave the mountain pass and enter the town of Vladikavkaz. The Russian or Soviet style of the town is immediately noticeable. Large, wide, multi-lane, straight streets lead into the center of the city while to the left and right many oversized, uniform and not very attractive prefabricated buildings line the streets and dominate the cityscape. The remnants of the planned economy and clear signs of the country's Soviet past, such as art, statues and buildings can be seen everywhere if you observe carefully. My first impression of the country is that while Russia's past and old elements are clearly recognizable, at the same time I am amazed at how modern and well-kept many streets, cars, and stores look at first glance.
Admittedly, I had expected a ramshackle, outdated, run-down and structurally weak appearance of the city. However, this assumption was not confirmed at all in Vladikavkaz at the beginning. Arriving near the bus station, the driver lets us off and signals our way to the gas station where I am to wait. Dimitri and I go our separate ways from here on, as I have to wait for the other driver until I get my equipment and backpack back. Arrived at the gas station, some cab drivers smell the chance of a deal and offer me their driving service. I decline with thanks and explain to them that I am waiting for my equipment, show them the photo and ask if they know or have seen a bus with this license plate. They all shake their heads and immediately lose interest in me, realizing that there is nothing to earn with me. After having to wait in vain for over an hour at the gas station, I slowly become impatient and nervous and fear that I may have been robbed of my equipment and luggage, because I have nothing more than a photo and a license plate of a car and nothing else. I don't have a phone number, a name or anything else. Now I am really seriously worried and I am already going through the worst case scenario in my head. In less than an hour it will be dark and I have neither my equipment nor my backpack, no internet or phone connection and I don't have any Russian rubles yet. Everything I still own and almost my entire existence is in this backpack and in this duffelbag. I feel a bit helpless, penniless and at the mercy. When I have almost lost hope for a positive turn after waiting forever, a bus finally passes by that looks like the one in the picture I photographed. The driver looks at me with a smile, opens his trunk and hands over my precious and essential luggage. Extremely relieved, I grab my gear and am grateful to be allowed to shoulder my heavy load again.
So that's done and I have one less worry. I have finally arrived in Russia and I also have my equipment with me. Not such a bad start, I think to myself. Next I need cash and a Russian SIM card for a working internet connection. So I first look for a bank or an exchange office. Somewhat ponderously, I walk along the tree-lined footpath parallel to the main street in the direction of the city center.
I ask the first passerby I see, in basic russian if she knows where and how I can change money. She tells me that there is a Sberbank a few streets away around the corner and that I can change money there. Following the description, I find the very professionally run bank after about ten minutes. I take a number and then have to give some very detailed information and have my passport copied before they change my dollars into rubles. I get about 60 rubles for a dollar and have 12,000 rubles paid out. I am not sure, no, I even doubt if this amount will be enough for my expedition, but I give it a try. In case of need, I still have about 200€ cash with me, which I can exchange in case I run out of money. If even that is not enough, I have to rely on the favor and help of the Russian residents, because I have no other way to get money here. Satisfied and with cash in my pocket, I leave the bank and next look for a mobile phone provider who will sell me a Russian SIM card. The Russian citizens I inquire with are again very friendly and help me to find the suitable store with their descriptions. I let an employee explain me the different SIM cards and packages and decide for a tariff of MTS (MTC) for about 1200 rubles. Only later I should learn that this was the wrong decision for the ascent of Mount Elbrus from the north, because the provider MegaFon would definitely be better suited for this.
On the subject of Internet, phone and SIM cards abroad, I can only recommend to everyone that they either get a cell phone with two SIM card slots, because this allows you to use your home SIM card and that of the foreign country at the same time and prioritize the use of SMS, telephony and mobile data accordingly. For long-term travelers like me, I would even recommend that you get a new phone with an "E-SIM" function. This is a "virtual SIM card", so you can have a working data and phone connection in almost any country without having to buy a new SIM card every time. Unfortunately, my Samsung Galaxy S10 is probably too old for this at this point, which is why I cannot use this luxury.
The employee in the store helps me to activate the Russian SIM card on my cell phone and I am finally online. I leave the store and go to a restaurant around the corner to have a snack of Russian cuisine.
I immediately report to my family and friends who may already be worried sick. My Mom and some friends have been particularly worried because the current situation has simply frightened them. Now that I have a working internet connection, I report back to them that I got across the border without any major problems and that all the local people are friendly, courteous and helpful to me. The people close to me are extremely relieved and grateful that I let them know directly that my arrival in Russia and the border crossing worked without any major incidents. It is a kind of compromise with my loved ones, who are especially worried about me when I go on an adventure alone, expose myself to dangers, climb high mountains solo in winter and test and, above all, expand my physical and mental limits. They have understood and know that I need this for my "ÜberLeben" and they free me from the burden by not permanently telling me their worries and by giving me their trust, in return I always try to inform them as best I can about where I am and what I am doing, so that they are not completely in the dark and go mad with worry. I have also put aside my sometimes blind and ego-driven ambition that sometimes pushed me to many different peaks under the most adverse circumstances without giving it much thought. There were times in my younger and more reckless mountaineering life when I would not at all see the point of making such a compromise, claiming for myself that I was accountable to no one in what I do and how I do it. Only after some extremely dramatic experiences in the mountains, which I almost had to pay for with my life, I slowly came to the late realization that I can no longer expect this behavior from my relatives and I have to find a way how I can continue to live out my need for extreme experiences without upsetting the people who love me and care about me and without causing them further worries and sleepless nights. Of course they still worry when I put myself in danger, but they know that I love the mountains and adventure and are happy with me when I travel. As I sit there and communicate with my family via WhatsApp, I realize how destitute you can feel in a foreign country when you don't have cash or a working phone and internet connection, and how much easier everything seems when you have access to these things. Of course, there is a lot of false imagination involved, because in fact you are not really destitute or helpless, as I was fortunate enough to experience on my many travels how extremely helpful people are when you ask them for help, if you are without money and without any means. In my experience, many people from different cultures are extremely helpful and generous beyond measure, without expecting anything in return, but simply for the sake of helping and because they want to do good.
After dinner, I think about the best way to get to the north side of Mount Elbrus now that I am in Russia. According to my research, Nalchik was a good starting point, because from here one can easily reach both the south side and the north side of Russia's highest mountain. The starting point for an ascent via the north side is the village Djili-Su. I could make it easy for myself and put 60-100 dollars in the hand of a cab driver to drive me there. This would be convenient since I don't know the place very well, but since I want to save as much money as possible I decide instead to take public transport via Nalchik to Pyatigorsk, where I will make my final preparations for the ascent of Elbrus. I make my way to the bus station in Vladikavkaz and buy a ticket to Nalchik.
The bus to Nalchik leaves at 18:00 and the trip takes a little more than an hour. It is a small, compact and well-filled bus with about thirteen seats and just enough space for a little luggage. During the drive in the dark on the E-50 to the northwest we pass remarkably many roadblocks and military checkpoints, which I am only used from countries like Algeria. With me in the bus are commuters who look like they are going home after work. It is completely dark in the bus and only a small discreet blue light strip shines on the floor, while we, like dark, blue-lit figures sit there silently and the bus driver listens to a Russian song by "Robert Karaketov" called "Ukradu". I am very happy at this moment, because despite the small circumstances everything went very well, almost smoothly so far and almost nothing stands in the way of my ascent of Mount Elbrus now except the weather. Arriving in Nalchik, I unfortunately have to realize that there is no bus to Pyatigorsk this evening. So I stand at the street in front of the bus station and try to get a ride by hitchhiking, because I want to get as far as possible today. I wait for quite a while without success, because who wants to take a stranger with two huge bags in his car in the dark, when suddenly two young guys stop next to me and ask me if they can help me somehow. I explain to them that I want to go to Pyatigorsk and that the last bus has already left. They accompany me once again into the hall of the bus station and ask the annoyed employee at the counter. They explain to me again what I already knew, that there is no more connection to Pyatigorsk that evening. I ask the two if they might want to take me to Pyatigorsk for a small amount of money. The two consult for a short while in Russian, turn to me and give me to understand with their broken English: "Throw your bags in the trunk, we drive you to Pyatigorsk". Somewhat surprised, I ask them what they would charge for the ride, because I explain to them that I don't have very much money with me and I have to be very economical with what I have. One of them named Alim tells me that they will take me for free, because they both live in Pyatigorsk and they would like to help me. Somewhat surprised, I check with the two guys to make sure it's really okay with them. They tell me to get in and not to worry, because they are Circassians and this is their way of expressing their hospitality to me. In the first moment I am still a little bit skeptical, on the other hand I don't perceive any signals that the guys want to do me any harm, so I trust both of them and accept the welcome help exceedingly thankful. The trip takes about 1.5 hours and the guys ask me curiously where I come from and what I am doing here in Russia and more specific in the Caucasus region. When I tell them about my plans, my origins and my journey, they are amazed and talk to me excitedly about all kinds of things of everyday life, about themselves, about me, the war, the relationship between the Caucasus and Moscow, their families, their work and much much more. They ask me if it would be all right for me if they took me to visit their families and friends for a short time and introduce me. Of course, I don't refuse this request and great gesture at all and explain to them that it would make me very happy to meet their families. They take me briefly to their home in a housing area in Pyatigorsk, where I am introduced to the friends and family and told about what the crazy German is up to alone. Afterwards Alim asks me if I still have a little time and hunger and if I would like to go out to eat typical Caucasian street food with them. I say yes, of course, because there's nothing better than going out to eat with locals who know their way around their homeland, and besides, I wanted to show my appreciation to the two of them and invite them to have dinner together. We drove to a place where they have really good homemade schwarma/shawarma/shaurma. Shawarma is a typical oriental delicacy from the Ottoman Empire. Similar to doner kebab and gyros, large marinated slices of meat, in layers, are placed on a rotating spit and grilled while the outer seared layers are thinly sliced off with a large knife. Before piling the slices of meat on the skewer, the pieces are marinated for several hours in a marinade of lemon juice and a variety of spices such as, coriander seeds, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, mint, bell pepper, paprika and garlic. Served, the thin slices of cut meat are then wrapped in a thin pita bread, which is sometimes combined with sesame paste and along with fresh or roasted vegetables. With this we then drank a kind of green woodruff/herb lemonade and secondly a pear lemonade.
Just as I was about to pay and explain to the guys that I would like to show my gratitude and invite them, Alim told me to please put my wallet away again, because he insists that I am their guest and that it is their tradition to invite me.
I thank the guys very much and can honestly hardly believe that on my very first day in Russia, or more precisely in the Caucasus, I am shown such extraordinary hospitality. We continue to talk forever during the meal about all kinds of topics, such as the situation in Ukraine or other issues that people are concerned about. Alim tells me that he is the owner of a Russian e-commerce online trading platform and proudly shows me his company on the Internet. He explains to me that he recently became a dad and he works mainly in Moscow, but that he is currently back home on vacation for three weeks, because Russian citizens can't leave the country at the moment, so they are all vacationing domestically. The guys are having so much fun exchanging stories with me that they ask me if I still want to spend the evening with them and that they would like to show me a viewpoint in the park where you can overlook the whole city of Pyatigorsk. I am a little tired from the long journey, but I am just infinitely grateful to the two guys for welcoming me, a foreigner from the West, in such a positive and hospitable way, while our governments are in conflict with each other. This shows me once again that one should not immediately stigmatize an entire nation or people because of the actions of individual actors, even though what is happening in Ukraine is terrible and hopefully it will come to a peaceful end soon. We leave the Shawarma restaurant and get back into the car, but Alim's buddy tries in vain to get the car started. It almost seems to me that the battery must be dead. I ask the guys with a grin on my face if we should push the car to get it running again? Alim bursts out laughing and says, "Yes, Norrdine, help me get the old Lada going again." We can hardly stop laughing, because in front of the restaurant we have to push the old Lada, which has stopped working for us. After a few meters, Alim's friend lets the gear snap into the transmission with a little gas, which starts the engine of the old Lada and we jump back into the car and drive on. Arriving near the lookout point, I say to the boys, "Better park the car right on the slope so we don't have to push again and can let the old stubborn Lada roll right downhill to get it started.'' The boys burst out laughing again and conform that's a very good idea. After a short hike through the park, we find ourselves a few meters high above Pyatigorsk, looking out over the city. Well, we rather look into a wall of fog, because the view is not even 15 meters wide and we hardly recognize anything.
The guys explain to me that the name of the city Pyatigorsk means "five mountains" and that the city is surrounded by five mountains, which give it the name because we are on one of these mountains and from here you can see the remaining four mountains around the city. After a few selfies, the guys ask me where I'm going to sleep tonight anyway? I explain to Alim that I honestly haven't thought about it yet and just found a hostel on the internet where I wanted to try my luck. The two guys looked at me a bit suprised and said, "Well, let's take you there and have a look." It's almost midnight when we ring the doorbell at the hostel. A voice over the speaker tells us that they have no beds available and that I should try somewhere else. Alim and his buddy burst out laughing again, telling me that I really am a freak for just going through with my tour without much thought, not even worrying about where to sleep tonight. With tears in his eyes he pulls his cell phone out of his pocket and says: "Come on, I'll help you, the people here hardly speak English and your Russian is hardly worth mentioning and I know a good hostel that might have a free bed for you" With a wide grin on his face and wet eyes from laughter he calls the "Hostel Friends" and organizes a bed so I have place to sleep tonight. He looks at me with a grin and says, "Come jump in the car, I found a place for you to stay". Alim's buddy had the presence of mind to leave the Lada running so we don't have to push the old machine again and burst out laughing even more. Arriving at the Hostel Friends at midnight, Alim still helped me with the communication at the reception until I was finally checked in and my sleeping place was safe. He dug out two chicken fajita sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil that he had bought for me earlier at the snack bar and said they were for me so I would have something to eat in the morning. Absolutely touched by Alim's generosity, I thank him so much for everything he did for me that night and the fun time together. I hug him goodbye, thank him again very much and say goodbye to him. As Alim closed the door behind him, the young receptionist briefly showed me around the entire hostel, such as the common room, the kitchen, the washroom, the outdoor area, the toilets and showers, and lastly my room and bed. She talked extremely fast without stopping, everything completely in Russian and I understood just half of what she told me. However, since this was not my first time in a hostel, I thought I roughly understood what she was telling me. Most of the hostel guests were already asleep, so I also got ready for bed, jumped in the shower, brushed my teeth and lay down in bed tired, exhausted and satisfied, whereupon I immediately fell into a righteous sleep.
The next morning I set out to explore the town in daylight and run some final errands for what will probably be a long and cold time on the mountain. So I go outside the door and notice at the first sight of the bright blue sky that today is a quite extraordinarily glorious day. An old dilapidated Lada with flat tires is parked in front of the hostel, which corresponds exactly to my prejudiced expectations of Russia.
The rest of the city, however, does not correspond to this image at all, because it is truly a feast for the eyes. As I walk through Pyatigorsk, I notice how great and well organized the city is. Clean and modern streets, great cafes, beautiful Orthodox churches and wonderful gardens and parks are everywhere in the resort. The city has been known for its hot springs for several centuries and was a popular vacation and travel destination for aristocrats from the 1800s.
Even by today's standards, the city is a great resort to stay, relax and stroll and an extremely suitable starting point for an Elbrus climb. Normally an expedition to this mountain does not start as in my case over the border from Georgia but most of the Elbrus aspirants fly by plane over Moscow to the city Mineralnyje Vody (translated mineral water), which is located about 25km north of Pyatigorsk. Therefore, I can highly recommend this great resort town to anyone arriving as a starting point for preparations for the climb. I climb again the mountain of the previous evening, on which I climbed with Alim and his buddy, to look at the city panorama and the surrounding mountains again in daylight and free view. At the top I have a wonderful and clear view over the city of the Five Mountains.
I recognize isolated hills and mountains around the city, which look to my understanding as if they are of volcanic origin. This also makes sense, because Mount Elbrus is also a strongly glaciated volcano, whose last eruption was about 2000 years ago. Moreover, the hot springs of the city also indicate a geologically active zone. Last but not least, a look at the tectonic plate processes confirms my assumption, because the Caucasus Mountains are formed by the fact that the Arabian plate is still drifting northward towards the Eurasian plate with about 2.5cm per year. This movement raises the mountains, which are up to 5600 meters high, and resulting subduction zones around the plate have caused volcanic activity and hot springs. Unfortunately, this very strong plate tectonics has resulted in some devastating earthquakes throughout the region in the past, causing catastrophic effects on the population. The mountain range consists mainly of granites and gneisses, and in addition, huge amounts of natural gas and oil are stored in the Caucasus region. For this reason, the Wehrmacht had a special interest in bringing this region and mineral resources under its control during World War II. As my gaze wanders over the city and the volcanic hills, I can easily make out the silhouette of the jagged peaks of the Caucasus to the south. I let my gaze wander further to see if I might recognize Mount Elbrus. Suddenly, an enormous white dome behind one of the hills in the distance catches my eye and I recognize the formation. There it is, Mount Elbrus! It is always a magical moment for a mountaineer when he gets to see the object of his desire for the first time with his own eyes. An almost indefinable mixture of anticipation, humility and energetic aggressiveness rises in me. As I look more closely, I notice that just at this moment a violent wind and a large almost serpentine white cloud formation, like a dragon over the double peak of the volcano, breaks. It is also the particularly dreaded east-west wind that sweeps over this mountain with particularly unrelenting harshness, cold and extreme speed. Whoever is stuck in this storm either has an extremely hard time and has to descend immediately or possibly has to pay with his life. Just last year in September 2021, five people died and another eleven climbers barely survived the tragedy with their lives, as they were caught in a violent storm that cost some of them their lives. One climber, feeling unwell, unfortunately turned back too late with her guide and ended up dying in his arms. I tell this not to dramatize this climb, but to draw attention to the dangers on the mountain. Mount Elbrus is considered a commonly easy mountain, especially from the south side. It requires some strength, endurance and suffering. In addition, one must have a little patience for acclimatization, so that the body can slowly get used to the altitude, the resulting lower ambient pressure and the consequent lack of oxygen. Due to the fact that the climb is relatively easy, people tend to underestimate the dangers of the mountain. Even though the mountain is not technically challenging, it is a high mountain that is also located between two large bodies of water, the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. In addition, the mountain separates an extremely warm region in the south from a cool region in the north. The constellation of these factors makes the weather on Mount Elbrus quite unpredictable and weather forecasts should be treated with caution. Consequently, the weather situation changes very quickly and you have to weigh up day by day whether a summit attempt is safe. In addition, Mount Elbrus is a very cold mountain and temperatures can easily drop below -30 degrees Celsius at this time of year. I, on the other hand, am just sitting on a rocky outcrop with my sunglasses on, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, while looking at Mount Elbrus from a distance and drinking a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.
After a while I descend back to town and make all the arrangements necessary for the upcoming climb. I buy a supply of gas cartridges for my stove, because I don't know exactly how long I will have to wait on the mountain to be sufficiently acclimatized and subsequently catch a good weather window. For my food I buy several packs of breakfast porrdige, spaghetti and ramen noodles, candy bars, nuts, granola bars, chocolate bars, gummy bears and other stuff that gives me quick and effortless energy. Back at the hostel, I pack my backpack for the expedition and stow everything I won't need in my big yellow duffel bag and ask the receptionist if I can store this bag here to pick it up in about two weeks.
Now all preparations are completed and I am ready to set off for the north side of Mount Elbrus. With my backpack on my shoulders I go to the train station and take the train from Pyatigorsk to Kislovodsk. From here I hope to find a cheap ride to Dschili Su.
On the train, I am asked by some passengers where I come from and what I am up to. All are extremely friendly and curious and want to learn more from me. They even give me tips and advice for my onward journey, want to take a picture together with me and absolutely want to connect with me via Instagram so that they can follow my adventure. Arriving in Kislovodsk, it starts to rain, so I put the raincover over my backpack and pull the hood of my hardshell jacket over my head. It's already getting dark outside and the rain is getting heavier as I trudge south through the city. Just in time I remember that I should perhaps take along matches as a precaution, because at high altitudes lighters are not always reliable. In addition, I prefer to get me some magnesium, in case I should get muscular problems. It is now already raining very hard and the streets are flooded with large puddles and rainwater, while I am steadily approaching the end of the city. I stop in vain a few passing cars and cabs and ask if someone will take me to Dschili Su. All of them tell me that no one is on the way there and that the chances of finding a ride at this hour are very bad. Undeterred, I walk on, leave the city in the direction of the south and walk steadily uphill through the landscape in the darkness.
I hike about another hour when I pass a small village. There is nothing going on and except for a few cows on the road there is no one to see. Meanwhile, not even cars come past me. While I walk further uphill into the darkness I notice on the other side of the road how five men are standing in front of a gate and talking to each other. At first I walk past them, but then I unconsciously decide to turn around and ask the men if they know if there is a way to get to Dschili Su and how far it is. They look at me completely perplexed and explain to me that the way to Dschili Su is still very, very far, about 75 kilometers and I should not proceed completely on my own during the night. I couldn't communicate with them in English or Russian at all, so we used the Google Translate feature on my phone to talk. The way the app works is that I can speak or write into my phone in German and the app translates it into Russian and expresses it in writing or speaking as well. So we were able to have a pretty good conversation with each other. The function is not super accurate and precise, of course, but it is good enough to have a detailed conversation. After some back and forth, I was able to explain to them that I wanted to climb Mt. Elbrus and that I was looking for a convenient way to get to the north side of Mt. Elbrus. They in turn explained to me that there was no way to get to Elbrus today, but that they could arrange a ride for me the next morning for $100. I laughed a little and explained to them that there was no way I could pay that much money for it and that I would have to manage with my small amount of cash. One of them then made a phone call to a friend who was going to Djili Su the next morning with a group that I could join for $30. They invited me to their house and told me to join them at the table and have some dinner. Somewhat irritated and at the same time touched by the again unsolicited generosity, I gratefully accepted the offer, put down my backpack and entered the parlour.
It was an old, selfmade and low house, with a medium-sized old kitchen, an elongated living room, in which there was a long and large table. When I sat down at the table, immediately the grannies and mothers came scurrying around me and put a good portion of dinner on the table in front of me. In no time, there was a plate full of chicken meat with rice and vegetables, chicken soup, black tea, dessert, and lots of candy and Coke bottles. Everyone sat around me at the table wishing me a good appetite and telling me to eat without shyness. The women and men all looked at me curiously and wanted to know many things from me. Of course they wanted to know about my adventure and plans and I told them extensively about my world trip, my passion and that I am a mountaineer with all my heart. They listened to me attentively and excitedly and at the same time they wanted to know more about Germany. They asked me if the propaganda they hear in their own country about the West and the war is true. Whether everyone in Germany really has to freeze and whether our economy and our industry are really down and how we Germans feel about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. As you can see, in these times it is almost impossible to ignore or avoid these issues, because Russian citizens are very much concerned about this issue and they are full of uncertainty in these turbulent times. I explained to them that of course I cannot speak representatively for all Germans and I explained my perception and my view on things. The way I personally perceive it, the way it is reported in our media and the impression I have of how the mixed situation seems to be among German citizens in the country. In doing so, I tried to give them as transparent and factual and unemotional a picture as possible of what the perspective of the Germans is at the moment. I say unemotional and at the same time I explained to them that this conflict nevertheless touches us emotionally very much. We would like to see an end to the conflict as soon as possible and we do not understand how two fraternal peoples can fight each other. In the conversation I also went into a macroscopic view between NATO and Russia, but I refrain from going further into this topic at this point. If you are interested in the details of the conversation and what the actual situation and attitude of people living in the Caucasus region is, please feel free to write in the comments or contact me personally. I would be happy to explain to you how the people here actually feel and think about it, because almost all of them revealed to me their attitude, albeit cautiously. After a while and some phone calls my host told me that tomorrow morning at 06:30 someone will come by and take me with a jeep to Dschili Su and they insist that I sleep tonight in the guest room of the family. One of the grannies made me another big "care package" for the way with bread, drinks, chocolate bars, bananas, apples and much more. I thanked them countless times for their selflessness, generosity and hospitality.
I had expected many things but not this and I can tell you that while I am writing these lines and remembering the situation, I get goose bumps on my body and tear up a bit, because this helpfulness moves me so much and confirms my unconditional belief that man and the world are good at heart and that not a single person comes into the world with evil intentions. I believe somewhat naively and yet quite realistically that humanity, despite all the abysses that sometimes open up, is good and capable of learning and even if we are about to destroy ourselves I am convinced that in the end we will learn from our mistakes and lead humanity as a whole forward into a good future. I am convinced of this and I would like to make my small contribution in whatever way I can. After all of us, about twenty people from all age groups from 10 to 90 years, had exchanged ideas long into the night, we went to bed and went to sleep.
The next morning I woke up at 05:30 and prepared to leave. It was still dark and cold outside and the father, his son and the grandfather of the house sat together with me in the kitchen at the stove and we drank the first coffee of the day together while we talked a little and waited for my ride.
Earlier than expected, my ride arrived as a large, modern, Russian jeep was suddenly parked outside on the road. A young, about 30-year-old good-humored man named Ramasan, who would probably describe himself as a Karachay rather than a Russian, jumped out of the jeep and greeted me warmly. In the jeep were three Russian women of the same age as Ramasan, from the Moscow region and one of them from Ekaterinburg. They all greeted me and were happy about the additional company, because they were also on vacation in the Caucasus, since, as mentioned before, Russian citizens can hardly spend their vacation anywhere else in the world at the moment. I said goodbye many times to my big-hearted hosts, wished them all the best for the future and sat down on the rearmost back seat of the jeep together with my backpack. We drove up and down winding roads for quite some time until we reached a high plateau where the sun lit up the somewhat barren and cold landscape after an impressive sunrise.
This sight literally warmed my heart and mind, and my anticipation steadily increased, because the scenery was breathtaking and I was inexorably approaching Mount Elbrus, the object of my desire.
We stopped at a few viewpoints and took a few pictures together, drank tea, marveled at the scenery, danced to Caucasian music, talked about all sorts of topics, stared at Mount Elbrus that kept towering right in front of us, and spent a great time together as we approached the roof of the Caucasus.
The inscription means: Happiness is not on top of the mountains, but IN the mountains.
This blog post is already very long, so I let the pictures and videos of this scenery speak for themselves.
Ramasan asked me if it is okay that we keep stopping all the time, because he knew that I want to climb Mount Elbrus. I told him not to worry, because I only plan to reach the base camp today and set up my camp and maybe do a little acclimatization walk. I explained to him that I was just happy that he was taking me for the low price and that I was enjoying the time together and we were welcome to take as much time as we wanted. We got back in the car and drove on, while Mount Elbrus showed itself more and more gigantic and mighty in front of us with its huge glaciated double peak. The four of them suddenly got a real sense of what my plan actually meant in practice, that I would venture into this high altitude and life-threatening environment all by myself without any support. They began to question me about the mountain, my style, and my plan, as they could not understand why I would expose myself to this danger so willingly and joyfully. Ramasan explained to the girls how dangerous the mountain was and how regularly people die there every year. All four of them became more and more worried the closer we got to the mountain and asked me several times if I really wanted to do this. Finally arriving at Dschili Su, they heard about the weather outlook for the next few days, the cold temperatures up there, and learned about the high unrelenting wind speeds currently there. Ramasan said that the guides would not even let me go up there at all and that I should reconsider my plan. He asked me several times if I wouldn't like to go back with him, but I explained to them very sensitively that I knew exactly what I was getting myself into and that I should be experienced enough to handle the situation accordingly. They insisted that we exchange contacts and that I should please inform them when I was back from the summit after five days, otherwise they would inform the mountain rescue service if they did not hear from me again. They were obviously very concerned. After I got out of the jeep, I was about to pay Ramasan for the ride and thank him for the great time. He told me that he had a gift for me because he took me for free from the beginning and would not accept any money for the ride. He said that was his intention from the beginning when his buddy called him yesterday and after he met me this morning. He said I should take it as a sign of his goodwill, support and hospitality. Once again I am met with this selfless and unexpected generosity and I can tell you, this was not the end of the generous support I will receive alone in Russia on this trip while people in my home country worry about me and my safety in Russia. We talked together for quite a while and hiked together near Dschili Su to a hot spring and the waterfall until I finally said goodbye to them and continued on my way to base camp.
I say goodbye to Ramasan and the three Russian girls and wave one last time as I cross the river with my gear and take the first climb. They look anxiously after me as I climb determinedly to the first hill, my next goal firmly in sight, the Emanuelle meadow on the northern side of the mountain, where I will set up my base camp to acclimatize for the next few days for the summit climb of Elbrus.
In the second part of the blog entry of the Elbrus ascent, I tell you about the challenges and circumstances I encountered during my lonely solo ascent over the north side of the mountain!