Elburs-2003 climb. Trying is Not a Sin – You Might Win

A mountain-climbing enthusiast lives a totally different life to that of a paragliding enthusiast. The lives of the two hardly ever cross paths. At least from my experiences, they haven’t. I could count on my fingers those who partake in the two sports – but if there are more of you out there who venture into the realms of these two extreme sports, then I hope to start using my toes to count soon.
“It is unreasonable to haul a parafoil up a mountain” – suggest paragliding fans. Of course, these soft-winged types suffer from hedonism. A mountain, for them, is a means of accessing the air currents which they use to glide comfortably to and fro on. That is why an ideal paragliding mountain is one equipped with chair-lifts (or at least a nice road to drive up to the take-off), a pizza delivery service, grassy slopes, a bar with a decent selection of beer and a girls’ dormitory nearby.
“It is too terrifying to fly below rags” mountain climbers reply. Just so! It is one thing to be hanging on a reliable 11mm “dynamic” rope properly fastened to a reliable jumper by a reliable friend to a reliable rock and it is another thing to be suspended dangling under a canopy thousands of feet up in the air. Those delicate cords tied to a piece of fabric that not only is not properly fixed to anything else, but also flaps around crazily above your head.
That is why it turned out to be a real effort to get a team together to climb Mt. Elbrus and fly from one of her summits. There were certain moments when the spark of the idea was dying out, but at one such moment a colleague of mine, a determined girl named Yulia, came before me and, looking straight into my eyes intently, breathed into me the necessary dose of her strength and determination. As time went by, potential fellow climbers and paragliders came and went, the planned deadlines drew closer and I was ready to shrug off the fact that the others had had changes of heart and I was prepared to go it alone.
Then I stumbled upon Dima Gusev who was obsessed with the same idea and had managed to get together a group of guys who were also interested in trying the same thing. That is how it all began...

1st of September
I arrived on the platform of Kursky railway station. Somehow there was no sight of the large paraglider rucksacks, nor the team members that should have been bearing them, nor the tickets with my name on them… So I decided to give them a call…
- Hello, Dima, where are you?
- We’re already getting on the train,
- Which platform?
- It’s all written on the departures board; Kislovodsk, departure 08:37.
- It does not show anything of the kind.
- It must be written there! The 08:37 from Kazansky station....
- What!!!??? You told me Kursky station! Dammit!...
- Oh dear...
As I hear these words I’m already heading full speed out of the station. The adrenalin kicks in as I rush out, knocking down passers-by and bumping into cars with my rucksack. I found and grabbed a taxi driver by the coat, and shouted “Kazansky station! AND QUICK!”
I didn’t have to say it twice. The taxi driver understood from my tone that I didn’t care how much he was going to charge me.
Screeching to a stop outside the station, I drag the excessively large rucksack from the car and pay Schumacher’s fee, before starting a headlong charge towards the platform, once again hitting people, barriers, militia men and anything else that got in my way. On the run, I yell into the phone:
- Dima, I’m on the platform. Don’t let the train go anywhere! Jump in front of it if you have to!!
- No problem! I’m waiting for you!
We thrust ourselves into the first carriage we can. I have probably just beaten some kind of record. Then follows an amusing sight that I’m sure no one on the train will easily forget. Due to the fact that the doorways and passages through the train were so narrow, and we had to pass through some of the carriages to get to ours with my huge rucksack, I got stuck a few times. In order to get me through the door, Dima would run into the back of me to help push me and my rucksack through. Going through another carriage, I look into the blank eyes of the passengers and decide to calm them down by pretending to be a train tradesman. “Dear passengers, I am offering Korean-made paragliders for everyday use, as well as harnesses, reserve parachutes and other useful trinkets…” The goods are obviously undesirable. The passengers gaze at me with bottomless bulging eyes that fail to reflect an ounce of curiosity. They are just staring bewildered at me.
We find our places at last! A very good start to our journey indeed. I am all exhausted after my first feat of the day.
Our carriage houses most of the team – Dima, Vasya, Yura and I. A nice girl with a fetching smile has the fortune of sharing a compartment with us as well.
Tea in nickel glass-holders appears at the table and appropriate tea-talk begins – of wind gradients, of the advantages of slanting ribs, on the methods of handling narrow currents. The girl gapes at us for a quarter of an hour and then finally understands that these guys are absolutely hopeless and are not going to make passes at her. She pulls a bored face and slumps down on the upper berth.
Voronezh. A 27 minute stop. Vasya and I walk along the platform. The saying comes to my mind:
“But if you are a kitten
And your name is Vassily
You’ll never find a place
Better than Voronezh!”
Vasya looks at me bewildered.

2nd of September
Pyatigorsk. We are heading to Terskol on a minibus driven by our driver Marat.
The restless Yura asks Marat if the cops there were mostly Kabardinians or Balkars.
“Neither” answers Marat sullenly, they are just cops.
We took up our residence in the Cheget hotel, where we were greeted by a proud mountain-dweller named Aslan. The hotel is good and the room is ok, but oh, how I hate it when the toilet lid won’t stay up!
After an hour our fifth team member, Viktor, arrives. He is a local veteran. He has climbed Elbrus 110 times and flown from the eastern summit twice already. There are actually some people who have already flown from Elbrus, I think 7 or 8 of them. And nobody has done it twice, you can count on that.
A short briefing, examination of the kit, and we drive to the Itkol Stadium to look around – it is the only proper landing ground for us in the area. There are two reserve grounds, but we’d better make it to Itkol… the others are a little too “reserve” to be considered willingly.  
- Viktor, it would be good to place a wind sock here.
- OK, we’ll do it in the morning, I have a suitable rag.
We book a sauna in Terskol. The sauna is a separate story. It ensured we didn’t forget where we were.
A sullen person, presumably a female, opens the door.  
- Wait outdoors.
We wait. Seems she has tidied up a little. But it still looks very unhygienic inside.
- Do you have any slippers?
The woman eyes us up and down, bewildered. It is evidently the first time she has been faced with this question.
- No slippers.
- Any towels?
- You should have brought your own.
- Do you at least have any sheets?
- We have run out of sheets.
She is confronted with the perplexed faces of four guys.
- OK, I’ll look in the pantry, but you’ll have to pay an additional 160 rubles.
We pay, the woman disappears. Good thing that we have brought our own beer…
The steam room is overheated and more like the central workshop in hell. We brought veniki, the birch branches that Russians use to open up their pores in banyas, for nothing. Anyone pouring water on the stones would have won a Darwin Award nomination for the Most Absurd Death of the Year. I jump into the pool and immediately wish that I could wash away the dirt again with soap. In half an hour the administrator appears carrying some worn-through sheets.  
We, unsurprisingly, failed to stay until the end of our paid period.  

3rd of September
Viktor arrives in the morning and we rush to fix the wind sock to one of the floodlight towers in the stadium. I climb up the tower and see that even here the cable box is broken and torn into pieces. It seems there is nothing to steal here, yet someone has broken into it. And climbed the tower to do it! Yes, I know that every person has a destructive streak, but I would not suspect that someone had such a strong destructive streak.
We all enter the landing point into our GPS, fetch our rucksacks from the hotel and ascend the Cheget peak using the chair-lift - it would have been slightly ridiculous to walk up - we are ‘paraclimbers’, not fools.
A wild wind was blowing at our planned launching area, so we decided to quickly climb the peak first and then maybe by then the wind would have calmed down. As we descended, we saw that the wind had gotten even stronger and the  clouds were becoming thicker, which would have made flying down impossible. We gloomily grabbed our rucksacks and headed back down. Viktor, however, suggested that we stop by at the weather station to see an acquaintance of his. Ekaterina from the weather station entertained us with tea and red wine.
In the two hours that we spent waiting for a weather miracle the wind became even fiercer. Nothing could be done, so we admitted defeat for the day and headed back down for some shashlyki. Today was Dima’s birthday, so four disheveled heads wracked their brains deciding what the present should be. The whole crowd of us went to an Alpine industry shop to try and find something. While making our eighth tour around the shop floor we see Dima entering.
- Dima, (Vasya’s patience finally snaps) quickly, tell us what you want for a present!
Dima does not reply and giggles spitefully.

4th of September
In the morning Marat gives us a lift to Azau. At 09:30 there is already a crowd of tourists near the cable-car. Viktor takes a shortcut and brings us to the platform passing over the crowd. When we ascend to the Krugozor station I suddenly see a guy who looks surprisingly like my old friend Tyoma from Almaty. We stand there staring at each other.
- Aldas?!
- Tyoma?!
On the one hand, such a meeting is a complete mystery - both he and I have to cover thousands of kilometers to get to the Caucasus mountains. On the other hand, it is quite a natural coincidence. Where could we meet if not in the mountains? Tyoma is here with a client – a local businessman named Kuanysh, who is very determined to climb the peak and enrich his climbing success record. Alex Abramov is there as well with a group of foreigners whom he is leading up.
We climb to Garabashi where we go to bar called Bochka and Zhora, the manager, directed us to a barrel that acted as our table. Outside, two natives dressed incongruously for the altitude come up and talk to me in a strange language. I try making out what they want from me. One finally says “doesn’t understand” to the other with a thick Georgian accent and they leave. Soon after a girl appears who is obviously their companion, and whose dimensions surpass those of the two frail little bodies of the men put together.
- Is the café there? – she asks, pointing to the kitchen.
- Yeah, I say. She is kidding and I kind of keep up the joke.
In 10 seconds she is brought out by the cook Baba Valya who is pointing to the “staff only” sign.
- “Why the hell have we come here - the mountains are perfectly visible from Nalchik!” cries the girl. The strange guys walk around and, pointing their fingers at snowcats, try to find out “who owns these tractors”.
We have enough time to go for a walk. We walked around the former Priyut-11 hotel. Vitya tells the true story of how it was burned down by some lazy guide with the help of a Hungarian guy. We pay a visit to the diesel shelter that was built on the site of the former diesel boiler-room of the Priyut-11. “Diesel is a good idea, but this place has been built terribly” muses Viktor observing the steel ceiling arches. “It won’t stand for much longer” – was his verdict.  
We descend to Azau. Once again I rue the fact that I left my windbreaker in Moscow. The parka I was wearing got soaked and I had to hang it in the hotel boiler-room for it to dry. However, this annoyance was amply forgotten after a lavish supper. I felt like a lump. It was then that I understood that man did indeed originate from a boar…

5th of September
During breakfast Yura muses aloud on the Allied invasion of Normandy, namely the operations on Omaha and Utah Beach. On how “the German Army was unable to contain the American invasion” and that Overlord itself was possible only because of the “tiredness of the Germans and the three-day break Hitler gave them as a rest”. As soon as Yura opens his mouth, one should quickly snatch a video camera and try to catch alternative hystory of humankind.
We fetch our provisions, throw some other stuff together and make for Azau. Along the way Yura buys a yellow raincoat and dons it right there and then, and though the purchase is well-timed – it was sleeting – he looks like an overgrown Teletubby in the white snow.
In Azau we run into Tyoma and Kuanysh once again. They are in their acclimatization period. They’ve got plenty of time – until September 16th. We have tickets for the 10th, which means that time is pressing for us.
The third stage – a chair-lift - was out of service. So, from a piece of cable, Viktor made a harness and cheerily put Yura into it. Having reached the necessary steam pressure, Yura started dragging the provisions barrel uphill to Garabashi. I saw a news broadcast yesterday televising a pastime for new Russians and those in need of corporate games to build a healthy team and promote understanding. The ‘victims’ get dressed like haulers and harnessed in a barge to tow it up the Volga. In a nutshell, the fun we had was no worse.
The day before, 20-25 cm. of snow fell, and the ice further uphill was obviously still covered with some snow. But this also meant that the cracks and crevasses were hidden and lurking dangerously below the seemingly harmless white blanket
We visited Priyut-11 once again. The excessive snow and hauling business in the morning had left us incapable of any further performances, but then the Elbrus summit opened up before us, demonstrating its glorious view, and there was a unanimous and resounding “aaaaah…” from all of us. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the gorgeous view vanished back behind the clouds. A teaser for the light-minded. At the high altitude, Yura began to narrate his vision of acclimatization principles and chafing at the bit to get going. We should tranquilize him.
Back at the bar, Zhora comes up to us and gives each of us 18 grams of cognac. It’s party time!
Tomorrow we’ll try to get higher with the rucksacks and maybe fly down at least to Garabashi. A fight breaks out near us in the bar for a place near the radiator to dry some boots.
Sleep…

6th of September
We set off at 09:45 with our kit stuffed in our rucksacks. It’s clear and sunny. We are accompanied by Tyoma with Kuanysh and a couple of others.
We headed to the Pastukhov Rocks. Yura is lagging further and further behind. The slope is steep and we do not stop to wait for him. He will catch up as we reach the destination. All the snow has been blown away by the wind, so sometimes it comes up to the knee and sometimes we walk on the ice. We reached the top of the Pastukhov Rocks at last. Yura is downhill and yelling something unintelligible violently.
Finally we make it out “turn the radio on!” Dima takes out his yaesu(1) .
- Dima here.
- What the hell are you doing there? I’m dizzy, weak, short of air and I’m starving. So don’t mess about with me! You said we’re going to fly, so why don’t we just do it?
- Are you all right?! The wind is so strong and blowing in the wrong direction!
- Don’t mess with me! I’m dizzy, cold and can’t breathe and I’m starving. Don’t you mess around with me! You said we’re going to fly …
- Yura, quiet down.
- Don’t mess with me, I’m dizzy, you said we’re going to fly …….
- Jeez,... Yura. Shut up and stop panicking! Leave the rucksack where you are and go downhill – we’ll catch up.
Having yelled for some minutes longer, Yura finishes the communication session. It was a tricky business trying to understand what was really wrong with him, and it didn’t sound good if he was dizzy and starving at once. We take counsel. We’ll attempt to brave the summit tomorrow. Of course, if he is OK tomorrow, we will join our efforts to assist him in hauling his rucksack at least to the top of the Pastukhov Rocks. If unbearable, he can fly as far as the bar. If he feels poorly right away, he’ll take a snowcat back to the valley. He can also try to make it to the summit without the rucksack and we’ll fetch it on our way back.
We go back towards the bar and overtake Yura on the way. For some reason he is carrying his rucksack back. We couldn’t understand why.  
- Why didn’t you fly?
- We left the rucksacks high enough – that’ll make it easier tomorrow. And the way that the wind is blowing, it’s making things more difficult.
- Maybe I can still fly?
- Yura, the wind is against you, it’s impossible. We’ve already told you.
After 10 minutes:
- Maybe I can fly after all?
He obviously does not feel like walking down. And then unexpectedly the wind changes and, though not ideal, he could actually take off.
- Come on, fly, if you want to.
We help him to lay out the canopy, Yura dons the harness, the helmet, fastens the vario (2). It is also visible that he would not refuse a “courage pill”. We cheer him up by swearing rigorously. Finally he springs up, in the side wind the canopy comes up and partially collapsed. Finally the canopy is fully open and "Tequila" (3) makes it a straight flight. At first Dima adjusts Yura’s course, and then hands the radio over to Vitya.
Soon Yura comes into a current of at least +5 m/s that powerfully flings him upwards. Apparently scared, Yura makes “big ears” and loses height. We roar with laughter unanimously, recalling how Yura pressed Viktor, “if when flying there will be a lifting current, may I make the best of it?”
Yura lands short of the bar. We take our time walking there. 
After supper we get prepared for the next day, checking through our stuff and comparing who’s got what equipment.
- Hey, you just look at what she’s got here.
- Uh-huh.
- The one she’s got there is even better…
- Not better, just bigger.There’s nothing like intelligent chatter.

7th of September.
Onto our boots we put the crampons, on our bodies go the snowsuits, into our mouths go breakfast, and into our pockets go Snickers. Everyone dons a mask – the wind blew strongly even in the yard outside our hotel. We talked Yura into leaving his rucksack. It is obvious that he won’t make it to the summit and he does not need it.
We set off at 03:30, taking a snowcat together with Abramov’s group. In 40 minutes we are at the foot of the Pastukhov Rocks.
After this we disembark and when the snowcat has turned to head back and is already some 30 meters away, Yura announces that he is unwell. Swearing, Vitya hands him the only flash-light the group has and tells him to hurry back down. We start heading uphill blind, Abramov occasionally sheds light on the path with his torch, but it makes things even worse because it blinds us for several seconds as our eyes had already got used to the darkness.
In less than an hour we reach the place where we left our paragliders yesterday. “We should not have tied them up with a kapron cord”, I grumble while struggling with the rope.
It gets more difficult further on. The heavy rucksacks, the path covered with snow. Dawn finally breaks and no matter how hard it is to experience, Elbrus bestows upon us one of the most marvelous sunrises I have ever seen.
- Gosh, it’s cold-d-d like he-hell he-here…– stutters Abramov, who has come up to wake us out of our trance in awe at the view before us.
We climb to the ridge of the eastern summit, but Vasya starts falling behind at this point. We have to wait for him occasionally. At one point, I realize how tired I am. I often have this happening to me in the mountains – if I stop for a moment and sit down, I lapse into a kind of psychedelic dream. Like you don’t exactly fall asleep, but as soon as you close your eyes, you start seeing visions.
- Vasya, leave the rucksack at the rocks!
It is now pointless to carry the rucksacks to the summit because it is clear that we won’t be able to launch – there’s too much wind. I use walking poles and it makes it easier. With each gust of wind, in order to avoid being knocked down by it (which can happen easily!), Dima turns his head into the wind and assumes an aerodynamic pose on one knee. Quite the sight!
We reach the remnants of a LandRover. Can’t understand why this wreck should have been left up on the mountain. And if you did drag it up for promotional purposes, why not take it back down again?!
Finally, there are only the last few meters of the sub-summit ridge left. Step after step until... Hurray! I’m on the top. I drop the rucksack, and hug Vitya and Dima. We take photos and take photos of the breath-taking view of the Caucasus ridge. There is really plenty of space up there, and would have been ideal for launching paragliders, so it’s a real pity the weather has been all wrong...
Having spent 25 minutes on the summit, we get pretty cold and decide to wait for Vasya a little lower down, where the wind is not so strong. We get about 50 meters downwards where we find and encourage Vasya to keep going. He climbs up to the top alone and is soon back again. Congratulations for summiting to Vasya! Two funny icicles hang down from Viktor’s moustache. He laughs and licks them. It’s time, guys, let’s make tracks.
Dima and I are back at about 14:45. Vitya went with Vasya and they fell a little behind, as Vasya’s old injuries are aching. We make ourselves some tea as people congratulate us on our summiting.
The rumor has it that the lifts won’t be working tomorrow at all – due to repair works. Nobody is surprised or outraged. They are used to it.
Vitya and Vasya are back as well. We drink tea and think of what we should do next. To stay here today means to stay a day and a half longer than planned. We won’t be able to launch from the bar area – as we are not ready to glide with such a load, and the wind again is against us. So we head off downwards. Quickly we pack the things and off we go.
There is a feeling of dissatisfaction. Dima and I look at each other and understand that we are thinking the same thing. Down in Azau we phrase our thoughts: “What about going uphill tomorrow with the work shift at 7a.m. back to the bar, then leaving the rucksacks at Priyut-11 and having another go?”
- Viktor, could you get a weather forecast for tomorrow?
We discuss the possibilities. In a couple of hours Viktor’s wife Marina brings weather printouts. We sigh at the forecast. The verdict is: we won’t have time enough tomorrow and on the day after the weather will be absolutely terrible. This can be predicted with 80% accuracy. Honestly, I don’t believe we’ll be able to recover and make a second try. The decision has been made but it is not greeted welcomingly.
Dinner is had with funny stories told and toasts to the ascended. Of course, half of the program has been undoubtedly completed - we’ve proved that we all are physically ready to ascend and glide down. We also learnt that it is barely possible to get the right weather conditions for the glide in the narrow timeframe we had given ourselves. Nevertheless, we are still troubled by a certain discontent… Seven intense days and yet no one, except Yura, has unpacked his wings…
Okay, then. The mountain has accepted us on a visit, so let’s drink to her!8th of September.
Vitya visits us at breakfast, and we talk a little. Then Marat arrives to fetch us and we say good-bye. Dima, Vasya and I head for Moscow, while Vitya makes for his place in Neytrinka - he has loads of work to do as it’s high season. Yura decides to stay at Yutsa gliding for a couple of days.
In Pyatigorsk we change tickets and go for a stroll around the city. Vasya hurt his eyes yesterday and soon goes back to the railway station to suffer alone there saying that the world is not kind to him. Dima and I smoke hookah and it dawns on us that our week in the mountains was absolutely not enough.
We haven’t suffered too much up there and haven’t tormented ourselves quite enough. It’s truly quite a strange feeling – feeling of not having completed what we set out to do or to have tested ourselves enough. Well, it's always worth trying, and we sure did. Elbrus said she could wait and I’m sure that we’ll be back to try again.

Moscow, 2003

1) YAESU push-to-talk radio
2) Variometer – the most essential gadget of a paraglider pilot, indicates vertical speed
3)A paraglider model

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Sponsors: myself

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