“Everest?!” No, Elbrus. The clarification was followed either by a raised eyebrow or a bemused nod. It was the typical response when I told someone I was about to climb Mount Elbrus, a mountain that apparently few have heard of, yet is the highest peak in Europe. But for many, the unfamiliar mountain wasn’t the most baffling part of my trip—they were more surprised to learn that I was traveling to Russia just to climb it.
Contrary to what some might guess, Europe’s tallest peak is not in the Alps, the continent’s haven for hard-core mountaineers. While the better-known, 15,781-foot-tall Mont Blanc is the tallest mountain in the Alps and the European Union, Russia’s Mount Elbrus towers at 18,510 feet, making it one of the Seven Summits—the tallest mountains on each continent. The dormant volcano in the Caucasus mountains near the border between Russia and Georgia does attract a smattering of European skiers, but for most U.S. residents, and at this time in particular, Russia is more known for its politics than its peaks.
So while everyone else was sharing beach photos from their sexy summer getaways, I layered thermal, down, and Gore-Tex into a duffel bag during a NYC heatwave. Yes, it was July, but I was packing for below-freezing temps and heading to a country plagued by unflattering stereotypes of Cold War–era espionage, political collusion, and a less-than-warm veneer.
I would be climbing Mount Elbrus with WHOA Travel (Women High on Adventure), an adventure travel company run by and for women. I’d climbed Kilimanjaro, my first of the Seven Summits, with WHOA and over 25 women from around the world on International Women’s Day in 2015. When I learned about the company’s first eight-day expedition to Elbrus, it seemed like the logical next challenge. These two mountains are considered the easiest to tackle of the elite peaks, and because I was more interested in the camaraderie and adventure than I was in summiting all seven, it looked like Elbrus would have to indeed be my Everest.
The mountain’s remote location makes it unfamiliar terrain for many in the United States, but we were assured that it is accessible, and that, while grueling at times, the climb doesn’t require previous mountaineering experience. Still, while gazing over the rental gear we picked up in the small ski village of Cheget—ice axes, mountaineering boots, crampons, ropes, and harnesses—it was hard not to feel overwhelmed. When we climbed Kilimanjaro, we had been told we would only need hiking poles and a smile.
From the first day in Cheget, our WHOA group attracted a lot of attention. It wasn’t that people didn’t expect to see women climbing Elbrus—on the contrary, two of our local guides, Anna and Vera, were experienced Russian mountaineers who lead trips up Elbrus with WHOA’s local partner organization, Pilgrim Tours—it was that we were an all-woman group who had come here to climb together. “All girls?!” one middle-aged man called out in a thick Russian accent as our single file of ladies moved past him up an icy slope.
There’s no room for stereotypes on a mountain, where everyone shares the same goal of making it to the top and getting back down alive.
After our first acclimatizing hike on Day 2, I asked our Russian guide Misha, a man of few words, how he thought we did. Admittedly, I was fishing for compliments and wanted to hear that we’d climbed better than expected in our spiky cramponed boots for the first time.
“Average,” Misha replied, stone faced. But he later changed his tune when we moved ahead of another group of climbers on the mountain. His constant refrain of “Let’s go” was then always followed by the addition of “—my strong girls!”
We learned not to expect much praise from our Russian guides, but we appreciated their seriousness about safety, their steadfast stamina, and their reverential respect for this beast of a mountain. To our disbelief, as we gasped for air on our short breaks during the exhausting ascent, Misha seemed to be always puffing away on a cigarette. But he also always carefully packed up his cigarette butts and put them in his backpack.
The seven- to eight-hour climb to the summit began in pitch black with all of us sporting headlamps. But even after the sun rose, the day was a bit of a blur—a haze of snow and fog whipped up by lashing winds—made blurrier by the thin air. We made it to the peak of Elbrus around 10 a.m. and stood on a small ledge covered with flags from nearly every country. And while I had danced and wept with joy at the sunrise on the summit of Kilimanjaro, on the top of Elbrus I collapsed to the ground, thinking, “Thank God, I can finally rest for a minute.” But news of an approaching storm forced us to rush back down. At one point during our descent though, the clouds broke for a few moments, revealing a seemingly endless horizon of snow-capped Caucasus mountains that nearly took my last labored breath away. That view alone made it all worth it.
There’s no denying that Elbrus is a harsh, moody, and formidable mountain, and we couldn’t have tackled it without the support from our Russian guides. But we also taught hard-core climbers on the mountain—and ourselves—to not underestimate a cackling group of women armed with ice axes. There’s no room for stereotypes on a mountain, where everyone shares the same goal of making it to the top and getting back down alive. And your countries’ political differences—and whatever kind of relationship their leaders may or may not have—don’t matter when a fellow climber is offering you a hand or a safety rope on a treacherous slope.
As the ’90s techno was turned up and the vodka flowed, we all forgot the pain and struggle of climbing up and down Europe’s highest peak, at times crying on the inside. Now, as I looked around, we—the “all girls” climbing crew and our Russian guides—were all smiling on the outside.
WHOA will be leading another group of women on Mount Elbrus on its WHOAx Elbrus 2019 expedition.
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