Россия первая! (Russia First)

Stalin and the Banner of National Friendship

On the same day my friend, El Jefe, arrived by plane on the Kahiltna Glacier in Alaska, I received my visa to travel to Russia and climb Эльбрус (Elbrus), Europe’s highest peak at 5642 meters (18,510 feet).

Last summer, I decided to climb Elbrus before climbing Denali. My trip to Rainier in 2016 made me reevaluate my original plan to travel to Alaska in 2017. I realized I would benefit from another year of experience. Since I have never been above 5000 meters and since my most recent trips did not qualify as expeditions, I wanted to practice acclimatization and prepare in a more remote location. Further training might improve my chance of success.

The Brexit vote last June was another important factor in my decision. After more than 70 years of relative peace on the european continent, politicians suddenly cast their previous commitments to integration in doubt. A return to nation-state Realpolitik and closed borders seemed possible. Low economic growth, harsh austerity measures, and rapidly escalating migration was forcing european political leaders to focus on national interests and disregard further opportunities for cooperation.

Having lived in Germany during the last 17 years, I experienced the mostly positive effects of an open, common Europe. Movement across the continent was unimpeded making it easier to work and travel. By choosing a destination in Europe to climb, I could symbolically lend my support those inside and outside of the United Kingdom who wanted to remain.

I originally considered Mont Blanc as a destination. The second highest point in Europe and the nearby, famous climbing town of Chamonix are a quick and cheap flight from Berlin. Unfortunately, a guided climb in the massif is expensive. Many climbing routes are also extremely crowded since cable cars make it easy for anyone to ascend the mountain. Elbrus became my alternative. The challenges of climbing the highest summit in Europe are similar to those on Denali. Far away from Central Europe in the Caucasus, I pictured myself standing at the top of the continent proclaiming further European unity.

As the news of leaked emails from the Democratic Party in the US began to surface last summer, I wondered whether I made the right decision. A few close friends questioned my new plan. Worried about Russian involvement in the US election and Russian intervention in Syria, they said they would not travel to Russia. In their opinion, spending money in Russia was tacit acceptance and support for Putin’s policies and actions, especially considering the continued sanctions against Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

I disagreed with my friends in the same way I once disagreed with my deceased grandfather of Russian descent. During the Cold War, my grandfather refused to travel to the Soviet Union. He and I would often argue about US-Soviet relations and citizen diplomacy. I claimed the people of a country were not the same as its government. I could be a proud American without supporting the policies of Ronald Reagan.

In 1994, I had an opportunity to travel to Moscow and learn firsthand about the country. My experience in and around the Russian capital was eye-opening. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt reigned supreme. The value of the ruble wildly fluctuated making the US dollar a popular hedge against the loss of personal savings. Many businesses found it difficult to adjust to a market economy. While the recently elected government was stable, the Duma was more self-absorbed with parliamentary debates than with civic engagement. I left Moscow vowing to return; but, before I had another chance, my oldest daughter visited the city on a school exchange in 2014 some twenty years after my first visit.

Now, after a year of preparation, training, and learning the language, the approval of my visa was my last hurdle to overcome. In four weeks, I fly to Moscow where I will meet a British group. We will fly to Mineralne Vody (Минеральные Воды or Mineral Waters), stay in Piatigorsk (Пятигoрск or Five Mountains), and climb the mountain’s less frequented northern route. I look forward to visiting a different part of such a vast country and to experiencing Russian culture again.

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1 reply
  1. Lee Holt says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Great to hear that you’re still cranking on towards your goals. Congratulations on your permit for Elbrus – ought to be quite the adventure!

    Best,
    Lee

    Reply

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