Clutch Moments

Prielbrusye National Park, Russia

The smell of burnt transmission fluid lingers in the air as our minibus pulls off the road. We are in the Prielbrusye National Park a few hundred meters from a bridge that crosses the Malka River. We are uncertain whether the minibus or its driver refuse to go any farther.

A Russian Minibus for Our Transportation

A Russian Minibus for Our Transportation

A UAZ-452 for Our Gear

A UAZ-452 for Our Gear

We joke inside the minibus about hitching a ride in the Caucasian steppe. We are two hours south of Piatygorsk on a winding, two lane road, and we are a few more hours away from base camp, our intended destination. We ever imagined that our driver would leave us on the side of the road.

Before we stopped, we could smell the burning transmission fluid and hear the sound of whining, downshifting gears as the surface of the road from Kislovodsk began to change. We drove down a serpentine roadway passing majestic limestone and granite bluffs. Along the way, I thought about West Texas and the Pixar movie, Cars. I laughed with the others about the pungent smell coming from the engine while I stared out the window taking in the vast beauty of the lush landscape. The shamrock green grasses and vibrant wildflowers reminded me of a perfect spring in Texas driving along Highway 290 near Brenham with the windows rolled down and the moist, tangy, sweet smell of bluebonnets in the air. Instead, I am in the back of a hot and stuffy, late-model minibus whose driver is pouring water into an overheated engine. I reluctantly exit the minibus with the others as it becomes clear that we will hike to base camp further than anticipated.

The Road Does Not Go On Forever

The Road Does Not Go On Forever

The hot, midday sun bears down on us. We follow a dusty country lane that runs parallel to the Malka. A couple pass us in a 4×4 pickup truck. A few cars are parked ahead.

Trail Head Near the Malka River

Trail Head Near the Malka River

We hike in the broad flood plain of the river gorge underneath rocky outcroppings that are blackened by the overhead sun. The dark rock shadows contrast with brightly colored wildflowers. Native yellow cone flowers, blue cornflowers, purple Siberian squill, and white baby’s-breath intertwine with green, rye grass.

Caucasian Wildflowers (Part I)

Caucasian Wildflowers (Part I)

Caucasian Wildflowers (Part II)

Caucasian Wildflowers (Part II)

Caucasian Wildflowers (Part III)

Caucasian Wildflowers (Part III)

The trail becomes muddy 1.5 km from our starting point. We can hear the Imir Waterfall before we can see it. The waterfall drowns out any other sound.

Caucasian Steppe

Caucasian Steppe

We cross the Malka River to take a closer look at the waterfall. We wade through tall grass and cattails on a narrow path near the base of the booming waterfall. Chocolate-colored water gushes out of a vulvic opening the rock like a New York City fire hydrant in the summer. I can’t stop imagining an uncensored, low-budget version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in which Augustus Gloop meets a very different fate.

Imir Waterfall

Imir Waterfall

After an hour of hiking, we reach the road above the Malka gorge. We walk through a campground, briefly stop to gaze at the Sultan Waterfall, and continue downhill to the end of the road where our minibus should have left us off.

Campground Near the Sultan Waterfall; Elbrus in the Distant Background

Campground Near the Sultan Waterfall; Elbrus in the Distant Background

A colony of naked old men, young families in bathing suits, and single men in faded camouflage fatigues gather around the Dzhily-Su (Джилы-Су) hot springs. An metal fence painted army green surrounds a small pool hastily cobbled together with cinder blocks. The bathers undress in changing stalls before they soak in the carbolic and sulfuric mineral waters. We decide in the afternoon heat to skip a restorative cure in the hot springs.

A Washed Out Bridge Near the Dzhily-Su Hot Springs

A Washed Out Bridge Near the Dzhily-Su Hot Springs

We cross the Malka River a second time where the river meets the Kyzylkol River. The broad, green valley of the Kyzylkol is more welcoming than the rocky hills above our trail. Without any hedgerows or barbed-wire fence, the Caucasian steppe is an endless expanse. The horizon unfolds in front of us like a long shot in a Wim Wenders movie. Horses and cows roam free. We are the only hikers on the trail.

Hiking Along the Green Steppe

Hiking Along the Green Steppe

The Lush, Green, Hilly Steppe

The Lush, Green, Hilly Steppe

In the distance, we spy our base camp. Hot, thirsty, and a little tired, we press on.

A Reliable UAZ-452 Transports Our Gear to Base Camp

A Reliable UAZ-452 Transports Our Gear to Base Camp

I suddenly stop and stare directly in front of me. I register voices behind me that ask if I am okay. I remain frozen in place, refusing to look down, unable to move. My right leg has disappeared in the ground. My left leg is buckled behind me. I slowly reply that I am okay. I refuse the arm of a teammate who leans down to help. Like Alice in Wonderland, I somehow fell in a rabbit hole. My right leg is buried up to the knee. Stuck in place, unable to move, I fear the worst: a fracture to my fibula. I can wiggle my toes. I can bend at the knee. I look down again. I am in pain and my leg is bloody, but the bone is not broken.


“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

The Cheshire-Cat in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I put my hands down in front of me and slowly push myself up. By the time I extract my leg from the rocky hole, the blood from several wounds has already coagulated. My ego is bruised more than my body.

My team mates ask again if I’m okay.

“Fine,” I reply curtly. My thoughts are elsewhere. I barely register or acknowledge their concern. I am, instead, consumed by thoughts of appreciation. I’m lucky nothing worse happened. I’m okay. Base camp is within sight. Unlike our minibus, I’ve almost made it to our final destination for the day.

The Final Stretch to Base Camp

The Final Stretch to Base Camp

UAZ-452 Heads to Base Camp<br/>Copyright Stefan, 2017

UAZ-452 Heads to Base Camp
Photograph © Copyright Stefan, 2017.

 

Waypoints Time Distance Altitude
By car via Piatygorsk, Kislovodsk, and the Prielbrusye National Park
By foot via the Malka River, Dzhily-su Hot Springs, and the Kyzylkol River to the North Slope Base Camp
2:50 hours (travel time during our hike) 8.4 km +- 362 m to 2570 m

 

Print

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *