Rolling with the Stones

Wild Horses on the Aerodrome

A luchador deftly slides behind my back. His arms are around my neck before I can react. He applies a sleeper hold. I start to feel groggy. My arms fail to move. They are stuck in place at my side. I am hot, suffocating, and, as I finally open my eyes, I am in a wooden hut surrounded by six men who are sound asleep. The faint light of a quarter moon shines through a closed window as I wake up from my dream and unzip my sleeping bag.

A lone cowboy on a horse beckons the daybreak. He sits upon his steed like a mighty Circassian prince. The UAZ-452, which brought our gear to base camp the day before, is his only companion.

Circassian Cowboy

Circassian Cowboy

The North Slope Base Camp (Aльплагерь Северный Склон) is tucked into the foothills that lead to Elbrus from the north. The permanent structures in the camp—a shower stall, two outhouses, a canteen, a rusty tractor, and other small buildings in various states of repair—reflect the early morning sunshine. I share a bunk house with six teammates. The other teammates and the guides sleep in tents on elevated platforms.

Sleeping Quarters in Base Camp

Sleeping Quarters in Base Camp

Executive Tent in Base Camp

Executive Tent in Base Camp

Tractor with a Mercedes Emblem

Tractor with a Mercedes Emblem

We rise around 7 am to witness the cowboy stand guard over a silent, lifeless base camp. In the canteen, we eat a tepid breakfast of kashka that warms our spirits much less than our first unobstructed view of Elbrus way off in the distance.

Kashka in the Green Light of the Canteen

Kashka in the Green Light of the Canteen

First Unobstructed View of Elbrus

First Unobstructed View of Elbrus

We leave camp at 9 am for our first acclimatization hike. The sky is cloudless and the temperature is already in the mid 20 degrees Celsius. It will be a hot day.

We march in a single file line along the rock overhanging bank of a rushing river tributary. We can hear the roaring sound of its waters as we approach on the trail. Our deliberately slow pace causes a few teammates to stumble and others to complain. We acclimatize our bodies and our minds while we learn how to walk together as a group.

A Slow, Deliberate March

A Slow, Deliberate March

At 2800 meters, an elevation gain of roughly 200 meters, we reach a vast plateau. Constantine, one of our Russian guides, explains how the German Wehrmacht turned the prairie field into a landing strip during the Nazi occupation of the area in Word War II. He calls the area the aerodrome.

Aerodrome Plateau

Aerodrome Plateu

Crossing the Plateau (Looking North)

Crossing the Plateau (Looking North)

Crossing the Plateau (Looking North) Photograph © Copyright Stefan, 2017.

Crossing the Plateau (Looking North)
Photograph © Copyright Stefan, 2017.

Crossing the Plateau (Looking South) Photograph © Copyright Stefan, 2017.

Crossing the Plateau (Looking South)
Photograph © Copyright Stefan, 2017.

We travel three kilometers across the plateau taking almost two hours to traverse the complete length of the field. We climb a ridge, drop back down in a valley, and climb another ridge. As we climb higher, we are surrounded by rock outcroppings. The rocks are called the stone mushrooms (Каменные грибы). They were formed by glacial erosion, left behind like vegetables in an arid garden.

Stone Mushrooms

Stone Mushrooms

A Stone Mushroom

A Stone Mushroom

Another Stone Mushroom Photograph © Copyright Stefan, 2017.

Another Stone Mushroom
Photograph © Copyright Stefan, 2017.

The stones remind me of the rocks at Hueco Tanks. I recall a trip out to West Texas as a university student—my first exposure to the sport of bouldering.

We stop for a break at an elevation of 3200 meters. I seek shelter from the midday sun in the shade of a giant rock. The others lounge underneath stone mushrooms or enjoy the expansive view atop one. Olan, our guide, restlessly inspects the stones looking for holds, scouting a problem. I eventually join him to test the jagged heucos for a decent grip. I consider a highball problem, but decide not to take the risk. Lost in my thought process, Olan interrupts my concentration. I am hanging by my outstretched arms, and Olan, like a good coach, warns me to use my legs more. We are burning off nervous energy. We are playful, unserious, perhaps even bored.

Finding Some Shade Unter a Stone Mushroom Photograph © Copyright Stefan, 2017.

Finding Some Shade Unter a Stone Mushroom
Photograph © Copyright Stefan, 2017.

Taking a Break in the Noon Sun

Taking a Break in the Noon Sun

Adam Poses in Front of Stone Mushrooms

Adam Poses in Front of Stone Mushrooms

On the way back to base camp, I can’t stop thinking about Heuco Tanks. The surrounding landscape, the rock formations, and the sight of wild horses transport me back home. I think about the Anglo expansion westwards and try to compare it with Imperial Russia’s push south. Comanche and Circassian are a common threat separated by two vast continents.

The Expanse of the Aerodrome Plateau

The Expanse of the Aerodrome Plateau

Returning to the North Slope Base Camp

Returning to the North Slope Base Camp

Back at base camp, I take a siesta in the early afternoon heat. I nod off to the sounds of the Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson, who gently transports me from the Caucasian steppe to the Rio Grande. In my mind, I lie in a breezy, Texan dog-run instead of a stuffy Russian hut. I enjoy the music and a break.

I eventually awake to the sounds of a volleyball match outside. My British teammates square off against the Russian staff in base camp. They acclimatize with the locals in a friendly match.

 

Waypoints Time Distance Altitude
North Slope Base Camp
Aerodrome
Mushroom Rocks
2:50 hours (travel time) 9.4 km +- 640 m to 3209 m
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  1. […] I wake to strange sounds at 4:00 am in the morning. I hear a soft swaying and a gentle rustling in the dark. There is stifled movement coming from the volleyball court in front of the canteen. The sounds are too muted to be a pre-dawn volleyball match. […]

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