Waterlogged

A Group Acclimatizes in the Distance

The Nimbostratus clouds of the previous day slowly clear around 3 am in the morning. A half moon and several stars compete against lingering Stratus clouds as the sky slowly starts to clear. By sunrise, the clouds are completely gone, and the warm, persistent rays of the early morning sun slowly reduce the chill inside the Big House. My teammates and I remain in our sleeping bags uncertain what to do.

Outside the Big House, the twin peaks of the Elbrus heave upwards against a baby blue sky. From the north, Elbrus looks like the soft, rounded breasts of a pregnant woman who is covered in a silky blanket of snow.

Elbrus in the Morning

Elbrus in the Morning

We enjoy a fantastic view of the mountain and our first unobstructed view of high camp. In addition to the Big House, Green Datscha, mess hall, and a few stray tents, the camp includes a metal outhouse, a large yurt-like metal building for a group, and several small metal cabins for the staff that look like dog houses.

An Outdoor Wash Basin

An Outdoor Wash Basin

In front of the Big House and next to the Green Datscha, a lone wash basin provides a location to fill water bottles, wash hands, and brush teeth. A diesel generator pumps water for the camp from a frozen lake below. The generator also provides electricity in the evening.

The outhouse is on the other side of camp. The building, a plywood and metal box, has two separate stalls. Each stall has a hole in the floor.

The Shitting Container (Outhouse)

The Shitting Container (Outhouse)

A Shit Hole

A Shit Hole

The outhouse is elevated slightly above the rocks. The building does not have a tank or a containment system for human and other sanitary waste.


At 10:00 am in the morning, we gather for an acclimatization hike. The temperature is already 26 degrees Celsius, and the glare of the morning sun brightly reflects off the glacier ice.

Stefan, Constantine, Chris, and Adam are Ready to Go

Stefan, Constantine, Chris, and Adam are Ready to Go

Sri, Alexander, Alain, Olan, and Xavier Wait

Sri, Alexander, Alain, Olan, and Xavier Wait

The snow underneath our double-boots is a delicate mixture of ice, slush, and running water. We put our crampons on and form a single rope team that includes the guides and participants.

We trudge through the icy snow pack dodging glacier runoff and puddles of accumulating water. We move at a slow, start-and-stop pace.

Mush, Wet Snow Dogs

Mush, Wet Snow Dogs

Along the way, we chat lightheartedly among ourselves sharing jokes and stories. We are moving so slow that I can write messages in the melting snow. I also think about the outhouse. I wonder if it is possible to replace the open pit with a composting toilet. I make a promise to myself that I will follow-up with a glaciologist when I return home.

Yeti Ahead

Yeti (Йети) Ahead

Lost in my own thoughts, I miss most of the rope team’s conversation, but I can’t escape the evil, earworm invasion of the Star War’s Imperial March that our expedition medic, Chris, dispenses to the group.

Slowly Climbing Higher

Slowly Climbing Higher

A Lone Wand at 4000 Meters

A Lone Wand at 4000 Meters

Above 4000 meters, the trail starts to freeze. The weather also changes. A thick bank of Nimbostratus clouds overtakes us from behind.

The Clouds Roll In

The Clouds Roll In

We are approximately 350 meters below the illusive Camp 3 (Лагерь 3) before we turn back at 4242 meters in altitude. The Mikelchiran Glacier is now on our right and the Ullukol Glacier is on our left. Our pace quickens to beat the approaching storm.

Heading Back Down

Heading Back Down

We are unfortunately too late. Hail falls from high above. Rain mixes with sleet to make our hike miserable in the slushy snow. We move quickly, but we cannot outrun the weather.

As we head downhill in the storm, a lone figure approaches us traveling uphill. Constantine, our Russian guide, stops to question the forlorn man. I can barely overhear their conversation, and the parts I hear I do not understand. Constantine is amused. He is joking with our wanderer, and he doesn’t take the man seriously—nor do we.

A Lone Russian Wanderer

A Lone Russian Wanderer

The almost toothless man is a comical figure. He wears surplus military clothing. He has no crampons or gloves on. His trekking poles are mental tent poles that turn his hands a pinkish red from the cold. His sunglasses are a cheap, low quality knockoff of designer eyewear. The glasses are more appropriate for women who bask in the copper sun of the French Rivera. Everything about our wanderer is out-of-place; but, we let him pass undisturbed. He wants to stay overnight in Camp 3. We want to get out of the storm.

Back below 4000 meters, the guides finally loosen our 14 man tether. We break loose from the rope like dogs bolting from a leash. We rush back through the icy swamp of glacier runoff and pouring rain. We want to quickly return to our dry shelter. We are cold, wet, and hungry.

A warm mess hall and a warm lunch lift our spirits. I boast during the meal that I will light the Soviet made, wood-fired oven in the Big House. The small, cast iron oven looks like a potbelly stove turned on its side. Sauna rocks rest on top of the stove to retain the heat.

Our Boots and Clothing Wait to Dry

Our Boots and Clothing Wait to Dry

Bold and overconfident, I prepare the oven like I once prepared my East German ceramic tile oven (Kachelofen), a reliable, yet environmentally unfriendly, coal and wood burning source of heat in a former apartment. I light the fire, open the door to the hut for a draft of air, and expect to quickly add logs to a roaring fire. My first attempt ends in a puff of smoke.

On my hands and knees, I pray that blowing on the embers will help. I make little progress. The kindling glows red, but the fire doesn’t catch. At this altitude, I am easily winded by blowing hard on the coals. I’ve given myself a headache. I sweat. I am embarrassed. I can tell my teammates are starting to lose faith in me.

I rebuild my fire like an overzealous boy scout. I light the smoldering wood after I add more paper to jump-start the reluctant oven. I swear at the oven in German under my breath. I don’t want the oven to understand me and start a new cold war.

My second and third attempts fail. I finally admit defeat.

A teammate asks Constantine for help who, in turn, asks a member of the camp staff. A large, Russian, built like Ivo Drachovich enters our hut. He looks at my smoldering pile of embers and says nothing. He rearranges the wood, adds more paper, and lights the fire. His attempt produces more smoke than mine.

We nod to each other in common understanding. He fixes his pyre. The pressure is building.Expectations are running high. The Russian must succeed where the American failed.

We speak to each other in the universal language of repair jobs. We grunt and uh-huh. We coax the fussy little oven. We encourage it to work.

After another failed attempt, the Russian reaches into his jacket and pulls out a white plastic cup that contains a thick, black goop. I ask him in English about his magic potion. He asks me if I know the story of Baba Yaga (Баба-яга), the Russian witch with iron teeth who, in some stories, feeds her stove with the bodies of troublesome children. I smile at him. I nod. Yes, I know some of the stories.

The Russian sheepishly grins at me as he spreads liberal amounts of the black molasses on some kindling, which he adds to the lifeless fire. The trick works immediately. The fire springs to life and the wood starts to burn.

“Очень хорошо!” I exclaim in excitement.

He smiles with a curt reply, “Ничего.”

We shake hands. The oven is working and we can now dry our wet boots and clothes.

Xavier Enjoys the Fire in His Sleeping Bag

Xavier Enjoys the Fire in His Sleeping Bag

 

Waypoints Time Distance Altitude
High Camp
Turn-around at 4242 meters
3:52 hours (travel time) 3.9 km +- 501 m to 4242 m

 

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