Frozen In Time
Updated: May 3, 2019
How a Disastrous Climb in Russia Became a Cherished Memory
In my many years of climbing, I’ve been (un?)lucky enough to experience a fall so drastic, I had a moment to think, “Well, Poe, you’ve gone and done it. This is how it all ends.” Sadly, in those few seconds, I wasn’t greeted with flashes of my life, as Hollywood would have us believe, but instead, just a wave of anticipation for the incoming pain.
Clearly, the fall wasn’t fatal. It left me bruised and battered, but able to climb another day. Yet the lack of a final moments highlight reel left me feeling disappointed. In a dark, terrified second, what could be more comforting than a memory of family? Or a happy moment with good friends? I scrolled through the list of obvious choices; snowmobiling with my siblings, dancing on my wedding day, or playing ball with my nephews. Among those choices, one unconventional memory stuck out in my mind, a moment with a man I barely knew, trapped in an unforgiving snowstorm.
Our journey began in Azau, Russia.
This tiny skiing village sits at the base of Mt. Elbrus, the high point of Europe. At over eighteen-thousand feet high, its dual peaks are snow-covered year round. Even mid-summer, temperatures can drop to well below freezing, and winds can turn deadly. For climbers, these few months are a brief window to reach the summit.
Our team gathered in Azau, a group ranging from twenty-five years (myself) to sixty-five (my climbing partner, Doug). What I lacked in experience, I hoped to make up for with youthful pluck. We boarded the ski lifts and rode our way up to base camp, passing over deep gorges and rocky, barren terrain. The peaks rose before us, snow-capped and majestic, deceptively calm in the morning air.
We spent the next few days climbing toward the summit, training as we went. Our guide drilled home the finer points of self-arresting, the process of using your ice ax to save yourself during a fall. At this point in my life, I had yet to experience any life-threatening falls, so I took the lessons lightly. Throwing ourselves down a small hill and slamming our axes into the frozen ground felt like a version of extreme sledding, rather than a lifesaving skill. Mark, a 30-something cardiologist, challenged me to a game of chicken, racing one another down the hill seeing who could be the last to self-arrest before crashing to the ground below.
Our affable guide let this pass without comment, even laughing at our antics. So far, the mountain had been calm, a silent, slumbering giant.
Unfortunately for us, that giant was about to awaken.
The day before our summit push, weather reports began circulating through camp. A massive storm was headed our way. We had given ourselves two days to attempt to summit—after that, we would need to leave the mountain to catch our flights home. The storm was forecasted to span both of them.
“It’s up to you guys,” the guide said. “We can give it a shot tomorrow, or we can just call it quits and head back to town.”
After flying across the globe for this trip, there was no way we were going to be deterred by a measly blizzard. As a team, we agreed to begin climbing that evening, in the hope of missing the worst of the storm. To give ourselves a fighting chance, we would ride in a covered snowcat, similar to a massive snowmobile, up to sixteen-thousand feet. A few of us grumbled about how this was "cheating," but as the weather reports continued to roll in, our guide became adamant that we use the snowcat. Otherwise, we would have no chance of making it to the top.
As midnight drew near, we pulled on our heavy snow gear, tightening crampons to our boots and unholstering our ice axes. The wind was picking up speed, and a ghostly howl echoed around camp. Snow was falling, and the wind had already whipped it into fluffy snowdrifts. A heavy gust nearly knocked me sideways as I clambered into the snowcat, and I felt the first hint of nerves. Why had we goofed off so much during training? How could we have been so thoughtless?
With our team fully loaded, the snowcat turned toward the summit and began climbing. The roar of the wind was magnified inside our small, enclosed passenger pod. I glanced around at my teammates. Even behind their thick goggles, I could see the unease on their faces. Our guide’s jaw was set, his amiable smile replaced with a hard-set line, as if he was rethinking this entire foolhardy plan.
Finally, the snowcat thumped to a stop. Our guide let out a sigh and said, “It’s going to be windy out there. Whatever you do, don’t let go of your gear.”
Windy was an understatement. As soon as the door opened, a gale burst into the snowcat, its cold piercing through our protective layers. We stumbled into the open air, where the wind immediately knocked one of our older climbers to the ground. Her trekking poles fell from her hand and were whisked into the darkness. All around me, my teammates were fumbling with their packs, fighting to secure any loose gear to themselves. Nearly blinded by the swirling snow, I was just barely able to make out a backpack as it tumbled past.
“Climb! Just climb!” the guide yelled as he ran after the pack. The fear and frustration in his voice were obvious.
Mark had already started to climb, his headlamp pointed at the slope before us. I ran to join him, the rest of the team falling in line behind us. There was no discernible trail, so we just walked upward, knowing eventually, we would drop into the saddle between the two peaks. From there, it would be a straight shot to the summit.
I glanced behind us, shielding my goggles from the snow, now blowing nearly sideways. Our guide was nowhere to be seen and our group of climbers had been whittled down to six. Had they others turned back? Or worse, fallen? With more experience under my belt, I would have realized this was a good point to call it quits. We weren’t roped together for safety, a few of our team members were unaccounted for, and the winds were increasing at an alarming rate. But ignorance is a beautiful thing, and as long as the others were continuing, so was I.
Our “trail” was growing steeper, evidence that we were approaching the saddle. I turned back to my remaining teammates to share this revelation, only to find just one lone climber behind me.
“I think they fell!” he yelled.
With our slippery snow pants, a fall could be deadly on these steep slopes. Only an instant self-arrest would prevent a climber from a terrifying drop.
“I’m going back,” the climber announced. “This is insane.” He turned and began crab-walking down, careful to keep his body pressed to the side of the mountain.
Oblivious to our discussion, Mark was now several yards ahead. I turned indecisively between the two men, knowing the climb was a lost cause, but unable to throw in the towel just yet.
“Mark, wait!” I cried, doing my best to run against the wind. A gust knocked my flat on my side, and in a panic, I drove the tip of my ax into the ice and clung to it for dear life. My crampon spikes scrabbled against the slick ground, trying to find a solid grip. In our practice sessions, I hadn’t fully appreciated how terrifying an actual self-arrest would be.
Suddenly, Mark was by my side. “You alright?” he gasped. When I nodded, he helped haul me to my feet. “Where are the others?”
“I think some fell,” I replied. “Maybe turned back, I don’t know.”
We sat for a moment, hands gripping each other’s packs for stability, crampons dug into the ice. The rest of the world faded away; our jobs, our lives back home, even our teammates far below. It was just us and the mountain.
“I don’t think we can make it,” I said, leaning close to be heard over the wind.
“No,” he agreed. “But I’m still game to try if you are.”
I looked up the slope. The world was a mess of gray and white. Even the rising sun couldn’t help us discern any sort of trail. My face mask had frozen over, leaving strips of ice plastered to my skin. My fingers and toes had long gone numb. And yet, we’d made it so far, how could we possibly turn back?
We lifted ourselves into a crouch, and, still holding onto one another, inched our way up the ice. Gusts knocked us to our knees, where we’d grab for each other to keep from sliding. We became a unit, our steps moving in sync, unwilling and unable to progress without the other. Finally, the ground leveled out. We could just make out the faint dip, indicating that we had reached the saddle.
He let out a shocked laugh. “Are we really doing this?” he asked.
Unable to help myself, I smiled back. This was stupid. This was reckless. This was borderline suicidal. But I’d never felt such a connection with another person. I couldn’t bring myself to end it.
“I’m right beside you the whole way up.”
He pulled me close in a one-armed hug, an acknowledgment of the bond we had built in those few hours. No matter what lay ahead, we were going to face it together. Heart full to bursting, I pressed on, the comforting weight of his pack in my grip.
Our journey ended shortly after. A Russian climber, sent by our guide, ran up to us, huffing and puffing with Russian obscenities at our idiocy.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he demanded.
As the old adage goes, we weren’t. But after returning to camp and finding our entire team shaken but unharmed, I had time to fully appreciate the full scope of this experience. I’d put my safety in someone else’s hands, and asked for the same in return. Together, we’d stared down death and smiled.
When death finally comes a’knockin’, I can only hope it lets me relive that day. Surely, such an adventure deserves to be on my final highlight reel.