August 29 – Joy and Sorrow

I have to mention more now about the two Polish climbers who went missing on Elbrus on the 26th of August, the day before our team went to the summit.

We knew these fellows had not come down because their teammates had investigated various places through the night. When I woke at 12:45 on the 27th I went out to look at the weather. There was still virtually no visibility and high winds. At that time I suspected that we would not ascend Elbrus this day. This is not unusual bad weather on Elbrus is quite common in fact. Visibility is virtually always an issue when you climb on Elbrus. The day before we climbed we sat around in the Refuge tying up wands; that is tying orange fluorescent flagging tapes onto short sticks that we can place along our route to mark the way. If the visibility becomes poor we can find our way back with them this is just a precaution in addition to the GPS receiver with its waypoint mark for the route, as well as my compasses that I also took bearings with on points along this route.

I had some close calls on Elbrus with visibility in the past and we knew as we got ready to climb that morning, (the snow cat driver, myself and the other guides) talked about the prospects of seeing the Polish climbers; assuming they had been benighted and would descend in better visibility. Our day cleared quickly as you know and as we climbed through the starlight darkness I saw that at least part of our day was going to have good visibility; as it turned out our entire day was cold and windy, but also clear.

So as the day went on, it was obvious that these fellows had not stayed on the route, presumably they had descended off the summit in the wrong direction, which is not hard to do in bad visibility the danger of course being crevasses.

As our day went on it was long and exhausting; no sign of the Polish climbers and it was pretty emotional to come back down to Pastukhov Rocks and to see their friends and family members and their teammates at the camp they’d established at the top of Pastukhov Rocks at 15,100 feet. basically to keep a vigil in case these fellows managed to descend the route. It does not look good, it did not look good at that time and now all these hours later there is virtually no chance that these fellows made it off this mountain. Presumably they went into a crevasse from wandering around with poor visibility off-route.

On a brighter note for our team when we got back to the valley, and arrived at the hotel the warm welcome by the staff here was really exceptional. I have mentioned a lot about the previous cybercast about the Balkar people, the people who are native to these mountains. They always make us feel welcome as well as the Russians and Ukrainians climbers and skiers who spend much of the year here. I was particularly impressed to see as my group walked in that the woman who always works behind the desk, handed to each of them a key to their previous room number because she had memorized or she knew well who was who in the group.

Later at dinner I saw Gary had a beautiful woollen hand knit turtleneck sweater. As you know, Gary spent an extra night here because of his problem with his knee and I think that he became really special to the staff here. In fact Olessa, the woman who has been serving the meals to both of my groups, three times a day throughout the month of August here, had hand knitted this sweater for Gary as a gift.

We had a great time sharing a meal with these folks again, and I know the people here will be a rich part of the memories that this entire group have of this great climbing trip to the Caucasus. I think especially of Paul who every time I turned around was engaged in a conversation with some local kids… always off talking with some of the soldiers who work in the area often in very broken English. He always managed to make a new friend. Paul had energy to climb with Kellie’s group on the mountain but he also was the guy who was off making friends with the Balkar people.

I can tell you that no one in this group is sorry for the fact that we have a full day here in the Caucasus now. We will be off again back home to St. Petersburg. There are various things to do to relax and enjoy the area. Scott and Trey took off for a walk this afternoon and visited Dacha and took pictures of one another talking on Gorbachev’s red phone. The Dacha is not really the kind of accommodation that you appreciate here in the valley but it is an interesting place to visit any way. Most of the rest of us relaxed here in the hotel.

Above: Comet Hale-Bopp over Mt. Elbrus from Pik Terskol, Caucasus, April '97. ©"Observers",