What’s in a father’s heart when climbing Elbrus with his daughter
I like to think that we have much in common as we both traveled a lot, lived in different countries and share a common perspective about life.
I also enjoy a lot these conversations of ours, in English, inside the pub of a little village hidden in a valley and surrounded by our neighbors, peasants that run their self sufficient little farms and talk about crops and cows. It is fantastically exotic for me.
So my friend Steve tried to talk me into sharing with the readers of our family’s blog more about what we feel when climbing high mountains, about the whirlwind of thoughts that swipes through my mind when I am up there with my daughter. As I consider Steve to have way more life experience than I have and I also have a lot of respect for him, here I am. Talking about it.
Last summer we went in Russia, in order to try and summit Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak and volcano, in an attempt to add another volcano to our desire of accomplishing the Seven Volcano Circuit, after managing to summit also Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa and Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, North America.
From the beginning I was extremely concerned about this mountain. Thing is that our team of daughter and father is sponsored by the local authorities of our city, Deva, and our county, Hunedoara in order to take the local flag on top of these mountains. Which is fantastic but also adds an extra burden on our shoulders. Why an extra burden? Well, because we were offered money to do something and we would like to do that thing. Give back.
And coming back defeated is not exactly an attractive option for us. To put it in different words, as I always tell my daughter who plays basketball in her school’s team, -you can lose a match but when you come home you have to know in your heart that you gave everything to win.
I knew also that Elbrus is an extremely tricky mountain. It is full of crevasses, the weather is very changing, with strong winds and drops of temperature. In addition to this we were part of a team formed through the mountaineering Romanian network. Which means we did know anything about the rest of our team but what we could read on their profiles.
Every time we set off for some foreign country we try to be as informed about it and the mountain we are going to attack as possible. So we did our home works. So I was concerned.
We traveled for 4 days in a row by train, crossing Romania, Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and finally Russia, going round the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. This time we could not say we were the first of our tribe to ever set foot there because my mother visited Russia before us and also my grand father in a trip provided by Romanian Royal Army for free, during the WW2. Fanny life.
For us it was a fantastic experience to enter the former Soviet space, a space where all of a sudden English language was not able anymore to take us out of every situation. This is the space of Russian language. Fascinating!
We arrived at the compound of The Barrels one fine summer day. As soon as we managed to check in, take possession of our beds and sort everything out, we prepared to go for an acclimatization trip on the icy slopes of mount Elbrus. The weather was gorgeous and we also had a wonderful weather forecast saying that we were going to have 2 sunny days ahead of us. So we decided to do everything by the book, commencing by the acclimatization and scouting trip and drinking plenty of water, and moving slowly while breathing the pure air of the breath taking Caucasus Mountains.
I had no reasons to think this will change dramatically very soon, so, I relaxed a little bit, cooked dinner and enjoyed the sun. At one moment I asked Alexandra, my daughter to go inside the kitchen and ask politely the cooks to allow her to boil some water. I have always tried to have Alex get in touch with as many people as possible, sort out all kind of situations, like you know, entering a Russian Bank and withdraw money, order something to eat and so on in an attempt to get her used with all situations in life.
Well, she entered the kitchen and stayed there… and stayed and stayed and what the heck is going on? So I went in to find my daughter enjoying pure Russian welcoming atmosphere, with warm Russians speaking to her while boiling her water and watching her eat the Russian tchiorba that they offered her. Spasiba Russian gospodini.
We went to bed later on trying to catch a few hours of sleep before setting off. Departure time was set for 2 o’clock in the morning.
This period of time before leaving for the top has always been for me a very thoughts loaded time. My head is buzzing with questions and concern. How is it going to be? Try to take care of her. Stay alert.
Please, help me God.
Every thing is wonderful, you know, to go there, visit a foreign country, climb another mountain, but I am a father. And I want to take Alexandra back to her mother the way I took her away. Which means smiling and in good health. My wife is the brain behind our expeditions. She is extremely supportive and appreciates the way I try to prepare Alex for life. She also has a lot of faith in my judgment, knowing that I am not going to put her daughter in jeopardy. I do not want to let her down. But in the same time, we trained so much for this ascent, put so much time in raising the money and sorting things out. And also we do not want to disappoint those people back in the country, in our town and county that supported us and encouraged us.
So I tread on a narrow ridge every time. How much can I push forward? Is Alex low on her moral because of extreme fatigue or is just a little breakdown, easy to take care of with a little piece of chocolate and a 5 minutes break?
I never force my daughter into doing something. We are a team and we support each other. She wants as much as I want to go to the summit. But finally I am in charge. And I am the responsible.
Let’s try to catch a little sleep. Everything will be all right.
Time to wake up. The adrenaline is rushing through my veins. It does not take long to get ready. The backpacks were already made. We just take our crampons on, light the headlights and go.
Like always I have a feeling of unreality. Finally we are about to do what we come here for. Take care of her. Stay alert. Take care. We set off.
“Alexandra, are you all right?” “Yes, Daddy.”
“Did you take everything?” “Yes, Daddy.“
And we start the slow crawling upward. As we keep progressing, our group begins to stretch. Clearly we do not have the same pace or rhythm. The weather also begins to deteriorate.
Two hours later we walk surrounded by a fierce snowstorm. We are down to me and Alexandra. The rest of our group fell behind. We waited for them for a while then we decided to keep advancing. The route is well marked by Russian mountain guides and we have to make sure we do not lose it. The slope is getting steeper and steeper, Russian style, directly uphill. A thick fog has settled on the mountain. We have problems in seeing our boots as we keep trudging uphill. For the moment we are OK but I keep wondering what to do. We walk from post to post, waiting at each one of them for minutes in a row for the fog to clear a little bit so that we can see the next pole.
As we keep climbing uphill we encounter groups of climbers retreating from the mountain. They look like ghosts as they walk past us.
“Go back”, they say. “You will die”, they say.
I do not feel like dieing, but their words take my moral under the sea level. The wind howls around us. We are on track, tired but in good shape. I am torn apart by my own thoughts. How much longer should we keep going? I keep asking Alex how she is. She is all right, but we are surrounded in fog and white snowflakes carried all over by a crazy wind. We progress in leaps. Alex waits by a post while me I go ahead trying to see the next one. When she can not see me anymore, Alex screams her head off so that I stop. I stop and scout the fog. There it is. The next one. Come baby girl.
Another group. “Go back, you will die.” I like this. Helps me a lot. I keep checking on Alex. The fog gets thicker. And the storm stronger. Finally the saddle. No more than 2 hours of uphill climbing, but we stop to think things over. We are all alone and my head is about to explode. The same question. Should we carry on or go back? We are well trained and I have noticed many times that what is a limit for others is not for us. But once again, we are alone. What if something happens? I look at Alexandra. She is a brave little girl, so I have to assess things properly. Once again the question. And again.
Pulling back is always easy. But where is our limit? Or maybe the mountain does not want us today. So, Alex, what do you think? We are all alone, in the immensity of the Caucasus Mountains.
Let’s go back. It is too risky. But the summit is so close. It is too risky. We pull back.
I am furious with frustration and Alex has tears in her eyes. But it is too damned risky. We keep climbing down hill for more than an hour when all of a sudden we meet 3 members of our group. They keep walking uphill, very slowly, but uphill. And they say the are determined to summit. Today.
So I talk to Alex again. A group of 5 persons is different from a group of 2. We decide to join them and try again. So once again we start crawling uphill, in the middle of a severe snowstorm and surrounded by fog. So ask me how does Russia look from that perspective. I have no idea. All that I could see was white. The most absolute white out that I have ever seen up to that moment.
Back in the saddle we realize the weather conditions deteriorated even more if possible. Two of us, the girls, decide to pull back. One of us, a guy, tells us he is decided to go to the summit. I look at him, and then I look at Alexandra. Three is not a good number either. Alex says: “Daddy, this is not the day. Let’s try again tomorrow.” I agree. One of the most difficult decisions that I had to take in my life. We are here, the peak is over there. Too risky. The storm inside me increases in fury.
I tell the guy we pull back but he insists in trying to reach the peak by himself. I tell him why this is not advisable. Unknown mountain, snowstorm, fog, alone, night, do not do it. He disappears in the fog going uphill.
God’s will. We start going downhill again, and again I see Alexandra crying with frustration. I have the feeling I have ashes in my mouth. Will we be able to try again? I do not know. And I am so tired. I feel like I had lead in my back pack and I am ravaged inside. All this effort for nothing.
6 hours later we are back at The Barrels. Soaking wet and frozen we are. We can not even speak. We just try to eat something while attempting to dry our clothes. This is our first failure so far and we both feel empty. In addition to this we have now to worry about our guy on the mountain. Alex reads her books of prayers asking God to help our friend. His wife asks Alexandra to let her join in for praying. They do it together. The Russian mountain rescuers were notified by us but still. I lay in bed, watching Alex sleeping in the bed next to me, looking completely exhausted. I do not know if we are able to do this again tomorrow. I do not feel the necessary mental strength; on the contrary I am emptied out. And what if our partner dies on the mountain, what if we will have to take him to a hospital? Everything looks like a Tetris game to me. And I am so tired. Laying in bed, trying not to stretch in order to avoid the cramps, with ashes in my mouth and sorrow in my soul I pray God for guidance and try to sleep. But apparently even sleep eludes me today. I keep asking God for guidance. Outside the wife of our lost by his own will on the mountain colleague cries. I tried to comfort her for hours but now I just can not stand up anymore. Damned mountain. Dreamless night. Help me God. And help that lost soul on the mountain.
As I wake up next morning I can feel inside me the strength. Now I know we will do it and I know everything will be all right. As I go out, words come that the rescuers have found our lost teammate and he is OK.
The pieces of the Tetris game begin to fall in good order. Once our partner is back I begin searching for a new group to join to while Alex makes dinner. Fortunately I manage to find a group of Romanian climbers and we team up also with two other English climbers and a Brazilian, friends that we met on the mountain. As I have learned a very valuable lesson regarding the 2000m difference in altitude (see my other articles) we decide to rent a ratrack up to the rocks of Pashtukov. And also to set off by midnight to have more time at our disposal. We were hoping to catch a window in the weather as nights seemed to be more stable weather like.
Well, not at all. As soon as the ratrack set off with 9 climbers sitting on its benches, it began snowing. And then the wind and then, 10 minutes later we were back again in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. Once again the feeling of unreality settles down on me as I look at my companions and all of the equipment laying on the ratrack floor, with the wind howling and swirling snowflakes at us. Soon we reach the point where we have to step down and where we meet the other international group, led by a guide, that was waiting for our English friends. The guide summons us all to stay there and wait till she gets the clearance from base camp to proceed uphill. We waited there while the tension was building up in me again. What if my partners do not want to continue on? What am I to do? Should we go back or attack by ourselves?
The fog was getting thicker by the minute. We reach the saddle, and push forward.
Alexandra is up to the task and smiling as I taught her to do, even in the most difficult situations.
We have to take turns in leading the group because the snow gathered up due to the storm and we have to thread our way now in knee deep snow. Every time the other climbers stop, them being a separate team from us, I shiver with fear they will abandon and pull back. But they keep going. We draw closer. An hour goes by. And all of a sudden I am told by one of the guys that he is going back together with his girl friend. This is it, I said to myself, the group is breaking and the other ones will go back too. And we are so close, so Close.
But no, they keep going. Two hours go by and by now I start having the conviction that we will make it.
I begin shouting as a mad caveman, in the storm and fog so that Alexandra can hear me: “Come on, baby. You can do it. Come on.” While tears stream down my cheeks. Finally we get there. I want to take the picture but the batteries are frozen up and my friends pull back already. I shout at them: “I need to take the picture.” No way, they are going downhill. Now what a heck I am going to do? Stay here to take the photo and be left alone with Alex in the middle of a severe snowstorm at 5600m on top of Elbrus or join them and ask them to testify we made it. I shout again at them to stop but clearly they do not want to. They made it, and their girl is exhausted. I have to understand them. So be it. Anyway I could not take a picture of a whiteout. And my GPS can also testify we summited. So let’s go back.
So, this is actually what I went through on Elbrus. It took me days to recover. I was completely exhausted. Not physically, emotionally exhausted. No other mountain ever tried me so hard and the complex of emotions that I have felt effectively emptied me out. It took 2 days, a lot of vodka and a lot of Polish friends to put me back on tracks.
And I am so proud of my daughter. She was so brave, so fearless, so. And thinking that I wished to have a boy. My God, thank you for all.