Our first acclimation hike to prepare for Elbrus was very different then I had expected. Down the hill from our hotel was a small ski area located at the base of Mt. Cheget. On most big mountain hikes we would be carrying a load of gear up to a higher camp and leavie it there, then head back down to our lower camp. On this climb we wouldn't be doing any of that. We gathered light day packs, walked down to the chair lift, and hitched a ride up. The chair lift was an adventure in its own right. It looked like it might have been built in the 1950's and hadn't been updated since then. We took this chair lift as high as we could, then headed for the summit of Mt. Cheget which was only about 1000ft higher than us.
Hiking on Mt. Cheget was interesting and beautiful. Just across the valley was a stunning peak, with a glacier on it that resembled the number 7. Our guide explained to us that the ridge of that mountain was the border between Russia and Georgia and that we were technically hiking in the border zone. I'm not sure if everyone is familiar with Russia-Georgia relations, I sure wasn't, but in 2008 there was an armed conflict between the two nations so the border zone is a serious place. Sergi, our guide, explained that being climbers we were allowed in the area. The hike was easy and fun with beautiful views of the valley. Unfortunately, we were unable to see Mt. Elbrus due to some dense cloud cover. We would have to wait another day to see the highest peak in Europe. We descended to the chair lift and rode it back down to the village for lunch. I think this may have been the first time I have ever ridden a chair lift down! We spent the remainder of the day packing our gear for the mountain and visiting the local market. We had a great time trying to barter with the local women that spoke no English. They were incredibly friendly so we had to buy a few things from them
The next morning, after a filling breakfast, we loaded up our gear and headed for Mt. Elbrus. Interestingly, there is also a ski area on Mt. Elbrus. When we arrived we threw our packs on, jumped on an enormous tram followed by another shaky chair lift and arrived at The Barrels, our basecamp for the entire climb. I had heard many stories about The Barrels, none of which were good but I was pleasantly surprised. Don't get me wrong, The Barrels weren't the Hilton by any means but we got to sleep on beds ... on the highest mountain in Europe. We had an hour to unpack our gear and get ready for another acclimation hike. We would be heading up to an elevation of over 15,000ft know as Pastukhov Rocks. It was surprisingly warm on this hike which made walking on the snow difficult. The snow was more slush then anything so in some of the steeper sections it was difficult to find stable footing. It took us about 3 hours to complete this section of the climb and a few of our climbers began showing symptoms of altitude sickness. Fortunately, I had been staying hydrated and felt no ill effects. I took my time descending back to basecamp, enjoying the cloudless day and the stunning views of the Caucasus Mountains. The rest of the day was spent eating, resting, and getting to know the rest of the climbers in our very international group. There were 2 Americans (including myself), 1 Norwegian, 1 Italian, 1 Germany, 1 Australian, 2 South Africans, and 2 gentlemen for Poland just in our group! It was so much fun learning about their lives and cultures!
The next day on the mountain was spent resting and learning a few safety techniques. Mostly we practiced self arrest techniques. In the event you take a fall on a steep section of a mountain and are sliding down the slope, you use your ice ax to arrest (stop) your slide. To practice this technique we hiked about 20 minutes from camp and literally started sliding down the mountain, stopping ourselves with our axes. It was really fun to practice this technique but we also had to keep it serious. This could end up saving our lives on the mountain. After self arrest training others in our group also practiced hiking around in their crampons. We went back to camp for lunch and more rest. We were heading for the summit early the next morning and I was beginning to get nervous. I spent time going over all my gear but rest eluded me. The night before the summit was a restless one but my third summit of the Seven Summits was just hours away!