5/7/10: ‘Friends’-Mt.Elbrus Festival, Russia


I had always wanted to go to Russia for some unknown reason. So when I saw Mt.Elbrus on the Skyrunning schedule I hopped on the chance. I found out that not only was there a Skyrace happening but that the race was part of a weekend festival which also had a race to the top of Mt.Elbrus and a ski randonee race. On top of that I was able to fly from there to Spain for the same cost and, therefore, would be able to go to the Zegama Skyrace too.

The Mt.Elbrus Race Organization was incredibly helpful and crucial to all of the logistics of getting into Russia, and down to the Caucasus Mountains which is an area of extreme political strife. It was pointed out to me on my trip that the Caucasus is not really Russia, instead it is a bunch of independent sovereign states.

From Mt Elbrus, the view is into Georgia, Chechnya is not far away.

A friend from home had warned me about getting into cabs in Moscow as they had a reputation for putting drugs into the air conditioning systems in order to take advantage of their passengers. So, again, I was glad that the race organization had put together my trip from the airport transfer to the hotel, down to Mt.Elbrus and back to the airport…….except that my cab never showed when I got off my flight…..Oh great.  So I went to the taxi hire desk at the airport, and I knowingly got ripped off by the fare they charged, I just hoped that in exchange it would be a drug-free ride.

I made it to my hotel just fine. And well, I guess it is probably common for people to not leave their hotel while in Moscow as they had an entire mall on the ground floor, including multiple restaurants.

After one night in Moscow, looking out upon the delapidated city from my hotel window as my entertainment, I was headed back to the airport for a flight further south.

Another warning my friend gave me, in fact two friends gave me, was about the planes. Russian planes crash more than any others, and relevant or not, the planes travel very low to the ground.

As I boarded my flight I saw some other foreigners who were looking sporty so I figure they were headed to the same event as I was. Phew, I was not the only foreign fool.

It was the oldest commercial plane on the planet and I embraced the low flight to the southernmost destination of Russia. After that I met my companions, 3 Greeks and a Russian translator. This was all a huge bonus to me. I was fully expecting to come to Russia as an outcast, to not speak to anyone for days. My trip to Russia ended up very different.

This trip was one of the best trips I have ever had.

My expectations were definitely low as far as getting to know people and yes it was hard. Without the translater I had nothing. It really was just me and the Greeks and they were at a different hotel, everyone else was Russian. But the games began the next day. And what I soon realized, was that sport had brought us all together.  We were all mountaineers.

I learned how to say spasebo-thank you. I thanked them for the Vertical Kilometer race, I thanked them for the Mt.Elbrus race, I thanked them for the ski mountaineering race. I thanked them after multiple bottles of champagne, and upon the last one I thanked them 3 times which they all thought was hilarious. I couldn’t say anything else.

The highlights of the 3 action packed days were summiting Mt.Elbrus on a nearly bluebird day; getting pinned by the Russian Mountaineering Federation; and the last night’s sauna. The festival probably had about 40 participants and at least half of us spend the night drinking Russian cognac (of which this region is known for) and taking turns in the sauna, sometimes getting the traditional whipping (light hitting) with foliage while sweating. We laughed all night long.

The last thing I expected from my trip was to be among so many friends, it was amazing.