My husband and I enjoy traveling to far-flung places, which means we always expect the unexpected. We know things won’t and don’t always go as planned. We prepare the best we can, and we prepare to be flexible. This was the theme of our latest adventure – a trek to the highest peak in Europe, the always windy and snow-covered Mt. Elbrus (18,510 feet) in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. (We had already experienced high-altitude treks to Everest Base Camp and Kilimanjaro – both of which I previously wrote about.)
For Mt. Elbrus, we prepared for months, not only with logistics, but with breaking in new mountaineering boots, keeping up our physical strength, reading about the region’s history and culture, and compiling all the gear recommended by our Russian trekking company. The only things we couldn’t prepare for were the weather and mountain conditions – and that’s where our Russian guide put us through advance training and made on-the-spot expert decisions.
The day before our summit attempt, it was all about preparation. Near our 13,000-foot base camp, we spent a few hours sliding down an icy slope in various positions, learning how to arrest our falls with our ice axes. The self-arresting techniques could be put into practice on the upper Elbrus slopes. Weather was already a concern.
On summit day, we arose at 1 a.m. for a 3 a.m. departure, though were delayed several times as thunderstorms rolled across the Caucasus. Finally at 5 a.m. we headed out after a mandatory gear check, with our guide noting that we would try our best despite the bad weather. Low visibility, wind and snow followed our step-by-step steep ascent.
Our guide kept us together in a single-file line. She was always in touch with her team tracking the weather system. When we got to about 17,500 feet, lightning and thunder snow started. She yelled for us to quickly ditch our metal ice axes and trekking poles and safely lay down in the snow, away from those potential lightning rods. Blizzard-like conditions ensued. The decision at hand: Proceed higher for 25 minutes to a protected spot to try to wait out the storm or descend. Whatever we did – it needed to be done together. Our guide made the decision to descend as quickly as possible. The summit (about 1,000 vertical feet away) eluded us, though we all made it down safely and headed the next day to a mountain village, where rainy weather continued and would further impede our plans.
As we were about to leave by van for a regional airport and then onward to Moscow, we learned that the only road to the mountain village had been obliterated by a fatal mudslide. We rescheduled our flight, though were unsure how and when we’d be able to get out. Later that day, the Russian government airlifted us, and about 100 other stranded trekkers, via helicopter across the mountain valley, where vans waited to take us to the regional airport for our flight to Moscow and our later travels to Tbilisi, Georgia. It was a minor inconvenience for us, but a deadly, destructive mudslide for residents in the valley.
Like our other adventure travels, we prepared, learned, respected the local culture, listened to the experts (our guides), and remained highly flexible – all good lessons and strategies to follow in life or work. We’ll plan in the same way for our next adventure.