December 3rd, 2016
Climbing Mt. Elbrus in Russia
Tuesday August 24th, 2004
The following is my account of the accident we had on Mt. Elbrus in Russia. Although it's a bit long winded, with our near disaster on the mountain, it was pretty difficult to keep it short. I urge everyone to save it for a moment when you're not busy, but try and find 5 or 10 minutes to read it because, although a very amateurish version, it's somewhat similar to what happened in "Into Thin Air" (the famous Everest tragedy book) just minus 10,000 feet or so...except that it's about ME! And we couldn't have gotten out of that country any faster....the 2 planes crashing from the same airport, the same kind of planes, and going in the same direction, the bomb in Moscow that killed ten people was less than a mile from our hotel, and the hostage crisis was within a couple hundred miles from where we were...as you will see, I think somebody was looking out for us!
Climbing Mt. Elbrus in Russia - Frank Fumich
I'm thrilled to announce that I'm alive and well, NOT that I summited the highest mountain in Europe. I never expected that this challenging climb would turn into a life and death struggle, but that's exactly what happened.
Let me first give a quick background on this particular mountain. Mt. Elbrus, at over 18,000 feet, it's certainly a formidable mountain. For you and me, and probably 99% of the population, it would rank at the top of the hardest thing we would ever do in our lifetime. However, for the serious mountaineer, although still requiring peak physical conditioning and endurance, it's considered to place on the easier side of the difficulty scale. I'd love to say that it's the most brutal climb around, but that's simply not the case. On the other hand, I can't stress enough, that if the weather turns bad, so does this climb...and in a major way! Bad weather can turn Mt. Elbrus into an extremely dangerous place and one where most all of the deaths have occurred. Unknowingly, and trusting our guides, we were walking into a storm, and we never should have been on the mountain that day. We almost paid the ultimate price for this misjudgment.
Now let me say a few words about our Russian guide service. Even though you can't really trust the weather, you should be able to trust your guides.....at least we thought so! Our main guide was a German woman named Liza who speaks Russian and English also. The other guide Albert, was her Russian brother-in-law, who didn't speak a word of English...or if he did, he never uttered one, and certainly didn't act as if he understood any. I was a bit leery about being roped to a person who I couldn't communicate with. My group came to believe that safety was very low on their priority list and the phrase "don't worry, you'll be fine" came to be her famous catch phrase. We would eye each other and smirk every time she said it. On our acclimatization day (basically our day off on the mountain) we spent about 30 min on crampon techniques, about 15 min on rope techniques, and ZERO on ice ax self-arrest techniques (clearly the most important). Myself and one of my friends Alex have been instructed on this before and we felt relatively comfortable (although I'm sure we could have used a refresher course) but my other friend Gokhan (Turkish) and a German guy Lawrence, that they paired us with, had no training whatsoever. They had never even held and ice ax in their hands and when they asked if they should put their hand through the strap on the ax to secure it in case of a fall...the response was of course "no, don't worry, you'll be fine"....(crazy). I'm still kicking myself for not voicing my concerns or mentioning that I had received the opposite advice on Mt. Rainier.
OK, now with me skipping a ton of details as to not write an entire book here, we'll fast fwd to about 6.5 hours into the climb. What our guides had described earlier as "not the greatest weather, but shouldn't get any worse"....slowly became very much worse. What started out as partly cloudy (we even saw a beautiful sunrise at about 15,000 feet) and a bit windy, had turned into nearly whiteout conditions with howling winds. I was becoming very concerned and wouldn't have had a problem turning back if I had been told to do so. Our order in my rope team was Albert (our guide) 1st, myself 2nd, and Gokhan 3rd. We were about 1.5 hours from the summit and Gokhan was literally collapsing behind me. He kept yelling that he had to stop and I kept encouraging him, even as simply turning my head back and yelling, was consuming precious energy...energy that I didn't think I had to give. When he finally yelled up ahead that he was going to fall and kill us...wow...talk about an attention grabber!! When I heard those 3 words...fall...kill...us, I passed the message up through the group to Liza that Gokhan needed to rest, but of course the response was just a variation of her norm...."don't worry, he can make it..tell him to keep going." This was so opposite of the care and attention that Mt. Rainier guides gave to us on that climb. There, they were totally attuned to our remaining level of strength and drive to continue. At each break, they completely evaluated us before proceeding on. Here on Elbrus, we were barely even taking breaks...scary!
Now I'll forward to about the 8 hour point of the climb... the summit. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, WE DID MAKE THE SUMMIT!!! at about 1PM on the 24th. But because of what was to come, it doesn't seem quite so important now. On summit day, every ounce that is carried in the backpack, should be important. Of course with me being....well...me, and since I was envisioning sunny skies and no worries, like an idiot, the beer I lugged all the way up to the top, seemed important enough!!! Hey, a toast on the summit, a few pictures to remember it by, a couple hugs of congrats....seemed like a good idea to me....NOT! It was blowing so hard that we literally had to crouch and craw the last 40 yrds or so to the top. I didn't even entertain the idea of popping open my beer, or grabbing the camera out of my pack. Gokhan's camera was more accessible hanging around his neck under his jacket but when we tried it, it was frozen solid...oh well. So we just managed to muster up a hug and said "let's get the hell off here"!
Now I'll forward just about 30 minutes or so from leaving the summit.... to the first major steep section. The wind and snow were now hitting us square in the face and the effect had created an ice sheet on my glasses so was I virtually blind. I was afraid to take them off for fear of frost bite, but fearing falling more, I went ahead and pushed them up on my forehead. What I was about to see is something I'll never forget. About 50 feet in front of us (just at the edge of visibility) were two climbers un-roped that we didn't know. I began to step along the very edge of the drop off, and was saying to myself "OK Frank, take it slow and easy...stay calm...maybe this seems totally insane to me, but maybe our guides are more used to this" Just as I said that, one of the climbers fell.... just fell right off the mountain! I don't know whether he slipped, the wind blew him off, or the edge simply gave way. It took my brain a half a second to actually register what I was witnessing. I just remember him tumbling down out of my view....gone! Now I said "Jesus Christ, this is serious shit we're in"!!!!!....and it was about to get much more serious. About 30 seconds later, all I remember is a hard and sudden jerk on my waist and the next thing I know, I'm falling down the mountain. As it turns out, Gokhan had fallen behind me and he simply yanked me right off. By the grace of God, I have no idea how I found the strength or presence of mind to get my ice ax into the slope. I remember trying to orientate myself and then saying "please God, please God, please God...let the son-of-a-bitch stick. After what seemed like an eternity, but in reality of course, only a few seconds....it caught! I pushed all my weight on it and felt a heavy, but oh so welcome, pull on my harness as Gokhan's fall was arrested and his weight hung from my body. It took a few moments of panting and gasping for breadth, where I tried to asses what just happened to us and our situation. Here I am, in the middle of nowhere Russia, hanging off a mountain at over 18,000 feet, in near whiteout conditions, wind howling, slow blowing, hungry, thirsty, and freezing, presumably next to a guy on my left who speaks no English, and over a guy who may or may not be injured....OK, well it doesn't take a genius to asses THAT situation, just like it didn't take a genius to get myself into this mess. Why was I not enjoying the last few weeks of the summer, sitting on the beach catching some rays?? No, my ass was instead catching my friend from falling off of a mountain!
As I would soon find out, although thankfully unhurt, Gokhan had dropped his ice ax (flash back to "no, don't worry, you'll be fine"), and so without it, it would take him about 20 some minutes to inch his way back up to me. During that time, I had a few moments to think. And what's a good ol' Catholic boy do at a time like this?....PRAY...and pray I did!!!! I rattled off Hail Mary's as quick as I could. I prayed for the wind to stop... I prayed for the snow to quit... for Gokhan to be OK...I prayed for my idiot Russian guide to miraculously start yelling directions in English (NOT)...for the nonexistent helicopter to fly us off...for the nonexistent rescue service to climb up and help...I prayed that if I made it home that I'd take up fishing instead of this crazy shit...I prayed that my parents would survive when they heard I was dead, and for some reason that they would find out I made it to the top...but mostly just that we would somehow get off that damn mountain alive!! I wasn't just wasting time during this period (in case some consider prayer a waste of time). I decided that my job at this moment was to make sure that my ax didn't come out of the slope. I wasn't sure of a lot of things at this moment, but I can tell you...no matter what Mother Nature threw at me, or what my body was telling me, no matter if my hands were freezing and my energy failing.....but I was SURE my ax was not slipping out! I assumed that my life and Gokhan's depended on it.
When Gokhan finally climbed back up and reached me, using only his crampon points and his finger tips digging into the ice, I'll never forget what he said. In his classic Turkish accent that usually cracks me up, he yells "thank you my friend, you saved my life!". And I said something to the effect that "we're not even close to out of this yet buddy." At this point I was finally confident enough to let go with one hand so that I could once again remove my glasses, as they had fallen back over my eyes in the fall. Amazingly...again, what I saw, I couldn't believe. It certainly seemed as if taking off my glasses continued the trend of seeing really bad things. Events were once again getting worse before they got better. I looked over to my right past Gokhan and saw that our second rope team with Liza in front, my friend Alex second, and the German third...had apparently fallen also and were actually even a few feet lower than we were. Lawrence had fallen and had taken the whole team off with him too. They also had managed to stop their fall, but now, ALL SIX of us were hanging on for our lives...UNBELIEVABLE!!
Fortunately at this point, the downward spiral of our luck would finally bottom out and things would slowly begin to improve for us. When we finally got the message across to Liza that Gokhan's ice ax had been lost, to her credit (finally) she gave him hers, and we were able to slowly and carefully inch our way back to where we fell from. In total exhaustion, but on heightened alert, and with a strange feeling of getting a second chance, we began what would continue to be our brutally long descent off the mountain. Skipping many other harrowing moments (and believe me, there were plenty ...actually losing our way twice in the snow) over five hours later, we made it back to our wooden hut at 12,500 feet. With nothing more than some minor frost bite and very rattled nerves, we were down!!
I was never so relieved and thankful in my life. And I'm not embarrassed to admit that I shed a few tears...as we all did. I think I felt just about every emotion a person could feel...excited, exhausted, scared, terrified, hopeful, angry, relieved, happy...... As I look back, I keep asking myself...was it as bad as I thought it was?...OK, so you fell, but you stopped it, and you climbed back up, and then went down...what's the big deal? Well, when you've never been in that situation before...hell you've only climbed two mountains before. You could hardly see, hardly hear, you were exhausted and cold and scared. You couldn't communicate with anyone in charge. You knew that the weaker of the climbers was roped to you from behind, so that at any moment, he could fall again and the whole thing would start all over again. And you knew that there were no rescuers on the mountain. You either got yourself off or you didn't.......so YEAH, it was THAT bad!!
I've been fortunate enough to cross quite a few finish lines and reach a few summits, and as awesome as those accomplishments feel, nothing comes close to knowing that you were so close to getting killed, but you made it...you're alive! I'm not going to make any grand declarations, like the grass looks greener and the food tastes sweeter, etc.......but I will definitely say that...THANK GOD, IT FEELS GREAT TO BE ALIVE!!!! I'll never forget waking up the next morning and going out to the latrine in time to see the very beginings of the dawn light just beginning to show its color against the black sky. I remember not even feeling the urge to stay awake and see the actual sun break the horizen, like I usually would feel. Instead, just seeing that first glimmer, and knowing I was here for another day...was all I needed! Even though it was feezing out, I thought I could actually feel the warmth of the light in me!!
In the extreme events that I've done, I've always done them to test myself, to see if I had what it takes to fight through the pain and suffering, and push myself physically and mentally onward to the finish... to my goal. So far, I've passed the tests. I wish I hadn't had to go through this, and I sure don't want to again, but now that it's over and I DID do it, I've learned that I can survive a life and death test. Tripping in a race and you've got a skinned knee, tripping in this situation, and you could be dead...quitting a race and no big deal, someone just picks you up.... quitting here, and you ARE dead!! I love to read books about endurance and survival and always wondered (even though I may be able to run 135 miles) would I be the survivor of a ship wreck, or lost in the desert, or an accident on a mountain??....Would I have what it takes to do ANYTHING I needed to in order to survive? I think I found the answer to that at 18,000 feet up Mt. Elbrus. Although our accident was no where near an epic multi-day fight for survival, it was sure enough... life or death, and I was mentally prepared to spend hours hanging there, or days sitting in a snow cave, or whatever I had to do to make it...and I'm proud of that!
Now it's time for me to step back and take a deep breath, and decide if climbing mountains is something I want to risk my life doing. I have such a great life, and an incredible family that would miss me greatly if I didn't return. It's a lot to risk. I can tell you that I've canceled what was to be my next climb in Feb. I need to at least slow down a bit and not rush into something so serious and in maybe in a year or so, I'll start thinking more about it. For now at least, I can cross another big one off my list and enjoy the thought of keeping my feet a little closer to sea level....like right in the sea....at the beach...it's much easier there!! The only endurance events I have planned for the next few months are the ones that I REALLY excel at...Redskin tailgate parties!! As I sit here and write this, I have next to me the actual beer I carried all the way to Russia, to the summit, back down, and home again. Of course now it's been chilled by my frig instead of the cold wind of Mt. Elbrus. But I guess now is as good a time as any to pop that bad boy open! So here's a toast....to..The Summit!...and a toast to what really matters....to..BACK DOWN AGAIN!!!! CHEERS!!!!
....stay tuned for the book!!!
I hope everyone has a SAFE and happy fall season...talk to you soon enough! If anyone would like to see some of the great pictures of the trip, let me know and I'll send them when I get the best ones together.
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