Written by Mike Gordon
It took me three attempts to make it to the summit of Mt. Elbrus. Our Genet Expeditions group led by Mike Howerton in 1989, which was a strong group, got close but ultimately turned back on the summit ridge because of deep, unstable snow, and strong winds. My second attempt, in 1990, was also with a Genet Expeditions group, which could have made it, but was not fully committed. I was furious, sitting at Pruitt Hut watching a Rainier Mountain expedition walking into the saddle between the two peaks on their way to the summit in beautiful weather while we sat packing our bags and preparing to leave. It meant another trip to Russia. My 1989 trip had been during the bleak, Soviet Union days. The 1990 trip was during Peristroika when Russia had become somewhat more open, but still a dreary place.
The last thing in the world I wanted to do was return to that god-forsaken country a third time; the people were oppressed, sad and withdrawn, the accommodations were third-rate, and the food was awful, but I had to get to the top of that mountain. The cachet for Mt. Elbrus was dedicated to my father and I kept telling myself that was why it was so difficult for me. I had never had a chance to reconcile with my father during his lifetime and here I was, still sorting things out over ten years after his death.
It was August, 1992. And having been to Russia twice before, amazingly, I had never heard of the Armory Museum located under the Kremlin walls. Our Russian guide stopped, pointed over to our right and asked, “Can anyone tell me about that double throne over there?” I said, “Yes, that’s the throne made for Peter the First (in Russia they don’t refer to him as Peter the Great) and his retarded brother, Ivan, while Sophia ruled Russia as regent.” She was suitably impressed. I had been a student of Russian history and a big fan of Peter the Great for many years, and I was astonished that the Soviets still had all those priceless articles from the Romanov dynasty hidden away down there under the walls of the Kremlin. I said as much to the guide and she said, “Well, the Communists were, after all, Russians.”
Even so, I knew those same Russian Communists had destroyed just about everything else in the country, and I was still impressed that this collection of regal clothes, carriages, thrones, Faberge eggs, snuff boxes, crystal, jewelry, crowns and a cornucopia of other incredible, hand-crafted articles of all sorts was saved from the ravages of the revolution.
At 18,481 feet, Mt. Elbrus, the tallest mountain on the European geographic continent, is actually located in Georgia, in a tourist area known as the Baksan Valley. The highest mountain in the confines of political Europe, and the Alps, is Mt. Blanc, rising to 15,781 feet. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Baksan Valley was one of the few tourist areas in the world that could have advertised itself as au naturel, meaning no toilet seats and no toilet paper. The food served at the lodges was indescribably horrible. When you were served chicken you could never discern from what part of the bird’s body it came. It was if they had turned the birds loose in a room with a drunken maniac wielding a dull meat cleaver. It did taste like chicken, but then, a lot of things taste like chicken. One of the standard meals served us was meatballs, which were of very questionable origin. We nicked them sinkers (think fishing) and used them mostly as projectiles. I usually walked into the cafeteria, looked at the selection of fly-covered culinary delights, grimaced, picked up an apple and walked out.
In Moscow, we were lodged in a rather nice hotel by Russian standards of the day, though my buddy, Bob John, had complained about mosquitoes the previous night. Todd Burleson, the leader of our little expedition, and I sharing a room, had gotten somewhat inebriated, gone to bed, passed out and had not taken notice of the pesky critters.
I didn’t feel like I’d had a good night of sleep since leaving Anchorage and I was determined to get one. Our plane was due to depart for Mineral Vody the next afternoon, so I went to bed at 9:30 p.m., but after an hour of trying to sleep beneath squadrons of the little buzzing bastards, I decided to go on the offensive. I checked to make sure the windows were secure and, determined to kill every mosquito in the room, went on a bloody rampage with my tee shirt. It took a full hour and it was an illusory victory.
Todd returned from another night of partying with a pretty good buzz on. He, drunk, went right to sleep and I lay there for hours with a small towel in my hand swatting mosquitoes until my head rang. Finally, at 3:30 a.m., I got up and went into the bathroom. I killed what I thought were all the mosquitoes in the small room, stuffed towels under the door, put a couple of blankets on the tile floor, and tried again to get some sleep. They must have been coming in through the vent so I got all of about an hour of sleep, between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. It was the worst night ever.
The next day we took a rather long ride in a bus to another airport, and as we drove along I thought about the mountain and the forthcoming climb. I had stamped and postmarked the Elbrus cachet twice and simply lined through the year for each previous climb since I had not reached the summit on either one. This year, 1992, had been freshly printed on them and the dedication to the important person remained the same, my father. I didn’t give much thought to the tanks riding on the railcars on a track next to us. After all, I was in Russia, and my mind’s eye swept across the years of newsreels of May Day parades bristling with armaments and columns of wooden-legged soldiers saluting to dour-faced Soviet dignitaries on display in their suits and uniforms weighted down with WW II medals.
When we arrived at the airport in Mineral Vody I wasn’t surprised to find that some of our gear was unaccounted for, nor was I surprised to find that the flight supposedly carrying it had been postponed, but I was definitely surprised when we were told they didn’t know where the plane was, which was a new international flying experience for me. At least, Peristroika in play, they had been willing to share that unsettling information.
When we finally got to Mineral Vody it was around 10:30 p.m., and Alexi, who was to drive us to our lodgings in the Baksan Valley, was very agitated from waiting around all afternoon and evening. He and Oleg, the other Russian accompanying us, chain-smoked for the three hours it took us to get to the lodge and gave surly answers to the perfectly innocuous questions posed to them by Bob John’s wife, Jan.
The accommodations were superior to anything I had previously experienced, and there were no mosquitoes. I had a private room with three beds, one on which to sleep and two on which to spread my gear. Preparing to climb is mostly sorting, packing and repacking, then you unpack, sort and repack again, not necessarily in that order. On the mountain, the process continues. Climbing itself is ninety-nine percent drudgery, damned hard drudgery at that, and one percent real excitement. The one percent payoff for all that hard drudgery is a summit, surviving the attempt, overcoming enormous mental and physical obstacles or possibly all of the above.
The weather was nice the next morning, so after a late breakfast we drove to the base of the decrepit gondola and chairlift that hauled tourists and skiers as well as climbers almost to Priutt Hut at 13,800 feet. We all stepped onto the open area at the bottom of the gondola, which was a perfectly natural thing to do, incurring the wrath of the drunken operator, who gave Alexi and Oleg a large ration of Russian shit. For a while it looked as if we weren’t going to get on the mountain at all. We finally did get a ride up the gondola and then the chairlift and walked about halfway from the top of the chairlift to Priutt Hut, where the climb began, turning around early in order to catch the last ride down.
Back at the lodge we had a nice lunch of watermelon, fruits, tomatoes, cucumbers, chicken soup and roast chicken. We were also offered some of the world’s worst wines, in a selection of both red and white, the likes of which had probably provoked Napoleon to invade. I noted in my journal that I was feeling positive about the trip. I had come in August instead of September, hoping the weather would be more cooperative and it appeared it would. My diarrhea and stomach cramps were a reminder that I was, however, in the third world, regardless of the nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at my homeland.
The next morning we had an earlier breakfast and arrived at the bottom of the gondola at 9:00 a.m. There were no run-ins with the operator, but there was a line of Russian and East Block tourists, some wearing high heels, so it took us a couple of h ours to get to the top of the chairlift. Luck was with us, as we were offered a ride to Priutt Hut on a big new tracked vehicle with snow blades fore and aft, being zipped right up to Priutt Hut with a full load of supplies. With the extra time afforded us, we were also able to take a climb above the hut and work with Jan on techniques of walking on crampons and self-arresting.
Todd and I were first to get back to the gondola and he waited for the others while I got on, since there was a car leaving at that moment. It was filled with about a dozen school children aged five to fourteen, who were quite charming and very interested in me. Red and green Chilkoot Charlie’s stickers can be found all over the world. The more remote the location, the more likely you’ll find one. They are my version of the Wall’s Drug Store campaign. They already adorned the gondola windows, and I had some left in my pocket, so I gave one to the cute girl of twelve next to me. Of course, then they all wanted one, so I passed them around. After very friendly introductions, during which I found they were from Moscow and they found I was from Alaska, the girl produced a ballpoint pen and asked that I autograph her sticker on the back, which I did. Then they all wanted autographs, which I happily gave them. I don’t know who they thought I was but they were all thoroughly delighted. When we arrived at the bottom of the mountain the kids all waved goodbye as they walked down to their bus and I thought sadly about the conditions they were inheriting in their country.
When the last gondola arrived with the rest of our group we hung around the base for a while waiting for our bus. There were brochures available regarding the government’s proposal to sell and finance the property, including the gondola, chairlift and Priutt Hutt, all in a sad state of repair. I thought it would be fun to buy it just to fire the drunken gondola operator. We had to walk the several miles back down to the lodge because the bus had left for Minereal Vody to pick up our main guide, Sergei Arsentiev. It wasn’t a lot of fun walking downhill all the way back on unforgiving pavement in unforgiving plastic climbing boots.
We moved into Pruitt Hut to stay the next morning, encountering no line at the bottom of the gondola, and we got another ride on the tracked vehicle from the top of the chairlift all the way to the hut, which knocked off about two hours of uphill climbing with heavy packs. Pruitt Hut has since burned to the ground, but it looked like an over-sized Airstream trailer. Below it were the remains of World War II fortifications that supported the outhouses, a real challenge to use, especially for the uninitiated. They were listed in a 1991 issue of Outside Magazine as the “world’s nastiest outhouses.” There were two of them—neither with seats—and they hung out over an open space through which the wind howled forcefully and practically non-stop. When it did abate it was usually followed immediately by a great gust that would blow right up through the floor holes. The floor itself was slippery, messy and dilapidated, and the biggest challenge was trying to get your used paper down the hole. The first time you casually dropped some used paper down there, only to have it blown right back, flying around the small room, while you frantically tried to dodge it without slipping and falling in the hole yourself, your clothes down around your knees, in the dark and the cold, you truly thought you had discovered hell on earth.
Next morning we all walked up to a spot referred to simply as “The Rocks,” which is a standard acclimatization climb the day before a summit attempt. It takes about an hour and we did it without mishap in nice weather. Returning to Priutt Hut, I took a nap and then visited for a while with Sergei, whom Todd and I had met on the north side of Everest in 1990. He had been on Jim Whittaker’s Peace Climb and their Base Camp was right next to ours. Sergei had become famous in his own country for being the first Russian to summit Everest without oxygen, and controversial elsewhere for the same reason. The climbers had agreed they would all use oxygen so no individual climber would hold up the others. The idea was to have a Russian, a Chinese and an American on the summit simultaneously, hence the name “Peace Climb,” but because Sergei had unilaterally decided not to use oxygen, the others had to wait for him on the summit, which did not make them or “Big Jim” Whittaker very happy. Sergei later explained to me, not very convincingly, that he couldn’t wear the oxygen mask because of the size of his nose, which was admittedly larger than normal.
I found Sergei to be friendly and ready to please. He also spoke pretty good English. Unfortunately, Sergei is another of my climbing fiends who is no longer with us. He married a beautiful American girl named Fran and moved to the Telluride, Colorado area, where I was able to visit with him and meet his new wife while on a band searching trip with my partner, Doran. Not long after I saw Sergei and Fran in Telluride they stayed with my wife Shelli and me in our Woodside East condominium before and after climbing Denali together. During the winter of 1998, Sergei contacted me and invited me to join them on a climb of the north side of Everest. Though I was tempted, I declined. They both climbed the mountain without oxygen and Fran become the first woman from the United States to do so, but she paid for the honor with her life and both of them are still on the mountain. Fran started having trouble between eleven and twelve hundred feet below the summit on the way down. Sergei went for oxygen and medication, but disappeared on the way back and was never seen again. A couple of other climbers tried to assist Fran in Sergei’s absence, but gave up after about an hour because of her condition and circumstances, continuing down the mountain. If you become incapacitated at that altitude there’s not much anyone can do to help you and there’s a very real threat to their own lives in even trying. It’s called the “Death Zone” for a reason.
I was prepared to tackle Mt. Elbrus in the morning, but the weather overnight turned into howling wind, lightning and sleet. In the morning I couldn’t see the rocks right outside the hut, much less the ones farther up the mountain. Fortunately, I could laugh at those circumstances two days later because at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, August 19, 1991, Jan and Oleg headed up the mountain, with Bob, Todd, Sergei and I leaving Priutt Hut about an hour later. Twice I felt with certainty I wasn’t going to make it: during the first half hour of the climb, when I could not get my stride down and every fiber in my body was complaining under the light of my headlamp, then about five hours later, when I saw the headwall to the summit from the floor of the saddle. I had never seen it up close before because of inclement weather and in the bright sunlight it was impressive—reminiscent of the headwall on Denali. Jan, bless her heart, took one look at it and lost any ambition she might have had. Bob said, “Well, let’s flatten this fucker!” and though I didn’t have the enthusiasm for it that he seemed to have, I put on my pack and started up.
It was beautiful, shirtsleeve weather on the summit. I had actually found myself wishing for a little wind during the climb, just to cool down a little. Bob and Todd arrived at the summit about twenty minutes before Sergei and me. We embraced each other, took some photos and Sergei lit up a cigarette. I thought, they don’t make then any tougher than Russians, but then he’s still pretty young and some day it’ll catch up with him. An ex-smoker, I couldn’t imagine taking a drag off a cigarette at 18,481 feet.
I walked mostly alone down the mountain, the weather remaining pristine all the way back down to “The Rocks,” where fog moved in, restricting my vision to a few yards, but the trail was well marked with wands, so I didn’t worry about losing my way. Bob and Oleg were down below me and in time Sergei and Todd went ahead also. I was in no hurry, savoring the victory and thinking about my father. I had a very close call just below “The Rocks.” A Russian climber above me kicked one loose, which hit me a glancing blow in the left side of the chest. I didn’t see it coming and didn’t hear it. I surmise it was about the size of a soccer ball. Suffice it to say it gave me quite a jolt and I thought how it would have hit me square in the face, had it been six inches higher.
I got back to Priutt Hut about 5:00 p.m., completely exhausted, cleaned up as best I could, changed clothes and went to the main room of the hut to have a beer with everyone. Oleg had brought up a couple of six-packs of Chilkoot Charlie’s Sourdough Ale and we drank them all. I went to bed at 7:00 p.m., got up at 7:00 a.m. and I was packed and out of Priutt Hut an hour before anyone else without any breakfast. Arriving at the top of the chairlift I sat on my pack and watched some Russian kids skiing through a slalom course and fretted over the chairlift, which wasn’t running. It was a beautiful day and I could see another Mountain Travel group walking into the saddle, only this time I wasn’t upset about it. Soon everyone else showed up and within about five minutes the chairlift started running.
Back at the lodge we used up all the hot water luxuriating in the showers, after which Sergei arranged for a wonderful lunch of watermelon, tomatoes, soup and some spicy sausage with sour cream and cucumbers, accompanied by a white wine that was actually pretty tasty.
Descending the mountain on the tram we heard that Gorbchev had been ousted. Later, at the hotel we heard he had resigned. It was hard to understand what the Russians thought about it. For all their complaining about Gorbachev I thought they were not too keen to see him go. They were all glued to the black-and-white television in the lobby, but there was very little hard information, according to Alexis, our interpreter. He reported they were playing a lot of classical music and repeating the same vague story over and over. “Such is our way,” he said. Of course, the Russians expected there would be a slowdown in reforms, though it had been mentioned that “private businesses” would not be affected. I personally thought Gorbachev was an extraordinary man—impossible to replace—but from the Russian perspective he had ruined their economy.
I was in the nicest hotel I had experienced in the Baksan Valley, but the maid had not touched my room since my arrival. The elevators only worked half the time. I pulled on the window handle to open my window and it came off in my hand. You could not get a hot shower until 7:30 a.m. They played moronic, obnoxious disco music from morning until bedtime, inside and outside the building, so loud you could hardly talk at the dinner table. One certainly couldn’t blame all that on Gorbachev. The fact is, no one in Russia knew the first thing about how or why an economy worked.
We went for a hike, visiting the headquarters of the area’s rescue team the next day, then went into Elbrus Village to get my cachets stamped and postmarked. It went smoothly, with all three Russians helping out. They wouldn’t allow me to pay for the stamps saying, “It’s not very much money.”
On the last day in the valley we took an upright portable barbecue along with watermelon, pears, plums, apples, tomatoes, caviar, bottles of sherry-like wine, brandy, Piva, the Russian equivalent of beer, which tastes more like what the name sounds like, cheese, and a freshly killed lamb to a small man-made lake by a running stream in the middle of a cow pasture. We gathered wood from the hillside and, Abdul, our bus driver, who lived in Elbrus Village, did the honors. We ate and ate, and drank and drank toast after toast, a young bull joining us, becoming friendly enough to eat a tomato out of my hand.
When it was my turn to toast, I said I had not had such a good time on previous trips to Russia and that I had thought I’d never want to return, but that they had changed my mind. Oleg said, “If you think this has been good, wait until we get through with you in Leningrad!”
We had an interesting drive back to Mineral Vody. Stopping at a major intersection to replenish our fuel, Bob got out of the bus to take some photos of the broken-down pumps and the long lines of vehicles, which pissed off the station attendant, who hurled insults at him and appeared ready to physically attack him. He also refused to sell us gas, though we had waited in line for a long time. Not knowing what else to do, we pulled over by the interchange and stood for about a half hour with a bucket and siphon, waving currency, trying to attract someone who might sell us or get us some gas. No one stopped, so we drove on toward mineral Vody, slowly, coasting down the hills to conserve fuel, until we came to another, smaller interchange, that boasted several pumps, but, as usual, only one that worked. The long lines approached from both sides. After about a half hour, Bob and his camera confined to the bus, we were able to refill our tank and were on our way again.
We arrived in Mineral Vody around 2:30 p.m. for a flight that was scheduled to leave at 6:30 p.m., and said goodbye to Abdul. I gave him a tee shirt, with which he was visibly pleased, and we began hauling our gear into the overcrowded, smoke-filled, filthy, smelly airport. When we eventually got into the In Tourist area, the first thing we learned was that the flight had been rescheduled for 9:30 p.m. At least they knew where the plane was. Bob bought three Heinekens in the lounge for himself, Todd and me. It was a nice gesture, but the only thing working in the beer cooler was the light bulb, so the beer wasn’t just warm—it was hot.
While we waited for the flight, Gorbachev held a long live press conference. Alexis, the interpreter, had gone to another airport with Oleg, and Sergei was struggling to explain what was being said, but it was apparent that whatever had happened was over, a major relief. Sergei left about an hour before the rest of us and took fully half of the bags with him. Finally, we were ushered onto the tarmac separately and I took a photo of Bob sitting on the steps leading up to the huge Aeroflot plane, proudly displaying the remnants of his boiled Heineken.
Arriving in Leningrad, we were met late in the evening by Todd’s mother, Ann, Todd’s cousin, Lorraine, Oleg’s wife, Irena, Igor and Sergei. The girls had champagne and roses, were in a high state of excitement and had quite a story to tell. Lorraine and Ann had stayed an extra couple days in Moscow and then taken an overnight train to Leningrad, where they decided to treat themselves by staying at the Astoria Hotel instead of at the hostel where they had reservations. As the political and social upheaval unfolded, the Astoria, adjacent to a large square, became the focal point of activity. Lorraine sounded like Christiane Amanpour describing events of the previous few days.
The conspirators, in a feeble attempt to forestall further reforms, had kept Gorbachev under house arrest at his holiday retreat in Foros, Crimea, at first giving him the option of joining them, which he had declined. As we all know, they were unable to get Boris Yeltsin, the recently elected president of the Russian federation or Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of Leningrad to join them either. Sobchak and Yeltsin were in contact with one another and Sobchak actually faced down the KGB, the police and the military, convincing the military not to attack the city and preventing the spread of unrest. Conspirators had taken control of the radio and television stations, but Yeltsin and Sobchak managed to get their message to the people that the actions being taken by the conspirators were illegal and that they did not support them. Yeltsin stood on a tank in Moscow to get his message to the people and Sobchak stood on a balcony of the Astoria Hotel and exhorted the people to turn out in masse, which they did, surrounding the hotel and barricading the streets. The Astoria became an anti-coup headquarters, with young men making Molotov cocktails in the lobby in preparation for a confrontation with the military, which fortunately did not occur. The conspirators, realizing they were not going to be able to consolidate power, gave in and attempted to flee the country.
We pulled up to the Astoria Hotel at 2:00 a.m. and found the place practically deserted. Fearful of the outcome of the attempted coup, most of the guests had left the country. Had the coup been successful, the new leadership, it was assumed, would not have been particularly friendly to Westerners. During the frantic swirl of events, Ann and Lorraine had gone to the American Embassy and registered all of us. Wanting to let our families know we were safe, they tried unsuccessfully to phone or fax Todd’s office in Seattle. Resourceful women that they were, they boarded a Swedish ship in the harbor and when told the facilities were for guests only, they bought a room for the night for $150 and faxed away. For some reason my family was never contacted, so Shelli was calling the U.S. State Department daily to listen to the report on Americans stranded in Russia and passed the information on to my mother, nearly hysterical in Honolulu.
Copious amounts of champagne were consumed in the wee hours that first night in the Astoria. I didn’t get out of bed until 1:00 p.m. Todd, Lorraine, Ann and I had brunch in the hotel lobby and were waited on by an incredibly inept and obnoxious waiter. I picked up the tab and stiffed him, drawing a line through the area on the American Express voucher set aside for gratuities. He brought it back to the table and wanted my copy, saying that I had ruined it. I told him I had done it on purpose and would not return it to him under any circumstances, whereupon he stormed off and never returned. There was an absolute disconnect between service and gratuity for that waiter, and most others in the Soviet Union.
After brunch we took a taxi to an area just off Nevsky Prospect, where a lot of vendors had moved. We did some shopping but returned to the Astoria before long because our guides had promised us an adventure involving a boat ride. We were all, in fact, joined on a boat—a diesel powered one that looked like a war surplus launch or PT boat—by our complete complement of guides and interpreters who were all now involved in an exciting new capitalist enterprise known as Qwest. It was primarily an adventure expedition company, but they were also preparing to deliver titanium oxygen tanks to Todd’s company for use on Mt. Everest.
The boat cruised through canals for about half an hour ending up on the Neva River. Cruising down the river past the Hermitage, we viewed the imposing bronze statue of Peter the Great on his rearing horse atop a huge stone, commissioned in his honor and memory by Catherine the Great and generally known as The Bronze Horseman. The statue was sculpted by a Frenchman named Etienne Maurice Falconet, who never got to see the finished work because he had a falling-out with Catherine, who sent him packing back to France before the unveiling. The stone, known as the Thunder Stone, originally weighed fifteen hundred tons and is the largest stone ever moved. It was moved by men alone. There were no machines or animals employed in the massive undertaking. A Greek named Marinos Carburis, who was serving in the Russian army as a lieutenant colonel and who had studied engineering in Vienna volunteered for the job, and is considered the first Greek to hold a diploma in engineering. He employed new techniques that foreran the development of ball bearings. It took four hundred men nine months to move the stone from near the Gulf of Finland to its present location with the stone cutters fashioning it along the journey. On the side of the Thunder Stone is carved the message, “From Catherine the Second to Peter the First.” An almost equally epic, $40,000 replication of the statue presently overlooks the dance floor as a prominent feature of the Russian-themed south side of Chilkoot Charlie’s.
Next we turned around and cruised past the Peter and Paul Fortress and up the river to where the old cruiser Aurora is parked. After a tour of the ship, which is both a Communist Party and Russian naval museum, we met the deputy commander, Alexander Goroshko, in a tastefully appointed conference room. Sitting around a big, beautiful conference table under the watchful eyes of Vladimir Lenin, a bronze bust of whom dominated the room from the far end, we listened intently while our host explained the operations of the ship and proceeded to very candidly describe what he knew of the attempted coup and how he felt about it. I was amazed because in my experiences in the Soviet Union, no one spoke their minds about anything. I told him we were very pleased that democracy, and law and order had prevailed, and felt the Russian people had acted heroically.
The deputy commander indicated that the Russian Navy, for its part, was not at all involved in any of the action, and had been concerned mostly with maintaining order, and protecting lives and property. Goroshko was extremely professional, gracious and charming—a handsome man in uniform with whom the girls were obviously taken. He left the room several times for what appeared to be official reasons and on one of these occasions was gone for nearly half an hour.
Oleg was wearing a Chilkoot Charlie tee shirt and sitting at a piano with his back to the room as he was facing the prominent bust of the serious looking Vladimir Lenin. Todd observed that a great photo could be had since the back of the tee shirt sported our slogan, “We cheat the Other Guy and Pass the Savings on to You! Oleg was also conveniently wearing a Chilkoot Charlie hat with our logo on it, so when it was turned stylishly backwards on his head the logo and the slogan were both nicely displayed beneath the bust of V. I. Lenin. The photograph duly taken and never one to pass up a good promotional opportunity, I decided an even better photograph would be with the hat on Lenin, himself. We pursued this activity as quickly as possible for fear our splendid host would return and terminate our welcome, if not us. In the almost tangible, comic and anxious relief of the aftermath of the photo session, Alexi said, “Of course, in Russia this would be sacrilege, but to me is very funny!” The photo hangs in Chilkoot Charlie’s today and what I find ironic about the juxtaposition of Lenin and our slogan is that we think of it as a joke, but to the Communists it was an operating political philosophy. I don’t know how you could better describe Soviet communism.
In due course our host returned and we all relaxed with more questions and answers, while I personally felt relieved not to be shunted off to a gulag for my sacrilegious behavior. At the end of our interview, though it was thoroughly entertaining, I was tired and hungry, so when we were told we were to have tea in the captain’s quarters, I wasn’t in the least excited to hear it. I don’t know whether the mention of tea was a joke or whether it was a problem of translation, but what we saw upon entering the captain’s quarters was not tea. It was a feast.
We gathered around a large table covered with caviar, assorted meats, vegetables, fish, and what looked like enough champagne to float the ship and the inevitable toasts began. I was cajoled into making one earlier than I was prepared because Alexi, Sergei and Oleg wanted to down another tumbler of vodka. I had wanted to wait until Deputy Commander Goroshko had returned, but Alexi said he was busy and might not be able to return at all. So, I stood up and reminded everyone what I had said in the Baksan Valley and what Oleg had said about how my mind would really be changed about Russia when they got through with me in Leningrad, to which I replied, “No shit!”
As soon as I returned to my seat the deputy commander came in and took his place at the head of the table. Bob, who had been in the U.S. Navy for three years, and who had been chomping at the bit to get up and toast the deputy commander, stood up and did so, explaining that when he had been in the U.S. Navy, the Russian navy was the enemy and how incredible it was that he was now being treated with such civility by an officer of that same navy. Past American naval officer and current Russian naval officer warmly embraced and more tumblers of vodka were downed all around.
Soon we were told that an entertainer of some reputation had stopped by and, though it had not been planned, we would return to the conference room, scene of the recent photographic crime of the century. He was a large Ukrainian, accompanied by his wife, both in their forties. Their son had graduated from the naval academy along with the son of another naval officer, who was also present. The couple had just returned from a tour of Mexico and the man said he was going to sing us a ballad, I believe he said by Tolstoy. He stood at the head of the table and sang the ballad a cappella in a beautiful baritone voice and for the next hour he and his wife sang one beautiful piece after another, both solo and as a duet. We all had tears in our eyes.
Following the performance, Deputy Commander Goroshko took Sergei and me into his office, proudly showed us his guest book and asked us to sign it for him. He then paged through it, showing us a signature and comments by American astronaut Buzz Aldrin. He told us how pleased he was to meet some famous alpinists, how he had done a small amount of climbing in his youth and he talked about some of the parallels of climbing and being at sea. Sergei told him of my Seven Summits quest and explained to him that I had only one left, Mt. Everest, which I was going to attempt the following spring.
By now the Ukrainian, his wife and the other naval officer had left, so we returned to the Captain’s Quarters to resume our feasting and toasting. After another short absence, the deputy commander stood up and made a presentation to Bob. We were all astonished. He gave Bob a nail that had been in the hull of the ship and was not attached to a book about the ship, with the description, in his own handwriting, of the events through which the ship had been while the nail was still in its hull. Bob was visibly overwhelmed and the two naval officers embraced again. More vodka was downed.
Soon Goroshko stood up and said, “Now I have a gift for my friend, Michael.” He handed me his card, upon which he had written a description of the article he then handed me, which was a shard of glass from the bottle of champagne that had been used to re-commission the ship after repairs in 1987. His card and the chard are on display in the Russian Room inside Chilkoot Charlie’s and among my most cherished possessions.
At the onset of the twentieth century, when the ship was first built, she was one of the finest cruisers in the world. More importantly, she is also the ship from which the shot was fired that announced the beginning of the Russian Revolution. Lenin made the announcement himself and his message is on the wall next to the transmitter into which he spoke. During the earlier tour of the ship, Oleg had pointed to a gun on the bow and said, ”That is the most powerful and destructive gun on earth, having caused seventy-five years of destruction with the firing of a single shot—a blank.”
After the presentations and hugs and official toasts there was a lot more eating—and drinking. I cannot remember having a better time in my entire life. I felt so privileged! I told Sergei, “I don’t know how you pulled this off this party, but I am truly impressed.” Late in the evening we departed for the sake of the crew, cruising up the river in the opposite direction from the Hermitage past huge civilian and military vessels under a clear sky with a full moon. Turning back in the other direction we pulled into a canal, stopping alongside long enough for our driver to get off and throw up. None of us were in much better condition and when we had returned to the Astoria, though some continued to party, I went directly to bed.
The next morning Bob and Jan and I were up early making entries in our journals over a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, caviar and yogurt in the hotel restaurant. The first stop on a tour of the city was a beautiful blue and white dome-topped cathedral that had once been a monastery. There was a small group of musicians out in front conducting a memorial service for the several people killed in Moscow in defense of the parliament building. Next we drove to the Great Patriot War Cemetery, walking through the mass burial area with its huge grassy mounds identified only by brass markers with a hammer and sickle and the year of internment of the occupants, up to the enormous statue of Mother Russia, and back through the individual plot areas. All these people, mostly civilian men, women and children, had died of starvation and disease in the nine hundred day German siege of Leningrad in World War II. Two thousand people are buried in each mass grave and they go on and on, row after row, under the gaze of Mother Russia. The sound of funeral music being broadcast over speakers hanging from tall evergreen trees makes the atmosphere weighty as the sorrow floats down around your shoulders. One cannot help but be moved. Though I had visited the cemetery the previous year with Shelli it had no less of an impact on me the second time.
We hadn’t exactly gotten off to a good start that previous year. I arrived at the hotel in the middle of the night and when Shelli opened the door, instead of the loving embrace I had anticipated, she started pounding on my chest with both fists. Shelli, not part of a group, had to make all her own arrangements for getting to Leningrad, not an easy thing to do at the time. She was not only worried about me being on the mountain, but ill-at-ease wandering around a depressing Leningrad by herself for a couple of days before I arrived. During our stay we had we had bought caviar, vodka and bread, and strolled the grounds of the Summer Palace until we found a suitable place to have the perfect lunch. We had visited the Hermitage, the masterpieces on display and the building being in shocking disrepair, and during our departure we had witnessed a chilling display of real life behind the “iron curtain.”
At the train depot, while awaiting our departure for Helsinki, we had watched the touching but sad departure of a couple of young American men. On the platform was a small band and festive gathering of family and friends, but it was obvious the men were saying goodbye to their mother for the last time. It just so happened that we later shared the same compartment with the two men on the train, watching in absolute horror as two KGB officers interrogated, searched and harassed them all the way to the Finish boarder. With mean-spirited efficiency they had gone through every single item of luggage and clothing, confiscating any little keepsake or photo they could find. Shelli and I were also forced to leave the compartment for an extended period, presumably so the KGB officers could make an even more thorough search. After crossing into Finland, the KGB officers gone, the two men retrieved a few family articles the government thugs had missed, proudly showing them to us.
My last day in Russia, I awoke at 5:00 a.m., packed my gear, and joined Ann in the restaurant for a pot of coffee, which was ground on the spot, and cost $16. We took some group photos out front and Oleg drove Bob and Jan to the railroad station. They were taking the train to Helsinki and an overnight cruise to Stockholm, as Shelli and I had done the previous year. The rest of us were taken to the airport, which was a total disaster area. It was small, dirty, disorganized and over-crowded—a virtual nightmare of squeezing, shoving, pushing, shouting and cigarette smoke so thick you could cut it with a knife. We would never have managed it without our Russian guides. Once we got checked in we waited another hour in the main lobby, not so crowded, but where everyone was smoking. I had had more smoke blown in my face in the previous week than ever before in my life, and I owned a night club. In Russia, everyone smoked.
It was a plane full of happy campers in the clean, modern Finnair plane. The flight to Helsinki was only forty minutes. We had an hour layover there, so I bought some news magazines to catch up on world news and then boarded the flight for New York, which was another load of happy campers who all cheered when we touched down in New York City. The next day I boarded my flight to Anchorage, only half full, leaving plenty of room to stretch out in an aisle. Writing in my journal I thought about what a successful, wonderful, exciting trip it had been. I had also purchased some nice things with which to remember it and I wasn’t surrounded by cigarette smoke anymore. I had finally stood on the summit of Mt. Elbrus, now six down and one to go, so I could devote my full attention to Mt. Everest, the highest one of them all.
This story, in various forms, has appeared in On the Rock and the Alaska CHARR Magazine.
Copyright 2014 by Michael W. Gordon. All rights reserved.