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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Into the Thin Cold Air

TERSKOL, Southern Russia Ч One must approach Europe's highest mountain as a supplicant, the locals warn. Slowly. With respect. She is a haughty queen, they say. Beautiful and placid on the surface, wearing her 5,642 meters of icy glaciers like ermine robes. Her twin conical summits are as gently rounded as a woman's breasts. But geologically and temperamentally, she is a volcano. When angry, she fumes foul gases and stirs fierce storms, which cause climbers to become dizzy and lose their way.

Perhaps she is petulant because so many don't take her seriously. Europeans, enamored of their elegant Alps, resist including this downtrodden corner of Russia on the map of Europe. Mountaineers, enamored of more treacherous peaks, consider her little more than a high-altitude slog. Perhaps it is only the Balkarian people, who tend their sheep on her flanks, who love her unconditionally.

"She's our sacred mountain," says Iskhak Tilov, a Balkar who runs a high-altitude base for mountain climbers and skiers. "Everything we have comes from her Ч our life, the water for our fields, for our flocks. The ice has been here for thousands of years. And so have we."

Mount Elbrus is the highest mountain in the Caucasus, whose dominant range stretches 1,200 kilometers between the Black and Caspian seas Ч roughly the size of the Alps and twice the length of the Sierra Nevada. Including Elbrus, the Caucasus boasts eight peaks higher than France's Mont Blanc, the highest of the Alps, whose 4,808-meter summit lies nearly a kilometer closer to sea level than Elbrus.

"You have to argue with some people about it," says Mike Coleman, a 30-year-old virologist and climber from London. "People at home all want to think that Russia is in Asia and Mont Blanc is the highest in Europe."

But geographers agree that two mountain ranges form the border between Asia and Europe Ч the Urals, which divide European Russia from Siberia, and the Caucasus, which borders Russia to the south. Elbrus' summits in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria are 13 kilometers north of the range's ridge line Ч close but completely on the European side.

The propaganda value of being the highest point in Europe was not lost on either of the 20th century's most notorious dictators. In the 1930s, waves of Soviet workers were sent up Elbrus, installing a long-since-gone bust of Josef Stalin on top. In 1942, Adolf Hitler sent in a crack team of alpine troops to seize the mountain.

But for the most part, considering its stature, Elbrus has been neglected. Most people, even inside Russia, have never heard of it. It may be bigger than anything else in Europe, but that's not enough to earn it the world's attention or respect.

"Elbrus is like Russia Ч diky, no veliky," says Soltan Kochkarov, 28, a mountain rescue team member and climbing guide. "Wild, uncivilized. But mighty."

4:30 a.m. A mountain this big is climbed 15 centimeters at a time. That's about the distance from one midstep to the next as I set out before dawn with a photographer and our Balkarian guide, Soltan. Constellations drape the night sky as brightly as Christmas lights. Soltan sets a slow pace as the firmament cracks open slowly in the east.

I start doing the math. Each step gains me perhaps 7.5 centimeters of vertical height. That's just over 13 steps per meter of elevation. We have a little more than 1,800 meters between here and the summit. That's 23,400 steps. I'm taking two steps per breath in the rarefied air. That's 11,700 breaths.

I decide not to count. I remember the advice Iskhak's wife, Khalimat, offered the day before: There is only one way to reach the top of Elbrus, she said. You must be humble. You must walk as if you will never get there.

According to legend, the Balkarian people descended to Earth from a constellation known as the She-Bear. They were sent to live in communion with the mountain "Mingi-Tau" and the gods who ruled from her and through her.

"Mingi-Tau means 'a thousand mountains' in our language," Khalimat Tilova explains. "It is our Mount Olympus."

Traditionally, it was forbidden to try to climb the mountain, she says. Those who braved Elbrus' slopes often returned to the valley with headaches, hallucinations and other ills now other ills now generally accepted as symptoms of altitude sickness. Sulphuric gases emanating from the mountain's active fumaroles also may have played a role. But at the time, it seemed evidence of the wrath of the gods.

The ancient Greeks knew of Elbrus Ч in fact, it appears several times in Greek mythology, and some believe that it is the mountain to which Prometheus was eternally chained. The ancient Iranians gave it the name "Elbrus" in about the 2nd century B.C., naming it for a mythical chain of sacred mountains.

Two men are credited with being the first to reach its summit. The first is Killar Khashirov, a native of the flatlands below the Balkars' mountain valleys. He reached the slightly lower, eastern summit as a member of a Russian scientific expedition in 1829. The higher, western summit was climbed half a century later, in 1874, by a British expedition guided by a Balkar, Akhia Sottayev.

Sottayev is a national hero; according to Balkarian tradition, that means his name should not be spoken aloud. That makes things a little difficult for his 42-year-old great-grandson, deputy director of an alpine climbing camp, who carries his name.

"It's a big honor," says the current Akhia Sottayev, "but people are still afraid to pronounce it."

6 a.m. Conversation is pointless; I am wrapped in a wall of sound. The wind blows against my waterproof hood. The air rushing to my lungs seems to blow through my ears. Crampons and poles scratch unpleasantly into the ice and snow, as if on a chalkboard.

I am locked into a kind of two-step with the mountain. Left foot, right pole. Right foot, left pole. Inhale. Exhale. It would be hypnotic if it didn't take so much concentration.

The first rays of direct sun strike so hard I feel knocked off balance. I look behind. The pointy peaks of the Caucasus cast baby-blue shadows against the baby-pink dawn. I wonder if I've ever seen anything more beautiful.

If history had been different, the Caucasus might have become Switzerland. Like the Alpine countries, the Caucasus is inhabited by hardy mountain peoples, fiercely independent, who survive largely by herding cows and sheep.

The mountains are easily as impressive. One of the first Western explorers to penetrate the region, a member of the 1874 British expedition, wrote that "in appearance of inaccessibility and in boldness of form they are beyond the Alps, and probably, when they are better known, they will be thought grander and more majestic than the Alps."

But history has not been kind. Unlike the Swiss, the mountain peoples of the Caucasus were overrun by one empire after another: the Huns, the Mongols, the Turks, the Russians.

In the 19th century, Russia asserted its claim over the Caucasus and sent in armies that looted hundreds of villages, committing massacres along the way. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Balkars were forced to leave their villages, previously organized by clan, and join collective farms.

"See that stream," Soltan says, pointing to a brook tripping down a hillside so steep the cows appear ready to topple off. "My family's lands used to begin there. But once the Revolution came Ч poof." He flaps his hands in an "all-gone" gesture.

Soltan says his grandfather lived to be 120. Once upon a time, he says, Balkars routinely lived longer than 100 years. Not anymore. Not after all that history.

"Now we die as fast as everyone else," he says.

8 a.m. We reach a jumble of boulders known as the Pastukhov rocks Ч at 4,650 to 4,800 meters, nearly the same altitude as Mont Blanc. On the map, we have climbed about halfway from where we started. But the toughest sections, and the thinnest air, are still ahead.

It's hard not to anthropomorphize this mountain. As we set off higher, I imagine her as a malevolent goddess. When my poles snag in the crusty snow, I imagine it's the mountain trying to trip me up. The wind blowing down from above is her breath, trying to blast me off her flanks like an unwanted pest.

Soviet mountaineering got its start in the mid-1930s when Stalin hired a group of Austrians to jump-start a program in "mass alpinism."

They approached the task with military fervor. Peaks were classified by degree of difficulty. Climbers were to attempt various ascents according to a preordained order of difficulty. A hotel, Priyut-11, was built high up on Elbrus' slopes to host the large groups of climbers.

Russians still tend to climb in organized clubs, a sharp contrast to the individualized Western culture of mountaineering and adventuring. Elbrus is relatively unpopular with Russian climbers.

For one thing, it's not technically difficult Ч it ranks a relatively low 2A on the Russian scale from 1A to 6B. Russian climbers use Elbrus mostly for altitude acclimatization before leaving for bigger mountains Ч Tajikistan's Pamirs, Kyrgyzstan's Tien Shan, or the mighty Himalayas.

"Elbrus," says Yury Khokhlov, vice president of the Moscow chapter of the Russian Mountaineering Federation, "is a training mountain."

But many climbers have died nonetheless. Trade unions and collective farms, in Stalinist stunts of collective athleticism, sent many amateurs up Elbrus in the 1930s with inadequate training. Entire parties were wiped out.

If the weather is bad, Elbrus' slopes become sheets of ice and one slip can lead to death. But if the weather is good and a climber knows how to steer clear of the mountain's cliffs and hidden crevasses, Elbrus' summit can be reached with little more than spiky crampons for traction and an ice ax or trekking poles for balance.

These days, most climbers take transportation more than halfway up the mountain; two cable cars and a chairlift reach 3,900 meters. From that point, snow lasts year-round, and some wealthy foreigners even hire a SnowCat tractor to bring them to the Pastukhov rocks Ч giving them a summit climb of less than one kilometer.

Even so, many don't make the summit. Near the top of Elbrus, there is half the oxygen as at sea level. On other high peaks, mountaineers spend weeks at high altitude to give their bodies time to adjust to the scarcity of oxygen.

But the climbers who come to Elbrus are generally novices on a tight schedule. For the most part, they spend three or four days hiking above 3,600 meters, and then make a one-day dash for the summit from the top of the chairlift Ч more often than not, braving headaches, disorientation and nausea.

11:30 a.m. I never thought my lungs could work so hard and accomplish so little. I am taking three or four breaths per step. I try to find a rhythm but can't. I keep stopping. Just to breathe. Just to feel the heaving in my chest subside a little.

We reach the saddle between the two summits Ч 5,416 meters. Soltan says we are going to attempt the eastern summit, which Russians prefer. Like most Westerners, I want to climb the "real" summit, the western summit, 21 meters higher. But Soltan says ice conditions on the western summit are too treacherous. It would take an extra two hours. We are exhausted already. I nod agreement.

The eastern summit is still about 300 meters above us. Soltan offers a deal: We will take just 10 steps at a time, then stop to rest. We start to move our feet, and I wonder whether I'll make the 10 steps. I do, and stop gratefully. A few feet ahead, Soltan is doubled over his ice ax, gasping as hard as I am.

It dawns on me: This is the hardest thing I have done in my life.

The worst moment of 71-year-old Khazhar Temmoyeva's life Ч and the lives of most Balkars of her generation Ч came a few minutes after dawn March 8, 1944.

Soviet soldiers pulled up outside the house where she lived with her family in a village where Elbrus' glacial streams reach the valley. They drove shiny new Studebaker trucks. She was 14.

"The soldiers gave us a half-hour and told us to get in the trucks." The memory is 57 years old, but Temmoyeva's voice still falters. To steady herself, she fusses with her black head scarf, which swathes her head like a nun's habit. "They drove us to the train station in Nalchik. Then we rode the train to Kazakhstan. We lived there for 14 years."

Angry at the Nazis' invasion of southern Russia and six-month occupation of Elbrus, Stalin ordered the entire Balkarian people deported to settlement camps in Central Asia. Most of the deportees were women, children and old men Ч the healthy men were mostly fighting on the front line.

"I remember everything," she says. "I remember the war. I remember how the Germans came and killed my father and left us orphans. And then [the Russians] sent us away. No other nation has suffered as we have suffered."

Khadzhimurat Bichekuyev, now 78, was one of the men on the front line during the deportation. He sent money home throughout the war, but it started coming back "undeliverable." He was never told why.

When he made his way home, his family and neighbors were nowhere to be found. He was a decorated artillery officer who had fought in Odessa and Stalingrad, then chased the Nazis back to Germany, meeting American allies at the Elbe. But now he was only a member of a suspect ethnic group.

"The Germans shot my father. My brother was in the army. I was in the army. It wasn't fair to punish us all," Bichekuyev says.

Only about half the prewar population returned to the valleys after Stalin's death; the rest died on the journey or in the deserts, or lost heart and remained in Central Asia.

When Temmoyeva made it back from Kazakhstan, she took up backbreaking labor on a state farm, which paid her about $5 a month. These days, in the village where she was born, she stoops over soft layers of sheep wool, combing it with her fingers and dousing it with boiling water to make traditional felt hats, capes and carpets. The state farm buys what she makes in an effort to keep the old crafts from dying out.

"Our traditions were ruined," she says. "Our way of life isn't the same."

Bichekuyev was luckier. After the war, the Soviets set up a research center in the village of Terskol, and he found work as a laboratory assistant. He would climb around Elbrus with the scientists to take samples from the mountain's 54 glaciers. In the course of his work, he reached the summit 10 times Ч eight on the eastern summit, twice on the western.

"But my hero is my father-in-law," Bichekuyev says, picking up a faded photo of a man wearing a lambskin hat and clunky black eyeglasses. "He climbed the mountain 209 times. And died at 116 years old."

1:15 p.m. I try not to look up. There's something about the thinness of the air and the brightness of the snow that make distances deceiving. I have no idea how far we've come. I have no idea how much is left.

I stop to catch my breath. I don't know if I've been standing for a minute or five minutes when I hear a voice up ahead: Just 15 more meters. For a second, I wonder if it's worth it. Then I begin to move my feet.

Suddenly, the ground is no longer sloping up. My crampons crunch on volcanic gravel and wind-packed snow. I look up. The other summit stretches out to the west like a companion on a beach; nothing is higher, not even clouds.

Below, the mighty peaks of the Caucasus have shriveled. They are spread out as far as the eye can see, gray and white like a dusty expanse of day-old meringue.

All I feel is relief.

Iskhak Tilov was born in exile in the deserts of Kazakhstan. In 1957, four years after Stalin's death, he saw the mountains of his homeland for the first time. He was 6.

"I never imagined mountains could be so high," he remembers.

As Balkars trickled back, the Soviet Union launched a building boom in the Elbrus region, constructing six health resorts and eight alpine training camps.

A ski school opened, and Iskhak was one of the first students. In 1967, he became the Soviet Union's junior downhill champion Ч one of the first Balkars to achieve national stature in alpine sports. In 1969, he placed second in the European junior championship. And soon, young Balkars began to realize that the mountains weren't just a place to raise sheep. With enough luck and training, sports could provide not just fortune but also fame.

In the 1980s, Iskhak received permission from the Soviet Sports Committee to build a high-altitude training base for skiers on Elbrus, and soon the national team was training on snow year-round.

But then the Soviet Union collapsed, taking with it money for training, travel and equipment. Then war began in Chechnya and tourists shunned the region, which is only 210 kilometers from the war zone. Balkars lost their jobs at the camps and tourist centers. Iskhak's ski base fell into disrepair.

"Everything was hard for our country," Iskhak says. "It was like a 10-year gap in our lives."

2:30 p.m. The snowstorm hits quickly. A new sound is added Ч the tinkle of snow pellets hitting Gore-Tex. I see Soltan fading into the white fog ahead of me. My knees whine in pain as my crampons sink deeper into the snow on the downward slope. I remember the stories I've heard about climbers on Elbrus who have died in storms Ч disappeared over cliffs, slid into crevasses, died of exposure. On the way up, boulders are speckled with memorial plaques.

I feel nauseated. I'm not sure if it's the snow swirling dizzily in front of my eyes, the energy bar I choked down, the lack of oxygen or the mountain's noxious gases. I just know that if I walk any faster, I will get sick and my knees will give out.

I am reminded: Climbing a mountain doesn't end at the summit. You also have to get down.

The sun shines. Iskhak's base bustles. Shirtless snowboarders bask in the warm sunshine between trips off a jump ramp, impressing each other with half-pipes, full pecs and the latest in board gear. Behind them, a simple rope tow carries ski school students up the slope. Every so often, a crampon-shod climber stumbles past.

Iskhak wafts through it all, radio in hand, baseball cap on head. Like many Balkars, he has strangely pale eyes, in his case light brown. He shields them behind an oversized pair of sunglasses. He keeps an eye on the snowboarders, whom he doesn't fully trust.

"Skiers and climbers are serious, hard-working," he says. "These kids are young. They just like to have a good time."

The last three years have seen a kind of revival in the Elbrus region, fueled by three new breeds of thrill seekers who come despite the Chechen war: snowboarders drawn to its nearly year-round snows; "extreme" skiers and "free riders" seeking danger and pristine terrain; and a certain kind of amateur mountain climber eager for boasting rights to a "highest" summit.

Elbrus is one of the so-called seven summits, the highest peak on each continent. (The others are Asia's Everest, 8,850 meters; South America's Aconcagua, 6,962 meters; North America's Denali/McKinley, 6,194 meters; Africa's Kilimanjaro, 5,895 meters; Antarctica's Vinson Massif, 4,987 meters; and Australia's Kosciusko, 2,228 meters.) Since 1983, when a pair of middle-age executives set out to climb all seven Ч Frank Wells, then of Warner Bros., and Dick Bass, a Texas businessman Ч the idea has caught on among a certain kind of ambitious, moneyed adventurer.

These days, Iskhak leases the base from the government and charges climbers about $5 a night to stay in one of the 10 red-and-white school-bus-sized barrels he has outfitted with bunks. Since the high-altitude hotel Priyut-11 burned down in 1998, he knows that all aspiring "seven summiters" will come through his camp, that they are his ticket to the future.

"Without Elbrus, they can't do it." He smiles broadly.

Still, Elbrus is a long way from becoming a major tourist attraction. Poorly developed by Western standards even in its heyday, the mountain has suffered severely from post-Soviet decay. There are no amenities Ч no warming huts, no snack bars, no place to buy sunscreen or water or beer.

Instead of a cafe, climbers fend for themselves in a primitive communal kitchen with food they bring up themselves. There is no plumbing or running water; snow must be melted to be drunk.

Things are primitive in the valley as well. There are few hotels, and for the most part they have no maids, infrequent hot water and crude cafeterias. There is no transportation system between the hotels and the slopes. The chairlift runs when the operator feels like it.

Those who seek extreme sports here must have not an aversion to extreme discomfort.

"This is another degree beyond adventure travel," says Mort Gerson, a 67-year-old retired lawyer from Santa Monica who hopes to summit Elbrus and ski down. "The people I know wouldn't want to come here."

A number of adventure tour companies that offered Elbrus climbs in the early 1990s have since pulled out, in part because of the Chechen conflict and because conditions for travelers are too unpredictable.

"It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy this place," says Tom Milne, a guide with Mountain Madness, a Seattle-based tour company that still brings several groups to Elbrus each summer.

What kind of person is that? "Flexible," he says euphemistically.

6:30 p.m. The storm has lifted. Below, a row of red barrels comes slowly into focus. I can't believe that it has taken so long to get down. My knees no longer whine; they howl.

I stumble past snowboarders with bleached locks and mirrored shades. I must appear like a prophet descending from the heights Ч shaggy, unsteady and more than a little disreputable.

Iskhak stands outside his trailer. He breaks into a big smile. "Congratulations. The mountain was kind to you."

Then he adds: "But you must come back, you know. After all, there's still another summit."