Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 3 - Elbrus

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

Cason’s expedition to Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia near the Georgia border didn’t start well. The plan was to join a group of climbers to ascend the southern route. This is the easiest of the two official routes, having a cablecar and ski-lift part of the way. However, as he was about to set off for Russia the mountain tour company who had arranged the climb phoned to say that the rest of his group had cancelled their trip. He was offered the option of a one-man climb with one guide, or join another team about to climb the harder northern route. He chose to join the northern expedition.

Cason and his group reached base camp on 3rd June 2012. Arriving in the middle of the day gave them time to acclimatise and try out the famous hot springs that are found on Elbrus’s north side. These springs, and the geological evidence in the rocks, is all that shows us that Elbrus is actually a volcano. It hasn’t erupted for nearly 2,000 years, but the heat generated as the Turkish continental plate crashes into Europe creating the Caucasus gives climbers a chance to relax in hot springs before beginning their expedition to the summit.

On an acclimatisation hike on Day 5 the weather got a little scary. Clouds and mists rolled in and as the team rested after their climb their guide pointed out that the exposed rock they had stopped on could attract lightning strikes as the clouds go thicker. Needless to say, the climbers moved away from the rock pretty quick.

This incident makes me think of the vengeance of the gods - throwing their thunderbolts down - which is very appropriate because Elbrus provides a link to ancient Greek mythology.

Elbrus is said to have been the mountain to which the Titan Prometheus was chained by Zeus. This was long before Zeus adopted the young Ganymede as his lover, as it was not long after Prometheus created mankind. Promethues tricked Zeus into accepting an unsuitable sacrifice. Zeus punished mankind by removing fire from the world. Prometheus, however, was determined to give it back. By stealing the fire from the volcanic forges of the god Hephaestus and returning it to mankind Prometheus earned the anger of Zeus. As punishment Zeus had the Titan chained to Mount Elbrus for all eternity.

Also, by stealing fire by means of a flaming torch Prometheus was regarded as the creator of the sacred torch processions and relays which formed part of ceremonies all over Ancient Greece. This, in turn, is the origin of the modern Olympic torch relay, lit at the sacred site at Olympia. It so happens that the Olympic torch will be passing by Elbrus next year as the 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay will pass Elbrus on the way to Sochi, host city of the next games, only 150 miles away.

As if having Prometheus chained wasn’t enough Zeus sent an eagle to rip out and eat his liver. The punishment didn’t even stop there. Being immortal Prometheus grew a new liver overnight, so the eagle came back the next day to eat it all over again. This was to happen every day, forever.

The eagle would still be feasting on the Titan’s liver had it not been for that great Greek superhero, Hercules. During his famous Twelve Labours and tucked in between the seemingly endless parade of wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, Hercules was passing through the Caucasus Mountains. He encountered Prometheus, who had been suffering the agony of eagle attack for several thousand years. Hercules killed the eagle and snapped the chains, leaving Prometheus to free to take his revenge – by eating the eagle’s liver! Cason may have known about this myth but he didn’t mention it on his blog.

After a rest day Cason and his group set off for the summit at the very early hour of 2.30 in the morning. That was because the northern route takes up to 15 hours to get to the top, and after that you have to climb back down again.

Then came the Death March!

Elbrus is a double-peaked mountain with the western peak being the highest. The Death March is the nickname given by climbers to the hike along the ridge between the two.

At about 1.40 pm. Cason was the first of his group to reach the summit. What he was determined to do on each expedition was to fly the Rainbow Pride flag from each summit. Knowing Russia is quite a homophobic country, as recent new anti-gay laws have shown, Cason was keen to thumb his nose at the homophobic authorities by flying his flag from the highest point in Europe. His mother, however, was more cautious. She was genuinely concerned for his safety as he travelled in Russia as an openly gay man. So she hid the flag before Cason set off. Not to be put off, Cason unfurled a banner bearing his Rainbow Summits Project logo instead.

Summit number 3 was in the bag. It was now back to North America for his next expedition – which didn’t quite go according to plan.

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