It started with a nip to the shops for some bread —perhaps an unlikely spark for a mountain bike circumnavigation of Russia’s Mount Elbrus. And now, eleven years later, I’m clawing my way up an impossibly steep scree slope towards the ambitious 3699m high Balkbashi pass. Gingerly stepping between boulders littered across the mountainside like a field of abandoned, stone Fiat 500s, I wish for the agility of Legolas. Instead I get the leaden plod of a 52-year old bloke with a bike slung across his back —a bloke who should, by now, know better.
But I only have myself to blame. Oh, and that damn kid with a bag of bread a decade earlier. ‘Bread-boy’ kindled the idea for this undertaking, or at least his bike did —a rusting, Russian contraption with forks bent backwards like they’ve been rammed into walls or trees, or both, too many times. That little bike with its wonky forks was beautiful, at least in that Russian way: oozing stoic refusal to give in. Back then, while photographing a ski story in the shadow of Europe’s highest summit, I’d bumped into this kid on his way back from a shop, a bag of loaves under his arm and this simple, buckled bike under his ass. We couldn’t converse, but this moment sowed the seed of curiosity: how was the mountain biking around Mount Elbrus?
Vast, hulking mountains like Elbrus, Mont Blanc and Annapurna lend themselves to adventurous mountain biking. Attempting a circumnavigation of them turns an adventure into an expedition, while their towering forms influence local meteorology enough to lend those expeditions a very real taste of the unpredictable. Multiply the two and you have a recipe for real adventure.
But then the Elbrus idea sat on the back burner, shelved for more timely assignments to places like North Korea. But Elbrus’ itch resurfaced, and when it did it took a year more of planning to scratch it. With the internet a void of info about mountain biking around Elbrus —aside from a couple of videos of Russians freeriding below its ski area chairlifts— I turned instead to my trusty keyword search for “long distance trek in… [insert desired remote uncompromising location here]”. Long distance trekking trails have proved to be sturdy foundations for many of my previous mountain bike adventures, and again I was in luck. The Wiki site dutifully regurgitated a GPS track of a ten-day trek around Elbrus, 102 Kilometres long and with 7300 metres of ascent. “Very Difficult” its author warned, as if to expect less from embracing a swathe of Russian wilderness. I scanned the info and decided we could do ride it in six: Six days of riding, pushing and carrying bikes around a wild, ice-plastered mountain on the Russia-Georgia border.
If I’m honest, I have a love-hate relationship with Russia, or at least going there, derived from three previous trips to the Caucuses. The longwinded ordeal of applying for permits and visas pre trip, and of bribing roadside and airport uniforms while there always seems out of canter with the immensity of the rewards that follow. But they are hoops you have to jump through; gates that open to a world of unknowns, that in this case would punctuate six days of self-guided riding around a sprawling mass of tumbling glaciers and through bear-inhabited wilderness. And so it was with certain fidgety anxiety that I booked flights for myself and the three other adventurous mountain bikers —Dennis Beare, Fred Horny and Brice Minnigh— that had committed to joining me.
As one of the World’s ‘seven summits’ 5642m high Elbrus occupies a place on many climbers’ tick list. While the stunt of carrying bikes to its summit is of no interest to me, our route following a string of singletrack paths that claw their way across Elbrus’ flanks included scaling several passes that soar to the height of Europe’s highest ski lift. In fact, our route’s description as “Very Difficult” seemed almost optimistic at times and I was glad we’d decided not to bikepack the trail.
Working with a local fixer spared us the toil of pushing and carrying gear-encumbered bikes, our camping gear instead being transported by a 4x4 van that would meet us each night — as long as the rough, remote dirt roads it needed to navigate had not been lost to landslides or floods. The retro Tonka Toy van, carrying its two earnest Russian occupants, would bump and grind its way around a longer loop, picking up bodywork dents as it circled the mountain before climbing up Elbrus’ radiating valleys to predetermined rendezvous spots. Sitting at the end of each tiring day waiting with baited breath for the approaching clatter of its engine became an exercise in patience and in faith —a lot of faith— that we’d be reunited with our sleeping bags and tents. And in between chilly evenings alongside meltwater torrents rendered milky with glacial silt, we shouldered bikes for hours at a time, ticking off each high pass that sat in our way, driven onwards by the lure of gravity-framed rewards that waited on the other side would deliver payback. Here payback is measured in thousands of metres.
We slid our way down loose trails and carved along buff singletrack against a vast backdrop of sheer cliffs and precipitous seracs. We waded across rivers that spewed from ice caves just upstream and watched vultures swoop past our heads. And finally, late on day six with storm clouds gathering, we summitted our final pass to look down on the Azau glacier. Beyond its crunchy ice and gaping crevasses that would be our next challenge, stood the distant tangled infrastructure of Elbrus ski lifts, the gateway to Terskol town: our start and end point.
Terskol. That was where it all started 11 years earlier. That’s where I met bread-boy and admired his bike. I have no idea if he is still there, still fetching loaves, maybe even for his own kids now, but wherever he is, I want to thank him.
By Dan Milner February 15 2020
You can read the full article on Sidetracked Magazine, in print now