Caucasian Avalanche

Mt. Elbrus Region, Kabardino-Balkaria, Russia. 2008.

An avalanche on Devil’s Face almost killed my best friend. That was the beginning of a freeride trip to Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain.

Long way there

It took us 36 hours to get from Warsaw to Kabardino-Balkar Republic in Caucasus. Train to Moscow, plane to Nalchik, and marshrutka to Terskol…

The Devil's Face

A draft of Kostek's fall...

Though tired we couldn’t resist going skiing right away. It was a beautiful sunny day with fresh pack of snow. Without much thought and preparation we jumped on the slopes of Cheget. We wanted to hit a sole easy run, so we didn’t even take our avalanche system, nor cameras. By the time we got to the top the weather changed dramatically. It was pounding so hard, it was difficult to find a piste. We got lost and eventually ended up on a steep face overlooking Terskol – the village we stayed in.

From there it went abruptly fast… Kostek hit an easy-looking drop, I went after him. The rest of the team – there were six of us – were getting ready, when the snow pillow crashed down onto the field me and Kostek were standing on. Miraculously I grabbed a little bush and managed to stay afloat. Kostek was carried away by the avalanche… Deep in my heart I was hoping he escaped the snow somehow.

It took me about an hour to ski down the mountain. I started to stare at the immense slope (some 700 vertical meters) looking for Kostek. There was no chance for me to spot him. I headed to look for help, when I heard a faint voice… The avalanche took Kostek down the whole Devil’s Face, as the locals call it, what we found out later. He was barely alive. After some time the rest joined and some of them went to look for help. It took 2, maybe 4 hours before the rescue came. It took another 4, before we made it to a makeshift ambulance. The streets were pure ice, so we drove for another 2-3 hours to a hospital in Nalchik.

By that time Kostek was not responding anymore…

It was close to midnight (the accident was at about 11am). The hospital seemed abandoned. Suddenly a guy in a tall white hat jumped out from a corner and took Kostek to an xray room, that looked like an old garage. We were terrified… Then they took him for an operation and we lost Kostek from our sight. We were taken care of by patients of the hospital. They let us sleep on some beds, that were free and shared their food with us.

We had to wait until morning to find out, if Kostek made it… Apparently the guy in white hat ended up being one of the best surgeons of the Republic. He saved Kostek’s life.

Kostek remained in the hospital for another two weeks, while we tried to explore the daily life of Kabardino-Balkaria and the fresh powder of Caucasus. Although our spirits were terribly shaken, we still wanted to get to know the spot. Me and Gnali had the chance to go for a heli-skiing trip. There was army with rifles everywhere, as we were on the border with Georgia. Skiing wise it was nothing groundbreaking, but scenery wise it was breathtaking.

….

It took Kostek half a year to start walking again, as his pelvis was crushed into pieces. A year later Kostek skied down one of the most difficult couloirs in Tatras.

Tyrnyauz

Every second day we went from Terskol to Tyrnyauz to visit Kostek at the hospital. I didn’t dare to take photos at the hospital.

But we always used the opportunity to stroll around the city, the administrative center of Elbrussky District of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic…

Azau - at the foot of Elbrus

Tyrnyauz was not the only symbolic place to visit. Azau, the ski station on the footsteps of Elbrus, which we passed every day on our way to the mountains, seemed to be a place from a distant fairytale.

Skiing under Elbrus

After the accident it was really hard to focus on skiing. Both, because I couldn’t stop thinking about what was Kostek going through. And about the possible avalanches. Which did happen couple of times during the rest of the trip.

The scenery of Caucasus was a really good remedy though.

Caucasian Avalanche - skiing under Elbrus

Caucasian Viertolot

Despite the circumstances we decided to have an otherworldly experience and try heliskiing in Caucasus.

Climbing Elbrus

To top the caucasian adventure off I decided to climb Mt. Elbrus. I hadn’t even made it close to the summit, but the night at the “Botchki” or Barrels – as was the last refuge below Elbrus called – and the sunrise at the height of 4200m was still well worth the effort.