Russian Roulette

The grassy Bechassyn Plateau affords mesmerizing views of Mount Elbrus’ majestic north face. Fred Horny, Dennis Beare and the author make hay while the sun shines.

Russian Roulette Spinning Cylinders Around Europe's Mightiest Mountain

Drenched to the bone and shivering, I fumbled through a tangle of underbrush and tall grass, straining to keep my bearings in the blackness of night.

Rain had been soaking me for hours, and with the mercury plummeting as quickly as my body temperature, there was no time to waste. We needed to get across a rapidly rising river before our bodies succumbed to hypothermia or sheer exhaustion. We also needed to find two teammates, who had apparently doubled back in search of a bridge we’d somehow bypassed.

This alpine thicket wasn’t making it easy. Nor was the fact that our only torch was on the head of my other teammate, Australian Dennis Beare, who was doing his best to light the way for both of us. I wrestled my bike through the dense foliage, chasing the sporadic light beams and stumbling in the shadows between them. With such fleeting visibility, I’d already rolled both of my ankles on the uneven ground. My irritation was mounting.

“Where the hell did Dan and Fred go?” I asked Beare as we peered through the darkness for flashes from the headlamp they were sharing. “The last thing we need right now is to be separated.”

“True,” Beare mumbled. “And I thought our first day was supposed to be the easiest one.”

His comment hung in the air like the moody clouds that had followed us for most of the day. Beare was right: We were barely 13 hours into what we hoped would be a world-first mountain bike circumnavigation of southwestern Russia’s Mount Elbrus, and we’d already run the gamut of hardships. The climb up Elbrus’ boulder-filled flank had been far more brutal than expected, with lung-busting hike-a-bikes up a seemingly endless succession of scree slopes. What we’d estimated would be 4,000 feet of elevation gain had turned out to be more than 6,000 feet. The descent from our first major pass demanded more mountaineering skills than actual bike-handling prowess. By the time we’d crept down the near-vertical drops at the bottom, we were out of daylight—and the rain had returned with a vengeance. Then we’d spent the past couple of hours wandering blindly back and forth along a boggy riverbank in search of the elusive bridge that would lead to a sheltered place to camp.

“This is seriously like looking for a needle in a haystack,” I exclaimed.

 

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