JBL details his experience climbing Mt. Elbrus
I wanted to raise money for the kids I work with daily in Bermuda (Beyond Rugby Bermuda), I wanted to plant a WWE flag on the summit and I wanted to not die. I accomplished two out of the three. ( WATCH: JBL AFTER THE CLIMB)
I have worked with WWE since December 1995 and because of them I have been able to do some wonderful things. I have been to the war zones of the Middle East eight different times and was part of the first civilian group to visit Afghanistan shortly after war started. I was with WWE when we went down, as one of first groups to do so, to thank the heroes that were still saving lives in the burning rubble at Ground Zero. I was with WWE when we were the first mass gathering just two days after 9/11 in one of the most emotional events I have ever been part of in a sold out arena in Houston. From Make-A-Wish to literacy programs to an anti-bullying campaign, WWE has gone way beyond what companies would dream to do to make the world a better place.
So, when I decided to climb the Seven Summits (highest mountain on each continent) and do it to raise money for kids I work with daily in Bermuda that are deemed “at risk” by society, I knew I wanted to partner with my family again in WWE.
I’m 45 years old and have had a broken back, four knee surgeries and two herniated discs, so I knew this would not be easy. But, we tell our kids daily that everyone has problems, it’s what you do with what you have that matters. I wasn’t just raising money for the kids; I was doing my best to set an example. We all have mountains to climb, mine ahead of me were just literal.
I trained for more than half a year for Mt. Elbrus. I had gotten to where I would do a stair master up to three hours straight and when in New York City, climb up to 400 flights of stairs in my apartment building (which took 3 1/2 hours). I had gotten up to 18 miles hiking around Bermuda. I can’t run due to my injuries so I would walk the 18 miles, taking about 4 1/2 hours.
I trained walking with a backpack for several hours straight many times a week.
This was not a “Hollywood” production; this was something I put the time and effort in to accomplish, exactly what we tell our kids they must do to be successful.
My plan was, and is, to climb the Seven Summits over the next two years, and Mt. Elbrus was first on the list. ( WATCH: JBL PREPARES FOR THE CLIMB)
After flying through Moscow and St. Petersburg doing the normal tourist visits of Lenin, Red Square and the Hermitage while still training for what was to come, we arrived in the Baksan Valley which is located just north of Georgia and next to Chechnya. The valley was closed the year before due to the conflicts, and I was hoping that another conflict would wait till I had left.
We immediately started to acclimatize, which involved up to 10 hours of climbing at altitude. George Mallory had first developed this when trying to summit Mt. Everest in the 1920s. You hike higher to an altitude and then return to increase the red blood cell count in your body so your body can absorb more oxygen; though, this also raises the risk of heart attack.
Climbing for hour after hour straight up is hard; doing it with half the oxygen is indescribable. It’s like climbing stairs for hours with a plastic bag over your head, your heart beats so fast you can feel it racing very loudly in your head and you never really get your breath.
I got my first dose of mountain medicine on one of these hikes. I had gotten terrible blisters and one of the climbers who had just returned from Mt. Everest, Dr. Mark Schwab (the best climber on the mountain), gave me duct tape off of his climbing pole to wrap my foot, which I did.
We left the valley for base camp at 12,000-plus feet – “The Barrels.” I split my barrel with some real veteran climbers in Dr. Schwab and his mate he had been to medical school with in West Virginia, Dr. Ched Lohr, along with Chris Zahn, owner of a real estate management company in Long Beach, Calif.
Our guide was Mark Ryman of Mountain Madness, who had guided on all seven continents and this was his sixth trip to Mt. Elbrus. The one thing I miss about being in WWE was the banter and camaraderie; it was very welcome to have such a great crew to climb with.
The Barrels had electricity only a couple of hours a day, but did have cell reception. We would sleep in heavy sleeping bags and in our mountain gear, as we had no heat. The outhouse is renowned as the world’s worst, and I am not sure that even that moniker is enough.
I have been to some very nasty places from Kabul, Afghanistan, to islands in Antarctica that were covered with penguins and their waste that made you want to vomit when you smelled it. I grew up near cattle ranches and a few pig farms. I have dressed in locker rooms by some professional wrestlers who have taken too much protein and tried to ruin my nostrils with their emissions. Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, is close to this outhouse.
It is a building that you walk onto and a hole was just cut in the roof and a tin shed put on top of the hole. So for decades, people have been filling up this building with human waste, year after year folks doing their business on top of last year’s and last week’s and yesterday’s business. To say it is despicable is like saying Kim Kardashian kind of likes being in the media, a severe understatement.
I could even go into more graphic details, but it would make you sick. I had the constant fear of the “Slumdog Millionaire” scene with me somehow falling through the roof. By this year, the building (a whole building) was more than half full.
There were no showers and no running water; we got water from melting snow.
I had used my hotel points to stay in the Ritz Carlton in Moscow right by Red Square, going from that to this was a bit of an adjustment.
We took two climbs from base camp, and the second took more than 15,000 feet to finish our acclimatization. The second climb was about eight hours and, though hurting, I made the climbs in good form. I felt great about summit day.
Summit day started at 1 a.m. with breakfast and a 2 a.m. start on the mountain to catch the snow while it was still hard and easier for our boots and crampons to travel over. We only had a headlamp for vision.
Zahn and I were climbing partners and my guide was Vladimir, a very funny guy who was also part of the mountain rescue squad. Vladimir spoke little English but spoke German well, so we communicated in German (which I had learned while wrestling and living in Europe for two years before I made it to WWE).
There were storms in the area, but they were lower than us so we got off on-time and things went badly almost right away. I had little problem on my acclimatization climbs, but for some reason this morning, my right hand had gone completely numb due to the cold and the only way I could get it warm was to stick it down my pants, which made my hand feel much better but was not so great on my private parts.
I was hoping to be able to make it to the sun coming up so the air would get warmer and I wouldn’t get frostbit and lose my fingers. Vladimir looked at me and warned me I also had hypoxia. I don’t think I did, but he was a better judge than me.
The sun came up and gave us one of the most wonderful views I have ever seen, looking down at the Caucasus Mountain range. I had regained feeling in my hand for the most part as the temperature rose with the sun.
We carried Water next to us, as it would have frozen in our backpack.
After climbing for 7 1/2 hours, we were at the beginning on the “saddle” between the mountain’s two peaks.
I can’t describe the effort these 7 1/2 hours took to climb. I have had somewhere around 4,000 wrestling matches and played two games in college on a broken leg, but the mindset of trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other, in those conditions, was the greatest test I have ever taken. I understand why climbers climb. There is no greater test to see how far your body can go-it’s beyond pain that I know of, but it’s also wonderful in a weird kind of way.
We stopped for lunch, and I discovered that my lunch had somehow been squished and ruined. We were only about 1,000 feet from the summit, though that 1,000 feet would take four to five hours. It looked so close.
Vladimir had gotten concerned by the weather and was warning us we might have to turn back, but now he was adamant. He told us, correctly, that if we continued, we would be caught up by what turned out to be a huge storm. I did not want to turn back, at all.
We were so close and I had worked so hard, to turn back now was something that didn’t even seem realistic. The summit was so close you could almost touch it.
Chris reluctantly had agreed with Vladimir. Chris is a mountain veteran who hated to give up on the summit. I was climbing for my kids, and the thought of turning back was so hard to digest. However, we finally all agreed that we ran the risk of being stuck on the mountain if we continued. And, my third goal of not dying would have been put in jeopardy.
I just sat there for some time looking at the summit, thinking of the support WWE had given me and the greater goal of helping kids that need it. It was one of the saddest moments of my life.
We turned back. Chris and I both were totally out of gas. Climbing down is almost as hard as climbing up; the snow had softened, so we sank into the snow on most steps. At one point, we sat down and slid down part of the mountain. Vladimir was helping me so much; Chris’ guide Albert was helping him as well. I don’t ever remember being that spent.
At another point, Vladimir had me take off my crampons and harness, and we slid roped together down the mountain with Vladimir behind me to help put on the brakes as we got too fast.
We made it down at 2 p.m., half a day after we started. The storm was now setting in, and Vladimir was right in his warning and advice. There is a good chance that we could have been in dire trouble if we had continued; we could have easily been stuck on the mountain.
The storm has closed the mountain and so there is no hope of another summit attempt – I will have to return next summer. My lips bled badly this morning (from exposure) as I tried to brush my teeth and my blisters are so bad I can’t wear shoes, but everything I have wrong is temporary. I just had the wildest week of my life and loved every second of it.
I did get a great pic with the WWE flag at more than 17,000 feet and got a pic with the Bermuda flag for my kids (and to say thanks to the government there for the support they give our program and to our partner The Family Center).
The one thing I missed was taking a picture with the Fox News crew I have done the show “Cashin’ In” with for years (I had a photo of them I was going to hold up at the summit), the picture was in the part of the backpack where the food exploded. Fox was wonderful in their support and allowing me the time to do this.
The two doctors, Mark and Ched, along with head guide Mark Ryman made the summit. They were faster, and superior, climbers than us but they also had the advantage of using skis for part of the climb, which is still a remarkable achievement but is easier than hiking. Plus, getting down is much faster, so the storm didn’t play a part in their summit like it did ours. Dr. Schwab snowboarded down the mountain; he had just come back from Everest, where he was turned back at more than 27,000 feet due to frostbite. Dr. Schwab had knee surgery just before Everest – this wild man belongs in WWE.
Dr. Lohr watched his ski slide thousands of feet off the summit, so he had a long walk down. These three guys were pure beasts.
All three of them had a summit party with us, and Dr. Mark gave us gold medals he had bought somewhere. It was a great gesture and a heck of a party.
I have Kilimanjaro scheduled next in September. My feet will be better then and I will have a couple more months of training and the experience of being at altitude. I plan on making the mountain – and then it’s to South America followed by Antarctica all by January. I have Mt. Everest scheduled for spring 2014.
I tell my kids you can only control what you can control and you can’t worry about what you can’t. I can’t control the weather, but the mountain didn’t break me, so I’m getting geared up for round two. I still plan on making the Seven Summits but realize now why only a few hundred people have ever done it. These are world-class mountains.
But for a kid from Sweetwater, Texas, who became WWE Champion, huge tasks don’t scare me. I figure if you are not getting up every day climbing and trying to do something great, then you are just wasting good folk’s oxygen by just existing.
In Bermuda, there is a 50 percent dropout rate among black Bermudians. After one year, 100 percent of our 60 kids still say they will graduate. They won’t give up and neither will I. The money raised with this will hopefully allow us to double our program next year.
I’m now heading back to Bermuda, where I am fishing July Fourth in the World Cup Marlin World Championship with several local friends; my peak to pond adventure is half over.
Most importantly, I have my WWE flag all packed and ready to go to Africa for round two. We are only just beginning.
To donate to JBL's Seven Summits for Kids campaign, please visit www.sevensummitsforkids.com. JBL will be providing updates as he climbs each of the mountiains on his Twitter and Facebook, where he'll post photos and videos.