Photo courtesy Constantine Sturza
Constantine Sturza never thought he would climb the highest peak in Europe. He started exercising to lose weight like most people, but a strange and fortuitous course of events led him to be the only American to successfully climb Russia’s Mt. Elbrus this past May 9.
Sturza, of Imperial Beach, is a 49-year-old, 194 pound naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Moldova in the former Soviet Union.
Sturza’s story starts when he reached 225 pounds three years ago. He wanted to lose weight and decided to start hiking locally. He climbed Mt. San Miguel, then got into kayaking again, a sport he had been enjoying for a long time. “ I lost another 10 pounds then got stuck and couldn’t lose more [weight,] searched for a solution and started hiking,” he said. He hiked San Miguel, the Cowles Mountain and the Iron Mountain. Last September Sturza became friends with a man from Odessa, Ukraine, the city where Sturza attended school. “I found out he was an alpine climber and we started to talk and invited him to hike the small mountains here. I realized he was very experienced and asked him if he could guide me on Mt. Whitney,” he recalls. The two friends went to Mount Whitney, a six-hour drive, and stayed for the day hiking the trails. From these local climbs with his expert friend Sturza yearned to gain more climbing experience. “ I realized I could see places I’ve never seen before … I never suspected some are so close by. I realized I would like to go higher and discover more places. I started buying equipment [for climbing,]” he said. Sturza exchanged emails with his friend who had returned to Odessa and he was told of an upcoming climbing competition in Russia. “This was not five or six guys going over there with a guide,” he explained. His friend was originally going to compete with Sturza but changed his mind. Sturza decided to go ahead and participate anyway. He asked for an invitation for the competition and waited for a Visa to enter Russia as a U.S. citizen (he became a citizen in 2001.) “I went by myself and later I realized I was representing the U.S.,” he said proudly with a big smile.
“From the moment I decided to go I trained three to four times a week for three months,” he said. To prepare he climbed San Jacinto Mountain, and he also biked from his home in Imperial Beach to San Miguel Mountain, locked his bike and hiked. When he was finished, he rode the bike back to Imperial Beach.
The event Sturza participated in was the 5th Festival of Extreme Winter Sports Red Fox Elbrus Race held May 6-11. Mount Elbrus is in the Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia region of Russia. Athletes from 15 countries took part in one or more of the four sports in the competition. Sturza explained that the organizers of the competition set up ropes for the competitors. The participants were required to have a harness, spikes on the shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen and a warm jacket. The race started at 3,700 meter (12,139 feet) where the competitors stayed overnight before the race to get acclimated to the altitude. At 7 a.m. on May 9, the racers started for the summit, a height of 5,642 meters (18,510 feet.) Competitors were eliminated if they did not reach the “control point” between the eastern and the western summit by 12 o’ clock. Sturza reached it at 11:58 a.m. From that point only 49 people of the about 120 were allowed to go to the summit. Using their hiking sticks the climbers slowly reached the summit where the temperature reached – 22 degree Celsius (-7.6 F.) The wind was strong. “When I reached the summit I could not open the camera [because of frozen hands] and asked someone to help me,” he recalls. He reached the summit in six hours and 32 minutes. “I didn’t have the energy to celebrate, but had the energy to take out my American flag and wave. It was very emotional for me. It was the first time waving a victorious American flag [for me.] I felt proud.”
The climb was not easy because of the harsh conditions, the weather, and the altitude which gave him nausea and headache. “In one hour after the start I wanted to quit,” he said “What am I doing here?,” he asked himself. “The head function in the high elevation is different. ‘Am I in this world or am I already dead?’ I said. I couldn’t move 10 steps without stopping,” he recalls.
Just when Sturza thought he couldn’t go any further he saw women passing him. He recalls, “Women were passing me. This is an insult. I cannot handle this. It was a big motivation. I’ll never forgive myself [if I quit.]” When he reached “the control point” he said to himself “I won’t quit.” The “control point” was at the highest altitude Sturza had ever experienced. Mount Whitney, the highest peak he climbed was 4,421 meters (14,504 feet,) while this point was 6,000 plus meters (19,685 feet.)
“The oldest competitor was 78 years old and he passed me. How did I feel [compared to him?] You feel like a youngster, a teenager,” he said. “This kind of climbing is good for self-confidence, to re-invent yourself,” he explained. Sturza explained he is still recovering physically from the climb and has no feeling in two of his fingertips.
Sturza has started training again. He has climbed San Jacinto and San Miguel mountains. “I don’t want to lose my shape,” he said. His next achievement is to compete in a kayak sprint at the World Master’s Game in Turin, Italy in August. “I’m training right now,” he said. The World Master’s Games are held every four years. For this type of race the kayak is narrower than usual and very tippy,” he explained. Kayaking is not a new sport for Sturza who has competed in races locally.