When I look back on my recent trip to Elbrus – Europe’s highest peak at 5642m and one of the seven summits – it will not only be the mountain that I remember, but the people I met there.
Yes it would have been wonderful to have had a picture perfect summit day with panoramic views, blue skies and happy faces holding mascots, but it wasn’t to be. Does it make it all the more awesome that 10 out of 13 of us reached the summit? The short answer is yes and here’s why…
Rich and I always try and do some sort of adventure holiday each year and this year was all about mountaineering after having a break last year. Being an incredibly neurotic and anxious person, naturally mountaineering scares me, but then so does meeting people in crowded places and bananas. I simply refuse to be ruled by my many fears and wanted to have one last crack at a high mountain. Before Rich knew it, I had booked the holiday and paid the deposit and we were all set for our epic adventure.
Days 1 and 2
The trip started with a day in Moscow – the thought of flying in to Moscow and then not at the very least seeing Red Square seemed ridiculous so we tacked on a touristy day before heading to the mountains. It quickly became very clear to us that getting taxis around the city is just not feasible (the traffic was absolutely horrendous) so we bought ourselves a Metro ticket and headed towards the city centre. Once you get the hang of the metro, it’s very easy to use. The hardest part was understanding the name of the stops!
Moscow is extremely expensive so rather than wasting our money on an average lunch for more than London prices, we grabbed a McDonald’s and sat in the park doing some people watching . We spent the rest of the day aimlessly wandering around Red Square taking in the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral.
After a very early start (something of a theme for this trip!), we jumped on an internal flight to Milneralyne Vody (approx 2 hours’ from Moscow with Aeroflot), after which we were met by our guide for the week Vladimir – a very friendly and charming chap who largely spoke in broken English!
We spent a further 3 hours driving via mini bus to the small village of Terskol, our base for the next few days at the foot of the mountain. We met our first trip companions: 3 lovely Russian ladies named Maria, Daria and Natalia, and the time ticked away as we exchanged stories about our lives back in the real world. We finally arrived at our hotel (a modest, but comfortable place that would soon look like 5* luxury as the week went on) and met with the remainder of our group over dinner – a large group of German gentlemen made up of 6 friends and a father and son team.
After tasting some of the culinary ‘delights’ of Moscow (I would prefer not to discuss the disgusting cheese slice with raisins and broccoli I sampled over breakfast!), my expectations were at an all-time low, but I was pleasantly surprised by the food. Delicious homemade soup made up of vegetables and fresh herbs, followed by chicken and rice, as well as pasta courses were some of the many dishes we had over the course of the week.
After a delicious breakfast of fried eggs and porridge, we set off on our first acclimatisation hike, which saw us take an incredibly steep and exhausting path up towards the cable cars from the foot of the valley up to around 3000m. I started chatting with Andreas, who is in fact a doctor and we shared our various healthcare/pharmaceutical experiences, and Alex who had come here with his father. I am so envious of people who do things like this with their parents and siblings. In fact, watch out Alex – I may adopt Heinz as my honorary dad! ;-)
I must confess it had been a long while since I’d hiked anywhere (does trail running count?) and I was feeling quite exhausted after the first hill, which was a little bit demoralising.
Another early start as we set off on our second acclimatisation hike up from the valley this time to the observatory at 3100m. This hike wasn’t quite as steep as the previous day and I found it much easier going. In the evening, Vladimir did a quick kit check and told me that my beloved La Sportiva B3 boots would not be suitable and that I’d have to hire horrible plastic boots as well as a Michelin man-style down jacket and ice axe.
I felt quite annoyed because I was sure the all this talk of ‘extreme temperatures’ was complete overkill and that he just had a deal going with the hire company. Oh how wrong we were.
After breakfast, we headed up on the cable car and the chair lift to the infamous barrels at the Bochki camp (accommodation made out of old oil drums) at 3800m (the start of our snow-based trekking) armed with all of our kit and supplies for the week. The weather was absolutely boiling (think sahara desert with snow) and I started to worry that it would be too hot and that plastic boots were a waste of time! We did a short acclimatisation hike to get used to the hideous plastic boots up to around 4100m and returned for lunch in the the battered old caravan.
Maria our cook (a lady with more gold than white teeth!) managed to cook up a delicious homemade soup in her make-shift kitchen. The lunch also included cheese and ham, bread and sweets to keep our energy levels up. We sat in the caravan drinking tea and listening to dreadful Russian Europop interspersed with the Cranberries until we were kicked out and the next group came along.
It is worth mentioning the toilets, or ‘the spa’ as it was later referred to, at this point. I have seen my fair share of disgusting toilets over the years (most of which have been in France), but these were probably among the worst I’ve had to endure – a smelly hole in the ground. Every time I visited the toilets I wanted to dowse my entire body in iodine.
For the last of our acclimatisation hikes, we headed up from the barrels to just shy of the Pastuckhova rocks at around 4500m. It was a tiring day finishing at around 3pm, but the majority of the group were really keen to attempt the summit in the early hours of the following morning, which actually turned out to be perfect conditions (clear blue skies). Unfortunately, our guide suggested we instead take a rest day at the barrels.
We had a later start as we were scheduled in to have a rest day and do some ice axe arrest and crampon training for an hour of so. Ordinarily, a rest day would be most welcome, but the lack of home comforts make the barrels an unwelcome place to spend any time. I decided to nap in the afternoon knowing full well that I was very unlikely to get any sleep that night ahead of our start in the early hours of the morning.
Day 9 – Summit day
Our guide had told us that because of the predicted conditions, we would be getting the snowcat (an enormous snow plough type contraption with seats) up to 5100m (above Pashtukov rocks) and walking from there. This meant a 3am start. I was quite disappointed as I would rather have started where we left off.
The snowcat seemed like fun for the first 2 minutes, but the novelty quickly wore off when I realised I would have to hang on just to keep myself from sliding down for 10 minutes. Not the most ideal preparation for an exhausting day ahead.
As we emerged from the snowcat it quickly became apparent how cold it was, how high we were and just how steep the section of the mountain was! I was breathing quite heavily for the first 5 minutes and honestly thought I couldn’t go on. I kept plodding along though for what I can only imagine was another 45 minutes and looked behind me and saw that nobody was there. In fact, one of the chaps had gone back down. As we came over the saddle between the Eastern and Western summit and headed left for the Western summit, the cold and the wind hit me like a thousand shards of glass into my face. My face hurt, my lips hurt, my fingers hurt. In fact, given that the boots were the most uncomfortable footwear known to man, they were pretty much the only thing that didn’t hurt from the cold.
There was absolutely no respite from the biting 50+ km/h winds and every time we stopped everyone chose to preserve their fingers rather than risk taking their mittens off to eat or drink. We pushed on towards what would normally be a narrow very exposed snow path, however, the recent snowfall meant that the path had all but disappeared and we were blindly relying on the grip from our crampons and ice axes. Walking through fresh snow is exhausting at the best of times, but even more so when you are terrified of falling.
A particularly steep section of the path had a fixed rope attached and we clipped ourselves in hoping that the rope would break our fall should the worst happen. I nervously and gingerly worked my way across – by this point there was nobody immediately in front or behind me. I was shaking and terrified – I looked back and I saw Heinz a few feet away and he nodded in approval. I was doing OK.
Another flat section – phew! I cried with joy, disappointment, elation and fear. ‘What the hell kind of stupid thing am I doing?!’ I asked myself. My fingers were in agony. I felt completely alone – I couldn’t see Rich and I couldn’t talk to anyone as the wind was too strong to have a conversation and I didn’t have the energy to shout. We rested for a while. I sat down and leaned forward and shut my eyes. I couldn’t get up – ‘Maybe I’m going to die here?’ I thought: ‘I’m too tired to get up’. ‘Get your shit together’ a voice in my head shouted and I collected myself. Vladimir came over to ask if I was ok and got my drink out of my bag for me. I took a few sips and it lifted my spirits a bit and I got up. ‘Just another 40 minutes until the summit’ he said. ‘Ok 40 minutes – I can do this’.
The path towards the summit was relatively flat, but completely exposed to the winds blowing grown men off their feet. At one stage I remember standing watching as Alex stood unable to move because of the strength of the wind. Slowly but surely though we reached edge of the summit. What I can only imagine in reasonably clear conditions would take 2 minutes to walk up, seemed to take a lifetime. I had to crawl up a 3 metre slope to the summit using my ice axe and crampons as the wind was too strong to stand. I was almost there when 2 hands reached out and pulled me up. It was Rich and someone else – I don’t remember who. I had made it. I lay there exhausted for a minute and then stood up. Rich took a picture. My mouth hurt too much to smile.
This didn’t feel like the summit at all – there was no view to speak of, only snow-filled air all around us. The summit was absolutely crowded with Chinese climbers too. I just wanted to get away. I bashed my hands together to try and get the circulation back into my thumbs. They didn’t feel right and I panicked: ‘I need my thumbs for typing’ I thought.
Given that the guide said it would probably take 6 hours to reach the summit in normal conditions, we had done so in an impressive 7 hours.
We headed back down and the wind was so strong it was blowing my hood off and exposing the side of my face to the biting wind. Back at the fixed ropes, the path looked even less defined than before. I cautiously placed every footstep in the snow and made sure that my ice axe was firmly placed, but the snow was so soft it was giving away and then I fell. Only about 6 feet, but it felt like 3 times that. I dug in my ice axe and crampons and lay there. I couldn’t see or hear anything and then I saw Vladimir come over. He told me to flip over and dig in my crampons. I felt ok on my front and moved across quickly to to next section of ropes. I saw the Russian girls in front of me and then I heard some shouting in Russian. I looked over and I saw that the group of Chinese climbers were practically walking on top of us on what was arguably the most dangerous section. I felt angry as all I wanted to do was get back onto the flatter section, but we kept having to stop to let them pass us. We unclipped ourselves from the fixed rope and the guide fashioned a rope tethering us all together. I didn’t enjoy this at all – I felt like I was being pulled backwards and forwards unable to find any kind of rhythm. I just wanted to walk at my own pace. I heard Dasha cry out in terror and I felt her pain. ‘Should we really be here?’ I thought. ‘If this was the Alps you wouldn’t be allowed up’. We carried on though and it suddenly hit me how utterly freezing I was. As we arrived back at the drop off point at 5100m, Vladimir asked if anyone wanted a lift down in the snowcat. I decided that I was just too cold to carry on and took him up on his offer. This time I sat outside at the front of the snowcat hanging on for dear life with virtually nothing between me and ground beneath me. I was shivering to the core and Vladimir gave me a hug and made sure I was ok. Back at the barrels, I removed the wet clothing, added several layers and lay there in my sleeping bag for 2 hours before the rest of the group arrived back – it took 4 hours before my core temperature returned to normal. I decided to forego lunch and get some rest. By dinner time (8pm) I was back to normal though and just glad the whole thing was over. All I could think about was having a nice shower, wearing clean clothes and proper toilets. We had to wait though until the next morning. For the first time in the whole trip though I slept solidly and soundly for 5 hours!
We took the cable car back down to relative civilisation, showered and had some lunch where copious amount of beer and vodka were consumed. Rich and I headed to market to buy some souvenirs to mark our epic adventure. Rich chose a t-shirt and I decided I was more likely to actually use a baseball cap.
For the celebratory dinner, we headed to a local restaurant to try out the traditional shashlik – Russian shish kebab – and smoke a shisha (first time for me). We all had a very early start so after only a few beers we all decided to call it a night. The trip had come to an end and we were going home.
As we took our flight home, I felt a sense of loss that I would never see these people, who had practically been my family for the last 10 days, again. If I did see them it just wouldn’t be the same. It’s the end of an era and we’re back to normality.
Looking back now, I realise just what Rich and I have achieved and how amazing each and every one of the group were. There was absolutely no shame in feeling exhausted or turning back – the conditions were like hell on earth. One thing is for sure – we can all call ourselves true mountaineers.
I said no more summit bagging after this, but right now I feel such an amazing sense of pride that I may well go back on my word…