I have had an interest in mountaineering ever since I read “Into thin air” by Jon Krakauer. Strange, as that should have put me off it. Then I read “Touching the Void” about Joe Simpson‘s incredible survival story after a fall into a crevasse at Siula Grande, one of the most successful mountaineering books of all times and it got worse.
In 2000, I packed my bags and went and climbed Mount Blanc. Since, I have not thought much about mountain climbing, until I got a message from my friend Lucy Rivers Bulkeley. Lucy was going to climb Elbrus and there was a place in her group. Was I interested?
After several trips to Sabiha Gökçen (SAW) airport and numerous delays totaling 18hours, I eventually arrived into Mineralnye Vody at 6am on July 4 and promised myself never to fly with Ak Bars Aero, ever again.
Mineralnye Vody (English “Mineral Water”), seems like a purposeless city. Not much of an industry or a population, just an airport with flights to Moscow, neighbouring states and tourist destinations in Turkey (Dalaman, Antalya and some even to Istanbul).
Fortunately, we only arrived here and quickly transferred to Pyatigorsk perched on the side of Mashuk, one of the three mountains in the area, with Elbrus (Mingi Tau, Thousand Mountains in Turkish) and Beshtau (or Beş Dağ in Turkish and Five Mountains in English).
Mashuk is famous for its natural hot springs with sulphuric waters. There are many SPAs spread across its foothills. Beyond that not much more to report about Pyatigorsk, apart from the Intourist Hotel. A true reflection of the old and the new of Russia. It’s business floors look and feel like any other international business hotel, whereas, the standard rooms are a flashback to good old communist era.
The next morning after a quick breakfast, we jumped into our sturdy Toyota SUVs and headed to the mountains. Little did we know that for almost five hours we were travelling on one of the most notorious highways in Russia for tourist kidnappings! Nonetheless, we arrived at our base camp located next to a river at 2,571m, without incident.
The route: Elbrus is a very busy mountain. It is relatively easy to access and Russia has a very well developed mountaineering infrastructure. Unfortunately for mountaineers and the environment, this translates into long queues of climbers scaling Elbrus on the same day along the same narrow paths. Fortunately, large majority of these mountaineers take the traditional South face route. They often get hauled up to 5,100m by massive snowcats and then climb about 500 to summit Europe’s highest peak. In fact, on July 10th, 2013, out of the 27 groups that started their summit climb 26 took a variation of the South face route.
We were the fortunate few who were on the North to South traverse of Elbrus with an opportunity to summit both the higher west and the east summits on the same day.
Base camp and acclimatisation: No later than we arrived the guides wanted to take us on a quick (4hour) acclimatisation climb to mushroom hill at approx. 3,300m (aptly named by the group).
This was an easy and relatively slow climb solely for the purpose of triggering our bodies to start acclimatising to higher altitudes. The theory is that if you climb high and sleep low, this will enable your body to increase the haemoglobin count, which will increase the body’s oxygenation, enabling it to perform at higher altitudes where the oxygen in air is less than at sea level (eg. at 5,600m the oxygen content of air we breathe is 30% less than at sea level)
High camp : Day two, was our first ascent to the high camp at 3,600m. This trip was planned as an expedition, which also meant that we had to carry our equipment to high camp, ourselves. Fortunately, this was planned over two trips. The rucksacks weighed about 15Kg for each trip.
On the first trip we carried mostly our technical climbing gear; crampons, down jacket, plastic boots, harness, carabiners, warm clothing, etc.
The high camp consisted of three huts. One functioned as a kitchen, the adjoining a make shift dinning and card playing (exclusively shit head, for those in the know) area and the third as a very crowded sleeping area.
I opted out for a tent. I like to spread out a little on these trips (had I not lost my camera I had many photos of how the inside of the dark green tent on the left looked.)
The high camp had breath-taking views of both peaks of Elbrus, at least so we thought till the summit day.
In fact, the actual summits were a little higher and closer to the southern face of the mountain. A little fact that we come to discover on the summit day. Looking at the long trail going almost vertically up for 1,500m everyday did little to raise the morale.
The rocks below what we thought was the East Summit (on the left of the photo above) are known as Lentz Rock, named after the first mountaineer to ever summit Elbrus.
As soon as we dropped off our gear at high camp we returned to base camp for another gourmet dinner. Meals, mostly consisted of a soup or porridge that seemed to contain whatever the chef could reach for in his tiny kitchen; the most spectacular was porridge with mushrooms, I am sure a Russian delicacy!
Day three was a carbon copy of day two, an early morning hike to high camp with the remainder of our gear and an afternoon of having fun practising self arresting techniques on the slopes.
Climb to Lentz Rock and the nightmare day: Our first climb from the high camp was to Lentz Rock at 4,700m. This already was almost as high as Mount Blanc (4,808m). Lentz Rock is dedicated to all the climbers who lost their lives on the mountain. It has a plaque onits side with their names. We were up there on a sunny and very warm day. It is hard to imagine the potential danger when you are up there on a sunny and warm day like the one we had.
High altitude is dangerous. Just like in the deserts you are faced with some of the most extreme conditions that nature can present you with, lack of oxygen (as little as 50% of sea level), extreme cold and possibly heat with added UV radiation.
For me this was a comparison of ultra running and climbing. They are both extreme endurance sports, where the definition of winning is reaching the finish line or returning to base camp after summiting. It is never about finishing first or quicker. In fact, to my detriment on the Lentz Rock climb, I discovered otherwise, that on the mountain it is better to go slower than fast, especially if you are still acclimatising.
On that day, I made a number of errors. I did not take enough water with me. I did not eat right on the mountain and then I forced myself too hard. I moved too
fast and as a result, I had a cracking headache on the return trip. I could not tell whether it was the dehydration or altitude but it was unpleasant. I tried eating and drinking but it was already too late!
Fortunately, the third day at the high camp is a rest day. This was most welcome. It gave me the time to rest, re-energise, rehydrate and even take a short recovery hike around the hill to stretch my sore muscles.
By the end of the rest day I was feeling better, my blood oxygenation was up to 92% and pulse that was over 90 bpm the day before had gone down to high 60s. I was feeling OK and more importantly I was acclimatised for the summit attempt.
Summit day : The Summit day is like the long day of multistage desert ultras’. You would have been at it for a number of days, you are exhausted and the hardest challenge is yet to come. On the mountain you have one advantage and that’s if the weather is not good enough on day one, you can try again the next.
In this case, we had planned two potential summit days. Even though, the weather had been quite predictable for the past 4 days, it could change very rapidly at any time.
Leading up to the summit day, the weather patterns were identical; sunshine in the morning, cloud cover straight after lunch, an afternoon drizzle leading to hail or snow and then clear skies in the evening. The weather reports we had been receiving from the Russian mountain weather service and from France were conflicting and varying by day. We had an expected range or -1C to -18C on the summit. To add more concern on the day before the summit day the hail and snow was longer and stronger than ever before.
The night of the third day, we woke up at 11pm, quickly had something to eat, geared up and set off for the summit at about midnight.
The plan was to gain as much altitude as we can before sunrise. With the sun the rising temperatures soften the ice making it harder to move.
The plan was to ascend 200m per hour on average. This would have been a 10-hour trip to the top.
We made it to Lentz Rock by sunrise at 5am. The views of rising sun over the Russian Himalayas (as the guides called them) were spectacular. As spectacular as they were, briefly they dampened my mood, as from a distance they seemed (and in fact were) much higher than where we were. It made our challenge look trivial.
Most of the climb up to and beyond Lentz Rock was steep, reaching 50% gradient at times.
Once above Lentz Rock at about 5,000m we started moving East to West towards the saddle between the East and West peaks of Elbrus.
This is where things started going wrong. One team member was moving too slow, therefore, the guides, rightly, decided that he needed to return to high camp. That also meant that we were down a guide. Therefore, the next phase with higher risk due to rising temperatures and potential crevasses became a logistical challenge due to diminished number of guides. Then, it got worse, another team member had to drop out and return with a guide back to high camp due to exhaustion.
Losing a second guide meant that existing guides needed to take one group across to the saddle and return to collect the remaining mountaineers.
Normally, this would have been a welcome break for the teams. However, at over 5,000m of altitude with the reduced oxygen a rest is out of the question. Every minute you spend there forces your body to work harder to cope with reduced oxygen.
After spending an hour at the saddle (where I decided to raise my feet – a trick from desert running – and take a nap) Lucy and the remaining climbers arrived.
We had about 500m of climbing to go. A small group of us set off with one of the guides up towards the west summit (by now it was too late to attempt the east summit – 2pm cut-off mandated by the authorities). Once we reached the plateau on top, the guide returned for the remaining climbers.
I had lost my camera at the 5,100m stop. Therefore, there I was on top of Mt Elbrus on my own with no way of proving that I was ever there. I ended up waiting first for Satu and then the rest of the team for a group photo (well worth the wait).
Most photos courtesy of Steve Dellow, Satu Iho (not a Japanese salary man) and some Lucy RB.
Boots: Plastik Asolo boots above high camp and Raichle for anything below. Both worked like a charm
Crampons: Very old pair of Black Diamond without snow release mechanism (not good as soon as the temperature was high enough I was constantly carrying a few extra kilos of snow under them)
Clothing: Lots of layers; Several base layers (merino works like a charm and they don’t smell), medium fleece, down jacket for night time above high camp, waterproof top (with membrane), top and bottom triple goretex shell.
Poles: Leki (one snapped due to using it constantly to clear my crampons)
Mitts and Gloves: Mountain Hardware goretex mitts, nike running gloves
Backpack: Mountain Hardware 60L was comfortable and plenty
Hydration: Camelbak 3lt with Deuter insulation (I was able to use it pretty much all the way to the top but always a good idea to leave a litter wrapped well inside the pack)