Following on from the strict regulation of Denali that at times felt not unlike primary school with its often patronizing rules and traditions whereby those who take certain liberties however trivial are quickly steered back in the ‘right’ direction, it was enormously refreshing to arrive in the carefree world of Mt Elbrus. No permits, no climbing fees, no park rangers or rules of any kind, Elbrus appeared to be a bit of a Russian free-for-all. The unfortunate result of such freedom is that over 30 people die each year during the 3 month climbing season, far higher than Everest.
Without so much as an introduction or a trip briefing our group of 12 was rallied into various vehicles and whisked off into the mountainous region of the northern Caucasus range, so efficiently in fact that no one from the climbing company came to ask me for the trip balance payment which was due on arrival. Elbrus is most commonly climbed from the south side due to the ease of access by road, various facilities and lodging on the lower and mid mountain and the installation of several cable cars and a chair lift which leave the purist climber rather uncomfortable. Together with my friend Putri, we decided to opt to climb from the far more beautiful north side. With a fraction of the traffic and some accommodation that felt brilliantly Russian we were far more excited about our adventure ahead, not to mention there was not a single cable car or chair lift in sight!
The North side Base camp at an altitude of 2800m is set among green pastures and a raging river in a landscape that could have been somewhere in northern Scotland. The region of Stravipol, famous for its mineral water believed to have a multitude of health benefits attracts vast numbers of mostly Russian tourists year round. The water, so high in various minerals tastes very similar to carbonated water and particularly good in the water bottle for a day in the mountains. As a very welcome change from setting up and breaking down tents in freezing windy conditions on Denali, the base camp offered some ready made large tents that even I could stand up inside as well as the ultimate camping luxury, a fold out bed.
During the planning phase of my seven summits adventure, I focused primarily on the details of the more intimidating mountains such as Denali, Vinson in Antarctica or Everest and assumed that mountains such as Elbrus would be something of stroll. Our highly enthusiastic guide Ksenia found it amusing that I had come on this trip with no idea of the climbing plan for the 10 day trip and nonchalantly trusted that it would all sort itself out. She explained that we would follow a fairly standard program of acclimatization and caching trips up the lower section of the mountain and then those that are still willing would attempt the upper mountain. She boasted that 80% of clients on her trips reach the summit although was quick to mention that Elbrus is a highly underestimated mountain. When leaving Oman I told Lucy there was no need to worry about me on this trip, I believe I said ‘it is just a stroll up a ski slope’. I would soon find out that I had grossly underestimated what lay ahead.
After several days traveling partially up the mountain with gear to cache, we made the final move to the high camp at 3750m. Some members of the group looked visibly shattered by the time they rolled into camp and it was starting to look as though Ksenia’s success rate statistics would be at risk. We piled into a large hut that looked like it was more suited to contain wheat on a farm and tried to ignore the awful smell as 12 climbers removed their boots and socks in an unventilated room.
The following day we went for an acclimatization trip up to 4600m, a round trip that I would later discover is conducted by most guides to intimidate weaker climbers that would likely not reach the summit and cause chaos for the group. Interestingly when required to put on crampons, several people sat down in the snow and waiting for Ksenia to come over and help, a sure sign that chaos was on the horizon. An 8 hour round trip to Lenz rock revealed that the mountain was stepping up a gear as various people experienced the first signs of shortness of breath and fatigue. Roped together in groups of 4, it is not possible move at your own pace and as such some get frustrated with a slow pace while others get stressed by working harder than their lungs can cope with. Exercising restraint on such a day leading up to summit day is critical however it is something I am terrible at as I often cannot resist the temptation to push ahead as a personal challenge. However when moving in a rope team restraint is forced up me and in this case made a big difference come summit day.
As an interesting variation to the standard north side ascent, our team, should we reach the saddle at 5600m would traverse across to the south side of the mountain and descend to the valley floor rather than return back down on the north side. Although a great way to experience both sides of the mountain this came with a considerable logistical challenge. In general the summit day on any mountain involves carrying the bare minimum equipment and supplies to ensure one’s pack is a light as possible so that ultimately the climber can move quickly and for as long as possible. A pack on a normal Elbrus summit day would usually consist of a down and gore-tex jacket, some food, a litre of water and a camera to hopefully capture the evidence. This would weight around 5-6kg and allow the climber to retain most of their energy for the business of reaching the summit and allow them to return back along the same route to their high camp and the safety of their sleeping bag. However, with a traverse, all gear brought on the trip must be carried across the mountain so that it is available during the descent on the other side. Although an option was available to use a porter service to send gear down the mountain and back to a nearby town and then rent essential gear on the south side, I decided that I needed to make my life a bit more unpleasant and lug my 25kg pack to near the summit and eventually down the other side.
Summit day started at midnight after about 2-3 hours of poor sleep and saw us on the move by 1am. I had struggled to fall asleep with thoughts of my unsuccessful summit on Denali and whether again I would be denied due to weather. Another failed trip would have been very tough to take. Additional guides joined the group to allow various rope teams to match people of similar speed and allow others to descend if things became too much. After 2 hours I became very frustrated with the slow pace of the guide assigned to my group and as a result became very cold. I was relieved when the highly fit Ksenia swapped onto lead my group of 3. Valerie, Elia, Ksenia and myself pushed on for 7.5 hours almost without a break until we reached the saddle. Cloud and high winds descended on the summit dome and I began having awful flashbacks of show stopper type weather that spelled the end on Denali a few weeks before. After ascending nearly 2000m some were visibly fatigued and were grateful that the summit was not more than 90 mins away however for Valerie it was 90 mins too far. We left him on the saddle together with my pack and carried on to finish the job in complete whiteout conditions with ever increasing wind. Refusing to allow myself to get excited I held off any positive thoughts that the summit was now likely a foregone conclusion until I took the last step to the highest point in Europe! In order to follow through on a promise made in the luxury of the lower mountain, I did 10 pushups and took a shot of fine local Vodka but most importantly took in a much needed feeling of summit success.
After just 5 minutes on the summit we descended to the saddle and rejoined with four members of our team that had reached the saddle and began descending down the south side of the mountain. Six others had not reached the saddle and had descended back down the North side. A success rate of 2 out of 12 for our group speaks to the degree that people underestimate Mt Elbrus however also to the effect that weather plays. After descending to the valley floor at 2600m and rounding up 17 hours on the move, Putri and another team member Kine contemplated another attempt however this time from the south side with intention to return on the south side. Given the irresistible chance to summit again, I was all over this plan to head back up, so less than 24 hours after descending we took full advantage of being well acclimatized and headed back up. Inconsistent with recent weather, we were handed an exceptional day of almost zero wind and blue sky giving myself and Ksenia a far more picturesque experience than our first Summit.
After the first summit in high winds with my full pack Ksenia asked me a simple but loaded question, ‘was it easy?’ I had expected to find the climb easy and desperately wanted to say ‘Yes’ but without thinking I blurted out a ‘No’. This response became an ongoing joke for the remainder of the trip but it wasn’t easy, in fact it was harder than any day I experienced on Denali by a considerable margin however this only heightened the experience on the summit. We could have just climbed from the south side as 90% of people do and had a far more straight forward experience for the sake of a box tick but it was gaining the goal in circumstances that encroached on our odds of success that provided such a satisfying result.
Well, all that was over a month ago and now I am in Kathmandu preparing to head to the world’s 8th highest mountain, Manaslu on Tuesday. This is not one of the seven summits, however will serve as a critical indicator of my readiness for Everest. Rather than being one of the inexperienced punters that find their way into countless Everest books for all the wrong reasons, Manaslu will be not only a physical test but a brilliant training ground. Stay tuned for trip updates as they are fed over the next few weeks. A daily dispatch will be published at the following link;