Saturday 17th August:
At breakfast, both Dave and Caro were complaining of stomach upsets. I was hoping it was just because of the switch in diet to the rich, Russian cuisine. I was feeling good and devoured the three plates that were served. After our leisurely breakfast we packed our daysacks and set off from Hotel Scheherazade at 8am. We walked at a steady pace down through Azau and then along the roadside 2.5km down the Baksan Valley to Cheget.
Yuri and I dropped Caro and Dave in the market square and we entered the local Pilgrim offices to clear the final payment. There was another guide there who was leading the larger Pilgrim group on the same schedule as us and he confirmed that they would also trek up Mt. Cheget today.
After paying, we left the office, re-joined Dave and Caro and made our way to the ski-lift base station at an altitude of 2,100m.
We lined up and clambered on board the lift, with Yuri’s warning to zip our pockets and hold on tour gloves ringing in our ears. The first ski-lift carried us to an elevation of 2,750m in about 13 minutes. The views from the lift were spectacular; the northern slopes are covered with dark conifers. Pines grow in dense stands and alpine meadows are dotted with wild flowers.
Verdant views from Skilift
It was a little nerve-wracking to be dangling above the forests and mountains but also exhilarating. I felt very far away from my desk and work responsibilities in Haiti, and happy to be back in the mountains.
Holding on Tight
I looked behind and could see that Yuri had helped Caro into the lift:
The second lift would have carried us to an altitude of 3,000m, but Yuri decided that just in case we were denied access to the upper slopes of Mount Cheget, that we should trek up from the first station. This seemed like a good idea as it would allow us to stretch our legs at a reasonable altitude and slowly start getting used to the thinner air.
We trekked slowly upwards from 2,750m, beneath the ski-ift. There were very few people on this section of the trail. It seemed like most of the people using the lifts were local tourists, who were simply going up to the top station to admire the views of Donguz-Orun (4,452m) and Nakra-Tau (4,360m) to the South-West.
It didn’t take long to reach the top station, where we stopped to take on some water and have a short toilet break
Views from Skilift Top Station
We could see why so many tourists were keen to admire the views – although the view of Elbrus to to the north was clouded over, the vista of nearby mountains and glaciers and the view down the Baksan Valley was truly spectacular.
Just a short climb above the top station was a sign warning us that we were now indeed entering a restricted zone, but as Yuri predicted there were no military personnel around. According to Yuri, in the days of the Soviet Union, a nearby pass over the mountains into Georgia was heavily used as a popular trekking route. However, the North Caucasus was now a politically unstable area with a heavy security presence. We moved ahead nervously, although we could see several other group further ahead on the trail.
Warning sign on Mt. Cheget
We continued climbing for another 100m – by now our pace had slowed somewhat and it was a bit of a relief to reach our high point of the day, on the summit ridge of Mount Cheget at 3,150m. Like the vast majority of people, we were stopping at Cheget Peak, but experienced climbers can continue from the summit of Cheget Peak along the ridge to the summit of Mount Cheget at 3,601m, which is a technical mixed snow and rock climb.
The other big group from Pilgrim was also on Cheget Peak by now so we had a short chat with them and soaked up the views. Caro tried to call her family from our satphone but when we eventually found a signal, it was impossible to connect. According to the Globalstar service map, we should have had service so I’m not sure why it didn’t work. In fact, we were unable to make any calls during the expedition despite having plenty of satellite airtime. I’m not sure if the Russian authorities have blocked Globalstar in this region, but thankfully I could use my mobile network to remain connected and update our sponsors, friends and family. In fact, as it turns out there is good mobile signal on the south side of Elbrus up to about 5,000m. As I only have a Vodafone pre-paid UK SIM since I am based abroad, I made sure to top up heavily before I left London.
While taking a cup of tea and another snack I sent a Check-In message via my SPOT Connect App on my iPhone. While the satellite phone on the Globalstar network would not allow us to make voice calls, the SPOT satellite device, which also uses the Globalstar low-earth orbit satellite network, worked just fine. This device, which connects via Bluetooth to my iPhone App, allowed me to either send check-inn messages via email and social media, or also to create a track log of my progress, which can be uploaded later to my SPOT Adventures page. I didn’t use that function until summit day due to the battery drain.
We descended quickly just behind the other group as we were keen to get back down to Cheget for lunch. This time, instead of descending to the middle skilift station on foot, we took both skilifts. This would save our knees from taking an unnecessary beating.
Although it had been a short day, we were still a little bit tired after our long journey and the trek had worked up quite a thirst and appetite. We ate at the same cafe as the big group, although again we had a separate table. As we waited for lunch to be served, a third group entered the restaurant. The group looked quite young overall and the majority appeared to be East Asian. Many of them had clear suntan or sunburn lines on their faces. Yuri called over to their guide and she confirmed that they had reached the summit the day before. That lifted my spirits, as they did not all look particularly athletic.
Lunch was delicious.
Dave remarked that every dish seemed to have an almost overpowering flavour of dill. Both Dave and Caro managed to eat decent portions at lunch, which was re-assuring. GI issues can have a big influence on the success or failure of climbing expeditions.
After lunch we had a short stroll around Cheget while we waited for our transport back up the valley to Azau. We bought a few 5-litre water containers to take up to Elbrus base camp the next day. Although water from the glacier is boiled by the kitchen staff up there, it nevertheless contains rock flour particles and can upset stomachs. We didn’t want to take any chances. Dave also took the opportunity to buy a map of the Elbrus area.
We returned to the hotel and made final preparations for the next morning, when we would transfer to the Barrel Huts at 3,700m at Elbrus Base Camp. I was still feeling nervous. Both Dave and Caro had suffered some stomach problems and I knew that a huge snowfall was expected any day. I felt strong, healthy and comfortable about my own personal situation, but I felt a big sense of responsibility for the team.