Elbrus Expedition 2013 – Base Camp and up to 4,100m

Sunday 18th August:

With our duffel bags and summit packs packed, and after a breakfast of fried eggs, cheese and bread, we left the hotel at 08:30 for the short walk to the cable-car base station. We were using the older cable-car for the ascent. The weather was unsettled, with low cloud and the threat of snow. Yuri bought our tickets at the kiosk and we nervously loaded our kit and took our seats in the rear of the enclosed cabin. We were ready to start our ascent of Elbrus.

View from Cablecar Station, Azau

Dave in Cablecar ready to go

Dave & Caro in cable-car Azau

We were not alone in the cabin. There were another climbing team (Russian) going up to Base Camp and a few middle-aged Russian ladies who obviously worked at one of the stations on Elbrus. They were all cosily wrapped up against the cold. As we started to slowly ascend, we wondered why the newer cablecar that ran parallel to our left had so many more supports than this older cableway. It seemed that the cable on our line ran sometimes for hundreds of metres without any support.

As we ascended, we had spectacular views out the back of the cabin and back down the mountain towards Azau, Cheget and Terskol.

Cablecar View of Baksan Valley

Before long, our views of green foothills were replaced by views of grey and black rock, as we creaked eerily upwards. Soon after, we were engulfed by clouds.

I shuddered momentarily as I recalled the scene in Moonraker when Jaws bites through the cable and fights Bond on the roof of the cabin:

We stopped at the first station “Stary Krugozor”, which was 650m up the south slopes from Azau. We switched cabins for the second cable-car section, which carried us a further 500m higher to the Mir (in Russian: Peace) station at an altitude of 3,500m. The Mir station has a very industrial, almost post-apocalyptic feeling about it. Electricity pylons and metal containers abound, and the Soviet-era infrastructure is frequently swathed in cloud.

In February 2011, this section of the cableway was the target of an attack by Islamic terrorists, which damaged the cable and 30 cable-cars. According to a 2012 survey,55% of the population of Kabardino-Balkaria (the Russian Republic where Elbrus is situated) are Muslim, while 15.6% belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. The republic’s economy was very hard hit by the fall of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of war in neighboring Georgia and nearby Chechnya. The instability produced by these conflicts led to a collapse in tourism in the region and produced an unemployment level estimated to be as high as 90%. The republic’s mainly Muslim population has become increasingly radicalised by the region’s instability and there have been sporadic attacks on tourists in the area. In fact, the UK Government’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against all but essential travel to the region.

The last 250m from Mir to the “Gara Bashi” station where the Barrel Huts are situated is ascended by ski-lift, and it’s operation is subject to the fickle Elbrus weather. Although it was cloudy and there was a smattering of light rain or snow today, the lifts were operational. I felt grateful for that as I didn’t particularly want to carry my duffel bag up the last, steep 250m to Base camp. We were the first group to arrive at Mir station this morning and we waited 15-20 minutes while the lift system was checked and switched on.

Waiting at Mir Station for skilift

It’s a single seat lift system and Dave boarded first. I followed, then Caro came behind me. Yuri loaded our duffel bags on individual seats and then followed behind. It was very peaceful and we each took time individually to soak up the spooky atmosphere and enjoy the first views of ice and snow on the steady 15-minute climb.

I reached the top station and hopped off, then helped Caro off her chair and hauled the gear off as it arrived. Yuri followed soon after, riding and dismounting guide-style on the lift:

The Barrel Huts are only 50 metres above the lift station. There are 9 main barrels, each sleeping 6 people. Each bed has a foam mattress and pillow and each barrel has a small vestibule (great for storing hardware such as crampons, ice axes, trekking poles). Electricity and light is available for 2 hours each evening when the generator is switched on – primarily so the kitchen staff have light. The 9 barrels themselves are normally used by climbers, especially those in guided groups. They are owned by an organisation based in Moscow, and leased by a local organisation in the Elbrus area. Since the owners have a steady income stream, and since the operators cannot invest in infrastructure since they don’t own the site or the huts themselves, they are slowly being degraded. There are several other structures around the barrels. These are usually used as accommodation by guides, kitchen staff and the various snowcat and skidoo operators that work in the area . There is a separate container that houses two kitchens, and the kitchen staff serve meals on a strict rotation. The kitchen staff will also boil water that run off the glacier.

It was still very overcast and cloudy and we had no clear view up to the south to Elbrus, behind the Barrels. We were allocated Barrel number 7, and it would be our home for the next 4 nights.

Inside, the Barrel was comfortable and weatherproof. While not exactly warm, it was a whole lot better than sleeping in a tent at 3,700m. The beds were big and comfortable enough and I felt good knowing that we had this refuge and the prospect of hot food nearby.

Inside Barrel 7 Panorama

We chose our beds, pulled out our sleeping bags and started sorting through our kit. We planned to do an acclimatisation trek up to Pashtukov rocks at 4,700m today, after lunch. so we also looked out our warm gear and crampons. Content with our domestic setup, we joined Yuri in the messroom for our first lunch on the mountain.

Lunch at Barrel Huts

By now, the other Pilgrim Group had joined us in the messroom and we chatted with some of them. In addition, there was a third Pilgrim expedition team there – a family from the US who were on a 10-day program and who planed to summit the next day. The family was Mum, Dad and two teenage boys – a 13-year-old and a 15-year old. The family, including both kids, had climbed Kilimanjaro the year before. Lunch was more than filling and there was, as usual, a selection of bread and cheese, biscuits, fruit and two courses. I drank as much hot tea as I could to help with my hydration. Dehydration is one of the biggest issues at altitude – you lose more water vapour than usual at altitude as your respiration rate increases to compensate for the lower oxygen levels available in the thin air. Dave and Caro were still having stomach problems and were not eating and drinking enough. I was concerned by how they would perform on the mountain.

After lunch, both Dave and Caro had their first experience of the infamous toilets on Elbrus.

Bathroom - Exterior

The toilets are in a pretty bad condition – they are named “House of Pain” or “House of Horror” and both names are well-deserved. From the outside, they look like any other latrine. There are actually three of them, perched in a row on a wooden platform. The first two are metal structures, while the third is a smaller wooden structure.  The true horror only becomes apparent when you open the door…..

Bathroom - Interior

Stomach problems are a frequent issue on Elbrus and it seems like many climbers just don’t care about their aim. I was grateful that my own stomach was fine and I felt sorry for Dave and Caro that they would be visiting this House of Horror on a frequent basis.

Back at Barrel 7, we picked up our rucsacs and carried our crampons down to the foot of the glacier behind the barrels. We strapped on our crampons, adjusted our rucsacs and started making our way slowly up the south slopes of Elbrus, initially through slushy ice. I leaned heavily on my trekking poles as we cleared the initial slushy slopes and moved onto the snowcat track that marked the route of ascent. While there are no (or few) crevases on the normal route on the south side, there are crevasses nearby, and these are marked by flags.

Our pace was deliberately slow. The larger Pilgrim team was a few minutes ahead, and I wanted to keep them in sight. I felt like if they managed to climb higher than us, that they would have an advantage and a better chance of summit success. We still had a good weather window in 2 days and I was keen that we stay on schedule to maximise the chances of success. Other teams were by now coming down the mountain, having reached the summit earlier in the day.

Summit team descending

The weather continued to close in more and it started to snow. As the weather deteriorated, so it seemed did our pace. Yuri was leading at the front, and Caro was in the spot behind him. From my position at the back of the group, I could see a gap continually opening up between Yuri and Caro. Caro’s pace is naturally slower than mine, but I felt that her stomach problems may have been affecting her as her pace seemed unnaturally slow at this relatively low altitude.

Slowly ascending Elbrus

We continued up, and Dave had to stop for an emergency bathroom break. He had to brave the crevasses off-route to find a rock to crouch behind. By now, we had fallen quite a distance behind the other Pilgrim group, and we were being passed by other teams who were also acclimatising. I resigned myself to the fact that we would not be reaching our planned objective (Pashtukov rocks) today.

With the weather getting worse and with the group’s pace slowing, Yuri made the call at 4,100m that we had done enough for the day. It was something of a relief. I find it very difficult to move at such a slow pace. I have a natural rhythm on the mountain and I was not able to find it today due to the frequent rest and toilet breaks. I was feeling a bit frustrated and more and more concerned about our chances. I know from past expeditions that moving so slowly on the mountain exposes you to different risks; getting cold and getting caught in bad weather are just two of those risks. I wanted to maximise our acclimatisation so that we had the best chance of getting up and down Elbrus efficiently and safely. Nevertheless, it had been a good exercise to gain 400m altitude from the huts and to get more comfortable with our clothing systems. Our Montane clothing and La Sportiva boots had performed perfectly.

We moved briskly back down the mountain. We had to cover a distance of about 1.5km, but moved easily down the snowcat track. I was happy that Caro was moving well in her crampons because she was still relatively inexperienced; this was only her second expedition at altitude after Pico de Orizaba in December 2012. We reached the foot of the glacier, unstrapped our crampons and headed back to Barrel 7. Three American climbers from the bigger Pilgrim group were also staying on our barrel but they were still up the mountain. We hung up our damp hats and gloves and took the opportunity for a short rest before dinner.

All three of us had slight headaches, indicating that we were suffering from mild altitude sickness, dehydration, or a combination of both. The symptoms of altitude sickness usually appear six to ten hours after ascent and generally subside in one or two days, but have the potential to develop into much more serious conditions, such as pulmonary or cerebral oedema. I wasn’t concerned, as my previous experience indicated that this was a normal part of my own physiological response to altitude.

After 90 minutes, the Americans returned. They had reached the top of the Pashtukov rocks, and would rest the next day. The day after (20th) they would make their summit bid. We ate dinner in the messroom and discussed our strategy with Yuri. We decided that the next day, we would try to trek up to the top of Pahstukov rocks (4,700m), then rest on 20th and make our summit bid on 21st August. We had time in the schedule, and we hope that the stomach issues that had beset Dave and Caro would have improved by then. It was not an ideal situation – the weather forecast for 20th was for perfect summit conditions, but the forecast for 21st was not so good. I was really worried that the weather would change for the worse. However, it was now out of my hands. I could now only focus on giving myself the best chance of reaching the summit, and that meant putting in a good performance on the mountain tomorrow. I climbed into my sleeping bag, knowing full well that my sleep would be fitful.