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Monday 19th August:
The morning dawned bright and clear. I hadn’t slept very well, but I decided to rise early to try to catch the sunrise. I tried not to disturb my team-mates and the snoozing climbers from the US as I crept out of the Barrel not long after first light. I was treated to some spectacular views as the sun crested the peaks to the East and cast a warm light on Elbrus. It was really my first opportunity to admire the twin summits of Elbrus, and the jagged and snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus.
I was very happy to have these tranquil moments before camp came alive. My stress levels had been quite high in the run up to the expedition and also because of concern for my team-mates. I was able to just enjoy being back in the mountains and soak in the views. I skipped back to the hut to wake Caro and Dave.
Caro was smiling, but her smile hid the fact that she was struggling with her stomach problems. Dave was also struggling, but wanted to see if he could keep breakfast down before we started our final acclimatisation ascent. Before breakfast, we took the opportunity to grab some more photos while the weather held fair.
As usual, I piled into the food at breakfast with gusto. My appetite was not affected at all by altitude on this trip. I was also continuing to drink a lot of hot, sweet tea to try to maintain my hydration levels. Dave had no trouble getting food down, but he was having serious problems digesting it. Caro, on the other hand, was just picking at her food, and even our strong encouragement was not enough to make her eat. I told her directly that if she didn’t try to eat, then she could forget about the summit. I considered it would be too dangerous for her to go high on this mountain if she was not re-filling her energy reserves. However, due to the combined effects of a stomach bug and extreme nervousness she just couldn’t force anything down.
At breakfast, Yuri told us that we would leave in 1 hour, so we retired to the hut to grab our warm gear and hardware again. At this point, Caro told me that she didn’t think she could go up today. I understood her dilemma and also her mental state, because I had been there on many expeditions in the past. I think she was afraid to use up energy climbing 1,000m today, especially when she already felt weak. However, I told her that if she didn’t acclimatise today then she would be in no condition to go for the summit on 21st. We called Yuri out of his hut to discuss his options. He agreed that she must go up the mountain today – but he proposed that she could go up by skidoo, so that she would have a chance to breathe the thin air, but without expending energy in her slightly weakened condition. It seemed like a good strategy – with Yuri’s help we quickly agreed a price with one of the skidoo drivers and he agreed that he would pick Caro at 11am.
With this arrangement made, I relaxed again and joined Dave and Yuri at the foot of the glacier. We started the long ascent again, but dispensed with crampons today. They were unnecessary on the low-angled slopes. The weather was very different from the day before – it was a bluebird summit day. Dave, Yuri and I set of at a brisk pace to start our 1,000m climb.
For the first hour, we maintained our steady pace, and made good progress. We passed the spot where we had a rest stop the day before (3,900m) in 60 minutes – the same distance had taken us 90 minutes the day before. However, Dave had now started suffering quite badly with his ongoing stomach problems and had to stop more frequently for bathroom beaks. As our pace slowed, the weather also closed in.
Now, as yesterday, other parties started to pass us.
My main concern now was that Caro would be dropped at the top of the Pashtukov rocks and would have to wait for several hours until we arrived. Just as I was considering this possibility, I heard the high-picthed whine of a skidoo approaching. Looking round, I caught sight of her bundled up in my giant, orange Montane Black Ice jacket, which I had loaned her for the day. Although she had her own down jacket I knew that if she was sitting exposed to the cold for hours that she would rapidly deteriorate. She waved energetically, which I took as a good sign.
Soon after Caro had passed us, Dave indicated to Yuri that he urgently had to find a rock to crouch behind. We stepped cautiously off the normal route to the right (East) and climbed 50 metres towards a rocky ridge. Dave’ stomach was a real concern, and I was concerned about time.
As we ploughed onwards, the weather changed again and the clouds started to shift. we now had a clear view of the Pashtukov rocks, and we could see several teams ahead of us and several other teams descending from the summit. It seemed clear now that Dave would not make it to the top of the rocks, but Caro was up there and we had no direct communication with her. Therefore, I agreed with Yuri that I would push ahead, since I was feeling strong and healthy. It felt good to get back to my natural rhythm.
I moved fast enough that my breathing became heavy, but not so fast that I worked up too much of a sweat. I started to rapidly pass other groups who had previously passed us. Yuri and I had agreed that I would start descending at 1pm from my high point if Dave and Yuri had not caught up by then. I reached the bottom of the rocks at 4,500m and followed the steepening snowcat track towards the top. Some climbers were zig-zagging up the slope, but I simply put my head down and strode directly up. I felt very strong and was glad that my body was adapting so well. I looked ahead and could see that Caro had started to descend. I waved at her and tried to signal that she should stay where she was. I wanted to get as high as possible today, so was keen that she not descend too far.
When I reached Caro I checked her crampons – the skidoo driver had helped her put them on after he had dropped her off. I drank some sweet, black tea and ate a couple of energy bars. My Platypus hose had frozen slightly, despite the thermal protection – but I had a spare Nalgene so it was not a great concern. We rested for another 30 minutes, and watched as Dave and Yuri slowly reached the bottom of the rocks about 150m below. Just before 1pm, we started to descend.
We descended together for the first 200m, then Caro and I split off to move ahead. Caro was full of energy, having rested well while Dave and I were climbing. She strode down Elbrus purposefully. We had to dodge a snowboarder who was descending from the summit at speed.
We also had to dodge the snowcat once or twice as we sped down towards the Barrel huts – the machines operating on Elbrus definitely have the right of way.
It wasn’t long before the Barrels were in sight, but once again the cloud closed in. We picked up our pace again as we wanted to get back to the hut before the weather changed for the worse.
At the bottom of the glacier was waded through slush and the many small rivulates that form from meltwater. The glacier got dirtier and more slushy as we entered the more “industrial” zone, where the snowcats and skidoos were parked. When we started to hear and feel scraping of crampon on rock, we stopped and removed our crampons.
By now, it was early afternoon. It had been a good day – Caro was feeling more energetic, I was adapting well to the altitude and felt strong, and Dave had persevered to reach the bottom of the Pashtukov rocks, when the easier decision would have been to turn back. I was starting to feel more optimistic about the team’s chances – if they could overcome their stomach problems we might just be able to pull this off.
The US climbers had been resting all day and were full of conversation and questions. I briefed them on Dave’s condition and the unusual use he had found for my Leatherman. I vowed to disinfect it before I used it again. Dave returned about 30 minutes after Caro and I had reached the huts. At dinner, after consultation with the camp doctor Anna, the cook put them both on a strict white diet – only white rice and clear chicken soup would pass their lips from now on. One of the US climbers was also a Doc and he advised Dave that it was OK to take a single dose of Ciproflaxin. I gave Dave my supply, which I always carry to treat traveller’s diarrhea. Caro’s situation was a little it more complex, as she was taking some medication for gastritis – we were concerned about taking too many medications and how they may interact at altitude. Tomorrow was our rest day, but we would be disturbed during the night by our room-mates as they would wake at 3 a.m. to take breakfast and head for the summit a short time later.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..
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.