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.