23.39 – The small metal hut in which I am writing this has been my home for several days. It is a basic shelter with 8 bunks, a small heater, an end window and a door. I am writing on my bunk which is in the far corner next to the window. I have spent more time in this bunk and in this hut over the last few days than is healthy and, although I won’t be sorry to leave and head for the valley when the time comes, I have become fond of it over my time here. My hut is one of several perched on the side of Mount Elbrus in Russia, the highest mountain in Europe.
I shouldn’t be awake and writing at this time because in only a few hours my alarm will ring and I will be heading upwards. It is time for our summit attempt. I shouldn’t be awake but awake I am. I know from plenty of previous pre summit nights that I don’t sleep well on these occasions. My mind is jumping through lots of what ifs and the unknown which awaits. I have learnt to try to sleep but accept that I am more likely just to be resting.
Over the last few days my climbing partner, Ben, and I have worked our way up and down the mountain on acclimatisation cycles, we’ve watched the weather, talked to a host of other climbers and guides, and waited. Tomorrow everything should come together and yet at the moment our little shelter is being rocked by winds that are rattling the window and shaking the whole building. Today wind speeds were knocking climbers off their feet and, although forecast to drop to an ascent friendly 20kph tomorrow, what’s happening outside our window doesn’t bode well.
03.00 – I finally dozed into a fitful stupor somewhere near 1am, so this 3am wake up isn’t very welcome, but we know what we need to do. Others are sleeping in our hut and so Ben and I get organised as quietly as possible. We clamber into warm layers and pull on double boots.
It is like pulling on a climbers suit of armour and we will need it – it hasn’t escaped our attention that the hut is still being rocked by strong winds and when we do clamber outside we see thick snow is falling and visibility is next to zero. We get some breakfast despite eating rehydrated food sachets is never easy at this time in the morning. This food is about fuel rather than pleasure.
Neither of us say anything as there isn’t really anything to say. We both know this is going to be an unsuccessful attempt unless this weather changes soon.
03.45 – We leave the comfort of our hut and head into the maelstrom. We are using a snowmobile to get us up the initial snow slopes but, by the time we reach the top of the track we know down is the only option. The route is marked by poles and yet often we can’t see from one to the next, communication is impossible and the wind makes every step a battle. I have been in this position many times and know that the mountain is always going to be there for the future – my job is to make sure I am. Never regret a retreat.
05.00 – Getting back to our hut takes all our mountain judgement and I can’t deny, at one point, a little luck too. But we get back, laugh at each other’s abominable snowman look, hang up snow covered clothes and climb back into bed.
08.00 – The storm still rages.
10.00 – I awake to stillness. The visibility is still poor but the snow has stopped falling and the winds are light. The weather is transformed and yet we know today’s summit attempt is over.
10.30 – Over a second breakfast we discuss the plan. Staying for another attempt might risk us missing the cable car to the valley (Monday is a scheduled maintenance day) and yet the forecast for tomorrow is looking good again. We have to stay for one more try.
21.00 – After a day of card games, writing, chatting and snoozing we are back, like a scene from Grounghog Day, for round 2. We settle down to sleep for a few hours.
23.00 – Still awake
00.00 – Dozing
02.15 – Alarm goes off and we crawl out of bed and repeat the preparation process for yesterday.
03.00 – We set off in clear, still and cold conditions with the sky alive with a million stars. If the weather doesn’t change this is going to be a special night.
04.00 – We are making great process up the steep slopes towards a partly buried and abandoned piste basher at about 4900 metres. The sun is rising over the main Caucasus mountain range and we are feeling great. What a difference 24 hours can make.
04.45 – We are at the top of the steep slope and beginning the long traverse that leads to the saddle between the east and west peaks. This section climbs more gradually and you can get into a steady rhythm. We are moving well and pass several groups along the way.
05.15 – We are at the saddle (a broad dip or col between the 2 peaks) and take some time to rest and eat some food. The winds continue to be light and, for the first time today, we will soon head into the sunshine on the slopes above. We know there are some fixed ropes on this section so we put on harnesses and prepare a ‘cows tail’ which is a way to safely clip to the ropes .
06.15 – All the slope is behind us the section ahead is now a straight forward slope and snow covered path. We are close.
07.00 – A final steep and narrow ridge leads us onto the summit. There were just 2 people ahead of us and they have now left so we are able to enjoy the top of Europe alone – and on the finest day we could wish for. The winds are light, the sky blue and there are no signs of changing weather. It is perfect.
We sit in silence for a few minutes and enjoy the moment. After all the effort to get here, the acclimatisation phases, days in basic accommodation, waiting, doubts that the weather would be kind to us and the efforts of the last few hours. We savour everything about the present.
The views from the summit of Elbrus are fantastic. The main Caucasus range stretches into the distance and features beautiful snow capped peaks and some very inviting looking ‘chocolate box’ shaped mountains. It is very special.
07.30 – We are not in any great rush to leave but, after the photos, the hugs and enjoying the views are finished, thoughts of a shower and good meal creep into our minds. Now, its all about the down.
09.00 – If you are confident in descending snow slopes, good in crampons and have strong enough knees, then descending Elbrus is quite user friendly. The initial steep slopes and fixed line, the saddle, the long traverse and the slopes past the abandoned piste basher – soon enough you are on the pisted slopes and can be back at the huts in a few hours.
11.00 – The choice is more time at the huts or descent to the valley. Needless to say, we were in the hotel, showered and enjoying pizza and beer by lunchtime!
We still have some availability on our August 2017 Elbrus expedition and we will have a 2018 trip scheduled for next August. We really hope you can join us. Elbrus will stretch you, inspire you and, hopefully, reward you. It’s a great adventure.
Posted by Paul