So I was back. 20 years after I had previously been to Mineralnye Vody and my previous climb on Elbrus. It was as hot as I had remembered it – somewhere in the low 30s probably. The airport had improved somewhat, as had the aeroplanes.
This time I had come via Schiphol and Moscow on modern Airbus aircraft.
Last time I had travelled within Russia on a massive Ilyushin. We had had to carry our own bags on to the plane at Moscow, handed them to the baggage handler there and then ascended up into the passenger section via internal stairs within the belly of the plane. As the plane roared down the runway, flight attendants had sat down in the nearest seats, overhead bin lids popped open with the vibrations and a rogue trolley rumbled down the aisle past me before it was stopped by one of the flight attendants seated a few rows behind me.
On this occasion the plane was full, the majority clearly climbers and the majority of those (like me) wearing mountaineering boots to keep the weight down in check in luggage and to ensure that this vital piece of gear was not lost in transit.
As always seemed to be the case, my bag was one of the last off the plane when I arrived at Mineralnye Vody. I had been looking for one of the other members of our group who had been on the same flight as me from Moscow, but I could not spot him. I knew that the third member was arriving on a different flight soon after. Also I could not see Lyana, the local agent whom I had been told would be there to meet us. Perhaps she was outside.
So I went out into the blistering sun looking for someone holding a sign with a name I recognised. No luck. I had various offers of taxis though, which I ignored. Other groups assembled and then left, including a Jagged Globe team. The area outside the arrivals hall thinned out and I began to wonder whether I had been forgotten!
Just as I was starting to become concerned Lyana who had been organising a large group of Germans rushed, flustered, up to me. She had noticed the Adventure Peaks duffel that I had. She asked where the other member of our group was. My response that I had no idea sent her off spinning after she had directed me towards some mini buses with their accompanying Germans.
She disappeared and then returned to send the Germans off in one mini bus. Her phone rang. It was our missing team member. She rushed off again to find him. I sat in the remaining mini bus to get out of the sun. But it was almost as hot in there, and there was less breeze.
My pre-trip information from Adventure Peaks had indicated that an “Alan” from Scotland would have been on my flight. In fact it was Adam from Poland who, understandably, looked confused when I said hello to “Alan”. That mild embarrassment over, the driver drove the mini bus to some trees where some shade could be found whilst waiting for team member number 3 to arrive.
We just had a 45 minute wait. The final member was Tzvetie from Bulgaria now living in Scotland. So it would be an international expedition with me as the only native English speaker – though, to be fair, both Adam and Tzvetie speak excellent English.
So off we went on our near 4 hour drive to Cheget in the Baksan valley of the Caucasus mountains. After a 90 minutes we stopped at a roadside eatery for a snack consisting of a local speciality, a potato and cheese pancake. The German group were there as well. We continued on our dry and dusty way, the three of us flopped as the fatigue of our flights set in. The dry and dusty plains gave was to foothills. In the distance we could see, through the shimmering air, the snow-capped Elbrus rising far above anything else set against the blue cloudless sky.
We turned west alongside the Baksan river and the countryside became greener. The snow melt gave power to the flow and the water was brown and churned over the boulders. The road became more windy. We also had regularly to weave our way around herds of cows that wandered in the road seemingly with some sort of death wish.
So we arrive at our hotel in Cheget, the Hotel Farina, tucked away up a short unmade road.
And in the corner of one of two rough town squares.
The place probably looks better when there is snow on the ground, as it is also a ski resort.
Our visit to the Caucasus fell into two parts. The first would be a short trip to Mukal gain some acclimatisation benefits. So on arrival we had to sort out kit that we would take and that which we could leave behind.
That job done, the three of us gathered together in the almost empty restaurant. My recollection of Russian food from my previous visit was that it was consistently poor. Indeed I recall that the culinary highlight of the last trip was when we found a McDonald’s in Moscow. On this occasion, the food was generally good. Now we also met our guide, Vladimir, a veteran of around 190 ascents of Elbrus. After introductions we discussed mountaineering experience and Vladimir did a gear check. Arrangements for the morning were also agreed.
So after breakfast the following morning we board our vehicle, a beast of a machine. We trundle back down the Baksan valley dodging a load more cows on the way. Then we make a left turn on to an unmade road and the vehicle comes into its own as we start to grind our way up ever increasing gradients. At one point we have to stop to allow the driver to put more water into the cooling system. When he takes off the engine casing between the driver’s seat and the front passenger seat, a blast of hot air hits us in the back.
We start off again and eventually get as far as the vehicle is going to go. We debouche and the driver quickly leaves. I manage a quick photo.
It is on with our packs. We will be accompanied not only by Vladimir but also a cook and a porter. We are each allowed to ask the porter to carry just 3kg of gear. So our packs are not exactly light.
A rough road continues on for a while as forest gives way to open grassland and then to rockier terrain as height is gained. Behind us spiky peaks grow on the other side of the Baksan valley.
We have a couple of brief stops for snacks and drinks. After 3½ hours we emerge into alpine terrain.
Not long afterwards, we reach Sylkantrel Lake and its magnificent cirque of mountains. This is where we are to camp for the next few nights. Elevation just over 3,000m. It is somewhat cooler up here.
This is our camp site with Sylkantrelbashi across the water. There are numerous other tents as well. The German party that we had encountered at the airport is descending from its own acclimatisation walk.
Although Sylkantrelbashi looks the highest peak hereabouts, Mukal is in fact higher. This latter peak, variously measured at between 3,892m and 4,000m, is our intended target for this part of the trip the next day. We settle down with the local residents.
I have the best sleep of the trip this night. Unfortunately the next day finds the cloud down and it is wet. After some dithering, Vladimir determines that we could go on a quick outing to the north top of Mukal. This he says should only take an hour. We blast up in 40 minutes at first following a path that is marked with red and orange flashes of paint. The terrain looks very Cairngorm-like with its granite boulders. Still there is a nice view back down to the Lake.
Here we are with Mukal behind. This top seems to have about 25 to 30m of prominence. And the ridge between it and the main summit looks rather intimidating.
We scuttle back down, with clouds atmospherically drifting around us. We are now quite wet with the driving, penetrating drizzle. I wonder how on earth we are going get clothes dry.
On our return we dive into tents, take off wet clothes and then snuggle into sleeping bags for warmth. Clothing is hung off bits of the tent, but nothing really dries. I try placing some damp clothing with me inside the sleeping bag. That is most unpleasant and uncomfortable.
In the evening the weather perks up. We hurriedly try to use the feeble warmth of the sun and the brisk breeze to dry off further. This time, success – at least in part. We later snuggle into the dining tent for warmth and our evening meal. Vladimir and the cook also use this tent as their sleeping quarters.
We are supposed to be returning to Cheget in the morning but we agree that if the weather looks OK in the morning we will have a go at Mukal. The night is uncomfortable because I again share my sleeping bag with wet clothes. During the night I decide that I prefer comfort within the sleeping bag to drying out wet garments. So they are ejected. Added to that we have a series of electrical storms, the thunder echoing around the amphitheatre surrounding the lake and lightning flashes illuminating the sky.
The morning is bright and clear, if windy. White puffy clouds hang in the sky. The summits, including that of Mukal are clear. I am feeling quite tired as the storm has kept me awake much of the night. Vladimir determines that it is safe to make a summit attempt.
We are off shortly after 5.30am. Later we earn Vladimir’s praise for being so efficient in getting ready.
Essentially Mukal is a heap of shifting, sh***y, scree. We don helmets as we pass under a small cliff face. We traverse a steep 400m wide snow slope and emerge on a glacier that covers the hollow between Sylkantrelbashi and Mukal. The glacier provides easier going for 20 minutes or so before we have to address the steep scree ridden south slopes of Mukal.
We stop for 10 minutes to refuel before tackling these. The wind becomes stronger the higher we get. The loose boulders interspersed with gritty scree are purgatorial. Eventually we hit a ridge 100m vertical metres below the summit. The scree does not relent even if the gradient does a little. A sea of jagged peaks appears to our left, as does some rather threatening looking cloud.
Here is Sylkantrelbashi from a little below Mukal’s summit.
We weave our way through a band of rock that sits across the ridge. Soon after the summit is just above us. And here is the happy team on the summit itself. It is 8.30am.
My GPS indicates we are at 3,901m. Vladimir allows us about 3 minutes on the top because he does not like the look of the clouds massing across the way. Distant views are not great because of them. We should be able to see Elbrus from here but cannot.
We quickly speed down the ridge and then peel off down the horrid flank. I am slower than the others, being (over?) cautious. But at least the wind is less strong here. There then follows a pleasant slither down the glacier with a fine view of the lake ahead. The threat posed by the clouds comes to nothing.
Now the descent is speedy. We are back at the tents just after 10.30am. We help to empty and dismantle them whilst “lunch” is prepared. I am not really hungry and just take fluid. Our porter, who has not been with us since we arrived at the Lake, re-appears. Once we are all packed we start on our return to the Baksan valley.
It becomes hotter and hotter as we descend – quite a contrast to the summit of Mukal. Vladimir rings ahead for our transport. We just have the one short rest on the return.
We are back with our transport before 2pm. It has been quite an intense morning!
We are taken back to the hotel. It is a relief to be able to have a shower. But we now must re-pack for our trip on to Elbrus and the main objective of the trip.