We had just the one night in Cheget following our climb of Mukal. Again we had to sort out gear for the second part of the trip, the attempt on Elbrus. This time the packing was simpler – we could take everything except anything that we knew we would not need.
We would be able to travel up to our accommodation at around 3800m in cable cars and a chairlift.
The ride in the cable cars required a change at an intermediate station. At the top station we had to put on extra clothing because the ride on the chairlift would be exposed. In fact, as we arrived, the chairlift was not working because of the wind. We faced the prospect of having to carry all our gear for the final 300m vertical distance. But fortunately the wind died down and we hopped on.
I remembered the cable cars and the chairlift from my last visit. A new (for me) modern gondola system had been constructed. It ran parallel to the cable cars that we travelled on. This system ended a little higher than the chairlift but somewhat away from where we would be based.
Our base was going to be at the Garabashi barrels – barrel number 5 in fact.
As we arrived, the cloud was down and the air was decidedly raw. We first settled in. Adam, Tzvetie, Vladimir and I had barrel 5 to ourselves for the first night although it slept six. The barrels are basic with beds and lumpy mattresses and pillows. Electricity is available for a couple of hours each evening when generators are switched on giving light and the ability to recharge electrical gadgets. Strings are strung across the inside of the barrels to enable clothes to be dried. A small entrance room provides space for gear. Once each barrel would have had a small kitchen but this facility ceased to exist a while ago.
The location is not particularly attractive and has a slightly industrial feel. There were electricity pylons behind the kitchen building.
And neighbouring rocky areas are covered with more huts (and pylons).
The next task, before lunch, was to do a short acclimatisation walk. In less than promising weather we climbed up 350m or so to just above the site of the old Priutt 11 hut. I had stayed in this hut back in 1996 on my previous visit to Elbrus. Just a couple of years later it burnt down when a cooker was knocked over. The hut has never been replaced, though the old generator building that serviced it has been converted into accommodation. I think we were all glad to descend again. The weather had been windy and dark clouds scudded overhead. The twin tops of Elbrus were hidden as was the view across the Baksan valley in the opposite direction.
We had a good lunch. In fact, the food at the barrels was very good considering the location. Fresh food was regularly brought up the cable car/chairlift system. In addition to usual climbers’ fare of soups and stews there was salad and fruit.
The next day we had a much longer acclimatisation walk. We would go up to the top of Pastukhov’s Rocks at around 4800m. This is the normal routine on Elbrus to enable the acclimatisation process to develop. However, the weather was even worse than the previous day. The wind was strong and we were climbing in cloud. Regular showers swept by stinging any exposed flesh with their icy shards.
The first 300m of ascent to where we had been the previous day seemed to pass by quite quickly. The climb then seemed to drag – not helped by the fact that I was the least strong climber. There is first a stretch between two bands of rock. This is followed by a slightly less steep section before the bottom of Pastukhov’s Rocks are reached. From below, foreshortening seems to indicate that the distances are not great. This is an illusion. And as with all stratovolcanoes the slopes are steep.
We stopped for five minutes towards the top of the two bands of rock to eat and drink. There was little respite from the wind and it was very cold. We eventually reached the bottom of Pastukhov’s Rocks. These stretch for about 150m vertical. I found the final climb up to the top of the Rocks a grind. I arrived a couple of minutes after the others. Here we stuffed a bit more food into our mouths.
Normally you would sit up here looking at the views across the Baksan Valley and let the body do its job of growing lots of red blood cells. Today was not such a day though.
We retreated. Going down was so much easier. We passed other parties going up on their acclimatisation climbs. There were quite a few people about. Of course, July and August are the peak times for Elbrus ascents. The weather did clear a bit as we descended. But the sky was definitely moody.
This was the view across towards the site of the Priutt 11 hut and the generator building.
And the weather was no better as we descended towards the top gondola station. The mountains on the other side of the Baksan valley glowered under the heavy cloud.
That evening we were joined in our barrel by a Dutch guy who was hoping to climb Elbrus without any significant acclimatisation. The next might he was going to stay in the generator building with a view to attempting the summit the day after that. We wondered if he would make it.
But what a change a day makes. The next day was designated a rest and training day. The training was to be about walking on steep slopes in crampons, use of ice axe to arrest a fall and clipping into fixed ropes. The three of us deemed that we were familiar with what was required in this respect so we just had the rest instead. Vladimir was relaxed about this.
Early in the morning we had heard people making their preparations for their summit bids. The weather was clear. But not many made the top that day because conditions were extremely windy. We ourselves had been keeping an eye out on the forecasts. It had not been looking too hopeful with either low cloud and snow or high winds or both in the predictions.
So we spent the day lazing around and looking up at the slopes and the distant dots of people on their way up or down.
The white stuff that you can see over the summits is wind-blown snow and not clouds. This is the West (main) summit that I had missed out on in 1996.
And here is the view across the Baksan valley.
During the early afternoon, a few climbers who had made the summit came back, looking a bit weather beaten if elated. A Polish guy and his Chinese wife came by. They had made it. We chatted to him and he was keen to show us his video clips of the wild weather on the summit ridge. His English was good. I seemed to be the only native English speaker around!
The forecast was looking OK for the next day, the day of our attempt. But it still looked like it would be quite windy, and cold.
We had prepared our kit for the morning. Our barrel was now shared with a Russian guy and gal. She would also climb in the morning.
We had our dinner at 6pm and settled down for some sleep. Adam would get up at 11.30pm. He would start from the barrels. Tzvetie and I would get up at 1.30am and take a snow mobile to Pastikhov’s Rocks. Before we started we would have breakfast.
It is always the same for me on summit night. I struggle to sleep. It comes fitfully and when the time comes to get up I am groggy and wonder why I am doing this and what I have let myself in for. Adam had disturbed me when he got up and dressed though that was inevitable really. But I had another snooze after he left.
Tzvetie and I had breakfast in silence consuming our own thoughts as well as porridge and tea. I did not feel that hungry but managed what was available. We then went outside and huffed and puffed as we put on crampons, harness and another layer or two. It was indeed cold and breezy. I did a final check of my rucksack to check I had everything with me that I needed.
For summit day we had an additional guide. Vladimir had accompanied Adam. Tzvetie and I had Maga with us. Like Vladimir he had ascended Elbrus many, many times. He led us to the snow mobile and its driver. We handed over some Euros and carefully mounted the vehicle to avoid our crampons damaging the seat. Our rucksacks were strapped into a basket on the back and Maga sat on them. Tzvetie was immediately behind the driver with me in the middle and the subject of a Russian bear hug from behind.
Off we went and we bounced and slid up the slopes. The air was now even colder. We passed a few people trudging up the slopes once past the generator hut. Adam later told us he had seen us go by. We were deposited at the Rocks after only seven minutes. The original plan had been to meet Adam here but he was still a little way below. So Maga lead us off and up.
I had had a dose of diarrhoea the previous evening and my innards were churning away. I did not feel that great in any event either. Bobbing head lamps could be seen both above and below us. A couple of snow cats came down from above. They had deposited climbers at around 5,000m (the highest that mechanical uplift will normally go).
At 5,000m the trail makes a slight turn to the left and begins a rising traverse beneath the East summit. About 2/3rds of the way between Pastakhov’s Rocks and the beginning of the traverse there is a partially buried snowcat. Here we stopped for a brief rest and snack. It was at this point that Adam and Vladimir caught us up.
We were able to move together as a team. The slope remained steep. I concentrated on the ground lit by the halo of my light. I drifted a little behind Adam and Tzvetie. By the time we reached the beginning of the traverse, the sky was lit by the rising sun still below the horizon. I could not tell the time as my watch was buried under the layers of clothing. Again we had an opportunity to snack.
We then joined a line of climbers. The gradient on the traverse is no less steep. The track created by the many feet was clear and was marked by wands every 20m or so. It was hard work in the thinning air. Gusts of wind threw spindrift in the face. But every piece of skin was covered. I was comfortably warm. Sometimes the air trapped by my buff became too hot and clammy and I had to pull it down and gasp frigid dry air.
It was hard work. Maga who was behind me kept nudging me. I was OK. I knew I was strong enough but I was obviously not fast enough for him. Vladimir had estimated 2 to 2½ hours for each leg, i.e. the Rocks to the beginning of the traverse, the traverse to the Saddle and the Saddle to the summit. We had done the first leg within that time and we ended up doing each leg within Vladimir’s range. But Russian guides do have a bit of a reputation…
Still, despite a few stops for breathers, only a couple of people overtook me and I overtook a few. The sun was now up and there were views to the left to the main spine of the Caucasus and over to Georgia. After around two hours, the slope eased as the traverse now turned slightly to the north and eased down to the Saddle at 5,416m (17.769ft).
Here a number of groups were resting. We had our first stop since the beginning of the traverse and stayed perhaps 20 minutes. Here was the view back.
We had passed an American group with their leader shouting out encouragement. Here is the way on, a rise slanting up the side of the Western summit, with that American group the nearest “snake”.
We left our rucksacks and one walking pole each at the Saddle. We took our ice axes. The stop and food gave me the necessary impetus. The route that day avoided the need to clip into fixed ropes. It was a little more circuitous than the more direct route that is sometimes taken.
We gained good time up the first section seen in the picture above. At the skyline the route turns left and goes up some steeper ground. At this point we had a further, brief stop there for water, and a further stop 20 minutes later at the top of the steeper ground. We were now on the summit plateau.
We had passed people coming down. Now the ground levelled out a little. But the energy from the food eaten at the Saddle had gone and I slowed to a crawl. Tzvetie stormed ahead. Adam struggled a little ahead of me. Maga went on with Tzvetie and Vladimir hung back with me. Still no-one overtook me.
The summit rose ahead along a gentle ridge which formed a part of the ancient crater rim. There was a final 10m steep rise. A few people were contemplating it at its foot. When I arrived I did the same. There was a narrow trench in the snow up that rise. I gritted my teeth and almost ran up, my lungs bursting when I arrived at the top. I spent a moment or two recovering my breath.
And there I was at the top of Europe! 5,462m (18,520ft) and it was 9.52am. I had attained the sixth of my seven volcanic seven summits, not that I revealed that fact to my companions. There were handshakes all around. The summit area was quite crowded. But photos were fired off. First over the summit plateau towards the Eastern summit:
Then one of Tzvetie with Ushba behind:
Next a panorama:
Then a picture to the north east showing a part of the final rise and some climbers contemplating the necessary final effort to reach the top:
Then a view south into Georgia across the main range. Elbrus is located to the north of the main range.
I was wearing six layers on my top and four layers on my bottom. Did I say it was cold?! The keen wind emphasised this. I could take off my outer mitts for a brief time before my hands felt cold. Having decided to take a video panorama with my camera, I pressed the button and the camera battery promptly died. To say that was mildly annoying was an understatement. Still there was nothing I could do about that. I shoved the camera back into a pocket in the mid-layers of my clothing.
The guides were now agitating to go back down. So we duly started our descent. At the bottom of that final 10m rise a group was wearily looking up to the top, summoning energy for that final bit of effort. I smiled inwardly as I knew how they felt.
What had taken around two hours to climb from the Saddle to the summit was just 45 minutes on the way back. Gravity sure helps!
Clouds were beginning to roll in below.
Vladimir took a picture of me back at the Saddle.
We had another opportunity for a snack and drink as we recovered our rucksacks and put our ice axes on the bags. It was now just a question of plodding wearily down and down. Here is a shot from the 5,000m mark before we plunged back down into the clouds. We were back at the barrels in time for lunch.
We spent the rest of the afternoon recuperating. There was talk of possibly returning to the valley that day but confusion as to arrangements meant that did not happen. So we spent another night at the barrels. That evening we spoke to some Koreans who were hoping to make an ascent the following day. They pumped us for information.
I slept well that night.
The next day was again bright. We had our breakfast. Here is a shot inside the kitchen area.
But, as the forecast had predicted, the winds were again very strong – perhaps even stronger than two days before. We had been fortunate with our summit “window”.
Vladimir had told us the previous day that he might not be there in the morning because he was going to be an assistant guide with a German group – the same one we had arrived at Mineralnye Vody with. But he was standing in the sunshine outside the barrels when we emerged. He had returned early with one of the party who had struggled.
The Korean party was there too. They had been taken up to 5,000m in a snow cat. Their guide had got out and walked about 200m, turned around and told the group that he determined the conditions as being too difficult/dangerous. So the group was brought down without ever having got out of the vehicle, and each 60 Euros poorer. They had another summit day in their schedule but now they no longer had funds for another snow cat trip. I wonder if they ever made it.
The three of us had packed but the chair lift did not start operating until 9.30am. It was pleasant sitting around in the sunshine. The wind was not strong at this elevation. We could see specks moving along the traverse. Some were on their way down. We wondered if they had battled their way to the top. Others returned to the barrels, clearly not having been successful.
Then it was time to go.
At the top cable car station we stripped off clothing and the rest of the descent was incident free. It was so much warmer in the valley over 3,000m lower than the summit of Elbrus and 1,500m lower than the barrels. We had to strip off more clothing there otherwise we would melt.
So it was back to the hotel dodging the cattle in the middle of the road. The three of us found a good restaurant on the opposite side of the square from our hotel where we had some great food, rounded off by some of the local brew.
Somehow I was persuaded to go on a post-prandial hike. This involved climbing 600m in less than an hour to an intermediate ski lift station. Still it meant good views down to Cheget and brought us to the edge of the Russian military permit zone. Here we were only 5k from the border with Georgia and the Russians deem this area to be sensitive.
Apparently views of Elbrus are good from up here. But the mountain was shrouded in cloud. So no views for us.
Tzvetie decided to go higher. Adam and I returned to the hotel where we met the next group from Adventure Peaks. They had done the Mukal leg and would be going up to the barrels the following day. We had a good chat. It was a small group of three with a UK leader. One of the clients had gashed his hand on the descent of Mukal and returned from hospital as we sat outside. His hand had been stitched and was wrapped in bandages. We didn’t fancy his chances of being able to carry an ice axe.
The remainder of the trip passed by in a bit of a whirl. We had to pack and have our final dinner together. Vladimir came whilst we were eating dinner to say goodbye. We were collected early the following morning to be taken back to Mineralnye Vody airport. Here the three of us went our separate ways. I would fly back to Leeds via Moscow and Amsterdam. Tzvetie was going to London via a different Moscow airport. Adam was going to join another mountaineering trip in the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia’s east.
My flight from Amsterdam was delayed by a couple of hours but I was still home the same day.