Climbing Mount Elbrus in Russia is supposed to be a breeze. Well, from the South route anyway. The north route on this mountain is an entirely different challenge. A proper mountaineering experience unlike say Kilmanjaro.
Climbing Elbrus involves quite a bit of preparation from a physical, mental and logistical point of view.
A typical Elbrus trip itinerary
Apparently walking to Russia could take quite a while. So you will need to make another plan to improvise. the best form of transportation being what modern man calls the aeroplane. Upon arrival in the awesome city of Moscow the fun and games begin. The first challenge is finding a taxi. Once you have done that, the task of explaining your destination and negotiating a price is next on your list. Not an easy task when no one speaks English. The drive through to central Moscow takes about 1.5 hours. The airport is about 50km outside of central Moscow and the traffic is a nightmare. Upon arrival in the hotel, its a quick vodka, shower and... time to hit the streets of Moscow. And don't try and hit them too hard as you may come off second best. There are some pretty cool restaurants where you are faced with yet another challenge. You will be required to negotiate your way around a menu in Russian and waiter who, you guessed it, only speaks Russian. What we suggest you do is close your eyes, move your finger up and down the menu and where ever your finger stops... order that. Oh, and don't forget the vodka. After dinner, a little ramble up to the Red Square to see the Kremlin is definitely in order. Please do not try and spray-paint your name on the Kremlin walls. Somehow the Russian secret service does not approve of this sporting activity.
An early day I'm afraid. Well, I'm not really afraid as days are nothing to be afraid of. The Russian Mafia is something to be afraid about, but I'll leave that story for another time. The flight to Mineralyne Vody leaves at 12H00 arriving at 14H00. Upon arrival, we load up the gear onto the bus and take the 1 hour drive through to an awesome town called Kislovodsk where we check into our hotel for the evening. Once checked in, we hit the town for dinner followed by a vodka or 10. If you are not in bed by 12H00, please come back to the hotel. Breakfast is served. Well this is not tennis. We are here to climb Elbrus remember. You get your own breakfast. After loading the 4×4 vehicles, we take the 3 hour drive through to base camp which is nestled at the base of Elbrus. Why did you think it was called bases camp? Because the camp is home to many night clubs that use excess base in their music? or is it because the camp is home the Revlon's make up production? Nope. Sorry to disappoint you on this one. Base camp in this instance refers to our base for the Elbrus climb. The drive into base camp is both spectacular and nerve racking. The roads have been carved into the mountains leaving vertical drops of up to 200m. The tracks only allow for one vehicle at a time. It is safe to say, that no one interferes with the driver at this stage of the game. The country side out here is so remote. The only reason there would be any one on the roads was to climb Elbrus. Being early in the season, we encountered no one. Once we arrived in camp, we set up the tents, of loaded our gear and made for the mess tent for our first taste of mountain food-cabbage soup. Base camp of Elbrus is situated at 2400m.
After lunch we went on a 4 hour stroll around the surrounding foothills. The two headed Elbrus dragon always keeping a watchful eye on us. The area is well known for its natural springs. The water is the best water you will ever get to taste. We came across a few of the springs where the water bubbles out. The weirdest thing is that the water is sparkling. Don't ask me how that happens. Do I look like a geologist? but man, the best tasting water I have ever had. Dinners on Elbrus are conducted in the mess tent. Conducted in the mess tent? What the hell? Couldn't think of a more appropriate word, so deal with it. If I had spent more time contemplating it, I'm sure I could have come up with a better word, but I have a appointment to get to and don't have the time. OK, so the mess tent. Yip, a place where we have dinner. And after dinner, its cards and some really awesome conversation with people from all over the world with the same interests and ambitions-to climb Elbrus. The ingredients to climbing mountains like Elbrus includes patience, determination, perseverance, self belief, physical strength, being in the right place at the right time and oh yes, the process of acclimatisation. Today, we were going test out the latter of the ingredients-acclimatisation. We took a 4 hour hike up a place known as the mushroom rocks which are situated at 3400m. A pretty easy day with some spectacular view. We are just below the snow line, so not too cold. After lunch, we head on down to base camp. With some time to waste we were challenged by the local Russian guides to a game of soccer. Playing soccer at 2400m is still going to leave you pretty winded. We lost 3-1.OK, so this is where the true ingredients of mountaineering will start to be added to the pot of climbing Elbrus. Are objective of this day was to set up high camp. Basically what we need to do is carry our gear up to high camp. High camp is situated at 3800m. We use this day not only to carry some of our gear, but as an acclimatization climb as well. Our packs weighed about 20kg and included all our high altitude mountaineering gear like crampons, ice axes, thermal gear, down jackets and a packet of peanuts for the snow monkeys that do not exist. Today is a challenging day. Not only because of the weight of the backpack, but also the cold and the angle of ascent. the last part of the climb also sees us forging through waist deep snow to reach high camp. And man is snow an energy drainer. Once in high camp, we off load, have some lunch and head on down to base camp. As mentioned earlier, to climb mountains like Elbrus you need a few key ingredients. Today you will need to cash in on your mental reserves. The day sort of pans out the same as day 5. Yip, we load up our backpacks with the gear we need for high camp and make the 5 hour trek up to high camp. this day does test you. Why, the man in the back row screams out. Well because it would have been the 3rd time that you are going up the same route. The logical part of your near frozen cerebral stump does not understand why and tries to inject your body with a flood of negative emotions. Pa for the course the experts reckon. But what if ma decides to walk on the course? Will that effect the process? 5 hours later and we are sitting in high camp of Elbrus enjoying some warm cabbage soup and our groans and mumbles of the day have been long forgotten.
Today sees up taking a crucial acclimatization climb up to a placed called Lenz Rocks which is situated at 4600m. The route is notorious for its crevasses and many a climber have lost their lives on this section. for this reason we climb alpine style. All of us are clipped into each other via a rope. The idea is that if someone falls into a crevasse the weight of the other climbers should stop them from falling all the way in. And crevasses are pretty hard to detect. What happens is that the snow that falls creates a 'bridge' of snow over the crevasse. Sometimes when you walk on them and they are not that thick, the weight of the climber will cause the snow bridge to collapse. Besides the crevasses, today is pretty challenging. The snow is knee deep which gets pretty exhausting to do especially when the effects of altitude and the cold start to take effect on a climbers body. But once again, perseverance and sheer will power sees us siting at Lenz Rocks enjoying the view. After lunch its back down to high camp with the anticipation of a rest day.
Today sees us just chilling out and recovering. We spend the day eating, sleeping and playing cards. The objective is to build up some energy reserves for the final summit night. AAhhh, the final summit night. Something, that is on everyone's mind. Elbrus boasts one of the longest summit nights on any mountain.
Summit day. One of the dangers on Elbrus is the extreme weather conditions. We were all pretty apprehensive as there was heavy snowfall on our rest day and we were worried that it would get worse, thus hampering our summit attempt. We checked the weather at 12 a.m. and made the call. time to make like a Jewish foreskin and be off. Getting kitted up, coffee and a quick bite to eat took about an hour. We were on the ice by 1.am. Our first port of call being the Lenz rocks at 4600m. The climb to Lenz took us about 4 hours. A quick break and we headed off to our next waypoint at 4900m. We took a temperature reading here and found it to be -25 degrees Celsius. One the group was starting to get frostbite on his fingers. We helped with hand warmers and an extra pair of gloves. As for myself, I could feel the numbing feeling in my toes as they started to freeze. Something that started to gnaw at the back of my mind. Our next slog took us to 5200m. The area is know as the saddle and is the 'saddle' between the 2 peaks of Elbrus. We took a 30 min break and started our final slog up a 50 degree solid ice slope that leads to the summit. OK, I can't say it was exactly 50 degrees as I forgot to bring my protractor with and my knowledge of oblique angles is scary. he group census agreed on 50 degrees so there!!A place where you do not want to fall as you will find yourself sliding all the way down to the bottom of the slope. Most of the group where pretty strong until 5400m. From there on in, it was welcome to Zombie land. The altitude, cold, and pure exhaustion was starting to take its toll. These are the moment that requires your deepest mensal skills. Your body us crying out for you to turn around. Your heart is saying no way. You are walking a think line between, life and death. Once foot in the living. One foot in the dead. Being at altitude is pretty weird. It is like you are on something. And we don't mean the mountain either-that's obvious. Its like you are floating. Tying your shoelaces becomes a challenge as you can't remember how. Anyway, After what seems like an eternity, we reach the summit. Our time of summit is 15H00. We started our summit at 01H00. 14 hours to the summit and we are only half way. The descent takes about 6 hours. We were a bit concerned as a snowstorm was brewing and it would be dark in a couple of hours. Luckily for us a box of ping pong balls was looking after Elbrus for the week and they gave us some magic dust that made us all make it back to high camp alive.
Today was a late start. Not sure why given our easy climb the day before. We packed up or gear and made the 6 hour trek down to Elbrus base camp. Our average pack weight was about 35kg as we had to take all of our gear down in one shot instead of two. Once we reached base camp, it was Russian Vodka time!!!