Elbrus Day 12 – Day of Days (Wednesday 27th August 2014)

I am not even sure where to start with this blog post, as it was one of the most memorable days of my life for two extreme reasons, and one ultimately a lot more extreme than the other, which I will explain later. It’s going to be a long one, so if you have insomnia when you start reading this, then this one is for you!

So let’s start at about 12.30am, which is when I, along with the ten other people in our trip woke up, in our converted oil tanker sleeping quarters, along with our two guides Adele and Viktor, in order to begin our third and final attempt to climb Elbrus. We had had two failed attempts from the North Side of the mountain in previous days, and come what may would be leaving on a plane tomorrow to go back to the UK, so this really was it, shit or bust time.

At about 1am we were having breakfast of porridge and the like, and were dressed ready to go all night long as far as we could towards the South Side summit. The weather was cold, but not too windy, and the forecast was for a clear night with 35kph winds, which should enable us to summit if our bodies would carry us that far. We would also be helped (somewhat bizarrely) from our starting point of 3,700m by a snowcat, which would take us to 4,500m or so, a height beyond which we had already acclimatized on the other side of the mountain. We’d paid a collective £500 or so for the snowcat between us, so hopefully the four or so hours that it would save us would be beneficial.

Sat expectantly on the back on the snowcat, 2am.

Sat expectantly on the back on the snowcat, 2am.

By 2am we were hurtling upwards on a near-fairground experience sat on the outside of the snowcat, trying not to fall off the back as it thrust us backwards on the steep slopes of the glacier. The light was almost inky black around us, as the expected clear skies did not materialise (and were to stay that way for most of the night in fact). Getting out of the snowcat about 20 minutes later, we were thrust into an incredibly cold and windy existence, where the glow of our headtorches made a mere dent as far as our feet into the spindrift being blown at times violently into our faces. This was a night when any piece of exposed skin would end up with severe windburn if you were lucky, and frostnip if you weren’t.

The night was to be in terms of conditions almost as ferocious as the first night on the North Side. The wind never abated, and when zigzagging into the wind the best tactic was to almost bury your head into the rucksack of the person in front of you by way of shelter, although at times I wasn’t sure if I was heading up or down.

Katherine soldiers on just before the dawn.

Katherine soldiers on just before the dawn.

Viktor leading our troop, now diminished by three, just before day breaks.

Viktor leading our troop, now diminished by three, just before day breaks.

By about 6am after three and a half hours when I wasn’t sure if we were going to make enough progress to even see the top of the mountain (and as this was day 12 and we still hadn’t even seen the summit that would have been a real shame in itself) the first signs of daylight brought at least some perspective on our surroundings. In fact the sight was amazing, an orange corona around the top of the Georgian mountains surrounding us. Ahead of us was the saddle between the two peaks of the mountain, which at least brought some brief solace from the relentless steepness of the rest of the mountain.

The dawn starts to appear and the clouds start to lift too, although the steepness of the mountain hasn't relented yet.

The dawn starts to appear and the clouds start to lift too, although the steepness of the mountain hasn’t relented yet.

And then from one moment to the next, from near darkness still....

And then from one moment to the next, from near darkness still….

....daylight appears, although with it a really intense cold wind.

….daylight appears, although with it a really intense cold wind.

Roxanne heading towards the saddle - the corona we saw is well evident in the background here.

Roxanne heading towards the saddle – the corona we saw is well evident in the background here.

When finally into the saddle at about 5,300m after the break of day, I began to think that I might even make the top of this mountain after all. We had surely battled past the worst of the weather, and now that we could see our path ahead of us there seemed now to be only one obstacle to overcome to actually do this thing, and that obstacle was me.

Just approaching the saddle of Elbrus.

Just approaching the saddle of Elbrus.

And then into the saddle at about 5,300m, the summit finally in sight in the distance.

And then into the saddle at about 5,300m, the summit finally in sight in the distance.

It was at this point that I became aware of two things. Firstly we were no longer 11 people, we were down to 8. Dave, Jo and Andy had been beaten back by the winds and the altitude and had headed back down the mountain. I later found out that they had to do so alone, as the guide assigned to them had buggered off without them, but they thankfully made it down to safety in one piece. Secondly, as I was walking behind Hui Ling, her walking became more and more erratic, and I was aware that she was losing a bit of focus, presumably from the effects of AMS. I called for Adele, and she put her onto a short rope to help guide her either up or down depending upon how she reacted. We all then stopped for a drink, which is when I first became aware that I had a little bit of trouble too.

I suddenly realised that after about five hours of intense activity, I had drunk nothing whatsoever. My Camelbak, which I have no idea why I bothered filling in the first place, was frozen solid, insulated tube or no insulated tube. Similarly the top had frozen onto my other water bottle, and my flask of hot water was buried into my rucksack so deep that I didn’t dare take it off my back. I should say that I normally drink about three litres of fluid on a walk of this length even at sea level, and so this didn’t probably bode well, but no matter, I felt fine overall and so climbed on. I did get an energy gel down me and some very frozen chocolate, so that helped a bit.

The stretch after the saddle was really steep, the steepest so far in fact, and took practically all of everyone’s remaining energy away. Following this part there is a fixed rope section, which is probably only 100 or so vertical metres from the top, but is hard going, as it is a steep traverse, and at 5,550m or so, you need all of your faculties to just be able to clip in and clip out, and I knew that mine were now waning somewhat.

The walk to the summit mound from there became a bit hazy for me, and as the weather closed in again, the winds picked up, and it became punishing to try to walk in a straight line. We no longer had views of anything at all, and it became just a grind to walk those extra few steps to get up to that elusive place which had consumed so much of me for so long. As the others all trooped up to the summit I hung back and waited for Adele and Hui Ling, hoping so much that Hui Ling was ok and had made it, and that I could share my summit with Adele too, who after all had done so much for all of us and been such an inspiration. Thankfully after about 10 minutes they appeared out of the clouds, and we walked up the ridge to the summit together.

And then all of a sudden I was there! – Europe’s highest point, a massive moment, and 8 of us plus Viktor and Adele stood proudly at 5,642m in triumph.

And it was the shot we had all been waiting for! From left to right, Viktor, Hui Ling, Steve, Roxanne, Dennis, Katherine, Cormac, Paul and yours trull all celebrate our great achievement.

And it was the shot we had all been waiting for! From left to right, Viktor, Hui Ling, Steve, Roxanne, Dennis, Katherine, Cormac, Paul and yours trull all celebrate our great achievement.

I managed to get my camera out for the following shot too, taken for me by Cormac –  thanks Cormac!

The summit stone at 5,642m - the second of my Seven Summits.

The summit stone at 5,642m – West Peak, Mount Elbrus, 9.30am 27th August 2014.

Oh and here’s one more just for posterity 🙂

There are no words for moments like this.

There are no words for moments like this.

 

Now there is a very famous book by one of the most famous climbers of all time called “No Shortcuts to the Top” by Ed Viesturs. His mantra in that book and throughout his climbing career was “getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory”, and these thoughts flashed through my mind only a matter of a few metres after beginning the descent. It was then that I realised that the adrenaline that had probably got me up the mountain was now starting to disperse, and that other factors were starting to take over.

Firstly on the steep fixed line traverse, I was finding it very difficult to bend down to clip in and make regular lifting movements with my crampons. Then on the even steeper section down towards the saddle I found that I was struggling to walk at all, and I had to helped (along with Hui Ling) by Adele and Viktor to try downclimb on my hands and knees. Everything all of a sudden became a monumental effort even to poke the front of my crampons into the ice. I knew I had to do it to stop myself falling, but my body became incredibly weak and incredibly tired. I had Adele and Viktor simultaneously shouting at me for my own safety, but I could no longer control properly what I was doing. I had altitude sickness, and it wasn’t good, I knew it.

From there the next half hour or so is all a bit vague, but I can remember walking across the saddle and trying to drink something from Viktor’s flask, and it having no impact on me. I knew I was incredibly thirsty, and incredibly tired at the same time, but I couldn’t overcome either of those feelings at all. I tried to walk but my legs were like jelly, I tried to speak but my words came out like slurred rambles, and I tried to stay awake but my body was just telling me to go to sleep. I recall lying down on the snow, at about 5,500m, and saying that I was going to bed now, as that is all I wanted to do.

From there, all I can say is that I was incredibly lucky. The quick thinking and actions of both Adele and Viktor may well have (almost certainly in fact) saved my life. Adele told me afterwards that upon looking at me, my head was swelling, my eyes were bulging and dilated, and that I showed all the signs of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (“HACE”). HACE http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-altitude_cerebral_edema untreated leads to death in 24-48 hours I am told, and I was so lucky to have Adele there (who had once I learned afterwards suffered from HACE herself) and upon recognising those signs, basically carried me with Viktor down about the next 1,000m of the mountain.

I was thereafter (half way down the mountain at about 4,500m) treated quickly with Dexamethasone and Diamox, plus painkillers for what was the most blinding headache I have ever had in my life. It is fair to say that Viktor carried me almost single handedly down that mountain – and for a man about five inches shorter than me, and in his fifties, he is as strong as the average buffalo. Or maybe his adrenaline just kicked in to the effect that he knew he had to get me down to save my life, I don’t know. Either way he is (and they are both are equally) a hero to me, and I can never find ways to thank him or Adele enough for what they did. Sure, it is their job as mountain guides to look after their clients and help them if they are in difficulty, but this is way way over the top and over above the call of duty stuff. This probably had them as scared as I was, and they were just unflappable and kept me calm, safe, and got me out of trouble. There are no words I can find to adequately express my thanks or admiration for how they responded to me.

I could go on from here about how the rest of the day went (it was now still only lunchtime after all), and how we all got down the mountain afterwards and back to Pyatigorsk, but this has been already the longest blog post I have ever written, and it has already said enough. I started it by saying I didn’t quite know where to begin, but I do know where to end:

On a day that I will never forget, the 27th August 2014 is forever etched into my memory.

Congratulations firstly to each of Steve, Hui Ling, Cormac, Paul, Katherine, Dennis and Roxanne for summiting Europe’s highest mountain at the third time of asking. I’m bloody pleased that I made it too. Well done also for the great efforts, camaraderie and friendship to each of Jo, Dave and Andy, who reached different heights and goals of their own the same day.

Moreover, thank you from the bottom of my very being, to Adele Pennington of Jagged Globe, and Viktor (second name unknown) from New Route Guides in Russia. I will say more about you both in a close out post for this incredible adventure, but for saving the life of this humble and eternally grateful soul, I salute you and will be in your debt until the end of my days.

Elbrus Day 11- The trip to the South Side – August 26th

Waking up back in a hotel in Pyatigorsk seemed extremely strange. It would after all have been strange enough on its own without the fact that we all woke up this morning here after having spent 7 or 8 days on the mountain, and as a precursor to heading out for another go at the other side of it. We had also been out last night for a great meal of pizza with beer, such an indulgence after what had seemed endless days of buckwheat and borsht served in a mountain hut. It was almost a strange feeling in fact to actually be able to choose your own food again – amazing how quickly the brain adapts to a set of forced conditions.

So after a breakfast in the hotel’s immaculate (and so out of place) ballroom, it was off to pack again for our new adventure. We would transfer by coach to the ski resort of Terskol on the south side of Elbrus. From there we would get a cable car to a mountain hut, or ‘barrel’, and then we would be taken after midnight by snow cat (i.e. a piste bashing machine) to about 4,500m, from where we would attempt a summit push. It was our only remaining hope of standing atop of Europe’s highest mountain, and if it seemed like somewhat convoluted means, then so be it. That (the summit) was what we had come here for after all, and we had already acclimatised to 4,800m by our own steam on the North Side to be beaten by the winds, so no-one could say that we hadn’t done the whole mountain by our own means, even if it would be now, at least in its totality, in somewhat convoluted steps.

On the bus leaving the hotel to head for Terskol - lots of refreshed and happy faces!

On the bus leaving the hotel to head for Terskol – lots of refreshed and happy faces!

The journey to Terskol was really interesting, and a complete contrast to what we had seen on the North side of the mountain. We passed firstly through a series of Islamic towns, a poorer contrast to the niceties and Mercedes of Pyatigorsk. Then the road headed into a beautiful green valley, with gorges and towering limestone edifices that anything in Yorkshire and Cheddar could only dream about. It was truly stunning.

We then went through a number of what appeared to be military checkpoints, a sobering sign that this part of the world is both very unstable, and also it made us mindful of the fact that we are reasonably close to Ukraine, where of late so many people have lost their lives in the fighting with rebels, in a war that most people, myself included, find bewildering and sad. We were also extremely close to Georgia, scene of rebel fighting for what seems like forever, and so we were advised not to get cameras out. As I am a.) a conformist (most of the time anyway), and b.) I believe in heeding advice when machine guns are in evidence, then “nothing to see here” is all I can say!

It was then that the road started to meander upwards, the altimeter on my watch showing me the progressive increase in height as we passed alongside a river of glacial meltwater. This road was also notable for two other strange things. Firstly there were cows everywhere, but not on the fields, actually walking along the road. This was very odd, and must have an explanation somewhere that I need to pursue at a later date.

Cows on the road for miles on end - bizarre!

Cows on the road for miles on end – bizarre!

 

Secondly we passed through what was effectively a ghost town – there were factories and disused buildings everywhere, which made it quite eerie. Dennis (or maybe it was VIktor) told us that the town used to be a Molybdenum plant. I wondered if somehow there was a link between the plant and the fact that the cows were no longer in the fields. We even saw one (a cow that is, not a Molybdenum plant) stood in an old disused bus shelter.

Anyway – the road then led us into the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, and all of a sudden there were towering snow capped mountains ahead of us, with glaciers radiating sunlight into the sky. It was stunning. The road then took a steep incline and we were then suddenly into Terskol itself – surely the most ugly ski resort in the world, but our stepping stone to getting up the mountain which towered somewhere unseen in the clouds above us.

In the ski resort of Terskol at 2,400m - not pretty, but functional at least!

In the ski resort of Terskol at 2,400m – not pretty, but functional at least!

Viktor took us to the oldest and most run down cable car station I have ever seen, and after handing over about 500 roubles each to a dark face in a very dark window, we climbed on board the rickety cable car, the 13 of us it’s only inhabitants other than one other passenger.

In the cable car and looking back at Terskol.

In the cable car and looking back at Terskol.

The cable car took us to about 3,000m from the base at Terskol of 2,400m, whereupon we climbed on board another similarly rickety and similarly deserted cable car to get us to 3,500m. We were now well into the midst of the various glaciers that crawl down the south side of the mountain. The mountains in the distance provided a beautiful backdrop, even if Elbrus itself was yet to yield anything resembling the slightest hint of attractiveness of any kind.

And moving higher still in the second cable car.

And moving higher still in the second cable car.

At 3,500m we alighted to find a further and penultimate mode of transport up the mountain. This time a single person chairlift. If I described the cable car as rickety, then this chairlift made it look state of the art. It was almost comedic, the bar on the front not even coming close to securing a passenger on, and the cold metal seats somewhat rusting for the probably 40 or more years that they must have been in service for. Jumping on and crossing fingers, the journey took us a further kilometre it so along and a further 200 vertical metres to 3,700m, to the barrels that awaited us for the evening.

Leaving the cable car and heading to the chairlift...

Leaving the cable car and heading to the chairlift…

....and riding up the chairlift towards the barrels - some of the chairlifts had a front bar to sort of half hold you in, others did not!

….and riding up the chairlift towards the barrels – some of the chairlifts had a front bar to sort of half hold you in, others did not!

....and finally arriving at the top station, just glad to have stopped travelling......

….and finally arriving at the top station, just glad to have stopped travelling……

.....to our home for the evening - the barrels!

…..to our home for the evening – the barrels!

The barrels were converted oil tanks, and had six beds in each. We would get some rest in here before getting up at midnight for the big push. In the meantime it was a case of settling in and preparing kit etc for the evening, although by and large there wasn’t much to prepare, as we had pretty much just carried with us only the stuff that we would need for this evening, and we would therefore be either wearing, or carrying, the lot.

Inside barrel number 6!

Inside barrel number 6!

Then after a short afternoon where we ate some mo mos and some strange cake that I was rather concerned wasn’t going to stay in my body for very long, followed by a dinner where we had some strange fish dish that I knew wasn’t going to stay around for more than 10 minutes, following which we all retired for a few hours to try to get some sleep.

We have our last mountaintop lunch together.....

We have our last mountaintop lunch together…..

....and the other half of us.....

….and the other half of us…..

....whilst Viktor and Adele sort out monies to pay to guides, cooks, and snowcat drivers alike.

….whilst Viktor and Adele sort out monies to pay to guides, cooks, and snowcat drivers alike.

We couldn’t see anything really of the top of the mountain from where we were, and it all added to the surrealism of our surroundings and made me wonder whether it was all happening at all. The sight of the snow cats and a glimpse of higher slopes through the clouds though made us realise what we were all here for though, and put some focus on things, albeit briefly.

The snowcats - we'd ride in the back of these sometime after midnight to help us on our way a bit.

The snowcats – we’d ride in the back of these sometime after midnight to help us on our way a bit.

Everyone was nervous, but we’d all be going for it. Breakfast was set to happen at midnight. The weather looked like it might be clear enough to summit, but the winds were the big unknown. If they held to the predicted 30/35kph, then Elbrus might let us ascend her upper slopes. As we hit our beds for the evening at about 8pm the winds started to pick up, and I could not sleep as I listened fearfully and hoped that this wind would not beat us for the third and final time this week.

It had been a great and really memorable day, but the next one starting at about 1am in just a few hours would determine whether or not I would get to stand on the second (for me) of the Seven summits. It was as pivotal as it could possibly get, and little did I know what a day the next one would be. I was about to come face to face with incredible highs and scary lows, including an too close vision of my own mortality.

Elbrus Day 10 – August 25th – back to Pyatigorsk

So following on from my last post, day 10 would see us pack up early in the morning after a relentless buffeting from the wind in our hut all night long. Our Elbrus North Side attempts were over after two aborted summit attempts (one at 4,800m due to high winds, the other last night where we couldn’t even leave the safety of the hut, again due to high winds).

The hastily made, but now incredibly exciting, plan for the next 24 or so hours was now as follows:

1. We pack everything we have with us and head back down to Base Camp at 2,500m (about a four hour trek).

2. Two trucks had been booked to take us the four further hours out of the Caucasus mountains altogether and back to Pyatigorsk where we would spend the night back at the hotel we stayed on Day One.

3. We would be transported tomorrow morning by bus to a ski station on the South Side of Elbrus (another four hours) called Terskol.

4. We would get a cable car up to about 3,700m tomorrow afternoon whereupon we would rest before making a summit attempt on the South Side at midnight or so, probably with a little help from a snowcat to get us to about 4,500m. We were already acclimatised to this height and had been there only yesterday by our own steam, so this was alright with me. In fact it was a lot better than alright – it was fantastic.

With the wind now finally at manageable levels, we said our goodbyes to High Camp on the North Side for the last time, and headed down the mountain. Most of us had more kit than our rucksacks could manage and so we arranged some porterage for the bits we couldn’t fit in at a cost of €2/kilo. Some brave (or more parsimonious :)) souls like Andy strapped everything they had to the outside of their packs and soldiered on. I was very glad of the assistance I have to say!

Happy to be heading out and down....

Katherine happy to be heading out and down….

The weather improved remarkably within about 30 minutes of getting out of camp, and got warmer and warmer as the air got richer going down the mountain.

Heading down towards the airfield

Heading down towards ‘The Airfield’ – Adele with a pack practically bigger than she is!

The trek was easy going and relaxed, which made a nice change after such a hard few days on the glacier struggling against the winds.

Heading through 'the goge' - Base Camp finally in view in the distance.

Heading through ‘the gorge’ – Base Camp finally in view in the distance.

Finally getting to Base Camp at about 11.30, we changed into T shirts and had a very welcoming lunch and (for a few of us at least) a well deserved beer – bliss!

Base Camp warmth and happiness!

Base Camp warmth and happiness!

It was then back into our trusty little trucks for the long journey back to Pyatigorsk, which went without incident.

On the dirt road out of Base Camp - even Viktor had to hold onto something!

On the dirt road out of Base Camp – even Viktor had to hold onto something!

It was almost weird being back in Pyatigorsk. The temperature was in the 30s (centigrade) but the shower was extremely welcome it has to be said after over a week without one.

In the evening we went to a pizza restaurant, and the first thing I noticed was that it was odd to be able to choose your own food. Strange how the mind adapts so quickly to your circumstances where you just put up with (even if you don’t always enjoy!) whatever food is put in front of you up a mountain. It was great though not to have buckwheat and borsht, and tuck into something tasty, washed down with more beer too – fabulous!

Then it was a case of trying to sleep in a temperature of (still) 30 degrees, but I think most folks managed it just fine. I hadn’t slept for the last two nights almost at all, and so could have slept standing up in a blast furnace if I had to.

The next day would determine whether we would be likely to get up Elbrus finally. The logistics alone of us getting into the right position to be able to even attempt the summit meant it was going to be a long and amazing journey in just 24 hours, and on top of the one we had already had, it just added to the fantastic adventure that it already was. This time though it was even more binary, as we had now less than 48 hours before our visas expired and we had to leave the country altogether. In what was now a race against the clock, as well as the elements, we would thus either summit tomorrow night, or would be going home empty handed. The weather forecast didn’t look too bad, but the term “fingers crossed” had never been so apt……

Elbrus Day 9 – summit attempt 2, or not? (24th August)

Day 9 would have been, if all gone extremely well, summit day on Elbrus. Sadly all had not gone to plan at all, and in the early hours of this morning we had been beaten back by some of the most forceful winds I had ever been out in. At about 3.30 this morning, the vast majority of us could barely see or stand up in gales and spindrift which left you breathless. These would have been bad enough on a winter’s day in England, but at almost 5km up on a Russian mountain, they were more than the biggest challenge that we could have coped with.

When we all crawled out of bed at 10.30 or this morning, we were all somewhat battered from the night before, but hopeful that there would be another chance if the weather turned in our favour. The forecast wasn’t good, but then the forecast throughout the whole trip had been entirely unreliable, and we were up a beast of a mountain that didn’t want to play ball, and that is that sometimes.

Today would end up a turbulent day, in more ways than one, and it would demonstrate that teamwork and communications are so vital for how harmonious and ultimately successful any summit attempt can be.

The boots and kit from last night get a good airing.

The boots and kit from last night get a good airing.

My midday, after everyone had dried and aired kit out on the rocks at high camp, Adele explained our options to us. We had possibly two more nights here at high camp, and we could (those of us who had the legs) attempt a summit attempt again tonight if we wanted. If it was successful that would be it. If we were again beaten back by the weather, then again those who were still fit, determined and capable enough could have a third go on Tuesday.

To some this sounded ok, to others (already bruised by the evening before’s attempts) it was enough already. Andy, Jo and Katherine for example, decided that they wouldn’t attempt it again this evening, and no-one could blame them for that.

There was also however, another possibility it seemed, which came to most of us slightly from left field, and it happened thus:

The previous expedition to Elbrus (a few weeks prior to ours) had been beaten back by weather too, and they had made a decision to try to go around to the other side of the mountain (the south side), and they (most of them anyway) had successfully summitted. Knowing this, Dennis and Roxanne, being Russian speakers had had a word with our Russian in-country guide Viktor about the possibility of us doing the same.

Killing time, dining hut, High Camp.

Killing time, dining hut, High Camp.

This caused a bit of consternation (ok, it caused a whole wheelbarrowfull of consternation) for several reasons. Firstly, this was Adele’s trip as leader and it was her decision ultimately as to what we did and didn’t do, and the fact that there was a subplot going on must have caused some difficulties for her, especially as the logistics were extremely complicated in changing plans at this late stage. Secondly it would mean everyone paying about another €200 to get round to the other side (transport and accommodation costs in the main), with no more guarantee of success than we had where we were. Thirdly it polarised one member of the party from the others, which was a real shame. Steve felt very strongly that he had come to do the mountain from the North Side, and he felt that to go from the South was not what he signed up for. This was due to the fact that a cable car would take us up the mountain there to the same height as we were now, 3,700m, and he felt that he didn’t want to be helped up a mountain by mechanical means.

As all this was by now going round in everyone’s heads, and no one knew what to do, Adele decided that the best way was to bring everyone together and to do this by a vote. Democracy would rule, and this seemed equitable I think to everyone, Steve included.

At about 4pm therefore, we all sat in the dining hut and all put forward our views. It was clear that the majority wanted to give themselves the best chance of standing on the summit of the mountain, and that included me, and that meant going to the South side tomorrow early on. It wasn’t a 100% yes vote, but then these sort of things rarely are. We left the hut knowing that the plan was however to do just that. Viktor made some phone calls, and we’d need to be down to Base Camp by about 11am to get minibuses back to Pyatigorsk (a four hour journey). We’d at least then be able to get cleaned up in the hotel and warm too – a nice shower after 11 days of nothing but baby wipes on the mountain was sounding extremely appealing!

In the meantime everyone occupied themselves with sorting out clothes and then also making a video! Today was Ukrainian Independence Day, and Dennis and Roxanne wanted to make a montage of everyone saying a line from some Ukrainian poem which symbolised the day. We all joined in heartily, and with the backdrop of a very windy and getting colder by the minute Elbrus, a great deal of fun and camaraderie was had.

Getting ready for Youtube filming, on our final afternoon at High Camp.

Getting ready for Youtube filming, on our final afternoon at High Camp.

So in the evening we gathered for our last supper at High Camp, only to have another spanner thrown into the works. Without wanting to paint too much of a biased view on proceedings, it turned out that what we agreed this afternoon was no longer a done deal. Steve basically unilaterally decided that he wasn’t going to the South of the mountain and that what we were here for was the North side, and this meant we needed to go for the summit tonight! I don’t think anyone really agreed with him, but again without elaborating too much on what was said or done (although this is my blog, I don’t feel it is right to have a “he said/she said” story here without people’s right to put their sides of the story too) that was that.

Adele therefore asked who would like to go for the summit at midnight, and there were six who opted in. Dennis, Roxanne, Steve, Cormac, Hui Ling and I would have our second attempts, and the rest would wait and see the outcome, which would basically be that if we made it, the trip was over and we all came down. If we were beaten, then there would still potentially be the chance of one more go the next day depending on what time and where we didn’t make it.

With rucksacks again packed, bedtime at 8pm just didn’t feel right, and I didn’t sleep a wink. I suppose I was uncomfortable that the group was now split and that we were no longer all in this together. By 9pm, all was quiet in the hut and also outside, but this really was the calm before the storm.

By about 10.30pm, an hour or so before we were due to get up, the most incredible wind began to blow. The hut shook, and vibrated, and moved literally backwards and forwards on its rock base albeit only slightly, but it could be felt all the same. The plastic sheeting that was our roof flapped so violently that I have no idea how it stayed on, or didn’t act as a sail and send us all crashing down the mountain. It would have been impossible to sleep if you were drugged up to the eyeballs in this, and it was pretty scary at times too.

It went through my mind several times that it might be better to get out of the hut and be safer taking chances in the rocks on the mountainside in my sleeping bag, but almost before the thought had the chance to take root it was midnight, and time to go up the mountain! But surely we couldn’t, could we? Adele donned her down jacket and stepped outside and met with Viktor to assess the situation. She duly returned within about 5 minutes during which time no-one left the pretend security of their sleeping bag, and she told us that they both had been literally blown off their feet outside, and that Viktor’s hat had sailed off down the mountain. No-one was going anywhere tonight. I was secretly delighted, however much I wanted to get to the top of this mountain, as I knew it wasn’t right and wasn’t going to happen tonight.

The wind continued to bellow and blast the hut all night, and if anything it got stronger. At about 3am I just wanted the world to stop and for to be able to get off, but it wasn’t going to happen I knew that. Not being able to sleep makes me miserable, and although this was all very exciting being up the mountain and all that, you just get tired of being tired.

I think that eventually I got about an hour’s sleep of some description immediately before dawn, when the wind did eventually abate a bit. If the night before up the mountain had been horrific, then this had been 5 times worse. Elbrus wasn’t going to let us get to the summit, not from the North side, and it was time to actually accept defeat. At 6am the decision was taken to pack things up and move out asap –  we were going down and moving out of here for good.

Elbrus Day 8 – Summit (Attempt) Day! (23rd August)

Day 8, Sunday 23rd August, saw us all wake up at High Camp at 3,730m for the fourth day, and it could (with a lot of luck) be the last day we would wake up here.

This evening would see our summit attempt on Elbrus, at 5,642m the highest point in all of Europe, leaving at around midnight. Before then it was a case of resting up as much as possible, getting kit ready, and trying to pass the time. The day was generally calm, although a bit cooler and windier than it had been, which left people wondering how conditions would be up on top. Yesterday’s acclimatisation walk had been in perfect conditions, but everyone knew that there would be no way we could expect things to be that benign all the way, even if the only forecast we had was a pretty good one.

In fact the weather forecast dominated pretty much everyone’s thoughts for most of the day. It was frustrating (and probably my only real criticism of Jagged Globe the whole trip) that even our expedition leader Adele Pennington didn’t have access to any sort of weather forecast. In fact the only way she could get access to anything substantive was to ring her partner via Sat Phone back home in Fort William, Scotland, to look things up on the internet for us. Sadly he was out, and so couldn’t oblige. The reason we needed it was to try to predict wind speeds at the top of the mountain, and they didn’t look good.

Our in country guide, Viktor, who had summited the mountain over 100 times, spent a fair bit of the time looking at the top of the mountain over the afternoon. He said “it doesn’t look good, wind may be too high”.

Viktor ponders what to do whilst the clouds begin to gather at pace over the summit.

Viktor ponders what to do whilst the clouds begin to gather at pace over the summit.

For the rest of us, we had no phone signal, no internet, no access to anything whatsoever, and it is at times like this that you realize just how much you miss those things. We did eventually manage to get one text message (thanks Hui Ling) away between us, which gave a response of 25 kph winds, clear, and -10 degrees. So on the basis of this, it looked like we were going for it. Whilst nervous, that was just what everyone wanted to hear.

By mid afternoon therefore, most people were basically ready with their equipment, and most (me included) chose to spend time resting or sleeping. We would after all not be going to sleep at all tonight, and would have (if successful) a 17 or so hour slog taking us through from midnight until late Sunday afternoon. The ascent would take a predicted 12 hours (we had over 2 vertical kilometers to climb), and then about 5 coming down all being well.

Viktor by teatime was again looking at the mountain somewhat nervously (or that’s how it looked). He however just pondered and said that we would decide at 11 O Clock when we all woke up. Everyone therefore went back to bed after dinner at about 8pm and tried to sleep. I didn’t sleep a wink, nervously waiting for the opportunity to hopefully get going.

When we got up again at 11pm, all was fairly calm, and a breakfast was duly prepared for us. We got porridge (proper version this time, not the buckwheat variety) and somewhat bizarrely, caviar. I didn’t really feel like eating anything at all, let alone caviar, but took some chocolate off the table for sustenance (there was always plenty of chocolate sweets around, and biscuits, which were considerably better than the bread, and softer too).

At midnight it was into our our harnesses, and this was it – it was happening! It was happening for all of us bar Dave that is – he decided after a day of deliberations (and a bit of a dicky tummy too) that he wasn’t going to make it, so decided to stay in camp.

Headtorches on, crampons tightened, we are off!

Headtorches on, crampons tightened, we are off!

So in calm but cold conditions, we set off into the night to conquer this big monster of a mountain, all 2km of further height to go. We were prepared, or so we thought.

Within an hour, and moving well on three ropes (two fours and a two), we were confronted by what was initially just a squally headwind, which although it began to burn spindrift into our faces, was entirely manageable. Within an hour and a half however, and with probably only four hundred metres or so gained, it was battering us with every step.

Within two hours it was actually hard to stand up, with the spindrift sheeting into our faces.  There were other head torches around us on the mountain, but it was very difficult to tell at times which way was up and which was down. All you could really do was look at the boots in front of you, and hope they were heading in the right direction. The wind was deafening to the point that you couldn’t have heard yourself scream, and without goggles there wouldn’t have been any way of seeing through what was now basically a whiteout. It couldn’t last, and something simply had to give, either the weather or us.

By about 3am or so we had reached Lenz rocks, and I am not sure even how, but it was good at least to have some definition and know where we were on the mountain. This was about 4,650m. I have no camera shots of this, as I didn’t dare even try to get it out of my bag. There was another group in front of ours, and they were sheltering at the rocks. They seemed to do so for all of about 5 seconds, before about turning and heading straight back down the mountain. Their decision to go down I suppose made it easier for us to reconcile, and with no thought at all from any of us we very happily and unspeakingly followed Adele and Viktor’s lead and got the hell out of there.

There was no dissention in the ranks at all. It would have been at best dangerous to go on, and each step as it was was getting harder and harder.

We headed down the mountain in one straight shot without a break, and got down to High Camp a little after 5am, totally spent. It had been so much effort just making forward momentum at times that no-one probably could have gone on for much longer anyway, even if the weather had miraculously abated. No-one from anywhere summited the mountain that night – and when I look back now at the forecast wind speed of 25kph well I think you could have trebled that and been nearer the mark. What conditions would have been like further up I dread to think.

Safely down, it was straight into bed for a sleep and a rest. No-one cared at this point what the next day would bring, we just needed to get into sleeping bags and crash. I cannot remember ever sleeping so easily or well, and that is coming from someone who sleeps like a log every night of his life.

So maybe the next day we could try again, as we had a spare day and a half built into the itinerary for such contingencies. That was if we still had the legs. But tomorrow, even though we were already into it, just seemed for now like an awfully long way off.

Elbrus Day 7 (22nd August)

So a week into our trip now, and Day 7 would see our first early start and our first proper trip up the glacier after yesterday’s preparatory glacier travel session. 6 am would come around very quickly (although we slept in slightly as Adele’s alarm failed to go off and when I nudged her at 6.10 everyone was still asleep, including her :)). The good news on looking out of the hut was that we could finally see the top of the mountain!

Elbrus reveals her self properly finally, just after sunrise. The West summit is on the right, although is actually out of view here.

Elbrus reveals herself properly finally, just after sunrise. The West summit is on the right, although is actually out of view here.

This wasn’t the actual top of the mountain, as the summit is hidden from view at High Camp, but it was the closest we were going to see it from here that was for sure. In the above picture the rocks towards the East (left side) summit start at about 4,700m, and they would be our objective for the day.

By about 6.45 everyone had breakfasted and was starting to get kitted up for the trip. Breakfast was again the dreaded buckwheat, which was served like porridge but was pretty unpalatable. Jo in particular struggled to eat hers at alI, and I think most people including me put a brave face on but struggled with every mouthful.

We set off in the end at about 7.30, and as the bottom of the glacier was only 100m from camp we had crampons on almost straight away. The weather was again glorious as it had been most days so far. We started out on two ropes and then came off these at about 4,200m.

Setting off up the glacier, but where the heck did the dog come from?

Setting off up the glacier, but where the heck did the dog come from?

Most people were fine on the ascent, but some naturally found it harder than others. Dave found it tough going, partly as he lost a water bottle half way up, and partly because this was the highest he had ever been up to at altitude. He did brilliantly though throughout considering he had never been this high before. We were also strangely followed up the mountain by a Labrador, who obviously didn’t mind the altitude, and did its best to meander between us and get in our way the whole way. I guessed it must belong to one of the various Russian climbers who were camped close to us on the rocks at High Camp. I’ve never seen a dog that high before that’s for sure.

From 4,200m we stayed off ropes so that Adele and Viktor could judge which of us were capable of summitting. We had been told that the group would be likely be split on summit night (hopefully tomorrow) depending upon the weather and how everyone was feeling. The west (true) summit, although only 21m higher than the East summit, was a further three hours, and so would only be for the fittest and fastest of the group. No-one, but no-one, wanted to go to the East Peak.

Our ten takes a well earned breather while Viktor';s team above soldiers on - the sun beats down still.

Our rope takes a well earned breather while Viktor’s team above soldiers on – the sun beats down still.

Looking back down towards High Camp from about 4,600m. If you look very closely there are climbers just starting out way down below.

Looking back down towards High Camp from about 4,600m. If you look very closely there are climbers just starting out on the glacier way down below.

Looking East towards Georgia - the pitch of the mountain was consistently steep the whole way.

Looking East towards Georgia – the pitch of the mountain was consistently steep the whole way.

As we reached the start of Lenz Rocks (4,600m) the group started fragmenting more, and also the weather turned noticeably colder. From just having one layer on, all of a sudden within 100 metres I needed three, plus gloves, hat and buff. It made me realise, as if I needed to be told, just how conditions can change on a mountain. We were also still one vertical kilometre away from what would hopefully be Sunday night/Monday morning’s destination, and I made a mental note to make sure my rucksack had as much cold weather gear in it as I had with me. This was after all the middle of the day in glorious sunshine, and we would be aiming for this part of the mountain in pre-dawn conditions, always the coldest part of the day.

We stopped at 4,800m, had a quick snack, and then soon after headed down again, our acclimatisation over for now. We could see climbers well above us at the Col at about 5,300m, and the pitch there looked really steep. I realised that this would be a really really tough summit day on a big and tough mountain. It was already harder and steeper than I had expected it to be.

Looking down towards High Camp from Lenz Rocks at 4,800m, the clouds now starting to roll in up the mountains

Looking down towards High Camp from Lenz Rocks at 4,800m, the clouds now starting to roll in up the mountains

 

A we all earned breather at Lenz Rocks, 4,800m, our highest point of the day, the temperatures massively different up here.

A we all earned breather at Lenz Rocks, 4,800m, our highest point of the day, the temperatures massively different up here.

Katherine enjoys that "yay I'm at 4,800m moment"

Katherine enjoys that “yay I’m at 4,800m moment”

Everyone had made it to 4,800m, which was great, and the next time we would (hopefully) pass this spot would hopefully be on our summit attempt. The conditions had been better than perfect, and it had been a hugely successful acclimatisation walk.

The trek back down was largely uneventful, save for very close to the bottom of the glacier when I managed to trip over my crampons and fall face first onto some hard ice. I thankfully protected my face with my hands but I otherwise couldn’t really adjust the fall as we were all still roped up at the time. I came away with one badly cut finger and a few other cuts and scrapes, but thankfully nothing worse. It would have been typical for me to hurt myself by doing something careless and clumsy in such an innocuous situation by just not looking where I am going. I made a note to myself to always have gloved hands on a glacier too.

Some of the views on the way down were breathtaking, and this part of the world is surely as beautiful as anything the Alps has to offer. We could also see from here some of the views towards the south side of Elbrus, and it looked a lot more mountainous and dramatic over there. It really made me want to come back and explore more at another date, although unbeknown to me at the time, I’d be seeing more of the south side a lot sooner than I thought.

After a restful afternoon we had a debrief from Adele about what summit day would involve, and everyone generally chilled and checked kit etc. I got my cut fingers attended to by Dennis (who as a doctor had come prepared with full medical kit) and Adele, and all was fine.

Afternoon tea and a debrief of what tomorrow might bring - good hut times :)

Afternoon tea and a debrief of what tomorrow might bring – good hut times 🙂

So that was us acclimatised, and we would now rest our bodies and get prepared physically and mentally by doing literally as little as possible over the next 36 hours. The next day would be a complete rest day in preparation for the summit bid commencing at midnight. We’d rest until late afternoon, then sleep until 11pm, whereupon we’d have a summit breakfast before heading out for a 16/17 hour summit attempt.

We all went to bed fairly early in nervous and excited anticipation of what lay before us. It was time, almost, to step up to the highest point in all of Europe.

Elbrus Day 6 (21st August)

Day 6 would see us do our first crampon walking on the glacier, but would otherwise be a day for us to acclimatise at camp 2 at 3,730m. This would be our home until after summit day, which would be another 3 or 4 days potentially depending upon the weather. The accommodation was again in huts, which is at least warmer than tents, and gave us more room to sort out kit etc.

Our aim for today was firstly to collect all of our summit equipment which had been cached the day before at about 3,500m. So after a pretty reasonable sleep, and a nice breakfast of buckwheat (Jo’s favourite food, she loved it, not, closely follow by me and Cormac), and with the sun shining, we walked back down the mountain through a boulder field to where our kit was stored, hoping all the time that it was still there, as without it there would be no possibility of climbing the mountain.

Heading down the boulder field in search of hidden treasures.

Heading down the boulder field in search of hidden treasures.

Thankfully everyone found everything buried under the rocks just as it had been left, and as it had all been diligently wrapped in drybags/plastic bags it was still dry too. The walk back up to camp only took about an hour, and after lunch we went out to the glacier to make sure everything worked ok, which thankfully it did for all of us.

Everyone getting the hang of their crampons.....

Everyone getting the hang of their crampons…..

A pretty chilled day all round was had.

A pretty chilled day all round was had.

We ascended about 300m or so in zig zags up to around 4,000m and everyone found the going pretty easy.

Looking back down the glacier towards our huts, middle left of picture.

Looking back down the glacier towards our huts, middle left of picture.

And looking back up towards the summit, descending now towards camp.

And looking back up towards the summit, descending now towards camp.

Following this everyone chilled for the afternoon and had a few games of Mafia (a good game if you don’t know it – look it up!) before dinner and an early night. Tomorrow would be an early start for our acclimatisation walk up to around 4,800m. The weather looked promising for the morning, following which we would then have an entirely free rest day to prepare us for the summit the night after. It was getting more and more exciting by the day now……..