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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.