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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I managed to get my camera out for the following shot too, taken for me by Cormac – thanks Cormac!
Oh and here’s one more just for posterity 🙂
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.