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.
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.
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.
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.