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 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……..

Elbrus Day Three (18th August 2014)

Day two started very pleasantly/slightly surreally with breakfast in the ballroom (yes really) of the Intourist Hotel. It was a good breakfast and we met some of the Jagged Globe group who had been on the previous trip there too, as they were just returning home that day. Not many of them had summited, but they seemed to have enjoyed the experience. It was suggested to me that I ‘fill my boots’ at the breakfast table, as apart from a lot of soup on the mountain, there wasn’t a lot else that was particularly fulfilling. I took note and ate as many croissants as I could get down 🙂

The somewhat overelaborate breakfast setting at the Intourist Hotel

The somewhat overelaborate breakfast setting at the Intourist Hotel

We then set off for Base Camp on Elbrus at 8.45 in two of the oldest minibuses I have ever seen:

Our carriages await......

Our carriages await……

squeezing in the luggage - it fit, just.

squeezing in the luggage – it fit, just.

There were 8 of us in one plus 5 in the other (the 11 of us plus Adele and Viktor our guides) and plus the drivers too. The heat was stifling, as the temperature was 38 degrees and the only air cooling you could get was by tying to hold part of one of the windows half open. It didn’t do much, but it was something.

The journey was about 100km in total, of which the first three hours were on fairly normal roads. At this point we got our first views of the twin peaks of Elbrus through the windows of the minibus. It looked monstrous from even this far out. Every picture I have seen online of Elbrus just doesn’t do it justice, as when you see it in the flesh you realise how massive and also steep it’s upper slopes are. It made me nervous already, but very excited at the same time.

The mighty (and that's an understatement) Elbrus comes into view finally.

The mighty (and that’s an understatement) Elbrus comes into view finally.

Having turned off the main road the driver got out and pulled a lever on the front of the van which I think adjusted either the drive or the differential. Either way I still couldn’t believe the rutted track he started driving up. “Ridiculous” doesn’t do it justice, the van pitching from side to side like a small boat being tossed around on a stormy sea.

To make this part of the journey even more exciting the road was only just as wide as the van, and there was a precipitous drop off the left hand side, which would have meant that one slip of the wheels and we would never have been seen again, or not alive anyway. I only wish I could have taken a photo, but, I didn’t dare lose my grip from the side of the seat and the handle in front of me lest I find myself upside down.

When we eventually got across this pass, we could see base camp finally come into view. This was such a relief as it meant that we could get out of the van shortly, but the drama wasn’t over quite yet. As we approached about half a mile from base camp, with the tents in sight, it became obvious to our driver (who had got out of the van by this time and was looking a bit concerned) that the fast flowing river between us and camp was too deep for the van to get through. We would all therefore have to get out and walk.

Base camp comes into view at 2,500m on Elbrus - that river down there is also the road however....

Base camp comes into view at 2,500m on Elbrus – that river down there is also the road however….

There was a bridge about half a mile downstream where we could get over on foot (albeit somewhat precariously, as it was a rope bridge below which the torrential melt water from the glacier was gushing by). The vans then disappeared upstream somewhere where presumably they could cross more easily without the encumbrance of 8 or so people. The crossing was great fun in the end and we were able to get to the other side safely, and were met by the vans to continue our journey into base camp.

Andy didn't seem to be too phased by the bridge :)

Andy didn’t seem to be too phased by the bridge 🙂

We were in camp by about 1 O’ Clock, and shown to our hut. We had expected to be in two man tents, so the hut was a nice surprise, although it meant that there would be 8 people in our hut (one for the boys one for the girls) which would make it rather warm. This meant my nice new -29 C sleeping bag was not going to get much of a work out, but better too warm than too cold when you are in the mountains.

Elbrus Base Camp, north side - the boys' hut is on the left.

Elbrus Base Camp, north side – the boys’ hut is on the left, number 5.

After lunch (our first soup!) we went out on a walk for a couple of hours just to get the legs moving again. The walk was really nice, with views of an albeit very cloudy Elbrus, and we went down the valley and then up again. We came upon a load of tents a little way down towards the river, and when there, we were told by Viktor that the waters down here are alleged to have healing properties. There was a small outdoor ‘spa’ which was packed (and I mean packed) with hairy-arsed (not that I looked that closely :)) Russian men, and the only thing more surprising than this was the fact that Viktor went down and stripped off and jumped in himself.

Glacial meltwater pours through an opening in the rocks above us....

Glacial meltwater pours through an opening in the rocks above us….

The campsite down the valley which brought masses of people to the 'healing' springs....

The campsite down the valley which brought masses of people to the ‘healing’ springs….

....and the 'spa' to which they flocked. It was a little too 'cosy' in there for me to go anywhere near!

….and the ‘spa’ to which they flocked. It was a little too ‘cosy’ in there for me to go anywhere near!

Upon getting back to camp at about 5 or so it was time nearly for dinner, whereupon we would get our briefing from Adele for the next day. There would be a change to the proposed itinerary, and instead of spending three days here at Base Camp there would be just two. At 2,500m or so, Adele felt that we needed to move higher earlier in order to acclimatise for the later stages of the mountain.

The next camp was at 3,700m, and we would move there the day after tomorrow. In the meantime we would have to cache our mountaineering equipment tomorrow on an acclimatisation walk to about 3,500m. We were about to travel true ‘expedition-style’, which was a first for me – there are no porters or animals to help you on Elbrus – you take what you need, and carry it yourself, in as many goes as it requires to get you up the mountain.

So we had only just arrived here, and had already had an amazing adventure, seeing and experiencing so much. I couldn’t wait to get higher, and start to explore and see the upper reaches of the mountain – with good weather and good acclimatisation, we could potentially be on the summit inside the next five days………….