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……