Elbrus Day 8 – Summit (Attempt) Day! (23rd August)

Day 8, Sunday 23rd August, saw us all wake up at High Camp at 3,730m for the fourth day, and it could (with a lot of luck) be the last day we would wake up here.

This evening would see our summit attempt on Elbrus, at 5,642m the highest point in all of Europe, leaving at around midnight. Before then it was a case of resting up as much as possible, getting kit ready, and trying to pass the time. The day was generally calm, although a bit cooler and windier than it had been, which left people wondering how conditions would be up on top. Yesterday’s acclimatisation walk had been in perfect conditions, but everyone knew that there would be no way we could expect things to be that benign all the way, even if the only forecast we had was a pretty good one.

In fact the weather forecast dominated pretty much everyone’s thoughts for most of the day. It was frustrating (and probably my only real criticism of Jagged Globe the whole trip) that even our expedition leader Adele Pennington didn’t have access to any sort of weather forecast. In fact the only way she could get access to anything substantive was to ring her partner via Sat Phone back home in Fort William, Scotland, to look things up on the internet for us. Sadly he was out, and so couldn’t oblige. The reason we needed it was to try to predict wind speeds at the top of the mountain, and they didn’t look good.

Our in country guide, Viktor, who had summited the mountain over 100 times, spent a fair bit of the time looking at the top of the mountain over the afternoon. He said “it doesn’t look good, wind may be too high”.

Viktor ponders what to do whilst the clouds begin to gather at pace over the summit.

Viktor ponders what to do whilst the clouds begin to gather at pace over the summit.

For the rest of us, we had no phone signal, no internet, no access to anything whatsoever, and it is at times like this that you realize just how much you miss those things. We did eventually manage to get one text message (thanks Hui Ling) away between us, which gave a response of 25 kph winds, clear, and -10 degrees. So on the basis of this, it looked like we were going for it. Whilst nervous, that was just what everyone wanted to hear.

By mid afternoon therefore, most people were basically ready with their equipment, and most (me included) chose to spend time resting or sleeping. We would after all not be going to sleep at all tonight, and would have (if successful) a 17 or so hour slog taking us through from midnight until late Sunday afternoon. The ascent would take a predicted 12 hours (we had over 2 vertical kilometers to climb), and then about 5 coming down all being well.

Viktor by teatime was again looking at the mountain somewhat nervously (or that’s how it looked). He however just pondered and said that we would decide at 11 O Clock when we all woke up. Everyone therefore went back to bed after dinner at about 8pm and tried to sleep. I didn’t sleep a wink, nervously waiting for the opportunity to hopefully get going.

When we got up again at 11pm, all was fairly calm, and a breakfast was duly prepared for us. We got porridge (proper version this time, not the buckwheat variety) and somewhat bizarrely, caviar. I didn’t really feel like eating anything at all, let alone caviar, but took some chocolate off the table for sustenance (there was always plenty of chocolate sweets around, and biscuits, which were considerably better than the bread, and softer too).

At midnight it was into our our harnesses, and this was it – it was happening! It was happening for all of us bar Dave that is – he decided after a day of deliberations (and a bit of a dicky tummy too) that he wasn’t going to make it, so decided to stay in camp.

Headtorches on, crampons tightened, we are off!

Headtorches on, crampons tightened, we are off!

So in calm but cold conditions, we set off into the night to conquer this big monster of a mountain, all 2km of further height to go. We were prepared, or so we thought.

Within an hour, and moving well on three ropes (two fours and a two), we were confronted by what was initially just a squally headwind, which although it began to burn spindrift into our faces, was entirely manageable. Within an hour and a half however, and with probably only four hundred metres or so gained, it was battering us with every step.

Within two hours it was actually hard to stand up, with the spindrift sheeting into our faces.  There were other head torches around us on the mountain, but it was very difficult to tell at times which way was up and which was down. All you could really do was look at the boots in front of you, and hope they were heading in the right direction. The wind was deafening to the point that you couldn’t have heard yourself scream, and without goggles there wouldn’t have been any way of seeing through what was now basically a whiteout. It couldn’t last, and something simply had to give, either the weather or us.

By about 3am or so we had reached Lenz rocks, and I am not sure even how, but it was good at least to have some definition and know where we were on the mountain. This was about 4,650m. I have no camera shots of this, as I didn’t dare even try to get it out of my bag. There was another group in front of ours, and they were sheltering at the rocks. They seemed to do so for all of about 5 seconds, before about turning and heading straight back down the mountain. Their decision to go down I suppose made it easier for us to reconcile, and with no thought at all from any of us we very happily and unspeakingly followed Adele and Viktor’s lead and got the hell out of there.

There was no dissention in the ranks at all. It would have been at best dangerous to go on, and each step as it was was getting harder and harder.

We headed down the mountain in one straight shot without a break, and got down to High Camp a little after 5am, totally spent. It had been so much effort just making forward momentum at times that no-one probably could have gone on for much longer anyway, even if the weather had miraculously abated. No-one from anywhere summited the mountain that night – and when I look back now at the forecast wind speed of 25kph well I think you could have trebled that and been nearer the mark. What conditions would have been like further up I dread to think.

Safely down, it was straight into bed for a sleep and a rest. No-one cared at this point what the next day would bring, we just needed to get into sleeping bags and crash. I cannot remember ever sleeping so easily or well, and that is coming from someone who sleeps like a log every night of his life.

So maybe the next day we could try again, as we had a spare day and a half built into the itinerary for such contingencies. That was if we still had the legs. But tomorrow, even though we were already into it, just seemed for now like an awfully long way off.

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 5 (20th August)

Day 5 of the trip began with the sound of torrential rain on top of the hut in base camp. This would be our second and last morning at base camp, as we would be ascending to Camp 2 (or High Camp, at 3,730m) today.

The rain had carried on all night and it seemed like it would never end. We woke up at 7, and just didn’t even want to get out of the sleeping bags. It was one of those mornings when you just don’t even want to go to the toilet. But get up we had to, as we would have to pack up all of our remaining kit that we would need for the summit, as the last time we would see base camp would be after summit day.

By the time we had got wet walking the 10 yards to the dining hut we were all fired up again, and the rain actually started to ease off a bit. We waited until about 9.30 before setting out, and everyone’s rucksacks were practically bursting, and we realised the merits of having cached so much stuff the day before, to the point that we couldn’t have got much more in this day. Jagged Globe had originally advised 45 litre rucksacks, but even with a 75 litre one I was still pushed to fit everything in.

The walk would be the same one as we did for yesterday’s cache trip, and then it was about another hour and a half from there to our hut.

Thankfully the rain held off for the vast majority of the trip, but there was the odd downpour which meant that the waterproofs stayed on for most of the way.

Hui Ling tries her best Monsters Inc impression on Adele, who seems somewhat unperturbed :)

Hui Ling tries her best Monsters Inc impression on Adele, who seems somewhat unperturbed 🙂

The path through the boulders as the climb began to steepen....

The path through the boulders as the climb began to steepen….

.....and we are nearly there as the glacier finally comes into view.

…..and we are nearly there as the glacier finally comes into view.

Once past our cache the path steepened significantly, and with very heavy packs on it made it quite tiring. Once we had climbed for about three quarters of an hour we finally got a view of the top third of the mountain (minus the summit, which was still in cloud), which was great and really lifted my tiredness. From there the last half hour or so was an easy walk, and we reached the three huts which made up our new home for the next six days.

The glacier leading towards the summit of Elbrus - a faint trail of climbers can be seen on the way up on the left hand side.

The glacier leading towards the summit of Elbrus – a faint trail of climbers can be seen on the way up on the left hand side.

 

The 'flappy roof' hut on the right, which housed nine of us, the kitchen hut on the left.

The ‘flappy roof’ hut on the right, which housed nine of us, the kitchen hut on the left.

Once in camp we sorted ourselves into two different huts, nine of us in one, and four in the other. The hut with the four was shared initially with a number of Russian guys who looked like they were going for the summit the next day, and this would probably be the pattern for the week as to people coming and going. The rest of us tried to spread out a bit in our hut (not very difficult I can assure you), and the main challenge in there (as the rest of the week was to prove) was the nylon roof – it was very evident that if the wind blew much then it would not be very comfortable or quiet in there.

High Camp, inside the flappy roof hut - cosy at least!

High Camp, inside the flappy roof hut – cosy at least!

A view towards the high camp toilet (left middle of shot in the distance) - a long walk in the middle of the night (which was never made to my knowledge, al fresco much easier).

A view towards the high camp toilet (left middle of shot in the distance) – a long walk in the middle of the night (which was never made to my knowledge, al fresco much easier).

We stayed around camp for the afternoon and took some pictures of what we could see of the mountain, and just generally hung around and rested. It was important just to get used to being at over 3,700m, and it was clear that just trying to move quickly could easily overexert yourself.

The views up towards the top of the mountain showed just how far we still had to go. It was upwards of 2 vertical kilometres to the top, and that would be our summit day. I recalled that I had never gone close to 2,000m of ascent in a day ever, let alone at close to 6km high. It was going to be the tallest of orders, but no-one was focussing on that for the time being.

Our first (almost) clear view of the top of the mountain. The only clear views were at about 6am as the sun rose. The summit (west peak) is hidden behind the clouds at the top right of the picture.

Our first (almost) clear view of the top of the mountain. The only clear views were at about 6am as the sun rose. The summit (west peak) is hidden behind the clouds at the top right of the picture.

Hut life at 3,730m - this was our dining hut - home for all meals for the next five or more days....

Hut life at 3,730m – this was our dining hut – home for all meals for the next five or more days….

Following a dinner of borsht (we got used to it, and actually it wasn’t bad at all) it was a reasonably early night for all and hopefully some sleep. Everyone was tired, but sleeping at close to 3,800m when not yet acclimatised would no doubt prove difficult.

At our briefing this evening we were told that the next day we would go an collect our mountaineering equipment from the cache down the mountain, and then get some glacier travel practice in the afternoon. It seemed all of a sudden that the really exciting part of the trip, that of getting onto Elbrus’ glacier, and upper reaches, was finally about to start. This had been months in the coming for most of us, and was at last here. The summit seemed so close now, and yet still so far……