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 One/Two (16th/17th August 2014)

The first day (and night) of the Elbrus trip was basically all taken up with travelling. Oh and packing, and of course faffing. I am a terrible last minute faffer when it comes to travelling generally, but worse still when it comes to trips to the mountains. I feel the need to pack and unpack several times, despite the fact that my kit has been laid out in order for several days and ticked off a list.

I also find that I have the need to buy things last minute. I will look at the “recommended things to take” some weeks in advance, and know that some things I must have, and others are at best superfluous. I then find myself in a last minute flap when I simply must have those items on the last day.

Take today for example. A matter of hours before I leave for the airport I am buying a silk sleeping bag liner and an insulated tube for my Camelbak. Oh and a half litre flask that I know I will probably never carry, let alone even use. And cords for my sunglasses that I don’t like, and don’t even fit.

Oh and I bought a new down jacket just in case it fitted better into my rucksack than my other one that I bought last year and have never worn. I put neither of them into my bag in the end – just a waste of time and my money. Memo to self – be less wasteful in future 😦

So anyway, on to the travelling. Day one was basically for the group to meet at Heathrow and get to Russia. The flight was Aeroflot to Moscow, and then from Moscow to Mineralne Vody (which translates to ‘Mineral Waters’). We would then meet our group leader, Britain’s only female multiple Everest climber Adele Pennington, in Mineralne Vody the next day. The first flight to Moscow went at 22.15, so it was destined to be a long day and night.

We met at 7pm or so at Heathrow, and we were 11 people in total. Andy and Cormac I had met before at the pre-Elbrus weekend in Snowdonia in June. It was really good to see them again. Then there was Dave, Steve, Dennis and Roxanne, Hui Ling, Jo, and Paul and Katherine. You sort of know when it is going to be a good group, and it was going to be a really good group.

After what seemed to be an interminably long check in, eventually all went smoothly from there, and after a swift glass of wine or two we were on our way. Moscow arrived at 5am in the morning after adding the three hour time difference, and after an almost four hour layover we were on our way to Mineralne Vody, a further two and a half hour flight due south towards the Caucasus mountains, our ultimate destination.

The only shop in Mineralne Vody airport, selling caviar - what else?!

The only shop in Mineralne Vody airport, selling caviar – what else?!

Upon meeting Adele, who was there at the airport to meet us, and Viktor, our local guide, we set off in one small minibus and a taxi. It was sweltering, at a somewhat unexpected 36 degrees C, and air conditioned vehicles are not something I think much seen in these parts of Russia. I had at least arrived in shorts, but it was quite frankly just too hot to be outside whatever you had on.

We checked into the Intourist Hotel in Pyatigorsk, about two hours later, and were just happy to be there, even as hot as it was. What with uncertainties over the Russian/Ukrainian crisis, and a day and night of travelling involving all manner of planes, trains and automobiles, it was great to have all the luggage intact too, particularly as I had spent about £1,000 on my last minute kit shenanigans, including a super warm sleeping bag that would be great for the arctic circle, but probably would boil me alive down here.

The Intourist Hotel, Pyatigorsk - not the prettiest sight in the world, and a case of 'function over form' for the most part.

The Intourist Hotel, Pyatigorsk – not the prettiest sight in the world, and a case of ‘function over form’ for the most part.

Mine and Paul's room at the Intourist Hotel, basic, but clean enough, just :)

Mine and Paul’s room at the Intourist Hotel, basic, but clean enough, just 🙂

Having got ourselves sorted into our rooms etc., everyone headed out into town to get lunch and buy water and a few snacks for the days ahead. A pizza lunch and (sadly) warm beer over, everyone then headed back to sort out kit etc. for the next day. We would leave anything that we didn’t need for the mountain in the hotel, and pack everything else ready for our departure south to the mountains the next morning.

A view over Pyatigorsk from the third floor of our hotel.

A view over Pyatigorsk from the third floor of our hotel.

Pyatigorsk seemed like quite a nice place, and certainly prettier than I had feared. This being my first trip to Russia, I had expected something more austere, but throughout the trip it was more affluent, more colourful, more friendly, and just generally ‘nicer’ than I expected it to be. On the flip side of that I saw more military checkpoints and machine guns than I had bargained for too, but more of that in a later post.

In the evening Viktor took us to a local restaurant, and we all got to have a few beers and a general unwind before the ‘real’ trip started the next day.

The group chill over beer and way too many herbs for dinner.

The group chill over beer and way too many herbs for dinner.

On our way back finally to the hotel something quite strange and almost magical happened. We were walking through a park approaching the hotel, when as we got near a large series of water fountains it became clear that there were literally hundreds of people gathered. Then, over loudspeakers unseen, the sound of classical music began, whereupon to coloured lighting in both the trees and the fountains themselves, the waters danced a coordinated song to the music of Strauss! It was mesmeric, and quite beautifully done.

Fountain music - a completely unexpected, and actually delightful, surprise.

Fountain music – a completely unexpected, and actually delightful, surprise.

I stood transfixed, and grinning from ear to ear, as a large crowd, young and old, late at night, enjoyed the majesty and simplicity of the spectacle in front of them. This was something that would not occur back home in the UK – it was almost too cultural if you like. I decided that I already loved Russia, and realised that experiences like this, whilst unplanned, were very much part of why I love travelling and going to new places in the first place.

Back finally at the hotel, and it still being about 30 degrees outside, sleep was not terribly easy to come by (air conditioning being as missing in the hotel as it was in the minibus earlier), but eventually it did, as we were all really tired from having not been to bed the night before. It would not by any means be the last loss of night’s sleep to come on this trip, and the adventures ahead of us would start to properly unfold the next day. We were ready – it was time – we were finally here.

It’s Elbrus Time!

I am close to being ready to go for my long awaited trip to Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain, at 5,642m or 18,510 feet. Elbrus is a dormant volcano in the south of Russia, in the Caucasus mountain range, and close to the border with Georgia. Whilst some people argue that this part of Russia is actually in Asia, it is accepted in all mountaineering circles that Elbrus is in Europe.

So why climb it, and why now? Well it is no secret to anyone that knows me that I harbour a (perhaps foolish, and almost certainly overambitious) desire to complete the Seven Summits. Having done Kilimanjaro a few years ago, I have booked to do Aconcagua in each of the last two years, but had to cancel, and so it is booked again for this December, and I am hoping that it is third time lucky. In the meantime then, I am ‘squeezing in’ Elbrus and hoping that I am lucky enough to be able to summit.

Elbrus :)

Elbrus 🙂

Elbrus has two main routes up, the North and the South, and also two summits, the East and the West. The South route is easier and busier, being populated by a cable car and ski runs up to over 3,000m. I will be attempting the North route, and trekking the whole mountain from base to summit. I will also be aiming for the West summit, the slightly higher of the two, conditions permitting. The whole trip takes about 12 days, of which nine are on the climb itself.

The mountain is essentially non-technical, in that it requires only glacier travel experience, and no technical climbing. It will need crampons and ice-axe only, and for us to be roped up in teams of four. The climb is expedition style, which means carrying everything that I have with me on my back, and cacheing where possible as part of the acclimatisation. The sleeping arrangements are in tents, other than I think one night in a hut of sorts somewhere. I think the final night is spent at around 15,800 feet, which is higher than Mont Blanc!

I’ve had to buy a shedload of new stuff for my trip (well actually I could have hired most of it, but I just wanted some new kit), and including some 6,000m mountaineering boots, a -25 degree sleeping bag, a new thermarest, an ice axe, a new 75 litre rucksack, a new lightweight harness, and a new light down jacket. Packing it all into the rucksack is going to be fun, but I’ll obviously get there somehow.

The whole trip is going to be an amazing adventure, as amongst other things it is my first trip to Russia, my first trip to the Caucasus mountains, my first expedition style mountaineering (they have been portered previously), and the second highest (fingers crossed) that I will have ever been (depending upon how high people think Kala Pattar is, which if higher than this then it will be third highest). It is also a fundamental stepping stone to the Seven Summits, so fail badly here and then the rest I can forget about really, so the pressure is on too. I’m not thinking about failure though – albeit if the weather is bad (as I found out on Mont Blanc a few weeks ago) then there is nothing you can do about it.

The trip goes via Moscow, then internal flight to Mineralne Vody, then by road to Pyatigorsk. If all goes well I’ll be on the summit about a week after that following a long route up the mountain, and probably some interesting food along the way. I’m very open to whatever is thrown at me, and I hope fit enough too. We’ll find out soon enough…….my next post will let you know whether or not I made it………..until then!