Elbrus

Below is a diary I wrote after climbing Mt Elbrus for the first time in 2010. As you can see, it was a pretty interesting experience..! Names have been changed.

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FRIDAY, SEPT 17, 2010 : MOSCOW -> MINERALNYE VODY -> AZAU VILLAGE

Friday dawns clear and bright over my mammoth, Soviet-style hotel
overlooking a swathe of forest in the east end of Moscow. I had arrived
in Russia the evening before, for the first time, following weeks of
visa chaos and a few hectic shopping sprees for mountain climbing
clothes and boots which look made for skiing. As my flight descends
towards Domodedovo airport, the city's grey tower blocks glint in the
evening sun and remind me slightly of East Berlin.

It had been over a year since a group of friends and I climbed
Kilimanjaro, and while Elbrus (5,642m) is seen as the natural next step
(slightly more technical, a whole lot colder) I feel daunted as well as
excited at the challenge.

After a buffet breakfast spent observing the other hotel guests and
trying some tough boiled chicken (a poor imitation of Chinese bak chit
gei) and jellified mystery meat, I meet Lydia, the tour company driver.
For the next hour or so we battle traffic jams to Moscow's domestic
airport (Sheremetyevo). I had had high hopes of it being a clapped-out,
Communist relic but no such luck - it is boringly sleek and modern. You
can buy luxury Italian biscuits there.

But at least Aeroflot lives up to its reputation. Not only are the
plane's seats very, very close together, it is also possible to flop
each one fully forward like the top of a picnic basket. The bottom of
the seats flips to vertical position as well if needed. I end up wedged
between the window and an older couple from our destination, Mineralnye
Vody ("Mineral Waters") and we manage to have a few short conversations
based mostly on sign language. They offer me sweets, and after the meal
the husband holds out a packet of cigarettes. I decline, and he points
up at the lit-up No Smoking sign, shrugs and rolls his eyes as if to say
"I can't believe the idiots banned smoking on planes."

About two hours later we land at Mineralnye Vody in Russia's volatile
Caucasus region. The Caucasus mountain range is often cited as the
dividing line between Europe and Asia, and the people here are a real
mix: there are Christians and Muslims hailing from over 50 ethnic groups
and at least three languages groups in circulation.

Andrei, our guide, meets me off the plane. Three other members of our
team have already arrived: Helga, 35, originally from East Germany and
now a self-proclaimed New Yorker; Ralf, 48, an affable engineer from
Stuttgart and Rainer, his 19-year-old son. Both father and son are
strapping, friendly Germans still sunburnt from going up Mont Blanc the
previous week.

The bus ride to Azau Village, the bottom of Mt. Elbrus, takes over four
hours and passes directly through Pyatigorsk, scene of a bomb attack at
a marketplace two weeks earlier.

We stop on the way for provisions and a rest break. The air is
noticeably chillier than it had been in Moscow that morning.

"It's gotten chillier," I remark blandly to Helga at the rest stop.

"No it's not. It's nice." she snaps back.

We get back into the van and drive on.


* * *

Our hotel in tiny Azau Village is called the Sheherazade. Seven years
ago developers decided to set up this three-story concrete husk with a
vaguely middle eastern theme and it is still under construction. In
fact, most of the village is unfinished. There is no tarmac, we have to
cross a bridge made of a few wooden planks to get to our lodgings and
all around rickety shacks peddling assorted junk have sprouted out of
the churned-up earth. Cable car lines run over our heads.

Dinner is in the basement restaurant at 7pm. Our fifth member,
23-year-old Fred from Malta, joins us. I am thoroughly excited by
this point at the thought of being back on the mountain trail, but if
the others feel the same way you'd never know. Sonja frowns sternly at
her food, Fred keeps his own counsel and the father and son team
exchange the occasional remark in German. (Oddly, four out of the five
of us are German speakers.) I offer the odd remark but either everyone
is too shy or too disinterested to strike up a conversation. In fact, it
feels almost as if most of the team just can't be bothered to get to
know their new team mates.

I find this all rather disconcerting. If I'm to risk my neck on an icy
Russian mountain with a bunch of strangers, I would have preferred to
know a little about them.

After a despondent dinner of soup and meatballs Ralf suggests hanging out
at the 'bar' in the next room.

"I don't drink beer." is Helga's abrupt RSVP. She heads upstairs to her
room.

To my relief Ralf, Rainer, Fred and I end up having quite a jovial chat
in the underground bar. While the boys try out three different kinds of
beer (the local is "Tepek", pronounced "Terek", a weak concoction with
1% alcohol) I stick to coke. The talk is of mountains, heights, crampons
and ice axes, and afterwards I head for an early night feeling slightly
more heartened about the journey ahead.

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SATURDAY, SEPT 18 (AZAU VILLAGE - ACCLIMATISATION HIKE TO PASTUKHOV
ROCKS, 4,600m)

The day dawns clear and we head downstairs for an early breakfast. The
mood of the team is still sullen, though less so than yesterday. Rainer
and Ralf drink tea; I eat every last crumb and Helga and Fred frown
at their plates before taking a few reluctant bites.

The weather charts promise lots of sun and at worst, about 2cm of snow
on Tuesday, our summit day. Temperatures are set to sink to minus 15
celsius though, including wind chill. We set off for an hour-long walk
down the road to Cheget Village, where we will catch a chairlift for an
acclimatisation hike.

The hike is not up Elbrus itself but yields stunning views of the snowy
peak set starkly against a clear blue sky. The air is fresh and bracing.
I have purposely brought a heavier rucksack than necessary, which means
I'm soon panting and my heart feels like it is about to jump out of my
chest. We all trudge up in a line, with Ralf and Rainer swapping jokes,
except for Helga who strides on well in front of the guide until she is
told to wait for the rest of us. We reach a ledge and take in the
magnificent views as we break open packs of biscuits and chips. We bask
in the sun and Andrei talks about other summits - McKinley in Alaska,
Aconcagua in Argentina and the deadly K2 - the second-highest mountain
on earth after Everest.

Then it's time to head down for lunch and for once something hilarious
happens. We need to catch rickety little one-man chairlifts back down
the mountain, and just after sitting down in mine a man runs out and
starts shouting at me in Russian. I have no idea what he's saying and am
not about to jump off into the ravine, so I just do nothing. And pretty
soon I realise.. this chair is sticky. It's fresh paint. Bright red
fresh paint. All over my brand new clothes.. Ralf and I start laughing,
and eventually I manage to remove most of it with alcohol wipes.

We have a few hours of free time before dinner, so I walk back down the
road to Cheget in search of this mysterious thing they call the
internet. I actually manage to locate the only internet cafe for miles,
using no more than three words: "Dobre!" (hello!); "internet?"
(with typing motions) and "spaciba!" (thank you).

Dinner on the second evening is no more friendly than the first, and I
am starting to get a bit alarmed. Surely this can't be normal? We're
about to embark on a terrific adventure and we're only at the "Can you
pass the salt" stage?

I skip the bar this time and head for another early night.

SUNDAY, SEPT 19 (AZAU VILLAGE -> BARRELS HUTS, 3,800m: ELBRUS BASE CAMP)

Today our adventure starts in earnest, with our first trip up Elbrus
itself. After another breakfast of eggs and bread we pack up - adding
our newly-rented ice axes, sleeping bags and crampons - and take three
separate chairlifts to the Barrels huts. So called because the living
quarters there are literally barrels, painted in the colours of the
Russian flag. There are about ten lined up in a row. The place is
surprisingly derelict. Glacier shifts over the last few decades have
caused the concrete to ruck up like a carpet. Fallen-down pylons and
wires litter the place and it's hard to take any photos without some
ugliness getting into the shot. It is hard to imagine that the camp used
to boast running water in every barrel and steam baths/jacuzzis.
Apparently the Russians haven't put any money into the place since the
fall of the Soviet empire.

It's a beautiful day. I am very excited. We pitch up just as the latest
team leaves the camp. There's a couple from Shanghai and Indonesia, as
well as a Brit and a South African. They are very friendly and in high
spirits after conquering Elbrus the night before.

We eat lunch in a ramshackle kitchen propped up at one end by a pile of
bricks to stop it tumbling down into the valley. Outside, lots of local
Russian tourists arrive by chairlift. Most of the men are already drunk.
On my way to lunch I am accosted by a huge bear of a man who, on seeing
me, immediately points at me, bellows something in Russian and runs over
to kiss my hand.

The same man later pokes his head into the kitchen and starts shouting
happily at us again.

Andrei (between mouthfuls of soup): "This man says he is government
official."

Man shouts some more, beams and lifts his mug at us.

Andrei: "He wants me to tell you that he is drunk."

Ralf offers him some Schnapps. The man smiles and skips back outside to
join his friends who have run over to the glacier to pose for photos in
their underwear. Bikini-clad women shriek as the grinning drunk men lift
them up in a show of virility.

I find all this amusing, but Andrei is resolutely po-faced.

"They have no culture," he sniffs.

* * *

We move into our digs, barrel number 6. It is all one open-plan room,
with three rigid beds running down each side.

* * *

In the afternoon we hike up to Pastukhov Rocks (4,600-4,700m), which
takes a few hours. In theory, people can show symptoms of mountain
sickness once they climb above 2,500 metres, though that was not really
a problem for us. The sky is a wonderful deep blue and all around there
is only rock and snow. The sun is strong and we put on sunglasses to
protect our eyes from the glare. I seem to be taking longer to
acclimatise than the others, but feel fine overall.

The descent is fun. We are able to more or less 'ski' downhill by
ploughing through the soft, deep snow and I particularly enjoy going
'off-piste'. Ralf, Rainer and I get into rhythm and skid amicably down in
unison, pausing here and there to take in the gorgeous views and skirt
deep crevasses underneath the snow. At times we come close to falling
into rivers lurking below the surface - more than once I take a step and
sink in up to my knee - but it is all good fun.

Over tea, Helga shows up with bloodied knuckles on one hand.
Apparently she fell into a hidden crevasse and scraped herself trying to
break the fall.

Andrei: "You want to be careful, it might get dirty."

Helga: "No it won't. Snow is clean."

Andrei: "No. Snow is dirty. You have snowcats parked all around and they
leak oil."

Helga: "No it's not. It's clean."

Andrei: "No it's not."

Helga: "Yes it is."

The rest of us continue eating.

Later in the day Ralf, Rainer, Fred and I watch the sun set as the air
turns icy. After dinner we come out to an inky black sky shot through
with stars. There is almost no artificial light at Barrels Huts and the
view is breathtaking. We all stand in silence, craning our necks to take
in the diamonds above us. It is so cold and dry and silent, we could be
on the moon. It is minus 7 celsius, but Fred lies down on the
concrete for a better view. Others try to take photos. I look for
shooting stars, and think of my father.

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MONDAY, SEPT 20 (BARRELS HUTS - ACCLIMATISATION HIKE TO DIESEL HUT,
4,200m)

For once, the day does not dawn clear and we wake up to snowfall.
Where there was once uneven concrete there is now a carpet of smooth
fluffy white, with a track from the barrels to the plumbing-free wooden
huts we use as toilets. (They have names: the House of Pain and Agony
and the House of Horror. I had suggested naming the third one the House
of Doom, but thought this might be tempting fate.)

The toilets alone could be the subject of countless public health
studies and were every bit as filthy and stinky as could be expected.
With one saving grace though, if you could call it that:

Fred: "You know, the toilets here are not as bad as on Kilimanjaro."

Someone: "How's that?"

Fred: "Well, on Kilimanjaro you couldn't even touch the walls."

I wake up cold, with a pounding heart and a headache. Elbrus is hidden
from view, lost in the whiteness. We go for a short acclimatisation hike
to Diesel Hut (4,200m). It's nicer than our own lodgings - a proper
communal area with adjoining bedrooms with bunkbeds.

We make it down again and over lunch, Andrei asks whether we are ready
to make the summit attempt tonight. He says that he can tell that Rainer
and I are slower at acclimatising and asks whether anyone wants to take
the snowcat up to the Rocks and hike from there. Rainer says yes, as do
I, but I later change my mind. How fast one acclimatises has nothing to
do with one's level of fitness. To look at him, one would think tall,
fit Rainer would acclimatise the fastest, but in fact he was the slowest.

"I think that Ralf is 90 percent acclimatised," says Andrei. "Helga is
100 percent."

Helga beams.

The plan is to go to bed at 7pm, sleep until 1am, eat breakfast and set
off at 2am. Rainer will set off two hours later and meet us at the Rocks
via snowcat. Ralf jovially offers everyone an extra "shot" of cognac in
our teas before turning in. Helga, claiming that she cannot sleep
through Ralf's snoring (which nobody else had noticed), moves out of our
barrel.

Excitement is running high in the team ahead of the summit push. It'll
be harder than anything we've done so far - climbing from 3,800 metres
to 5,642 metres to reach the top of Europe, in low oxygen and bitter
sub-zero temperatures, at the dead of night. It'll be like climbing
escalator stairs for 12 hours.

For me, all the anticipation translates into nervous tension and I fail
to sleep the entire night. I try everything -- staring through my
eyelids, imagining myself falling underwater, even counting sheep, but
nothing works. Every time Ralf turns over in his bed - and he does this
with a spine-shuddering vengeance - the tremors travel right down to
where I am and jolt me fully awake again. On top of that, it is
freezing.

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TUESDAY, SEPT 21 (FIRST SUMMIT ATTEMPT)

Five frustrating hours later, the alarm goes off and I get up in
disbelief. I feel weak and disoriented and have trouble getting ready.
By the time I finally have my harness and crampons on the rest of the
team have set out into the night.

It is snowing lightly. I feel exhausted. As we trudge, I fall slowly
behind and am overtaken wordlessly by the others. I watch the dots of
their headlamps dwindle ahead of me into the darkness. I steel myself
for a long ordeal and tell myself that whatever happens I have to make
it to the end. All I can hear is the sound of my own breathing and the
dull crushing of snow beneath my boots. My feeble headlight lights up a
dim spot on the snow. Otherwise, all around is blackness. I can't even
see the stars.

The going is steep and we're walking heavily and deliberately. We take
one step about every one and half seconds - any faster means having to
pause, drained. We try to minimise effort by raising each foot by the
bare minimum needed to take a step and swinging the leg forward. We pant
rhythmically, as it's the only way to get enough oxygen. I haven't got
the energy to do more than play the same mindless, random pop tune in my
head. It helps to blot out the faint knife-edge of panic as I know that
I am not physically prepared for this challenge, not tonight.

Bizarrely, low as my morale was and lonely as I feel, I still love this
aspect of climbing. The way exhaustion forces out everything except
immediate reality. This breath, right now, this step, now. The future
and the past fall away. Andrei had referred to mountain climbing as a
way of 'cleansing the mind', and he is right.

As I struggle on, someone's distant headlight suddenly turns around to
shine back at me through the murk. It pauses - and I realise that an
extremely tall, almost gaunt member of the super-fit Ukranian team has
stopped to wait for me. Once I have trudged up to where he is, he moves
off again.

This goes on for the next hour or so. His name is Dmi and he speaks no
English. "Go," is all I can say as I wave him on, but he does not
abandon me. He is obviously better acclimatised and fitter than I, and
will have no problem catching up with his two team-mates. I feel
extremely grateful.

Somewhere behind us in the distance there is a faint rumbling. Over the
next three-quarters of an hour it grows steadily louder and eventually
we see the eyes of the snowcats crawling up through the darkness. The
drivers sweep the slope with searchlights and we meet them, and Rainer,
at Pastukhov Rocks. The scene is riveting and almost sinister. Huge snow
tractors looming out of the shadows to meet a group of what look almost
like astronauts, intent on some mysterious and lunatic mission deep into
a pitch-black night.

The snow is falling in earnest. There is now the occasional bright
light. Some later said they thought it was someone taking photos with "a
really good flash". But actually, it was the start of a lightning storm.

Andrei is not happy with this. We walk for only a few more minutes
before he says "It's too dangerous. We go back."

"What, to the hut?" someone asks.

"Yes."

"But what about those other guys?" someone else asks, referring to Dmi's
team, already far ahead of us.

"Ukrainians...crazy," Andrei mutters with a dismissive wave of the hand.
"Get in. We go down."

Miffed and taken aback, we pile into the snowcat. The trip down takes a
surprisingly long time. It is steep and we have to grip the sides
tightly so that we don't fall out.

We get back at around 5.30 am and tramp into our barrel. We shake the
snow off, kick off our gear and get into bed. No one says anything. No
one looks happy. I flick off the light and we all sleep until midday.

During the day, we realise that Barrels huts has been cut off from
civilisation by all the snow. None of the chairlifts are working, so no
one is getting in or out.

The rest of the day is a writeoff. By mid-afternoon there is a foot of
snow on the ground and Elbrus remains invisible. Nothing to do but wait.
I wrap up warm and re-read an old Economist magazine in my cot.
Others sleep the day away.

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WEDNESDAY, SEPT 22 (BARRELS HUTS - SNOWED IN)

Another morning, another headache. The snow is still falling.

Most of us don't bother moving - we all sleep in until we are forced to
make a pilgrimage to the toilet huts. The whiteness of the snow actually
hurts our eyes.

There is too much snow to make another attempt so the day is another
write-off. Our next, and last window of opportunity is Thursday morning,
and Andrei, when we eventually see him in the afternoon (he and Helga
have moved in together) says good weather is forecast for Thursday.

I am bored beyond belief and to my joy find a copy of Bruce Chatwin's
travel book What Am I Doing Here. Very apt. There is also an older
Frenchman from the southwest (from Cahors of all places, close to where
we also used to spend our summers) with whom I have a nice nostalgic
chat. Some people go back to bed, others build a snowman, stick a flag
in it and name it Andrei.

The chairlifts start up again and it is slightly odd to see the first
new faces for a while. They are mostly Americans, clad in brand-new gear
and looking curiously at us. Not only are we all feeling cold, tired and
slightly battered, we all haven't washed in days. We must make quite a
sight.

Another pre-summit dinner, another cognac-and-tea toast, and we all head
to bed at 7pm. This time I feel more resolute than daunted and manage to
get three hours' sleep.


THURSDAY, SEPT 23 (SECOND SUMMIT ATTEMPT)

The alarm goes off. For the second time this week we get up silently and
pull on our boots, crampons, underjackets, overjackets, masks, gloves,
harness. We check our water bottles for the last time, fasten the ice
axe, grab some food and go.

I take the snowcat this time with Rainer. On the way, we pass our team
mates. The image will stay with me forever - three people inexplicably
and intently taking step after step up this forbidding dark mountain.

This time I feel on form. Surprisingly so, in fact. Over the next four
hours before sunrise, I plod gamely on and don't fall behind. There is
no panic, because this time I know I am not exhausted.

The sun rises as we are mid-way between Pastukhov Rocks and the saddle,
after which it is meant to become slightly flatter as we work our way
westwards around the mountain before the final summit attack.
We have hit 5,000 metres and it is bitterly, bitterly cold. Toe warming
pads notwithstanding, the third and fourth toes of each foot go
completely numb and I frantically wiggle them to get the blood moving.
Every so often I turn around to check on Rainer and take in the
breathtaking view.

Below us there is cloud all around. We can see across the Caucasus
mountain range into Georgia. We are walking on sliding snow and the
slope is steep - anybody who fell would not stop rolling for miles.
The wind is fierce. At one point our assistant guide, Mikhail, helps us
take a photo and offers up some hot, sweet tea. It is all stunning and
wild and my heart sings, elated.

We work our way round to the saddle and at that point Rainer says: "I
don't think I'll go to the top. I don't feel good."

Mikhail: "What? No summit?"

Rainer: (sits down again, throws up).

Mikhail: "Ah. Wait."

There is a curious domed shelter between the saddle and the slope to the
summit. We climb up through the hatch and the plan is to wait there
until Andrei and the rest of the team catch up. Mikhail could then hand
me over to Andrei and escort Rainer down.

We sit in the refuge. There are gas stoves, sleeping bags and random
bits of equipment scattered all over it. On the walls, stern notices in
different languages scream that spending the night in the refuge could
be fatal. It was minus 15. I sit and shake uncontrollably. Rainer sits
down and does not look like a happy camper.

When the rest of the team arrives after 20 excruciating minutes, Ralf
wants to hear nothing of his son giving up. So after a short break, we
set off up the sheer mountain face to the summit. We really have to dig
in our ice axes and crampons. We are all dog-tired but need to remain
alert as we struggle up the near-vertical mountain face.

After an hour or so, we drag ourselves over the top of the ledge.
Andrei is already there, waiting: "Even in my condition, I am still
feeling better than any one of you," he shouts with a grin (he has
stomach problems). We can finally see the official summit of Elbrus,
some 700 relatively flat metres ahead - an unassuming snowy knoll. In
our depleted state, however, it takes us something like 15 minutes to
cover the distance.

It is like walking through mud. Many of us grind to a halt several
times, exhausted. Andrei shouts that we are moving like zombies.

As for me, I can't get enough air. I can barely move. And most of all I
can't stop thinking of my father, the reason I'm up this cold harsh
mountain in the first place. I flash back through the events of that
awful last month, see him looking up at me from the hospital bed. And
now as on Kilimanjaro I feel dangerously close to just sitting down and
sobbing for all that was lost and all the things never to be.

We get to the top. There is finally nothing between us and the sky. I
feel elated and triumphant and upset all at once and we hug, back-slap,
jubilate, take photos. Our heads are buzzing with the altitude. And then
we move off that peak as fast as we can and start on the miles and miles
back down to earth.

* * *
It takes hours. A lot of it is very steep, and as I take in the beauty
and look down the sheer arc of the slope I am paralysed by fear more
than once. Assistant guide Mikhail soon appears by my side, grabs my
elbow and half-walks, half-drags me down with a few encouraging words.
One girl from another team actually falls down the mountain face.
Horrified, we watch her skid for about a kilometre, screaming.
Miraculously she is alright, but very shaken.

The rest of the way down is a slog through the deep fresh snow.
Fred and Rainer are so fatigued they can barely walk straight.
Andrei runs past us, dragging a laughing Helga by his climbing poles,
and then shouts at us to hurry up. We catch a snowcat down from
Pastukhov Rocks. I look around at the bundled-up team mates. Everyone
looks drawn and exhausted and some seem to be on the verge of either
throwing up or falling asleep. I realise that we've only eaten the odd
Snickers bar the whole day, and what's more I haven't been able to go to
the toilet for the last ten hours. We grip on tightly to the bucking,
snorting, exhaust-spewing snow tractor as it carries us back to Barrels
Huts. I do not feel at all well. Never again, I tell myself.

* * *
Once back, we throw all our things into our rucksacks and rush for the
chairlifts down to Azau Village.

Back at the hotel, we take our first showers in days. Not to go into
detail, but my socks could have gone for a mountain hike all by
themselves by the end of the expedition (!).

We had a 'celebration dinner' that evening at Cheget Village. Ralf ("We
go for a Schnapps, ja?"), Rainer, Fred and I came out in jeans and
red, sunburnt faces. Helga turned up in full make-up and her
nightclubbing outfit.

Andrei presented us with our certificates and while the mood was
relatively content, we still had not become comrades through the
experience. Or perhaps we were all just too tired to make any effort.
For my part, I was happy enough at the thought that I would be back in
Moscow in a matter of hours.

"You are all so quiet. Would anyone like to propose a toast?" asks
Andrei.

No one says anything.

"I would like to thank Andrei and the guides for getting us up and down
Elbrus in one piece," I eventually say.

We drink to that.

"I would like to propose a toast," says Andrei.

We look at him expectantly.

"To women. Can you imagine what life would be like without them?" he
says, looking at Helga, who is obviously not enjoying the dinner and
counting the minutes until she can be alone with Andrei again.

We drink to that as well. I try not to vomit.

It was another early night.


FRIDAY, SEPT 24 : MINERALNYE VODY -> MOSCOW

Leaving day. 7.30 am saw us fully packed and bundled into a yellow
minivan to Mineralnye Vody airport.

A clear day. We wind our way down through the lovely Baksan valley and
Ralf and I take pictures of Elbrus growing smaller in the distance. It is
hard to imagine that some 24 hours ago we'd been battling our way up the
side of it.

I also started to wonder why, really.

Why on earth do people pay good money to go through such exhaustion,
with the added risk of losing a few fingers and toes to frostbite and
having one's brain swell up with fluid?

"What are you doing next?" I ask Ralf.

"Maybe Kilimanjaro. And you? Are you climbing something next year?" he
asks.

"Most definitely," I reply.

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