Where do I start? Climbing Mount Elbrus was nothing like how I envisioned it, but with that being said I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
As I finally arrived in Mineralnye Vody Airport after 24 hours on 3 different planes I was full of anticipation, excitement and a slight touch of anxiety. I was heading into the unknown, a foreign environment surrounded by people who to me where speaking alien, all in an attempt to start my journey, to climb all seven summits. I had no mountaineering experience, little snow experience and even less experience speaking Russian. None of that mattered though, I was here to climb Mount Elbrus and nothing was stopping me.
So I got off the plane, collected my luggage, met up with the guide company representative and got into the pre-organised taxi, well not before I was harassed by a group of 20+ angry Russian taxi drivers. That didn’t matter though, I buckled in and head off on a 3 hour car ride to our groups hotel in Terskol. It’s safe to say Russians drive a little differently compared to us in Australia. One lane, 110km/h zones with everyone zig-zagging, verging into the opposing traffic to pass each other, it was a bit crazy. At one point we were going 120km/h and driving right into the opposing traffic as we passed another car, it was quite the experience. I survived though, and arrived at the hotel at around 8pm. I was late and at this point my group for the expedition had already met for dinner. So it was just me and the tour representative/manager along with my newly introduced guide leader. I was given dinner, shown my shared hotel room and was told the next day’s start time. By this time I was tired and exhausted from the travel and it was pouring outside, soon as I made my why into the shared hotel room I organised my gear and instantly fell asleep.
Day 2, I awoke to a fresh and chilly morning, and a snoring room companion. I would soon find this bloke had summited Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru in Tanzania, and had similar aspirations with climbing the seven summits. After an introduction he showed me the verandah, we stepped out and I was instantly greeted by a stunning view of lush birch trees mixed in with wooden cabins and 8+ story hotels, all with with the Caucasus Mountain Ranges as the back-drop. He also showed me the most important mountain, the reason I was here, not too far away, there it was Mount Elbrus, standing in all its glory, it was on.
Today though we wouldn’t even start on the mountain, today was just an easy 3-5 hour acclimatisation hike up to the cable car station on Mount Cheget (3000m), we wouldn’t actually get started on Mount Elbrus until the following day. Anyway, after an hour or so myself and my room companion made our way down to meet the rest of the 8 person group for breakfast. 2 Taiwanese, 2 Americans, 3 Russians and myself an Aussie, we were a diverse group all here to accomplish the same goal, summit Mount Elbrus. After a rundown with our guide on whats to come in the next following days, and an all you can eat buffet breakfast of oatmeal, Blinchiki (crepe-like pancakes), milk and fried eggs we started our acclimatisation hike. The hike was nothing to strenuous although it was all uphill. We had perfect sunny weather and as we got higher and higher the views of the Caucasus Mountain Ranges was getting more and more breathtaking, combine this with some great company and I was having a blast.
We all got to the top after about 3 hours of constant uphill hiking (with exception of stopping every 2 minutes to take more photos!) and instantly made our way down. Acclimatisation hike 1, complete. We were off to a ripper start. Once we got back, we all went our seperate ways, most of us went to our rooms for lunch. After lunch I had some extra energy and and went out to explore the local terrain. I found a walking track that followed a stream, that I would soon discover led to a significant waterway. It was like a wide gully with snow peaked mountains surrounding me on all sides, it was beautiful.
The track kept going and going, and after an hour I remembered I had to get back to the hotel to rent some gear and equipment with the rest of the group. I arrived just in time, the deadline was 3pm. I already purchased most of my equipment but did have to rent crampons, an ice axe, a harness, 2 carabiners, some rope and down pants (which I never used). Once that was done we all organised dinner time, 6pm. Now all that was left to do was pack for the next day, and rest, because tomorrow we’d be leaving the hotel to get started on the mountain.
Day 3, it rained most of the night, making me anxious for what the weather would be like on the mountain, I knew it was the only thing that was going to stop me from reaching the summit. We woke up once again to clear skies though, and it looked like we were going to get great weather that day, which we did. Today we would be heading to the mountain to start the real journey, we had to meet with the rest of the group with all our gear at 8am that morning. I had been awake since 5am so 8am was no problem. 8:00am finally came along and I was quick to grab my duffel bag, backpack and get going. Then after another good buffet breakfast we made our way to our transport vehicle and set out to the mountain.
Once we arrived on the foot of the mountain we were given our ski-lift tickets. I couldn’t help but look up, I was surrounded by hundreds of snow capped mountains. We were quick to get on the ski-lifts and started ascending to our 3,800m base camp, our home for the next 4 days, Garabashi. After 3 stops to get on different ski-lifts we finally arrived at Garabashi and made our way to the lodge we’d be staying at. The views from this height were amazing, but there was no time to take it in just yet. Once we arrived at the lodge we dumped our bags and head off for another acclimation hike.
By this time is was about 11am and since all we’d done all day was sit in ski-lifts ascending to base camp I was keen to get moving. I was also excited to get the snow shoes out, this was the christening of my snow shoes. I’d never walked in snow shoes before. First thing I noticed was how rigid and stiff they were, hardly any flexibility whatsoever, but apart from that they were pretty good. What I was effected by though was the altitude, sure we were only at 3,800m but for someone who’s never been above 250m this was something new. It was like I lost 30% of my fitness overnight, and as someone who trains 7+ times a week and is quite fit, you could understand this was quite a shock. Just walking uphill at a steady pace was putting me out of breath, but some part of me loved it, this was the challenge I was looking for. We would only hike/climb for about 3 hours this day, we went up to what is known as Priyut 11 which is marked as being 4,160m. From here you could see the twin peaks of Mount Elbrus in all their glory.
The summit looked so close, maybe a 2-3 hour walk, I just wanted to just go and walk straight up, why not? The weather was great and I was fit. I laugh now at my arrogance and ignorance, but this is what seriously popped up in my head. Even though I’d read all these books and listened too numerous podcasts about climbing Mount Elbrus and the effects of altitude sickness and not acclimatising properly, I still didn’t understand.
Day 4, the next day was an early start (for some), 6am. We ate some breakfast, which for us was bread, little bits of cheese, sausage, salami, yoghurt and cream of wheat, all by which is pretty good when your up that high. After that we got started climbing practically right away. Today we were making our way up to Pashtuhova Rocks, 4,670m high, it would also be our first time using crampons (spiky things you attach to your boots when walking on snow and ice). Again we had good weather, I started to notice the weather seemed to follow a certain pattern, cold fresh mornings with clear skies, the clear skies would then remain until about 2pm and at that time the clouds would start to roll in. Leading to a white out, a storm or both, it would then clear again at about 11-12pm. So with great weather we started to make our way to Pashtuhova Rocks. I was at the front following the guides footsteps, I was feeling great but after a couple hours I was growing inpatient with the slow and controlled, steady pace. I was here to push myself and didn’t understand why we had to go so slow, so after about 3 hours I stupidly pushed out in front of the guide. Now I was having a blast, totally in my own world, step, breathe, step, breathe, it was hard but I was in what I felt like my element. After about 30 minutes of pure enjoyment I turned around to see where the group was, only find that the group was at least 100m below and had started to split up, some of our groups climbers had really started to slow down. Instantly I felt bad and arrogant, who am I to be all the way at the front of group, going faster than the guides pace? Instead of using my energy to go faster I should be encouraging those in the group struggling, so I made my way down to the last person and started walking back up with them, until we got back to the guide. After about 10 minutes we caught back up with the rest of the group, who at the time were having a rest. All of a sudden I had an idea, why don’t I have a blast and climb fast by myself and then when the guide rests and starts waiting for the group to catch up again I’ll make my way down to the slowest climber and encourage them up the slope, I’ll get the best of both worlds, so that’s what I did. As a result I ended up climbing nearly double the distance until we reached Pashtuhova Rocks
This day ended up being a little concerning, it was just an acclimatisation hike and 3 climbers were not able to make it to Pashuhova Rocks. Also let me point out that upon reflecting, what I did was stupid. I should not be wasting energy by walking so fast at altitude, and doubly stupid I shouldn’t be walking double the distance on a acclimatisation hike. I was showing my ignorance and arrogance of being young and having no previous experience at altitude. I was just lucky I was fit and my body seemed to cope with the altitude well. Once we got back we ate a late lunch comprising of what seemed to be the regular Russian mountaineering 3 course meal, some sought of salad, followed by soup and lastly some sought of meat with a grain such as buckwheat, all this was accompanied with endless amounts bread and coffee. After lunch a blizzard rolled in and we enjoyed the warmth and comfort of our lodge. I spent most of my spare time reading.
Flash forward to day 5, the day before we’d be attempting to summit and also the worst day, rest day. We had a late start about 8am for breakfast, as a whole this day was pretty boring but I made the most of it. Luckily we did spend about 30 minutes training with our harnesses, ropes and carabiners, learning how to clip and unclip from a fixed line. I attempted to make it harder by doing it with my mittens, which is an art form in itself. Everyone was happy to practice once, but I wanted to make the most of the experience and just kept clipping and re-clipping, waking along the fixed line, after about 30 minutes the guide had enough and we packed up. It was still only 10am by this point though, and I wanted to do as much as I could and get the most experience possible whilst out on the high altitude mountain. So I got together with one of my fellow group members (an American who ended up summiting with me with no snowcat) and we grabbed our packs, crampons, snow shoes and ice-axes and made our way to Priyut 11 which was about an hour climb, it the place we climbed to on our first acclimatisation hike on the mountain. From their we practiced our self-arrest technique, man was this fun. We slid down the slope for 10+ metres before driving our ice-axe into the ice and snow. We could see more experienced climbers having a laugh as we slid down the slopes like little kids, but it didn’t matter, we were laughing and having a good time. We even made a competition, who would slide down the furthest and make a successful self-arrest, I’m not sure who won. After an hour of climbing, sliding and self-arresting we decided we’d had enough and made our way back down to base camp. By this point we’d decided we’ll be smart and rest.
After a good nap we woke up to find it was dinner time, this dinner was significant because it was pre-summit dinner. Here we’d find out the weather forecast for summit day and we’d decide if we’d use the snowcat or not. The weather was supposed to be great, this was a relief. Now it was time to decide whether we’d use the snowcat or not. Due to the difficulty of the acclimatisation hike up to Pashtuhova Rocks the previous day everyone but myself and the two Americans elected to use the snowcat, riding all the way up to Pashtuhova Rocks before pushing for the summit. In my mind though I was not using the snowcat, to me this was cheating, sure you save 3-4 hours and lots of energy but I was here to challenge myself. So in the end everyone but myself and the Americans decided to pay and use the snowcat, as a result we had a 12am start whereas they would get to sleep in to 4am, this didn’t matter to me though, I’d happily have an early breakfast at 11pm.
The day had come, finally, well kind of, technically it was rest day and the day before summit day. After a couple hours of attempted sleep I along with the 2 Americans got up at 10:30pm to go eat breakfast, if you could call it that. After 3 slices of bread with cheese and fried eggs, along with cream of wheat and 2 black coffees with sugar it was time to double, triple and quadruple check our packs and equipment and head out. 12am was our go time. We had to be at Pashtuhova Rocks by approx 4am, to meet with the others in our group. We left the lodge and started our accent. It was a clear but cold morning/night we were the only ones heading out this early that day. It was dead quiet, the only noice was our crampons and breathing, crunch, crunch, crunch, the snow beneath our feet was practically ice, the cold fresh air saw to that. About an hour in, we came across some melted snow across the trodden snow path, our guide decided we would jump over it. Maybe not such a good idea, Chris (one of the Americans) followed our guide and jumped right onto a bit of snow which collapsed, wetting everything knee deep. “Shit, you alright Chris” I yelled, this could be potentially game over, being wet from the knee below can easily lead to frostbite with the below freezing temperatures. Chris though, with a heart of gold brushed it off and exclaimed he was fine, and the guide gave us the ok. Next Issiah (the other American) and I jumped, we both made sure to clear the melted path with plenty of room between us and the water. We were clear. Now with that excitement over we were back on pace, one steady step after the other, time flew by, step, breath, step, breathe. Before we knew it snowcats containing other groups come flying past, some must’ve left at 1am, others at 2am, quickly the mountain was covered in headlamps. At approx 3:45 am, after nearly 4 hours of solid work we arrived at Pashtuhova Rocks and was shortly joined by the rest of the group, arriving in the snowcat. After a quick briefing we once again took off, the group quickly got separated into 2 groups, one slower group and one faster group. I was in the first group, with 3 others and the head guide. By this time the sun started to rise and with it, the beautiful Caucasus mountain ranges became visible once more.
As we got higher the breathing and stepping became harder. I tried to pass time by counting my steps but after counting to 500, I’d had enough. Instead I focused on my breathing, in, out, in, out, zig-zagging across the steep slope and before I knew it an hour had passed, then two hours had passed and then we reached the top of the slope, we were just below the eastern summit. At this point we started heading west/left towards the twin peaked mountains saddle. By this point we were over 5000m high, the highest I had ever been climbing in my life, and I started to feel it. Fatigue, exhaustion, head aches and a persistent cough were all things I really started to notice at this point. In fact our whole group was feeling it and were pretty exhausted. To uplift the group I tried making jokes, they were terrible, so I encouraged instead. “Not long now”, “your crushing it”, “were gonna be at the summit in a couple hours”.
We kept making our way towards the saddle (the place of our next and last big break), across the mountain, this part had little to no gradient, which was nice but the altitude still made it a slog. One breath, one step, one breath, one step, about 30 minutes to an hour passed before we were at the saddle. Here the sun was blazing and we took a good 10 minute break in the sun to prepare for what would be the hardest part of the climb, the fixed rope up the steep western side of the saddle. After the quick 10 minutes we started making our way up once more. This is the first and only part of the climb that required you to use fixed rope. So up we went, un-clipping and re-clipping our carabiners to the fixed rope, taking step after step, stopping for a quick 10 second break after every 50 steps or so. You could look down to your right and see the steep slope you could potentially fall down and not come back up, it was exhilarating. At one point I was helping one of my group members re-clip their carabiners and as I bent down, one of my drink bottles fell out of the side pocket of my bag. “Shit!!”, i’m already dehydrated, still haven’t made it to the summit, still need to come down, I’ve still got 6+ hours left today and have just lost one of my drink bottles, this left me with 500ML for the rest of the day. By this point though I was too exhausted to worry about, “fuck it” I just wanted to keep moving and get to the summit, so that’s what we did. We pushed on, up the fixed rope on the steep slope. Breath, step, breath, step, un-clip, re-clip, breath, step, breath, step, rest. It was a pattern you kept repeating, just one more step, ok I took the one, now another one. After about 40 minutes of what felt like hours we finally were up the western side of the saddle. There it was we could see the summit, almost glistening in the beautiful sunny weather. It was only a football field away, we slowly and steadily started walking towards it.
After about 10 to 15 minutes we had made the summit. It’s funny though, I had all these expectations of overwhelming, life changing feelings that I thought I’d feel when I summited. However this wasn’t the case, sure I was happy, but I still knew I had a lot of work ahead of me. In reality this was only the halfway mark, we still had a long walk back down to base camp. I did make sure to take in, and savour the moment though. Hugging and congratulating my team mates and others on the summit, thanking my guide, taking in the absolutely stunning view and of course taking plenty of photo’s, from selfies to panoramas and of course the must do posing summit photo.
After about 10-15 minutes we made our way back down. At this point we were all spent and were keen to get back. My head was pounding and I started to get a nasty cough from the altitude, I’d been climbing for about 9 hours and was exhausted. Again though I settled in, getting to the fixed ropes, making my way down, clipping and un-clipping the carabiners. This simple task is exhausting at this altitude, squatting down to clip and unclip when your this high and fatigued is hardwork. Nonetheless we got back down into the saddle and had to wait for the slower group to get their turn to summit and catch up. This was the longest 30 minutes of my life! The altitude really started to get to me, I took a Diamox which helped a little, but as each minute passed I was feeling worse and getting more and more frustrated, I just wanted to get back down. I had to keep reminding myself, stop being so selfish we’re a team, just relax, but it was hard, I was hurting. Finally the slower group caught up, “finally, we can go” I thought, so off we went. One foot in front of the other, just visualising base camp. Sadly at this point I felt too sick to think about visualising a good meal but the thought of rest was good enough. Hours past by and we were making good progress, down through the now cloud covered mountain to base camp.
On the way down we couldn’t see 100 metres in front of us, clouds had rolled in and completed limited our vision. You’d also think this would make it colder but nope, instead it brought about an extreme humidity, raising the temperature to what felt like an extra 10 degrees Celsius. As we continued down we stopped every hour or so to re-group and rest. One stop I can remember quite vividly, I was waiting for the group half sitting, half lying down on one of the hundred big rocks 4,670m high at Pashtuhova Rocks. Why do I remember this stop? Because it took me about 5 minutes to get going again, I almost fell asleep, this was the point I knew I was completely exhausted. Nonetheless with the group I stumbled down the mountain, through the cloud, resting my head on my trekking poles at every stop. I should also mention by this point my trap muscles (muscles around your neck) had seized up to the point where I couldn’t even raise my hands above my head. Stupidly I had packed to much unnecessary gear and I was paying for it. Finally though we passed Priyut 11 for the last time and at 2pm we got back to base camp.
You’d think after being awake for practically 24+ hours and climbing for 14 hours with little food and water I’d drop my gear and go straight to bed. This was not the case, I couldn’t relax and take in what we just did until all my gear was properly organised and packed. The next day we were leaving and heading back down the mountain and I wanted to have everything ready and packed so I could properly relax for the night. I was so exhausted though, and as a result it took a while, 2 plus hours in fact. Also something I forgot to mention was the Americans gave me some medication to slow down my digestive system to prevent me from having to defecate whilst going up to the summit. It worked, but I was paying for it now. Three times in an hour I had to take the lovely trip to the shit stained, literally, drop toilets, yes climbers seemed to be quite good at missing the drop hole, as a result shit was quite often all over the floor. After a couple hours thankfully my digestive system seemed to return to something like normal. And this pretty much sums up the experience, from here on out it was all pretty standard. We slept at Garabashi one more night, made our way down the mountain, head back to Terskol, I went for another hike along the path I discovered previously and we then all had a celebratory restaurant dinner, and received our certificates. We slept our last night at Terskol and then head back to the airport via the same 3 hour drive I took by myself to get there.
What an experience it was, the whole ideal solidified my intentions of climbing the seven summits. In fact it made me think why limit myself to the seven summits? I wanted to just get back in the mountains, I wanted to learn more about mountaineering and ice climbing. Up in the mountains everything seemed so simple, everything I wanted was up there. The chance to push myself mentally, emotionally and physically was unlimited. A whole new world had revealed itself to me, and I intend to explore it.