Mount Elbrus is not a walk in the park
My first Russian experience starts in at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, when I’m seated next to a stocky Russian on a plane carrying me to Russia and Mount Elbrus, a dormant volcano in the Caucasus Mountains that is Europe’s highest peak, and one of the coveted Seven Summits.
The language barrier between me and my new mate means we can barely communicate as we jet to Moscow, which is a fair indication how this is trip might unfold. He knows the word whiskey though, and keeps rattling his glass of ice, staring at the flight attendant when she doesn’t fill it as full as he’d like.
During the 33-hour flight to Moscow I try to learn the Russian word for “thank you,” which might be handy over upcoming weeks – my friend at least has that right in English. “Whiskey, thank you,” he says constantly.
Landing in Moscow, the gentleman shakes my hand and says “thank you” – I don’t know what for. He then proceeds to cram airline blankets into his bag before departing. Welcome to Russia.
It’s an easy passage through customs and into the arrival hall, where I meet Alex, one of my guides. We transfer to a smaller jet for the 2.5-hour flight south to Mineralnye Vody Airport and, 50-kilometres away, Kislovodsk, a spa city in Stavropol Krai, southwest Russia.
Alex tells me that Kislovodsk literally translates as Sour Waters, and is one of the main cities of the mineral water resorts situated throughout the North Caucasus. Renowned for its natural mineral springs, which are said to have medicinal powers, Kislovodsk is a popular place for Russians to retreat for some R&R.
Clustered in a valley surrounded by towering mountains, the town features some fine heritage buildings, hotels and spa resorts, and the popular Kislovodsk Resort Park, one of Europe’s largest man-made parks.
After checking, jetlagged, into one of Kislovodsk’s hotels, Alex re-joins me for dinner, which is a good thing as without him I’m not sure how I’ll order from the restaurant’s menu, of which I don’t understand a symbol.
Sunrise is early here in mid-summer, and with light shining into the room by 5am I decide on a walk. The streets are quiet; there’s almost no-one about. Heading along a boulevard of manicured gardens, I turn right, heading up a hill to stretch the legs following the long hours of cramped flying over the past few days.
Kislovodsk is all old-world charm, with many grand antique buildings. Flower-filled planter boxes make vivid splashes of colour along the historic streets.
But the further I walk from the town centre, the more the landscape changes - buildings are more or less derelict, their grounds overgrown with tangles of weeds. While there are more military uniforms than citizens around at this early hour, people start to set up flower stalls, and a few wait at bus stops.
The closer I get back to the city’s central area and my hotel, the more evident are the efforts to keep the centre of town in pristine condition for tourists.
I meet Alex in the foyer after breakfast and we set off for another walk around town. Alex’s English isn’t too bad, and he is quite knowledgeable about Russian and Soviet history, explaining monuments from writers to war heroes as we pass them.
We venture deep into Kislovodsk Resort Park, which was founded from 1823 and covers around 10 square-kilometres of winding paths, flower gardens, woodlands and towering trees.
I see a sign pointing to a monument with Mount Elbrus in the background, and while it’s quite a hike to reach it, I encourage Alex to trek to the top of a hill to gain our bearings. We soon find the statue and, on the horizon behind it is Mount Elbrus herself, the mountain I’ve come to Russia to climb, towering 5,462 metres in all her glory. Snap. Photos done. I’m enjoying being a tourist.
So much so that Alex and I miss our meeting with Mount Elbrus guides Vitaly, who speaks English, and Katia, who doesn’t. Time is precious, and there is much shopping to be done, says Vitaly.
With Google Translate as my companion, I find a local map of Mount Elbrus. Vitaly soon arrives to check my kit. He removes a couple of items, and informs me that I’ll be carrying my portion of food. And I need a better poncho, he says, as it’s going to rain.
I’m overwhelmed by how so much has to fit into one backpack. It simply doesn’t after many attempts. Eventually I rip the pack trying to attach crampons – snow spikes - to the outside. Time for bed, I’m getting nowhere.
Day 1 - 18 July 2019
The good side of exhaustion is sleeping well. I start to pack, then repack, then lash what won’t fit inside the pack to the top and sides. It’s very heavy.
For the first time I contemplate my motives for this climb. I review the route, and look to the internet for any assurances. Instead I find statistics of climbers who died trying to summit Mount Elbrus, and how she is considered a “challenging” mountain.
Should I have stuck with the easier southern route, rather than the northern?
(Mount Elbrus’ southern route is well-supported, with hut accommodation, cable cars, and snow mobiles. The northern route is more remote, demanding, and only has tented accommodation).
Can I carry all this weight? – it’s 25 to 30 kilograms.
I head out for a walk after breakfast. There’s so much to see, buildings to admire and a whole new and fascinating culture to immerse oneself in. But it’s time to get back to the hotel to meet Alex.
Waiting for us are three vans loaded with gear to transport our group of ten to the Mount Elbrus drop-off area. Introductions to my seven fellow climbers and crew are brief, given the absence of English, as they’re all Russian.
The road out of town isn’t well maintained; much of it is breaking up. It soon improves though, and we make better time on the four-hour journey to the mountain’s northern foot.
The lush foothills of the lower Caucasus provide stunning scenery as the van weaves and climbs along the road.
We pause for lunch at a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere before arriving at the parking area for Mount Elbrus, at 2,500 metres, which has some basic buildings. Tents soon pop up like mushrooms.
Heave ho - it’s time to saddle up with my heavy load and head off for an acclimatisation hike. Within an hour though, while heading up a ridge, I experience a sharp shooting pain on top of my right glute (backside). I guess the body is shirking at the weight.
The skies clear of cloud as we round the top of the hill, and Elbrus looms into view in all her towering splendour. We’re lucky, says Vitality, because last time he passed through it never stopped raining.
I stop walking with the group, pausing when the clouds disperse to give me the best photo opportunities. Although night is upon us when I finally return to camp, it was worth every shot. I’ve travelled so far to see this beauty.
Dinner is very simple - a piece of bread with crackers and cheese, a cup of tea. I’m very glad I bought some nuts.
I’m sleeping in a two-man tent with one other gent, who is already asleep. There’s a problem - my inflatable mattress is dead flat, and attempts to inflate it in the tiny tent with a snoring tent-mate fail. I’m hard on the ground tonight.
After an uncomfortable night I’m first up, keen to see if there’s any visibility from camp as it’s already light at 4.30am, and I scramble to get the GoPro camera set up as daylight glitters across snow-covered peaks.
I love this quiet time of the day when the sunrise greets me, it’s so peaceful. The camp soon stirs to life though and, as I start getting my backpack sorted, my body aches in anticipation of shouldering the load. Breakfast is simple: porridge, bread with cheese and salami.
Packs are soon on and we make tracks. As we trudge uphill, Vitaly informs me that one of our fellow trekkers is Dmitry Yarovov, a renowned Russian artist, who is going to paint a picture on the summit.
With the approaching hill climbs, I decide to press toward the front; hills are something I do well. Trudging along under the weight of my backpack, I contemplate that, without it, maybe - just maybe - I could attempt the double summit: the mountain has two almost identical peaks, the west summit at 5,642 metres and the east summit at 5,621 metres.
Then again, maybe the altitude is doing something to my brain.
The benefit of arriving somewhere first is additional rest time while the others catch up. I settle onto a nice rock, survey the area, and watch the Congo line approach.
Vitaly soon arrives and we turn off the track to what he calls his secret campsite, which involves scaling another hill through the volcanic rocks. We weave across the rocks to a small clearing, and at last I can dump the burdensome pack. But my happiness its short-lived; it starts to rain, and I’m a man without a tent.
Others soon arrive and proceed to set tents. I wait for my tent-mates to arrive; I’ve already chosen our spot. I’m told there will now be three of us sharing a small tent. “This is your new family,” says Vitaly. It will be warmer, he says.
Tent raised, it’s time for a rest - but it’s not easy as the sonorous snoring beside me has already started. And, to add to that, thunder starts to roll across the mountains.
The rain stops for the first time in hours, and we prepare for another acclimatisation walk. Vitaly decides this will also be a gear drop.
We trek under clear, sunny skies across what are called the mushroom fields – massive boulders, where the top stays intact and underneath deteriorates at a faster rate, causing a stem-like feature, hence the name.
Then dense fog rolls in, followed by rain, then wind, and in no time I’m completely drenched. Our trek is cut short at the base of a rock wall we were supposed to scale. Instead, we stash crampons, climbing gear and heavy boots beneath some boulders and head back to camp.
Now everything is wet, and fresh ice has piled up against the tent from a freezing hailstorm. I’m offered what Vitaly calls “Siberian Cognac.” It’s vodka infused with “Golden Root” – the Siberian herb Rhodiola rosea, said to promote energy, stamina, and longevity. I drink it because I’m cold.
The rain starts again, and everyone seeks refuge in their tents. Dinner is a bowl of soup and crackers - well short of what I’d consider a dinner. Water is gathering in the corners of our tent, and our sleeping bags are wet. My tent-mates start snoring as I lay on my still-flat inflatable mattress. Where’s the Siberian Cognac?
It rains all night, and water has penetrated our tent. Vitaly is right, it is warmer with three of us.
I’m up at 4.30am and disturb the peace crunching through the loose gravel. The mountain is clouded over but soon clears, and everything from boots to bedding is sprawled across every nearby rock in anticipation of some sunshine.
Re-packing is a process. First, you have to find everything, re-pack this into dry bags, then get your food allocation and pack that too. On this occasion I offer to carry some tent poles as well, as I now don’t have the added weight of the gear we dropped yesterday.
The group is in high spirits as we head back the way we ventured yesterday, up to the mushroom fields. In contrast to yesterday’s bleak skies, the morning sun is on us and morale is high. Everyone is climbing and laughing, taking photos: there are 22 glaciers around Mount Elbrus, and the scenery is stunning.
Then the fun stops. After re-attaching my stowed gear to my load, I strain under the weight. When I said I’d carry the tent poles I didn’t realise that the next two sections of the climb include scaling several rock faces.
My back twinges and my calves feel every bit of the added kilograms. I wonder if the shoulder straps will hold; I know I’m well over the weight limits for this backpack.
It’s a tough climb and, hunched over, I will myself to push forward, step by step. I try all the self-motivation I can muster as I struggle on behind Vitaly. “We rest here?” I ask. “No, up there” he replies as I contemplate the dead weight on my shoulders.
Before long, two more members of our group join us, we climb higher, and before long can dump our burdens. It’s a good half an hour before everyone else starts arriving, which makes for a decent rest, though now we must press on to camp, up and over another rock section, this time traversing snow as well.
Briefly out of the snow, with wet boots, I slip on a rock and slam my knee and elbow as the full weight of the backpack thuds against me. My knee aches. But it could be worse, I suppose; nothing is broken.
I slow my pace, and take extra care scaling jagged rocks and tramping through the snow. Eventually one of the guys doubles back to point me in the direction of camp. I’m thrilled at the idea of getting this pack off my back.
Base camp, at 3,700-metres, can’t come soon enough, and my back yells at me to hurry up while my shoulders cry.
Vitaly and I throw up the main tent, and he helps me level an area for the sleeping tent that has spectacular views of Elbrus. At base camp we’re on the edge of the snow line, so from here it’s crampons.
Trying to blow up my mattress again - in vain - I find the hole. In my misguided wisdom, to save on weight, I didn’t bring a repair kit. So, I stick on a Band Aid and hope for the best.
Vitaly delivers a briefing, first in Russian, with a brief translation to bring me up to speed. At 5pm - in a couple of hours - we must be ready for an acclimatisation hike across the snow.
This hike turns out to be more of a lesson in crampon climbing, and it’s a worthwhile exercise as we spend time practicing the “rest step” and general team-line work.
We climb slowly, which is a lot better than scaling rock hills with my loaded backpack. I’m also happy with my breathing, and the exercise itself doesn’t feel unachievable. Conserving energy in the long run seems to be the aim of the game.
Once we’ve reached the top of the intended rock line, an example is given on descending foot placement, in Russian, but I’m used as the example, so I get the concept.
Heading back down, Vitaly tells me he’s happy with this group because we’re all good descenders, which is important - he’s had some plodders in other groups, he says.
Thick fog closes in, and we head back to camp. Dinner is soup, bread, a piece of ham and a piece of garlic. They’re certainly not big eaters, and I oblige by finishing any scraps.
It’s 4am and everyone is up. I’m filthy that my Russian buddies have again snored and wriggled throughout the night.
As the sun appears over the horizon one of them yells to me to bring the camera over the ridge. Sunrise turns the clouds into a breathtaking kaleidoscope of colours. I set the GoPro and admire the view as my sleep-deprived self adjusts to a new day.
It’s a rush to gobble down breakfast (porridge) and pack my backpack. It’s time to leave, and we head off in single file for another acclimatisation hike, this one a six-hour stretch.
Stops are brief, and the crampons tire the feet. After the first stop, Vitaly asks that I fall in behind him. Our pace is slightly faster, which divides the group over time.
Alex catches up with us for a while, and I enquire how everyone is going. “Some are really struggling” he says. I ask if it’s because of altitude, and his answer is to the point: “If you come to the mountain you must train, you cannot blame the altitude or say it’s this only, you must be fit and prepared.”
The mountain’s highest camp, snow-covered Lenz Rocks, at 4,600 metres, is the next welcome stop. We pause long enough for photos and some respite from the pack, but it only lasts until the group catches up. Then we press on.
Lenz Rocks is the minimum acclimatisation for today, but as the weather is favourable we trek for another couple of hundred meters and rest for an hour or so to really breathe the air.
For Dmitry the artist, it’s a chance to put a brush into action. We’re all impressed.
Vitaly pulls me aside to offer some techniques in ice-traverse and descending. Heading back down the mountain, the downward impact leads to a blister on my big toe, taking the shine off an otherwise successful climb and descent.
Thanks to the blister, every foot placement is now accompanied by pain. I contemplate the fact that, weather-permitting, I could be going back up again in 12 hours with the blister - while the weather is favourable now, winds of up to 50kph are forecast in the morning.
Back at camp, it’s become routine to dry out gear while the sun shines. If it’s not wet from rain it’s saturated in sweat. Charged gear, new batteries, and an organised kit is required in case the weather turns and we have to descend in a hurry or, instead, we get the go-ahead to push for the summit.
Summit Day – East Summit **
I’ve slept through my tent-mates’ thundering snoring and wake just before midnight feeling recharged for the task ahead. Just getting dressed is a challenge - thermal leggings, fleeced outer hiking trousers, two pairs of thick hiking socks, two thermal tops, jumper, jacket, waterproof jacket, hat, gloves, goggles.
I’m soon organised though, it’s just gone 12am, and it’s time to hit the snow.
Dmitry and I are right behind Vitaly on the ever-upward push. He says the next stop is “the rock” and falls back to assist the rest of the group while Dmitry and I press on.
We’re very pleased with ourselves, and take photos of an incredible sunrise beaming vividly across the horizon while we wait for the others.
After a short rest I ask Vitaly if we can keep going. “You must stay with the group,” is his sharp reply.
But along the way the enviable happens, and the group becomes two; Alex is now leading my tent buddies far below us.
Fellow mountaineer Valiko, who is climbing with our group, is tiring and she moves behind Vitaly. I trek behind her to help shield her from the increasing wind gusts as we plod upwards.
After climbing for about ten hours I become concerned about Valiko, as she seems exhausted, and there’s a long way to go.
The oxygen density in the air at 5,000 metres is half of that at level zero. There are many stories of people who underestimate this and then suffer severe injuries or even die due to altitude sickness. Which brings home the magnitude of the challenge.
Against the howling, freezing wind, Vitaly makes an announcement - every person who has made it thus far has, in his statistics, summited.
His speech is good timing, as it brings me a sense of imminent success. I’ve been continuously taking in carb bars, snacks and fluids every hour to ensure I’ve got something left in the tank when it counts – which is now.
No altitude sickness, back pain or blisters will stop me now, and I’m rearing to go.
The wind increases as we tackle the long slope to the top. Valiko is short-tethered to Vitaly, and everyone huddles close as we face violent winds and gusting snow. As we wait for more of the group to catch up, a blast of wind knocks Katia, one of the guides, to the ground.
Trudging along in single file, the tether-line inches closer to the summit, struggling against unbelievably strong wind gusts, which forces some to drop to their knees, and penetrating snow, which hits us like needles. Our clothes are frozen and feel like they could snap in half.
The situation starts to deteriorate. Katia falls to the ground, and when I help her up I see she is having difficulty breathing. I grab her backpack and pull her to her feet, but she falls again. “Up, up,” I shout, and up she gets.
I hear a yell from Vitaly – “100 meters to go” - and feel that, while this will be touch and go with such ferocious weather, we might make it.
I want to capture the summit on the GoPro, and try to set it up in the wild wind as the group inches forward.
Catching up with the group again, I see that many are getting blown about, some thrown over, some crouching near a rock to avoid the onslaught.
Later I learn that Valiko slumped to the ground, unconscious. Vitaly proceeded to slap her face, and luckily she regained conscious. I don’t perceive the severity of the situation; it’s later that Vitaly tells me that she was “close to death, actually.”
The GoPro has died, and I’m now focused on putting it back in my pocket and inching forward.
Then I hear Vitaly yelling “Go David - it’s just there.”
Peering through the driving snow I see the summit, and in a burst of energy – I don’t know where it comes from - I stomp my way ... one foot after the other … to the top.
I am alone on the summit. On hands and knees now, as there’s nowhere further to climb. The wind rips into my face. I’m here, I’ve done it.
Then Dmitry comes into view, dropping to the ground near me.
Crouched on my knees, I wrestle off my backpack, with is almost ripped out my grasp by the wind, and find the Diabetes Australia flag.
I peel it open against my backpack: “To all the kids from the Diabetes Camp, stay strong, keep being awesome!”
We’re done. I now wrestle the backpack back on, as the wind tries to take it from me. The cover fly flies into the distance, lost. I have everything in the pack, and hang onto it for dear life.
We have to get off the summit, urgently, before we’re blown off.
A father and son team summit. We make our way over to them, a loop-in rope is thrown my way, and we are all tethered together, ready to descend.
I’m first off the ridge, and I stumble: a ferocious gust of wind lifts me and my heavy backpack completely into the air, and dumps me back on the ground.
Descending slowly, step after step, I look back and, although we’re all joined together, the others seem a long way behind me. But I press on; a rapid descent is a good descent.
I feel on top of the world – I suppose I am at the top of Europe, after all – because everything has gone so well.
It’s only later I realise that the reason everyone is so far behind me is for safety - I’ve been put at the front of the tether on a “crevice line” – that is, in case I fall into a crevice, the others can haul me out. Food for thought as we press downwards.
After a few hundred metres the violent wind gusts subside to high winds, and it feels like the danger has passed. The four of us soon come together to unclip from the tether, so we can make independent descents.
Vitaly asks if anyone has taken summit photos, and I explain how hard it was trying to hold the flag. “Let’s do it here, again, everyone in,” he says.
So, we capture this moment in time. A moment filled with relief, happiness and sense of accomplishment. Mount Elbrus is done, and will always be remembered.
Summit day is a 16-hour slog – a 13-hour climb to the top and a three-hour descent to base camp.
It’s only later I learn that seven people died, or went missing, presumed dead, trying to summit the week before I did.
Although said to be technically easier to climb than Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, on average 26 people die trying to climb Mount Elbrus every year, which is a higher death toll than Everest. I’m also told that these figures are lowered, and in reality more than 40 climbers die annually trying to conquer Elbrus.