Mountain Monday – Mt. Elbrus

 

 

I decided to do No. 2 of the 7 summits, the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.

North America: Denali 6,190 meters
South America: Aconcagua 6,962 meters
Antarctica: Vinson 4,892 meters
Europe: Mt Elbrus 5642 meters
Asia: Mt Everest 8,848 meters
Africa: Kilimanjaro 5,895 meters
Australia: Carstensz Pyramid 4,884 meters

I’d summited Kilimanjaro on the African continent on New Year’s Eve back in 2010. I found it hard, very hard! I said for months afterwards that I would never do anything like that again…

The memories of the pain, the bad food, and the exhaustion faded over time.

Around Christmas of 2016 I started to think about Elbrus. Only thoughts, but the more I thought about it the more I wanted to do it.

It took me until May 25th to finally push the button and BOOK!

In fact, I didn’t even book it myself I had my colleague do it for me….

Ok so now I’ve booked it I need to do three things
1: Book time off work
2: Purchase a massive list of kit
3: Train

The first two were easy. I’m not a great one for keeping to a training program.

Yes, I hike a fair bit, how hard can it be?! I had eight weeks, and in that eight weeks I ran about six times, these runs included two 10k’s.

Hiking was my plan. I’d load my backpack with 15 or 20kgs and go walking. Living in London there are no mountains but I managed.

So, it was time to pack, the time had finally come and final checks on the kit and the kit list were carried out. I had done this about ten times before but I was paranoid I’d forgotten something. I hadn’t!

My flight was on a Thursday evening from Heathrow’s T4. Uber booked, off I go with my three bags. Luckily I was allowed two cabin bags, one with boots the other bits ‘n’ bobs for my flight. The third one with my kit can go in the hold.

If you ever fly out to climb or hike somewhere the only thing you don’t want to lose is your boots, I had two pairs. The kit can be replaced but if you have worn your boot ins, you don’t want new boots hired or purchased from your destination or you’ll end up with blisters.

I had three flights, Heathrow to Schiphol – Schiphol to Moscow – Moscow to Mineralnye then a 4-hour minibus ride to our hotel in the small village of Terskoi. At Mineralnye the team all met, we’d been chatting on Whatsapp for a few days so some of us had already broken the ice. It was hot in Russia, the minibus had no air conditioning, the exhaust pipe was hanging off and the windscreen was cracked. The latter was something we would get used to; every vehicle, cable car, building or hit had a smashed window of some description.

So the plan was to perform a few acclimatisation hikes. After a good nights rest in the hotel, it was time to head off. The minibus was different today, smaller. We needed to go in two groups, our British hike leader, me and one other were to go with the porters. We were to hike the day up to a glacial lake at 3,200 meters and camp for two nights. From here we would climb up to the summit of Mt Mukal 3,890 meters, then spend one more night at 3,200 meters, to help with getting used to the altitude.

Mt Mukal was pretty straight forward, hiking and scrambling with some walking on ice and snow. It took the group about four hours to summit, everyone was happy with our achievement, and so we should be! We got back to camp about two hours later to a nice bowl of onion soup, spicy sausage, and bread. The group later became known at Team Spicy Sausage as every meal (including breakfast) included spicy sausage. That evening came quick for us all, we were tired and when the sun started to fall it became cold. In the night the wind got up, the tents were blowing all over the place and extra rocks were needed to secure them from blowing away. Sleep was limited and in the end, I put my headphones in which are noise cancelling and listened to some soft music. I soon fell asleep but there were only about three more hours before we needed to get up. Still, three hours is better than no hours and it was now my birthday.

I woke about 5 am on my birthday in a tent, beside a glacial lake, at 3,200 meters up a mountain. I don’t think there was anywhere else in the world I’d rather have been. Taking a short walk over the head of the valley to watch the sunrise was all I wanted to do, it was still very windy, but I didn’t care. I sat there for about 20 mins tucked next to a large rock with not a care in the world, it was bliss! I thought about a couple of people back in the UK and wondered what they’d be doing as I sat there watching the sun rise over the mountains.

When I walked back to camp heads started to appear from the tents, “Happy Birthday” I would hear, then another head pops out and the same. We all sat on some rocks in camp for my birthday breakfast eating spicy sausage and dry bread. All anyone was interested in was getting back down the mountain and back to the hotel, and of course, celebrating my birthday that evening!

Getting back down was a speedy task, we only have to get 3/4 of the way as we were going to be picked up and driving back to the hotel in the minibus that didn’t fit us all. This meant there was a bit of a race, whoever got there first was guaranteed a seat, or so we thought. When we got to the collection point there was no bus waiting for us. We all sat on the logs and fallen trees, a little annoyed that they weren’t there to meet us. Fortunately, we didn’t need to wait long, and the good news, the driver only wanted to make one trip, the bad news, we all had to squeeze into this tiny minibus.

Back at the hotel the first thing I ran for was the toilet, then the shower. Feeling the warm water from the shower was just bliss and there were no toilets on the mountain, so being able to sit was like being a king on his throne. We’d only spent two nights on the mountain in our tents so sleeping in a bed that night was being looked forward to.

The next morning we were to move up to the infamous barrels, old fuel storage tanks from the cold war era. Everyone was now excited and just wanted to get up there. We loaded our bags, and all the food and water needed for a week on the mountain into two buses, then made the five-minute drive to the foot of the mountain.

It wasn’t easy getting up to the barrels, two cable cars, and one chair lift, all relaying our kit and food to the top. This wasn’t cheating as the barrels sit at 3,700 meters and we had already climbed to 3,890 meters on Mt Mukal to acclimatise to the altitude. Terskoi / Elbrus is a ski resort during the winter, but I can only imagine that Russians use it due to how hard it is to get there, it really is the end of the world! The two cable cars were pretty safe, but now the chair lift. There is no health and safety in Russia and the chair lift is a clear example of this. Hundreds of people use it every day (more during ski season) and basic safety precautions were not in place.

 

It was my turn, rucksack on my front I stood on the yellow painted square on the floor, this was the target. It was straight forward and anyone that been skiing before will know, but this time there was no safety barrier to keep you in your seat, nothing really to hold on with besides your arse cheeks.

Getting to the barrels was a happy affair, that was until we looked inside. Six beds inside a long tube, a tube that had clearly not been cleaned for years. It was smelly, the beds dirty and stained, the floor would have been filthy with germs! We laid out our camping mats on top on the bed sheets and then our sleeping bags, a physical barrier between the filth and us.

 

We had a cook with us, a Russian lady that never smiled, in fact, years of repression had its toll on the locals, not one of them smiled, all stern faced. She cooked basic but tasty meals, and yes every meal contained spicy sausage. The hut we ate in was perched high on the edge of a steep bank and propped up by just a few rocks…. what could go wrong?!


The toilet was of a long drop design, a hole above a pit full of stinking poo and pee, plus a million flies! It was an experience I wasn’t looking forward to. You could smell it from many meters away and it wasn’t pleasant! The use of this facility was going to be avoided at all cost by me, i needed a plan! There was an old building that was over time slipping off the mountain due to erosion, inside was broken glass and bags of rubbish dumped, more like a landfill than a derelict building but a million times better that the long drop option.

We planned to do two acclimatisation hikes over the next couple of days, the first was up to an old burnt out hut at 4,000 meters, only a 300 meter climb but, at the current altitude, it seemed more like 3,000 meters. We were up and back in around four hours, pleased again with our achievements. The next day we were to walk the same route but this time up to 4,700 meters, the ‘top of the rocks’ as it’s known. We had our high altitude boots on fitted with our crampons.

We wore our helmets due to a woman being hit on the head the day before, from a tumbling rock rolling down the mountain, we’d watched the evening before as she was airlifted from the side of the mountain. Unfortunately, we later heard that she had passed away due to her injuries. Sometimes things happen a little close to home.

Summit day had arrived! Finally, time to pull out all the stops.

We caught the snow cat, as planned, to our start at 4,700 meters, from here it would be 8+ hours to the summit. it was a cold night, minus 13 with a wind chill of minus 20, not weather to hang about in. The first milestone was to get to the traverse at 5,040 meters a tough 45deg climb in the dark, something that took me two and a half hours. From here it was a long slog up the traverse to the saddle, it looked easy from further down the mountain but it wasn’t. The wind was blowing in our faces, on one side there was a drop into the valley below over the glacier, certain death to anyone that would slip and slide the few thousand meters to the rocks on the valley floor. The traverse took me around four hours to complete, one step two deep breaths – repeat. All I wanted to do was give up!

It really was hell!

Close to the saddle one of the team was coming back down the mountain, he was clipped to a guide and being led down, he had succumbed to the dreaded altitude sickness. My guide Alex was a doctor, he had a quick look at him and promptly sent the pair of them on their way. Seeing this gave me more determination to push for the summit, I started to think about letting people down in the UK, which sounds silly I know, but that’s how I thought.


Up until now, we had been walking either in the dark or in the shade, but reaching the saddle I got my first glimpse of sunlight, it was shining on the west peak at the far side of the mountain. I needed to get there before I could stop and take a break, sitting in the warm sunshine was going to be heaven, I couldn’t wait! Twenty minutes later I’d reached my resting point, in the sun. I’d been looking forward to this for hours. Vlad, our grumpy main guide, was sat there waiting, he hadn’t been well all week and had decided not to summit that day. Sat in the sun he was resting and waiting for the faster members of the team to return. I wasn’t getting much encouragement from him to carry on, he wanted me to give in and go down, that wasn’t going to happen now! I cut my break short (only about 5 minutes) jumped up and announced that I was going to the summit.

From this point up we had to clip onto fixed ropes, these were fixed in place between poles dotted up the steep side on the mountain. People die on this stretch of the mountain and it was very important to clip on properly. I was told it would take me two hours to reach the summit by Vlad, but I suspected this was to try and make me change my mind. It was tough, but I knew the goal was close. The fixed lines were quiet, only people going up, this sped the whole thing up not having to clip on and off when passing someone coming back down. The time seemed to fly by before I knew it I was at the top and unclipped.


I was getting so close, but at this altitude where I was only breathing 50% of the oxygen that is breathed at sea level, it was still a long way. You move very slowly when you can’t breathe, normally two breaths to one step. Well, this was it, a short 50-meter slope then a flat walk to the summit, I was starting to bubble with excitement. Went I got the crest of the slope I was greeted by the remaining team coming back down, it made my day to see them all. We all stood there chatting and smiling together, it was a warming moment for all of us. One of them pointed in the direction of where they’d come from, Kip, there’s the summit they said. I looked over their shoulder and could see my goal, the summit. My guide said he would wait for me where we stood and I was to go alone. I didn’t mind and off I went, it was about 400 meters away but mostly flat. It was a slow walk and I had time to think, I thought about that I wasn’t letting anyone down and most of all I hadn’t let myself down. I shed a little tear walking towards the summit, nobody could see as I had my glacier glasses on, by I wasn’t really worried. I was about to summit the highest mountain in Europe.

At 10 am (8 am GMT) I summited Mt Elbrus and I was ecstatic to say the least. It had taken me exactly eight hours, eight hours of mostly misery with a little bit of happiness thrown in towards the end. I was cold, exhausted, hungry and thirsty. It’s amazing how you forget the basic things like taking a sip of water every now and then. I had Snickers bars with me but they were frozen and inedible, I made the same mistake on Kilimanjaro so will try and remember for the next mountain, Snickers bars need to go inside my jacket to prevent freezing.


I asked a complete stranger if he’d mind taking a photo of me on the summit, he spoke no English but he knew what I wanted. He was great and took his time to take a few from different angles, he knew this was a special moment as it would have been for him. As with every summit you never really hang about long enough to really appreciate the view. You are exhausted and all you are thinking about is getting back down the mountain, I spent no longer than 5 minutes on the summit with a grin from ear to ear, now it was time to go.

At that point I had only completed 50% of the job, getting back down, although easier, is still a long slog. Your adrenaline levels have hit rock bottom, you are exhausted and you no longer have the summits as a goal. I was aware that most accidents happen on the descent, I needed to stay focused and get down safely.

I almost skipped to the top of the fixed line, I had it in my head I wanted to catch the rest of the group before they got the bottom. I was lucky, they’d stopped for a break on the saddle so I soon caught them up. I wasn’t interested in having a break, I wanted to leave with them and go down as a team. I quickly ate and drank some water, I’d made a spicy sausage sandwich which I’d completely forgotten about on the ascent, I consumed it with just a couple of bites and washed it down with a litre of water, I was ready to leave.

This was the first time in eight hours that I’d been with the rest of the group, I felt a part of the team again. Everyone was happy, other than the one with altitude sickness, we had all summited, two woman and seven men. But we still had a long way to get off the mountain and back to safety, the traverse was ahead of us and probably the only real danger now left for us to tackle.

To get back to the top of the rocks, the place where we’d started some nine and a half hours ago took around an hour and a half, we were all grinning like school kids at the ice cream van. We were getting a lift in the snow cat back to the barrels and we couldn’t wait. Unfortunately, we needed to walk further down the mountain to it, the snow had started to become slushy preventing traction in the afternoon sun. Around ten minutes later and we were climbing on board the back of the snow cat, our rucksacks hung on the blade at the front, giving us more room in the back. Thirty minutes and we’d be back to the barrels and time to rest, eat and talk about our achievements. It was a quiet ride back, I think everyone was tired and just having a little time to think, the odd smile appeared on faces as we sat in silence.

Once back at the barrels we lay our gear out in the sun to dry, mainly from sweat and the snow on our boots. We headed straight into the canteen for a late lunch of spicy sausage, bread, and soup. I’d make a quick phone call back to Adventure Peaks (AP) in the UK, four of us were talking about booking early flights and leaving a day early, we were soon greeted with the good news, AP had secured early flights the next day. Debit card details exchanged and the flight was confirmed for lunchtime, less than twenty-four hours and I’d be leaving this third world country and heading home.


All there was now to do was to pack up our gear and head back down the chair lift and two cable cars to Terskoi and spend one more night in the hotel. It was as it always is, quicker getting back down. I could carry all my gear in one go at a push and there was no food to carry this time. There was a mass exodus from the barrels to the chair lift, but that as far as we got. We spoke no Russian and without Vlad, we had no chance of getting on the chairs. The queue was massive, and there was five odd and very official looking men stood close to us. we were 3,700 meters up a mountain and they were dressed in black trousers with white shirts, possibly the FSB (secret police) and they stood out like a sore thumb. Luckily Vlad turned up and hurried us to the front of the queue, I think he was well connected in these parts having summited the mountain a mere 187 times.

Within the hour we were back in Terskoi and loading the minibus with our kit. We’d be back at the hotel in ten minutes and looking forward once again to using a toilet and having a hot shower. We couldn’t wait! in only a few hours and after a good night sleep I’d be heading back to the UK, heading home, business class of course…

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They deliver projects around homelessness that engage an amazing community of volunteers and bring people together to make change happen.
They work closely with other organisations in the city to build powerful partnerships and develop pilot projects which respond to need. Their projects include the 365 Shelter, Caring at Christmas project, Bristol Nightstop and the Survival Handbook publication. They also carry out research and put on events to share good practice and new ideas.

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Thank you for taking the time to read about my trip, I hope I didn’t bore you too much.

This week’s post is courtesy of Kip Hansford.
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