Diary Entry – 10th July 2016, South Face, Mt. Elbrus; 18:30hrs: – A massive blizzard is raging outside with heavy snowfall. In the last few hours, there’s already a foot of snow piled against the door. With the coming of the storm, dusk has sneaked up on us prematurely, reducing the ambient light inside the Diesel hut (a glorified name). We sit and wait, each of us preparing for the climb like we were preparing for war, making last minute adjustments to ropes, harnesses and crampons (our proverbial armor against the elements); caught up with our thoughts, our fears and apprehensions. For Abel, this is the second time he’s been here to finish what he started. Last year he had to turn back 300 meters from the summit, when similar weather suddenly descended on them. For Greg, this will be his very first summit, his last 6000 mtr peak, ended when he was suddenly overcome with AMS on the way to the top. And for Sauraj and me, it’s a matter of credibility. If we can’t summit Elbrus, how can we even begin to contemplate Everest. The storm rages on & we wait…
Mountain Climbing is never just about that one picture of ‘Glory’ or those few precious seconds of footage, when the climber, reaches the summit and unfurls his flag. It is, in fact made up of a thousand moments; moments that test your patience and perseverance, moments filled with hardship and discomfort, moments that very few climbers ever care to reveal. Mt Elbrus, like every other mountain we have climbed, more than lived up to this reputation.
Our very first trip to Russia was dominated by the climb to the summit of Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in the European continent standing at an impress height of 5642mtrs above sea level. A dormant volcano, located in the Norther region of the Caucasus Mountain, it seems deceptively easy with gentle snow slopes when compared to the jagged rocky ridges of the Caucasus range, but on closer inspection, its twin summits tower over 1000 meters higher than the surrounding mountains.
Elbrus can be summited by two distinct routes, the northern route and the southern one, with the rest of the Caucasus Range as a backdrop; the route we had selected. From Moscow, we flew to the closest airport to the mountain, located in the town of Mineralnye Vody and drove up the valley through lush Pine groves, arriving after 4 hours at the quaint little tourist mountain village of Terskol located in the Che’get region. After two days spent in organizing our food and equipment, on DAY THREE we were all set to head up the slopes of Elbrus. A short drive through Che’get brought us to the cable cars which took us from the village of Azau at 2400m to 3800m in a matter of minutes. With food, equipment and over 120 litres of water to sustain 6 climbers for the next 4-5 days, this form of transfer / travel, was super convenient and absolute blessing, though very risky with respect to proper acclimatization.
Our plan though ambitious was quite sound. Trying to capitalize on the brilliant weather, we planned to spend a night at the Barrel Huts (3700mtrs), with an acclimatization trek up to Diesel huts at 4100 mtrs on the very same day. The next day, we planned to move bag & baggage up to the Diesel huts (4100 mtrs), following which we would press on upwards to a distinct rock landmark called Pastukov Rocks located at 4700mtrs for an acclimatization trek and then back down to sleep at the Diesel Huts. In the early hours of DAY FIVE, we planned to move up the mountain, taking approximately 8-9 hours to reach summit at 10:30am.
Like all meticulous plans, it turned to shit when Murphy and his damnable law decided to intervene. After a beautiful day spent at the Barrel huts, we woke up the next morning to see the skies completely overcast, with the potential of a snow storm later in the day. We stuck to the plan and moved our luggage upto Diesel huts, subsequently pressing on for our acclimatization trek up to Pastukov Rocks (4700 mtrs) . Within 20 minutes of climbing, the weather turned exceedingly foul with strong winds and heavy snowfall, reducing visibility to a few feet and dropping the temperature to well below zero in the middle of the day. We pressed on to our acclimatization goal, turning back and making double time as soon as we hit our target. From that point the storm raged on, getting progressively worse, with no respite. Within a few hours, there was over a foot of snow outside and our summit attempt that night looked progressively bleak.
At midnight, when we awoke for the climb, the fierce wind and snow effectively put an end any preconceived bravado of venturing outside to scale Elbrus’s daunting slopes. In fact, one of us actually stepped out to test the visibility and inadvertently left the outer door slightly ajar. This proved to be a costly oversight later, as after deciding to go back to sleep, we were suddenly awakened by Sauraj’s shout of alarm, to find his sleeping bag completely covered with snow. Wind and snow had managed to squeeze through the gap in the door and in a period of 20 minutes, had managed to fill up not only the passage, but half the hut. The next few hours were spent shoveling snow and ice out of the hut and trying to thaw out the frozen hinges of the door to ensure that it shut properly; an exercise which was possibly as exhausting as the climb, taking up a better part of the night. Needless to say, we didn’t end up going anywhere that night.
The next day was spent just resting and relaxing on the mountain while we watched the antics of climbers and skiers on the slopes around us. By mid-day, the wind had died down and the day became surprisingly warm, which resulted in one of the most unusual sights I have ever witnessed. An All Russian-Women’s climbing team grabbed this opportunity to work on their tan while simultaneously posing, for what could only be described as a swimsuit photo-shoot. As can be expected, this brought in the crowds and kept half the population on the mountain, including us, suitably entertained.
Unlike most mountains, you see quite a large number of Snow Cats (not a reference to a wild animal) or in other words a Snow Plow which performs the dual function of leveling the ski slopes as well as ferrying climbers and skiers up and down the mountain. In fact, we were quite shocked when one of the Russian Guides asked us if we would like to share the cost of a Snow Cat on the summit climb with his clients. The snow cat would pick up 12 climbers from the ‘Diesel Huts’ (4100mtrs) in the early hours of the morning and in a period of 40 minutes, plow up the steep incline of Elbrus and deposit climbers at a height of 5000mtrs, thus reducing the climbing time by 2-3 hours, all for the princely sum of USD 100$ a climber.
Having made our climbing preparations, the previous evening, we attempted to sleep early, praying to all the Gods for good weather and clear skies. At 1:00am in the morning, we woke up to find the most perfect weather you can expect, with not just clear visibility, but the entire galaxy of stars twinkling above us. After making all our preparations, we set out at 2:00am upwards, one behind the other setting a vigorous pace for fear of the weather closing again. As we climbed upwards, we suddenly found ourselves flooded by the headlights of a snowcat plowing its way with 15 climbers on board. The angle of ascent was such that whoever sat at the back would invariably be squashed beneath a pile of bodies by the time the journey ended and we were glad we weren’t onboard. At one point we even had to jump out of the way as these vehicles passed us, and I’m sure you can imagine the choice words we had to describe our feelings.
We must have been going faster than we estimated, because we reached the snowcats on the shoulder and steadily started overtaking the larger groups of climbers as they made their way up, in what appeared to be slow motion. We made our way up the slopes of the East Peak towards the left shoulder. By the time we hit the saddle between the two peaks at 5330 mtrs, the sun had come out, but the intense wind getting funneled between the two peaks, brought the wind chill factor down to -20 degrees Celsius. I have never experienced such cold and was sure, that this time, I would have to kiss a finger goodbye to frostbite.
A steep push up the face of the West Peak (the higher of the two peaks), helped us gain another 200 mtrs in height, bring us onto a short platue, with the highest point in Europe, the summit of the West Peak at the very end, tantalizingly close. The wind was at its fiercest here, but a short rise of about 5 metres took us up to the top, which we reached at 8.30am, exactly 6 hours and 30 minutes from when we started, much to the collective amazement of the professional guides and climbers around us. At the summit, despite the cold, we braved taking off our gloves and unfurling the nations flag on the summit of Europe.
The wind dissuaded us from spending too much time on the summit, and so after about 20 minutes, we started heading down. As we descended, we were made keenly aware of how much distance we had covered in our 1600 mtr height gain to the summit. The sun ofcourse bore down on us brighter and hotter than we expected, dehydrating us completely, making the 3 hour journey down to the Diesel Huts seem like forever, but the convenience of the cable cars on the way down, ensured that by 2:00pm we were enjoying a chilled beer and an awesome lunch surrounded by beautiful pine tree forests in an oxygen rich altitude of 2200mtrs. With the summit of Elbrus safety under our belt, we now had the rest of our Russia trip to look forward to.
For aspiring adventure enthusiasts, the summit of Mt. Elbrus is definitely worth it. More than testing your climbing capabilities, it is a mountain that will test your patience. Sudden and dramatic weather changes are not uncommon on Elbrus often dissuading experienced climbers from venturing further up. On first impressions, the seemingly gentle slopes and absence of any crevasses all the way to the shoulder, often result in climbers under-estimating the difficulty of the climb. And that’s where, Elbrus can be daunting, the test of your physiology; your body’s innate ability to acclimatize to the big altitude jumps. The summit climb through the night, with a height gain of 1600 mtrs at one shot, is what defeats a large number of climbers, exhausting them and compelling them to turn back. All-in-all, Mt Elbrus, with her unique nuances, is certainly a force to reckon with.
Photo credits: – Grégoire Rossignol & Abel Rossignol.
Expedition Team : –
Kavita Krishnan, Siddharth Jain, Grégoire Rossignol, Abel Rossignol, Sauraj Jhingan & Samir Patham