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Thursday, 18 July 2013

Day 9 - Summit Day

When we get up at 12:10 am the stars are shining, there is a 3/4 full moon and it is warmish and windless in camp - great conditions for a summit attempt. However, by the time we have finished breakfast the sky has clouded over, the wind has picked up and the temperature has dropped quite a bit.

We set off at 01:10 and begin our long trudge up the mountain. From about 02:00 onwards we start to be overtaken by the snowcats ferrying people up the hill.  Not the best feeling despite their waves and shouts of encouragement. We have not seen any other early activity in the camp or anyone else walking so we are probably the only group walking the whole way today.

This is also about the time that the wind gets even stronger and changes direction so that it starts blowing into our faces which makes it really pretty chilly and we soon have frost building up on our jackets.

We get to the first major drop off point at about 02:45 and it is a sea of people and groups trying to organise themselves - given that it is still pitch black you can easily see that it would have been pretty tricky to try and join the two parts of our group here. We stop very briefly and set off again to make sure we are ahead of all these people. There is a mini repeat of this as we pass the second drop off point at about 5,100. It has been a real slog up to here and it has started hailing which the strong wind is blowing horizontally into our faces These are some of the worst conditions I have been through on a summit day as yet and I feel a bit exposed without my big down jacket to keep the elements out - we are also not really waking at a speed that creates a lot of heat for me so I am having a pretty chilly day. The only consolation is that at times we can see very long snakes of head torches stretching a long way down the mountain so these poor people have a long way to go.

At about 04:30 the sun comes up and there is also a brief break in the cloud allowing us to take a couple of photos and see our surroundings.

The long files of other climbers can be seen in the background
The bad weather returns as we approach the saddle between the two peaks. Despite the fact that we are no longer walking up such a steep slope there is an interesting combination of strong wind, tricky terrain and steep drops to the side. We come across some fixed ropes which at first seem a bit excessive but later pretty handy as the wind picks up even more so that we are walking in probably 30mph+ conditions with some really rather strong gusts (probably over 60mph). These are difficult to cope with as you can't brace yourself in preparation and whilst not strong enough to knock us big, heavy chaps over certainly knock you sideways if you happen to be off balance when they hit - some poor chap ahead suddenly shoots off down the slope with his ice axe all over the place and luckily comes to a stop on a mound as otherwise he would have gone a long way indeed and probably badly injured. A bit surreal but a very timely reminder of the need to be careful in such conditions even on an easy mountain. I am slightly concerned that the guide will decide that it is getting too dangerous and that we will have to turn back but luckily this does not happen.

Visibility is reducing rapidly and soon we can't see one route marker from the prior one which is a bit worrying at times - we have spent all day in conditions which would see a summit attempt cancelled on all the other 7 Summits so it will be interesting to see how things fare from here on. We are still making good progress and have been overtaking all the other groups we have come across. After a while we have another break, eat some rations and then leave our packs behind as we enter the final approach to the summit.

Whilst we are doing this the guide potters off, when we look round for him a 20 seconds later to see what he is up to, he is a couple of metres to the side (really not very far at all) and squatting down still facing us. Given the visibility we are having to stare very hard to see what he is up to and it is only then that we realise that he has dropped his trousers and is having a quick dump - we refrain from asking whether this is some curious way of showing respect to the mountain gods.

After that, there are a couple of steep slopes and then for the first time in the day the route flattens out as we hit the top of the ridge 

and shortly after that a small plateau with a few people standing on it. We get there at 08:40, 7.5 hours after leaving and whilst it is a relief to finally be at the summit the conditions remain pretty poor - very windy, cold and with almost no visibility.

The Summit Stone

As such we only stay for about 20 mins; our guide says his prayers (a slightly more usual way of showing respect to the mountain and, we guess, some of his friends who have tragically lost their lives on it) and we take some (about 3) photos before heading off again at 09:00. That is more than enough time and the next groups are now arriving for their turn.

By half nine the cloud lifts and we can see about 150 - 200 people stretched out in long lines all the way back along the saddle. As always the lift of having reached the summit and going downhill makes everything seem a lot better together with a significant improvement in conditions. As we descend it appears that the story that we have walked all the way has circulated as Vladimir is being congratulated by all the guides that we come across - one of them has the good grace to think of us as well and gives me a smile and a thumbs up.

As we get back to the main slope back to camp we are overtaken by some skiers. Whilst it looks a great slope to ski down, the rapid warming is turning the snow to slush and we later come across them struggling in the wretched conditions. As the morning wears on and we descend towards the Barrels, it really warms up and we are walking through deep, wet and heavy snow which is really quite a drain at the end of a long, tough climb.
We get back to camp at 11:30 (total trip of 10 hours, 7.5 up and 2.5 down) to bask in both our glory and the sunshine that has now arrived!

I give Dave a quick debrief on the route and conditions to help the rest of the group for their bid and then start making arrangements to see if we can head off to Moscow early rather than hanging round in the desolate barrels for another couple of days.

This all works out and having packed and said our goodbyes we start down the mountain at 3pm. Unfortunately at ten to three the clouds returned and it has started to rain heavily. The chair lift is still running but it is a miserable descent and the conditions in the valley are little better. This is not helped by our driver not being there to meet us so we spend a while trying to find him before heading to a cafe for a beer and shashlik. We make some calls and finally find out that despite having been told that he would be there to meet us and would recognise us, he is sitting in his van in a car park that is a 5 minute walk away. I go and find him, expecting that he would be apologetic and would drive back to the cafe (it is still pouring) but instead he appears annoyed that I have interrupted his chat with a friend and makes it clear that we need to walk to him. He can then conveniently not understand enough of my Russian when I suggest he comes to the cafe. Eventually I am just too fed up and tired to argue (or at least attempt to argue) and so walk back to the cafe to get Gus and our packs before we finally head back to Cheget and the hotel. There we have a quick shower and another miserable dinner before an early night in preparation for celebrations in Moscow!

The rest of the group planned to head up the next day but did not really get started. The day after (their last chance) they headed up again with 2/3 summiting and the rest turning back not long after getting off the snowcat.

Next up the adventure in West Papua and the Carstenz Pyramid which is the highest peak in Australasia 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Day 8 - Acclimatisation walk

Today's plan is to walk up to 4,700 mtrs and stay there for a while to really move our acclimatisation on in preparation for the summit at about 5,700.  You really want to start early as then the snow and ice are hard and it is so much easier to walk on hard ground than when the snow gets soft and you sink in as well as risking getting your feet wet in the puddles. The sun as always is very strong at altitude and when the wind is not blowing it can get pretty hot which causes the snow to melt or soften quickly.

We get a reasonable start - only about an hour late by the time everyone is up and has their gear and crampons on. But again the group moves really slowly and in the end we stop only briefly at about 4.500 before heading back down.

This performance will lead to an interesting discussion on how we head to the summit. In addition is the issue of the snow cats. Most, if not all climbers, take a ride on one of the snow cats from the Barrels (at about 3,800) up to 4,700 or even 5,000 on summit day. I am very keen to avoid this as you can't really claim to have summited a mountain when you have been carried for at least half of your summit day. However, to walk you are asked to start at midnight which combined with waiting for the group on the snowcats to reach the meeting point and combined with waiting for them continually higher up will lead to a real risk of cold issues - especially if the weather is bad.

We meet in the afternoon to discuss the arrangements. The forecast is for poor weather over the next few days but not so bad as to prevent summiting. One of the rules of mountains which do not tend to have stable weather is that you go when you can go as even a slight deterioration in the weather can prevent a summit attempt and you don't want to have wasted your one reasonable day waiting at Base Camp. However most of the group are not in a state to go tomorrow.

This provides the opportunity for Gus and me to go for the summit and avoid all the problems that going en masse would involve - split group between walkers and riders on the snowcats, cold issues given the pace and the risk of the summit attempt being called off as both guides need to accompany people turning back. It is never nice to split a group in this way and a few of the others are noticeably upset when I mention the possibility but after a bit people recognise that it is not such a bad idea.

The problem is that neither of the guides want to do the summit twice and so we will need to pay another guide to take us there. Vladimir tries but is unable to find an alternative but feels happy coming with us as long as we pay him that fee. Dave is not sure enough of how he will be feeling for the second attempt with the rest of the group (especially as this is when he will most likely be required to take action or tough decisions) so does not come either.

So we prepare for our summit bid by trying to get some sleep in the afternoon (but not really succeeding) and early dinner and then an early night to get up for a 12:30 breakfast and 1am departure. As it is just Gus and I making the attempt and the guide thinks we are both strong, I was able to negotiate a one hour later start time.
Needless to say that for various reasons I don't sleep much that night.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Day 7 - Move to Barrels

The morning is meant to be easy - we have agreed that we can keep our rooms and so leave everything that we are not taking onto Elbrus in them and so all we need to do is shower and breakfast. However, just as we are about to leave the hotel, they decide that in fact we can't keep our rooms and need to clear them which leads to a rush to sort that out and still leave the hotel on time. We need to meet the logistics chaps to pick up our food and some gear for the mountain so timing is important!

The bottom of Elbrus is a ski resort and when the snow clears in the Summer you are just left with moraine which makes for pretty boring walking. As a result (and combined with the food you need to take up which is not the standard light weight climbing fare) everyone uses the ski lifts to get up to base camp which is (affectionately) known as the Barrels. The weather is pretty miserable but we do get a bit of a view in a brief break in the clouds.

View back down to the midway station
There are a number of locals as well as climbers using the cable car and a rather nice moment when a young girl, who is too embarrassed to ask, takes surreptitious photos of me and Gus with her iPhone whilst giggling with her friends about it.
It turns out that the chairlift is a decrepit, single-seater which is a bit of a worry as is the fact the weather worsens and it is now windy and raining. The metal creeks whenever the chair moves which is pretty frequent given the wind and the number of pylons and without much of a view to take your mind off that or the weather it is a pretty hair-raising ride!

Unfortunately and perhaps not to surprisingly, this is not to be the end of our travails. There is some sort of mix up when we arrive in that although the organisers knew we were coming, our barrel is not available. It is not clear quite why but we end up being distributed amongst the other barrels. The ladies end up sharing with the cooks who make little effort to hide their own displeasure at the arrangements and a few of us chaps get what appears to be the guides' overflow cabin. The ceiling is pretty warped and when the rain starts a good few leaks are triggered and the whole thing is on a tilt so there are concerns about falling out of bed! Luckily we all manage to take this with a good sense of humour and no one is that upset and in fact our cabin isn't that bad - especially when compared to the tent of a couple of nights ago.

The rest of the day is pretty easy - basically resting, eating, getting ready for our acclimatisation walk tomorrow and watching the world go by. The weather also clears so we get some good pictures of the camp and its surroundings including our first glimpses of the summit up close.
The food up here is pretty good with soup, pasta and meat with sausage and cheese for most meals.

The Barrels
The wonderful view back down the mountain

The twin peaks of Elbrus - the summit is the one on the left


Monday, 15 July 2013

Day 6 - Summit of Cumrichi

Today we are heading up to summit of Cumrichi, the highest trekking peak in the vicinity and a frequent pre-Elbrus climb. As usual is it up early and after quick breakfast we head off to summit. Breakfast is instant noodles which are really good on mountains - even when you have them for most meals! The ascent itself is really enjoyable with a mixture of trekking, scrambling and some easy climbing.

Start of the ascent
There is a lot of loose rock and scree which is pretty dangerous when climbing as a group and especially when the route often goes up gullies! On a few occasions we stop whilst the people at the front kick all the loose rock down the slope before the rest of the group come underneath - we manage to cause a couple of impressive rock slides like this! The weather a bit of a mix but mainly low cloud with a strong sun behind it - which is a worry as it is very easy to get burnt through it.

As we get to the summit we hit the snow line which is great as it makes the peak feel like a real summit. Once there we congratulate each other, admire the view and take photos whilst trying to avoid tumbling down the steep crumbly sides of the summit ridge.


Starting our descent back to camp
We have a good lunch of (and you've probably guessed it) bread, cheese and sausage on the way back down having stashed our supplies at a sheltered spot on the way up. We pull into camp to pack up where we get some clear(ish) skies for about the first time up here and a chance to appreciate the view including our first sighting of Elbrus itself before we start our descent.


The twin peaks of Elbrus
The weather remains clear and the descent is really hot given the strong sun, absence of cloud cover and shelter from the wind. A few of us decide to press on as there is a river at the bottom of the valley and that should give us enough time for a quick dip before the others arrive and we head back to Cheget.
The first part of the plan works well as we get to the river in plenty of time and in real need of cooling down. However we have not appreciated that the water is freezing. I manage to get in up to my knees for a minute or so by which time they are turning blue and really rather painful so we decide just to wait under some trees in the shade instead. Shortly after this some Russians turn up to wash in the river and merrily strip down to their swimming costumes and bikinis before plunging in - quite luckily for my self-esteem they are all laughing about how cold it is and don't stay in for that long but it was still very impressive.
We decide that what we really need now is a beer and that there is a bar about 10 minutes walk back towards where we are meeting the van which is probably too far for anyone to be keen to head there and bring us all back drinks so we decide to head off leaving a helpful sign for the rest of the group when they reach the valley floor:

The beer is excellent and cold and we also meet a group of Russians who are holidaying there for a bit of chat and some rather poor jokes. After a bit the rest of the group arrive and not having seen our sign (we are still not quite sure how they could miss it - the above photo is not that great) aren't too pleased with us having headed off to the bar but this rapidly turns into appreciation with our forward thinking when we hand over the cold beers that we have got for them!

We finally tear ourselves away from the bar and head back to the hotel - the others have been giving us good reports on the hotel food recently so we decide to give it another go. Unfortunately, the good run has come to an end and it is back to the unappetising Soviet stodge but we are too tired to head out instead. After that we repack for Elbrus and off to bed to try and recover from last night before we hit the mountain.

The real issue that has arisen is the considerable range of abilities, fitness and strength in the group. This is likely to cause problems for the summit bid in two main ways. Firstly some people will be walking far too slowly and therefore people may well get too cold leading to a risk of not making the summit. Others may need to turn round at some point and each time this happens one of the guides needs to accompany them. Therefore a second turn around will mean that the whole group will need to head back as we only have two guides. There is a bit of a discussion between a few of us and the guides and we conclude to do the acclimatisation walk from the Barrels in a couple of days and see how things go.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Day 5 - Move to 1st Camp

Today we are walking up to the campsite and spending the night there - sleeping at altitude is very important for acclimatisation and we are trying to get as much done as possible before we get to the mountain itself. The plan was to have slightly lighter packs today but somehow the food, tents and other bits a pieces manage to replace the space created by the equipment we left behind yesterday.
We have a much smoother passage through the checkpoint today - apparently it is pretty random here despite the fact that our guide Vladimir comes through most weeks.

Our approach today is to walk in two groups given the varying speeds that people are comfortable walking at which makes the ascent more comfortable and enjoyable for most people. When we get to the top we set up the camp and then set out lunch when the other group nears the summit - Vladimir rather than the hotel is providing food for the next couple of days so we have fresh bread, cheese and local sausage; a real treat!
The tents can't really be considered in the same light. They are very small and when I lie down I can touch all four sides of the tent without even straightening my arms. There are going to be three large chaps in here tonight which will be enjoyable! The afternoon is a leisurely one - a little bit of pottering about and relaxing in the afternoon sun before the inevitable arrival of bad weather.

After a hurried supper of bread, cheese, sausage an instant noodles we prepare for an early bed with Vladimir casually mentioning that we shouldn't have anything metal (poles, ice axes etc) near the tent or even get up during the night as this exposed area is prone to lightning storms! We are in the process of laughing this off when I come across an umbrella skeleton which has clearly been fried in a previous storm!

Shortly after, the storm hits and for most of the night we are bombarded with rain, thunder and lightning. This combined with the cramped conditions in the tent mean that we get little sleep but at least I get chance to catch up on my blog. I am keeping notes in my iPhone but for some reason they keep getting deleted which is very frustrating..

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Day 4 - Carry to 1st Camp

We head off early as we need to pass through a checkpoint as well as get up and down before the really bad weather in the afternoon comes in and will be carrying quite a bit of gear and water today so it will be tough going.

We start with a drive from our village to the trail head and have a few interesting encounters. Firstly the checkpoint which is there to stop Georgian 'terrorists' from coming over the border into Russia - we all need to get out of the van and present ourselves individually with our passports at the small hut whilst the guards and their dogs inspected our vehicle which seemed a little strange as this was on the way to the border. Obviously when we head back through the checkpoint in the evening (which is when we could have undesirables in the van) we are simply waved through!

Later on we saw some of the artillery that was pointed at Georgia - not only does it appear too small to clear the mountains but I am not sure what the soldiers would do with the cows who seem to have laid claim to it?

After that we get out at what looked like an old Soviet military camp and from there walked along a river to some tourist camps and then up the steep but beautiful side of the valley. The lower section was very green but still very hot indeed - neither of which helped some of the group who weren't in quite the shape that they would have hoped to be for the trip.

We made pretty slow progress and towards the top I decided to kick on a bit to help my acclimatisation and so got to the top for lunch by myself. Lovely view but again miserable food and I end up throwing most of it away looking forward to another supper of shashlik but hopefully with a bit more nightlife as it is Saturday today.
We put up a tent and leave most of our gear there (sleeping and climbing gear for tomorrow as well as water for the next couple of days) before heading back down. I ask the guide about nightlife in the area but he doesn't think that there is much but if there is any it will be in the square where we were last night. It turns out that there isn't any as we walk from café to bar to restaurant without coming across anything lively at all that evening, but at last the shashlik is good.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Day 3 - Acclimatisation Walk 1

Today we are walking up to Cheget peak which is about 3,400mtrs from the valley floor of 2,000mtrs to blow the cobwebs away and to start our acclimatisation for Elbrus. It is a nice walk with decent views but not great weather.

A couple of hundred metres short of the summit we break for lunch - not really worth it in my view as it consists of two small pieces of stale bread with a piece of sausage in between - there is a banana which is quite nice though. Dave and Vladimir (the local guide) have a quick chat and decide that this is as far as we are going to go today - there is bad weather on the way and the group is moving pretty slowly. The weather shortly arrives and we have fun making our way back down in the rain and wind.
At the bottom we come across the main square of the village which has a number of cafes / restaurants selling shashlik and beer so the whole group popped in for a bit - good to recoup after the walk and get to know the group a bit better. This is the biggest group so far - there are 10 of us and a good bunch of fun people.

In the evening, Gus and I head back to the square for some good food and to see what nightlife we can find - we are pretty hopeful as it is Friday and this is main square for the surrounding area and villages. We go into each of the places to see what is happening - unfortunately the answer is nothing and so we have some more beer and shashlik and then head back for another early night - we have an early start in the morning.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Day 2 - Transfer to Cheget

We get to Moscow airport at about 5am with our next flight not until about 08:30 or so. Luckily, this gives us time to complete the various transit and customs procedures and even have a discussion on the identifying characteristics of an alcoholic - the only one we can identify that none of us (usually) display is needing a drink in the morning. This leads onto a discussion on what is meant by the morning and whether the fact that you have not been to sleep impacts. Before we can come to a conclusion on this, we discover a cafe selling beer next to our departure gate and decide to do some research. Quite conveniently, this is when our guide Dave turns up and he is more than happy to lend a hand.

As we are much better 'prepared' and a lot more tired for this flight we sleep most of the couple of hours down to Mineral Vody airport. There we meet the local agent and board the bus for our transfer to Cheget which is on the Georgian border (our base for Elbrus). A bit more sleep and then a break to try some local food which is very similar to Georgian food and reminds me of what I used to eat at times in Kazakhstan - deep fried light pastry with melted cheese inside.

We get to Cheget in the early afternoon to find a small, decaying village for what was once a popular skiing area with health spas and other outdoor activities. People only really come here for Elbrus now so much of the infrastructure that is away from the mountain itself is falling apart.

Our hotel seems good enough although its Soviet origins come through when we meet in the evening. There is no common room so we meet in the dining room. I try to order a beer but am flatly told no, without the useful extra information that alcohol must be bought from reception where there is a well stocked fridge. Secondly, the hotel provides a set dinner and I ask if they can delay bringing it out until we have had our 20 minute meeting - we had not booked the table so it is not as if they can have been expecting us then - but am again told no and dinner is brought out and dumped on the table. The food is actually pretty poor Soviet stodge which only adds to the overall experience. A friend who has been here before told me of the great cafes and shashlik so I resolve not to waste my time and appetite here again.

After that, at about 9pm it is off to bed to try and catch up on all the missed sleep and early rise for tomorrow's acclimatisation walk.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Day 1 - Flight to Russia

This expedition starts with an overnight flight to Moscow and then a further flight followed by a 4 hour drive. The plan is to get to Heathrow early and have an excellent steak and wine supper to help us sleep. Unfortunately it turns our that everything in Heathrow terminal 4 closes at 21:30 so not only is this not possible but nor can we get anything to eat or drink except at the low quality and high price coffee outlet there. 

The only good thing is that we have managed to meet the rest of the group and so we can get to know them a bit. The flight is only 4 hours and so without the planned preparation it is no surprise that we do not get my sleep on the plane - but are pleasantly surprised by the quality of Aeroflot.