|The twin peaks of Elbrus, Russia.|
In 2015, a year after I successfully attempted Mont Blanc, I decided to dive Elbrus a try. At 5642, it is the highest summit on the continent. The normal approaches are from Russian territory, the South being more accessible and developed, and the North being the less traveled. Due to safety reasons, I wanted to have at least 2 others with me, and started searching for group members to join me. I found two, and the planning could begin. We chose the South approach to keep it on the safe side.
Since we did not know each other, we decided to do a simple summit attempt to start team building and test the gear. We chose Slogen. It is beautiful, not very difficult, but quite steep. There was even a steep snowy part on the very top, which made it possible to practice traversing with crampons. We were content with the results, some gear had to be changed, but it felt that the Elbrus top came nearer.
Timewise, we chose to have a few days in reserve in case we’d need extra acclimatization (lessons learned from Mont Blanc) or if we needed to wait for bad weather to pass. We’d stay in a 3-person tent, and bring all we need with us. We also decided against using the lift, which most take up to Bochki or rather Gara Bashi, and instead walk all the way.
|Signs about the border restrictions, among beautiful meadows reminding of the Alps|
We started off with an acclimatisation hike to Cheget. The signs in Russian and English inform about this being a border area, but nobody really cares. Sometimes we saw soldiers, but they were mostly interested in chatting, not checking documents.
|Border guards marching near Bochki.|
The rest of the group had to do some administrative tasks so I went off alone, bringing the skis in case there would be snow. The snow on top was however too icey, and I did not use them. Instead, I walked towards the ridge leading to the top, past the “small Cheget” peak where alpinists normally acclimatize. I stayed there for a while and headed back. However, I missed the path and got to walk around several steep cliffs, arriving to the valley well after dark.
|The cliff off Cheget|
|My approach skis. Snow was unfortunately too icey.|
The next day, we walked up to Bochki. It’s a long nice sweaty steep walk, despite being dusty and dry. There is a path below the lift, and there’s a possibility to stop and buy hot food and cold drinks at the stations in between. Almost nobody else took it, as the lifts were in operation and people seemed to prefer to ride up instead of walking with all the bags. We brought our own food, tents and sleeping gear, as opposed to most others that stayed in the refuge huts.
|Walking up to Bochki|
As we were arriving, we realized that the area was a huge building site. Huge trucks were hurrying past us. They were building the last bit of the lift. Since then, a few buildings were also built, but already the year after it was forbidden to drive in the area.
|Civilization in progress|
The Bochki station is well-known, nowadays extended with a refuge including restaurant, bar and dormitories. The toilet facilities were however horrible, all the waste ending up on the cliffs, the stench worse than you can ever imagine. How people avoid getting serious stomach problems is a mystery for me. The research station nearby had a much nicer toilet, but it is closed for all except the researchers.
|The research station toilet, beautifully perched on the rocks. Also here, everything just goes down the cliffs.|
We spent some time acclimatizing, going up and down the slope, and then moved the tent from Bochki to the camp at around 4000 meters. There is a stone ridge with a lot of spots for the tents, unfortunately sometimes big Russian groups arrive and take up most spots with their tent constellations. On one side, there is the slope. On the other, steep cliffs with constant rockfall down to the glacier with loads of crevasses.
|Acclimatization walk. Team member feeling unwell|
|Acclimatization selfie. Not feeling my best, but... "we shall overcome"|
The slope is used both for snow-mobiles and snow tractors (“ratrak”), that drive tourists up and down. Maybe a good alternative to walking if you are running acclimatization trips every day, and definitely a good possibility for fast rescue. But a lot of tourists just take it to about 4600-4800 meters and try to walk from there.
|View from the tent: heavy snowing|
The weather was unstable and we spent a few days in the tent, just waiting and trying not to go nuts from boredom. The weather continued to be tricky. A snow storm came, with thunder and lightning. The static electricity made the air sing and the hair to stand up on our arms and heads. We quickly removed all the metal from our personal gear and left for lower altitude, seeking refuge in refuge hut Priyut-11. Nobody got hurt, but we were lucky.
One of the days was spent glacier walking among the crevasses, extremely beautiful. All three of us had the needed gear, so it was just a beautiful walk. However, looking down into the bottomless crevasses makes you remember why all the precautions need to be taken.
|Surroundings - glaciers and mountains.|
I became friends with the local search and rescue guys, and got to hear all kinds of stories about people getting hurt or killed by both thunderstorms, snowstorms, altitude sickness, but mostly by their own bad decisions. I learned very much, and also got to partake in some minor help actions. Altitude symptoms, snow blindness, and a few exhausted undergeared alpinists. Elbrus is one of the deadliest mountains, since a lot of people go unprepared. The glacier stretching from the saddle is called “truposbornik”, the corpse collector. There are remains from alpinists from this year to past decades, the WWII and even earlier than that. The rescue actions are risky, the chance to survive minimal. And it’s just a trip and a fall away. Happens easily in bad weather, if there is a whiteout – people wander off right into the crevasses. So we were careful and stayed put.
|The "main highway" and the peaks below|
During the last days, we had an extra guide with us, in case one or two would have to head down – then the remaining part(s) would still have a chance of successful summit. A young, very polite and reasonable guide from Ukraine joined us, and was a nice company. He understood that he was not the primary guide, and mostly tagged along, always ready for a nice chat.
|Elbrus approach in the morning, during our summit attempt. Ice still hard.|
Finally, the weather window came, and we did the summit attempt. Starting at night, we walked and walked, stopping briefly in the saddle where all of us were feeling the altitude. We followed the installed ropes on the steep mountain side (they were no longer used the year after because of the danger involved). One of the group was very tired and affected by the altitude, walking very slowly. The person never used the alpine walking sticks, and it probably made it even worse. Finally, all of us reached the top. The happiest moment! We took time to momentarily celebrate, and headed down, before the sun would start melting the slopes.
|A small rest to rehydrate just before the summit|
|On the top of the continent! 5642 meters over sea.|
|The summit of Elbrus|
|The summit of Elbrus - decorations and poetry. Unfortunately, many choose to leave memorabilia here, which pollutes this beautiful spot.|
I brought my skis along the way, and tried to ski down. However, the snow quality would not allow that. There were too many uneven places, ice, lumps, and any tiny mistake would mean a risk of ending up in the corpse collector. I thus carried the skis down, past “the shelf”, to the broad path where the snow plowers go, and them used them as a sleigh to put the backpack on and glide down. With a few bruises, and all wet, I succeeded at times. Otherwise, the walk down is tiring for the legs and knees. One of us took several hours to go, and was all exhausted from the altitude symptoms and the efforts of this long day.
|The slope where the vehicles go. The snow is always caked here.|
The team member that was exhausted did not want to move another step after coming to the camp. Me and the other member wanted to go down to Garabashi (and celebrate) as soon as possible! We started packing up. I was almost done with everything, lining up my stuff as I packed the bag, but a wrong turn got me to trip over my sleeping bag, which was sent tumbling down into the abyss. This sleeping bag was my bets expedition friend, withstanding extreme temperatures to -47, making it very comfortable to be in forbidding environments, no matter if it’s in a volcano crater under bare skies (link), during winter military simulation games, exploring Arctic, or on any summit. It is relatively lightweight, so it costed quite a lot, but it was just priceless for extreme adventure. So I wanted to go retrieve it.
It fell down the wall where the rocks were falling all the time. So on my way, I went past the search and rescue cabin, and asked for a helmet. The guys just laughed at me. “If you get hit, no helmet will save you. But if you don’t get hit, why bother?” So I asked whether they had any helmets at all, and they didn’t. I left without a helmet, ready to run at any time. My buddies, together with several other alpinists who grew interested in the affair, were keeping an outlook from the above.
I approached carefully, looking for the package. The sleeping bag was already packed into a neat grey-brown rounded case, looking exactly like one of the rocks that were spread everywhere. My plan was to try and spot it first, and then run and get it, and run back. However, as I was trying to spot it, a big rockfall came and buried the exact spot I was looking at. I quickly got the hint, accepted the lost sleeping bag as a sacrifice to the mountain, and quickly headed back.
After reaching the summit, a usual side effect is euphoria and inability to perceive danger. You feel immortal. That was a reminder that I should not fool around.
|The mountain goats may jump around the cliffs, but I was done with that!|
I now did not have a sleeping bag and had no choice than to try and find a bed in the dorm at Gara-bashi. One of the members joined me, the other would come down later together with the guide – perfect to get a use of the guy after all! We did not have a booking, but were lucky. The owner did cooperate, not without discussions and awkward moments (I wanted a bed in the dorm, not in his room, and was not going to discuss it - while he was not going to take no for an answer), but finally we got settled in the cozy dorm beds, end of discussion. I even got them to dig up a guitar, and was howling Vysotsky until the morning after. The third member joined us and down we went, to a nice celebrative dinner. We also visited the Vysotsky museum to pay respect, however the museum was mostly about badly stuffed animals and local history, not about the singer and song writer, and it was a pain to get a ride away from it. We managed to get to the airport despite the hickups and the adventure was over. I got myself a new sleeping bag, of the same kind, upon arrival home.
|On the way down, carrying another persons' sleeping bag|
|Posing with Elbrus in the background.|
|Sunset as we walk down|