Day 1 – Saturday 26th August
Paula and I spent the day working on a DofE training event in central London and then it was a short drive to the services at London Gateway to swap vehicles and bags around before I headed to Heathrow and she headed home. It would be fair to say that I left with a little trepidation as I was off to Russia to climb the highest mountain in Europe, Mt Elbrus at 5642m. I wasn’t sure what I was more nervous about – the climb or being in Russia.
So why Mt Elbrus, and why now ? For me this stems from wanting to test my physiological capabilities from my time as a teacher working in a sports department of a further education college. Whilst there I had the opportunity to climb Cho Oyu in the Himalayas, only to have the trip cut short when the devastating Nepalese earthquake hit. Getting to base camp but not being allowed to go higher was incredibly frustrating. Elbrus is a shorter trip than the Himalayas (not to mention cheaper!) so Elbrus was to be part of my training plan to return to the Himalayas.
My journey to Mineralnye Vody in Russia was relatively uneventful. It was the usual working your way through the airports and waiting for flights hoping that when you get to your destination your baggage arrives. Which thankfully mine did. The drive to Cherget however was a little more interesting! As a professional mountaineering instructor I accept the risks that the work brings. So on an expedition such as Elbrus I am fully aware of the risks that operating at high altitude bring and that they may ultimately end my time on this planet. What I don’t expect is to see my life flash before me several times on the three hour drive from the airport to Cherget. There were other idiots on the road but I think we were driving with the biggest!
Cherget is a small ski resort based in the Caucasus mountains. From here you can see the east peak of Elbrus which is the smaller of the two peaks on the mountain. We checked into our hotel, had a good meal, followed by a kit check and then it was time to get some sleep before beginning the acclimatisation phase the following day.
Day 2 – Sunday 27th August
The porters collected our sleeping bags and mats first thing in the morning as they were being transported to the start ahead of us so they could set up base camp. Today was going to be a hard day – our first acclimatisation walk. We had over a 1000m of ascent up to the base camp ahead of us taking us to an altitude of 3200m. We slowly wound our way up the valley floor taking in spectacular views of the surrounding peaks. The weather at the start of the day was truly spectacular, not at all what I was expecting – exceptionally warm and sunny. However we had been warned to expect rain as the afternoon progressed, the only question was whether we could get to base camp before the weather broke – we didn’t! About an hour from base camp we heard a distant rumble of thunder and within minutes it started to rain.
As we arrived into base camp the weather improved and the rain dissipated. It was incredibly windy so we gave the porters a hand putting our tents up. Within 20mins of arriving they had whipped up some noodles and hot water for a brew and we began to settle into camp. This would be our home for the next two nights. Our evening meal consisted of pasta and some sort of beef stew with plenty of biscuits for pudding. It was then time for an early night as we were going higher in the morning as part of our acclimatisation program. It’s usual to spend time climbing up and down the mountain in stages to give your body a chance to adapt to the reduced oxygen in the air.
During the night there was the most spectacular thunderstorm which seemed to last all night, lighting up the night with each flash of lightening. The following day would see us having breakfast at 7:30am and leaving camp at 8am for our second climb in two days.
Day 3 – Monday 28th August
The rain throughout the night seemed relentless, however there was a brief respite at around 7am, time enough to get up and use the facilities before breakfast. Breakfast was a simple affair of muesli with hot milk, meats and cheeses along with hot water for a brew.
After breakfast we began our second acclimatisation walk up to around 3800m. We had already been warned that a storm system was moving through so we were prepared to change our plans if necessary. We moved up the valley and despite the poor weather conditions we were still met with spectacular views of the surrounding area. We made steady progress up the hill progressively gaining altitude, and to our surprise we were within 80m of our destination in just 90mins from leaving camp. I was really pleased that I wasn’t feeling any affects from the altitude at this point. It bode well for the days ahead.
Then the storm started to come in. We could hear distant rumbles of thunder and the last place you want to be in a thunderstorm is on the top of a hill! The decision was made quickly to make our way back down the hillside, back to the shelter of camp.
On arrival the cook put on some water for a brew (there’s a theme here). As we started to drink our tea the rain began so we headed for the shelter of the cooks tent. Once in all hell broke loose outside as we witnesed the most violent storm I have ever been in – thunder, lightening, rain and wind. We had the lot for around two hours.
During the afternoon the weather cleared giving us time to dry damp clothing and to have a little wander around the lake taking in the spectacular views down the valley. There’s often a lot of hanging around when you’re climbing big mountains so discovering how to kill time whilst waiting at base camp is important. Plans were made for the following day – the cooks were going to get up at 6am and if the weather looked ok they would give a shout and we would have breakfast at 6:30am then break camp and head back to Cherget.
Whilst having dinner a small herd of whatever the Russian equivalent of Ibex are, wandered past the camp. Very calmly they looked up as if to say “Good evening, we hope you are enjoying your stay”.
Day 4 – Tuesday 29th August
I woke up around 5:45am and lay in my sleeping bag waiting for the cooks call as it all seemed pretty calm outside. Then out of the blue I heard a clap of thunder and the sound of rain falling on the tent once again. “That’s it”, I thought “8am breakfast”. However it never really came to anything so breakfast was around 7am and we were packed up and on the road down to the pickup by 8am. Two hours later we arrived at the pick up point just as our driver was arriving and he transported us back to the hotel where a welcome hot shower was waiting.
During the afternoon we chilled out and dried out damp kit from the morning. We went to a cafe for a bite to eat and generally watched the world go by contemplating heading up to Elbrus the following day and what that might hold for us…