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My trip to Elbrus. Part one.

My First Day of Elbrus climb: from Moscow to Baksan Valley

The night before our flight to Min Vody was pretty terrible. There were four of us heading for the Elbrus climb, Ted, a researcher from Philadelphia, George, Freddie and me. We had little if any sleep because of the summer heat, smog and noise Moscow was being tortured with. Anyway, we woke up early. The prospect of walking for 15 minutes in order to get to some food made me give up on the idea of having a breakfast.

We drove to Moscow’s airport to take our flight to Mineralnye Vody. Ted speaks some Russian and this helped us greatly at the airport when checking bags in and making our way through. We boarded the plane and were lucky to have quite good service on the plane, with polite attendants and overall comfortable flight. The disturbing thing was that in mid-flight all passengers were using their mobile phones and some were even walking around the plane while it was landing. Seat belts also were largely neglected, and the stewardess seemed to have no real seat but only a box to get by…

After landing safely in Min Vody we were met by Nikolay, our guide assistant, and set off for a four-hour trip to Azau. This picturesque place on Baskan Valley, at the foot of Elbrus, was where we were to have our lodge at about 2100 meters about sea level. Upon getting there we had dinner, met our guides and other assistants, walked around a little and went to bed at 9 pm.

My Second Day of Elbrus trip: 3000 meter acclimatization

I got at 8:30 am. Hotel was on Elbrus slope itself. Great base camp. After having breakfast, at 9:30 am we set off from the lodge towards Terskol village with Nikolay. That spot was the point where we started our first acclimatization tour for the height of about 3000 meters. We took a chairlift to get there, and the goal of the day for us was ascent to Mt. Cheget summit around 3651 meters high. The thing that struck us the most at the chairlift was the magnificent view of Elbrus. It was so close and so enormous, one could only wonder how it was possible to see none of it from our lodge that was so close to it. And the reason we couldn’t see it, was the high walls of the valley.

Even though chairlift is such a great convenience, one can’t help thinking of it as of an option for lazy people. However, as you get to the altitude of pretty modest 3000 meters even without any physical effort, your heart starts racing and you grow out of breath.

Cheget gives an impression of a pile of loose rocks mixed with scree and rare patches of snow. We took a short break to get photographs and shoot some video only when had climbed to about 3300 meters. Standing there, we could fully enjoy the magnificent beauty of Elbrus’ twin peaks. One of our guides said that you really appreciate the mountain only when you see it for the first time from afar. At that moment you realize how incredible it looks.

Standing at that altitude, we could clearly see the route to Elbrus summit leading from the cable car to the so-called Bowling Alley (or the Barrels). It was called so because of its two lines of rocks that climb up to the Pashstukova rocks and further up to the two summits. Near the Georgian border, to the south, there were two peaks – Donguzorun (4468m) and Nakaratau (4451m) with an incessant roar of avalanches rolling down every few minutes. Another breathtaking view is the Cheget-Karachira Glacier. Occasional rockfalls were heard to the west, where we could see two mountaineers climbing with their technical gear. To the east there was the republic of Chechnya, and to the north a copter was surveying the area in search for two Check climbers disappeared on Elbrus a couple of days before. As we learnt later, they strayed away from their group and got lost. One of them went down the north side of the mountain and stopped at a shepherd’s camp, and the other was found out in the open after 36 hours.

After spending about an hour at the summit to enhance our acclimatization and take some photos, we started descent to the chairlifts and to Terskol, where we had lunch before getting a lift back to Azau. After a most delicious dinner we went to bed to have another restless night packed by repeated nightmares, accompanied by sounds of burping, snoring and farting.

Given that it was the first climbing day for us, the hike proved to be a tough one, and even the ride on chairlift didn’t seem to be of much help. But day by day hikes to that altitude would grow easier and easier.

My third day of Elbrus trip: 4350 meter acclimatization

Another night at Azau lodge. On that day Roman, another assistant guide, was to take us to the altitude of 4200 meters. The program of the day was to take a cablecar to 3470 meter altitude and therefrom climb further up to the Barrels (the so-called Garabashi Botchki Bivi). It is a traditional base camp for Elbrus climbers.

Barrels deserve a bit more of our attention. These creations have the form of a long cylinder, equipped with electric light and electric heater (pretty dangerously wired) to get the occupants through lonely nights. Each of such shelters could house up to six people. But as we were told, that day we weren’t going to sleep in Barrels but would descent back to our previous lodge.

The next destination of our climb on that day was an old refuge hut called Priut 11, located at an altitude ideal for summiting. It was constructed in the 1930s to provide shelter from variable mountain temperatures to up to 150 climbers. After Priut 11 was burned in 1998, there is another priut, a Diesel Hut. It is smaller, with the capacity to accommodate around 60 people. It used to be a sort of rubbish tip there, with intolerable stink, until climbers began taking their rubbish down with them.

The climb to these huts is pretty straight forward, and the slope leading up to them is moderately steep. However, Roman said there is no hard ice before Pashtukova rock, so there was no need to bother with crampons. Passing two small crests, we got to a relatively flat spot but the path leading to the Diesel Hut again was steepening gradually, and upon reaching its final section it seemed even steeper since we were still poorly acclimatized. (A few days later it didn’t seem that tough any more.) The Diesel Hut stood where the Bowling Alley was beginning, on the left side of it if you look up on Elbrus summit. To pass this spot, climbers generally prefer the slightly less steep path that skirts the hut to the right of the Bowling Alley.

Soon we became surprisingly hot since the weather was perfect. After a short while we were climbing with just a couple of baseline layers on. The path on Elbrus is pretty busy – with climbers coming back from the higher acclimatization tours or from summiting on the one hand, and tourists arriving on snowcat on the other. Being unacclimatized, tourists get out at the 4800 meters of the Pashtukova rocks, grasp for breath, stagger around for a while taking a few snapshots, and hurry back down on their snowcat.

After reaching the altitude of 4350 meters and taking some photos, we headed back to the Barrels and after a quick rest – further down to Azau to enjoy our well-deserved lunch. We met a small group of Americans there, four of whom were back from summiting Elbrus. The two women in that group asked about Diamox, if we are using it. Some climbers can’t make it to the summit without this carbonic anhydrase inhibitor (normally used for treatment of acute mountain sickness), while others do perfectly well without it. However, the women were insisting we should take it anyway, meaning we wouldn’t make it up there without this drug. To me, it seemed an easy way and I decided to prove these girls (no matter how cute) that I can get by without it, even though I carried with me both Diamox and Dexamethasone in case I or somebody in my group gets ill with AMS. 

My fourth day of Elbrus trip: taking the landmark of 4800 meters on Pashtukova Rocks

The top of Pashtukova Rocks is just a few hundred meters higher than the top of the Bowling Alley and just seems little lower than Elbrus summit. Our route was running past the now-familiar Pruitt 11, and again, we needed no crampons. On the fourth day we could actually feel how adjusted to the altitude our bodies had already become.

On that day I had some extra exercise, too. I was shooting video of our team of four, and in order to do it I had to run back and forth the group several times. But since I was feeling quite comfortable with the altitude, I didn’t mind the exercise.

Leading the way for our Elbrus group was Ted. Unlike me, he had some previous climbing experience; besides, he also seemed to be the strongest. He set into a good strong pace, and in order to see how I was getting on and also to push myself, I decided to keep near Ted that day. George and Freddie were moving with a steady but relatively slower rhythm.

Ted was the first to reach the point we stopped at the day before. I followed him with a five-minute delay. There we had a light snack with some nuts and cookies. It sounds like not a big deal but in fact it wasn’t an easy task. We had to take off our gloves and do things quickly enough otherwise our hands would have frozen. Besides, putting the gloves back on was also quite a challenge.

While passing the Bowling Alley the gradient started increasing, and the higher we went, the more labored our breathing was becoming. Again, Ted was the first to reach the top of the Alley and was waiting there for the rest of us. From that point Pashtukova rocks were already quite close, and from that point the route grew more exposed and we felt dreadfully cold as the wind picked up. So we had to put on some extra layers and Parkas on top of that.

We were climbing Elbrus slope in zigzags to conserve our energy, walking with the wind at our backs and level into the wind. Every 10-15 steps we were stopping to recover our breath. The good thing was that the snow was pretty hard there, even with occasional icy patches, which made it a great deal easier to stand on without sinking into it every now and then. As we passed over the crest, our team (that was about an hour behind) slid out of our view. I was quite happy with my pace.

As the icy patches grew more frequent we started regretting that hadn’t taken our crampons. Using rocks for grip while ascending, three hours after setting off from the barrels, we got to the top of Pashtukova rocks that was our destination of the day. We were advancing at an average pace of 300 meters an hour (of ascent) – a fairly good speed for an acclimatization climb. We had a rest, sitting around for about three quarters of an hour and watching a climber heading back from Elbrus summit. He was apparently totally spent, walking agonizingly slowly, like a zombie. After he passed us without uttering a single word, we decided to descend, too.

We met George upon reaching the lower section of the Rocks. His plan was to get to the top of the rocks and have a rest there, like we did. Freddie was making even slower progress. We met him slightly above the Bowling Alley, and Roman, our guide who was bringing up the rear, shared with us his concern that if Freddie went at that pace, his summit day wouldn’t last less than 16 hours (and even more).

Ted and I continued our descent to the barrels practically running. We were feeling pretty good and reached our destination in about 50 minutes. At dinner in the evening Freddie had no appetite and wasn’t looking good. He refused the soup, and we tried to convince him to drink at least some water not to get AMS. But he most probably was already developing the condition. At least he couldn’t take even a sip of water and went to bed early.

Before going to bed a couple of hours later we noticed a curious phenomenon. On the right of the east summit there was a tall cloud reminding a top hap in its shape. Among all sorts of other clouds passing by the summit, this one wasn’t moving at all. Roman explained that it was a sign that the weather was going to worsen dramatically. When getting into bed, we were hoping we could manage to summit Elbrus before the arrival of bad weather.

Continue reading the story – My trip to Elbrus, part 2.

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