Read the beginning of the story – My trip to Elbrus, part 1
My fifth day of Elbrus trip: the “rest” day before summiting
I spent another night of poor sleep with tossing and turning under the “regular” set of interfering factors. Waking up at 4am and looking out of the window, I saw two headlights in the distance. Those were of two Chinese climbers who set out for the summit. As far as I could judge, they had almost reached the top of Pashtukova rocks. And I thought, “Let’s see how you’re gonna make Elbrus.” Their experience would be of great use for us. It seemed to me that they were progressing rather slowly, and I assumed it snowed overnight on Elbrus though there were no clouds in the sky at that moment. I encouraged them in my mind and drifted back to sleep again.
I was up at 6 am and walked for a while taking some video footage and photos of Elbrus sunrise. For our “rest” day planned was a tour to 4200 meter altitude. We gathered in the dinner hut at 9 am for a quick snack before setting off. Freddie was in pretty bad shape, suffering some diarrhea and nausea. Apparently the altitude was having a pretty rough effect on him. As he could neither eat nor drink, he decided to have a real rest day.
It was snowing and our good old path to the huts took some additional effort to overcome. Our Elbrus mountain guide Roman was obviously right predicting a dramatic change of the weather. The snow was getting heavier and both Elbrus summits above 4500 meters became blocked by dark, thick clouds. Thinking about the two Chinese men, I wondered if they got lost in that snowstorm, with a lot of freshly fallen snow setting additional hurdles to them.
We were progressing to summit Elbrus pretty slowly, both because of the previous day’s exertion and the fresh snow that was still soft and was making tramping difficult. After sitting in the Diesel Hut with two elder Russian climbers for about an hour, we headed back to the barrels. When approaching them, we witnessed a very peculiar phenomenon: photo shoot of men and women in swimsuits in the snow. It looked like a popular entertainment among the Russians to take photos of their girl-friends and boy-friends in front of Elbrus even when people around feel cold even in layered clothes.
When back, we saw Freddie’s condition got even worse and we could do nothing but send him back to the valley with a mountain guide without Elbrus attempt. The nasty thing about altitude sickness is that once it breaks out, it doesn’t weaken its grip, and if not taken to a lower altitude, the patient may even die of it. We said Freddie goodbye in the hope that he’d recover until another summiting attempt.
The Chinese climbers were back absolutely spent. They had a long and hard day. When the weather grew so bad they couldn’t see anything through the heavy snowfall, they decided not to summit Elbrus. They turned back from the saddle, determined to make another attempt in a few days.
Considering that the bad weather on Elbrus wouldn’t hold for longer than a night, our guides, Nikolay and Roman, decided to set out for the summit in the morning. To prepare for the great day we were to drink plenty of water, pack everything necessary for summiting and have a rest. Nikolay inspected our gear and saw that we had enough warm clothes for the night ascent to Elbrus as the weather can be extremely cold and there was no such thing as over-preparation for it.
My sixth day of Elbrus trip: Summiting Elbrus
When excited, I can’t sleep well, so that night I had even less sleep than usual. To prepare for our tour to Elbrus, we got up very early. We put on several extra layers of clothing, including socks and gloves. We had on our crampons and balaclavas with headlamps on top of them. I put an ice axe into my pack and chose to use ski poles instead for the greater part of the climb. There was another group (Italians) also heading to summit Elbrus.
Since the night was clear, we could see all the way through to Elbrus summits. By and large everything looked perfect under the shining moon. But those perfect conditions didn’t last long. Soon a horde of clouds appeared over the Pashtukova rocks practically out of nowhere. These clouds came together with a cold wind and snow, which dropped visibility to about 50 feet, and we couldn’t estimate the dimensions of that cloud. With our headlights on and still knowing the direction to Elbrus summit, we were moving on – so far those circumstances didn’t bother much.
Our group was lead by Nikolay, followed by Ted and me. George was advancing in his usual steady, strong but slow pace, with Roman closing the rear. Soon we caught up with the Italians zigzagging their way up the slope. We started to use the same tactics of climbing but Nikolay insisted that we stick to the ‘Russian style’. He argued that there was no need for using that tactics, since the slope wasn’t steep enough to justify the extra effort. So we did as he said and were going straight up, which wasn’t too bad after all. Every few minutes we had to stop to catch our breath but that wasn’t for the steepness but for the altitude. Elbrus summit was still pretty far.
After climbing for a while with the wind whipping up spindrift, my temples began aching with cold and wet, slamming against the sides of my head and against my face. At about 5:30 am we caught up with the Italian climbers’ leading guide who shared his concerns about the weather and success of our summiting Elbrus. By that time visibility had dropped to 15-20 feet, and I could hear nothing but the crunching noise of my crampons over the snow, accompanied by my continuous huffing and puffing when struggling to fill my lungs with the thin air. I could see nothing but the small area right in front of me illuminated by my headlight.
It’s getting harder
The dawn was breaking and the sky was growing lighter, yet I could see nothing but the white of the snow. For a few minutes I lost the sight of Nikolay and Ted, but soon caught up with them – they paused for a while waiting for me. Our progress was hindered further by the fresh snow. We were frequently falling into it knee-deep. Still more difficulty to our plight was added by the fact that we left the Italians behinds and had to break trail up to the summit to the end of the climb ourselves.
Thus we reached the traverse leading to the Sedlowina Saddle. Before I saw this traverse myself, I was greatly misled by pictures of it and its very name that suggests a straight path across the mountain. I’d been anticipating the moment I would reach that point, but what I saw was a slope even steeper than the upper section of Pashtukova. The deep rotten snow added to the difficulty of our uphill struggle, leaving no chance for taking a break.
By that time it grew completely bright, the visibility improved up to 30–40 feet, and we could slightly make out the way to climb East summit of Elbrus in a blurred picture of its lower rocks. By then we had reached the altitude of about 5200 meters and were pretty close to the saddle. Nevertheless, we were still climbing up and up, with our breathing growing more and more laborious. But that wasn’t the only difficulty of our Elbrus climb.
The beginning of real suffering
As the snow was getting deeper, I started falling into it more often and finally began experiencing the so-familiar feeling of high altitude fatigue. Finally, my hands also got so cold that I couldn’t get out my water bottle.
With fatigue growing, climbing Elbrus became a real challenge. I had to struggle out of the snow every time after putting my poles into the snow and sinking into it. Staying balanced was taking great efforts. From such enormous strain my shoulders began aching. A while after my hands, my feet also started going cold (something I didn’t think possible since I was wearing Scarpa Vegas). Cold apparently was shutting down the circulation to all my extremities one after another.
Finally we got to the downhill stretch that was leading to the saddle. At this point I got stricken by the thought that when getting back from Elbrus summit, I would have to climb Elbrus anyway! This thought made me feel even more exhausted and miserable, and things started to look really tough at that moment. With my hindsight I understand that it was greatly because of the thirst I was suffering from, as I couldn’t get my water with my freezing hands.
A short break
Reaching the ruins of an old hut, we took off our packs and I finally managed to drink some water. It got mostly frozen by the time, but still I took a couple of mouthfuls – enough to ward off altitude sickness (at least for a while). Ted was in better shape though this tour was very challenging for him, too. We stayed in the hut waiting for the rest of our group to catch up.
The crevasse on the saddle of Elbrus is known to have constant temperature of about 5°C. This fact gave us some hope of an opportunity to warm up and have some break from the nasty weather. We asked Nikolay about the location of this crevasse. It turned out to be just about 30 meters away from our hut. The wind was still pretty strong even on the protected side of the West Elbrus summit as we were making our way over to the crevasse. After having set us for cleaning away the snow from the crevasse’s entrance, Nikolay went back to the hut. We realized that cleaning of the snow was just a trick to get us warmed up even without going in. Breaking up the ice on the entrance made us warm up even more.
My mittens were already soaking wet up to their inners. I could enjoy some comfort only after I borrowed a pair of inners from Ted and put on the spare pair of overgloves I had taken with me. Soon George and Roman arrived and shortly after them the Italians caught up, too. Meanwhile the weather was getting still worse. Even in that shelter provided by the West summit, we weren’t protected from the wind howling around and bringing more and more snow in. The visibility fell to about 10-15 feet and we had to face the acute need of making a decision whether to continue climbing Elbrus or turn around and head back.
We ventured for making Elbrus ascent, since we had only one last steep part of the West summit to conquer. It was only midday and we were separated from the top by only 400 meters. The dreadful thing about it was that the snow on that part of the route was absolutely rotten. This fact in combination with my dehydration resulted in my pretty severe fatigue. Up to that point I could boast that I’d been climbing mighty well, but that final section of the Elbrus route was pure torture to me. The rotten snow demanded double and triple effort to move through it. We were literally inching our way up: each of our ten steps was resulting in a progress of barely an inch. Though our slope was only 35 degree steep, with effort put in, it equaled to climbing vertically – that little progress we were making. But we were determined to summit Elbrus.
My arms and shoulders were killing me with pain resulting from constant balancing in the wind and snow. I fell behind Ted and decided to stick to George who was moving at a calmer pace. But soon he also started losing his confidence and offered me to leave him back and move on, since he didn’t want to slow my pace further. But by that time I was going through real suffering. I was occasionally closing my eyes and slipping into second-long dozes (once I even saw a dream). But I was jolting myself awake right away and making myself struggle on with grinding teeth.
The hard choice
The surface grew completely impossible to put a step on. Soon we met one of the Italians descending because of sickness. The rest of their group followed shortly after him. Only our group was still stubbornly climbing Elbus. Hacking away with our crampons we were dragging ourselves up.
When according to our altimeters there was only about 80 meters left to Elbrus summit, we got together to discuss our further actions. The weather was getting steadily worse, and it would take even longer to reach the top moving through the snow that was getting heavier, and under the wind that was getting stronger. We could end up running out of daylight in no time. Even on the sheltered side of the summit the wind was almost blowing us over. Even if we climbed Elbrus summit, we had all the chances of getting blown off from its very top. Besides, visibility had also dropped to under ten feet which increased our chances of getting lost or just stepping off a cliff or a cornice and down into oblivion.
The decision was a most painful one: the prospect of dying on Elbrus slope wasn’t tempting at all, and we resolved not to take the risk. The idea of getting so close to the final goal of climbing Elbrus and not reaching it had proved to be literally killing for so many climbers who died only because they opted against turning around upon reaching such vital point. But we knew for sure we didn’t need that risk. Actually, at that moment we knew we would be absolutely happy to get out of that horrible mess alive whatsoever.
We produced our axes and set out for a heroic retreat from that awful place. Every time when slipping and falling we were self-arresting with axes. Somehow we managed to pass the old hut and get out of the saddle. Elbrus climb was almost done.
The strain and stress of the day began telling on George. He grew reserved and dejected. Nikolay sent me with Ted and Roman while he stayed to take care of George. I was trying to be of some help, but suddenly I was overcome by fatigue myself upon reaching the 5000 meter altitude. I began feeling covered by a huge dark shadow and completely lost whatever sense of caring for anything. At that moment I wanted nothing but to have a rest in the snow. My hands were cold again, and being unable to get out my bottle and drink, I grew dehydrated. And that added even more to my exhaustion. I was stopping to grasp for breath for a couple of minutes every 10-20 steps. Even though I knew I had to continue moving to get out of Elbrus slope, I didn’t care enough.
I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t discern anything in the snowstorm any more, not even the East Elbrus summit by its rocks. Ted took and carried my pack for a while and that eased the pain and strain in my shoulders – at least for a while. Roman was leading the way with a compass and map. I had a compass in my pocket, too, but I couldn’t get it out even if I cared to. I have to confess that I caused both of our guides some trouble with tending me when my crampons were coming loose several times on the way, and since I couldn’t put them back on myself, the guys had to help me.
As soon as we reached the Pashtukova rocks, I felt sort of rejuvenated (probably the effect of familiar surroundings) and took back my pack from Ted. And at about 3:30 pm we got to the top of the Bowling alley. Despite my intolerable fatigue I regained some more of my confidence there. There we got a shelter from the wind, and the pain in my shoulders and head subsided greatly. Upon reaching back to the barrels with Ted by 5:30 pm I collapsed into my so much hated mattress and immersed (for the first time in several days) into a very, very, very deep sleep.
True, it was disappointing that we got so near to the summit but never made it. We had no success, no crazy and proud summit pictures to boast about. Our only trophies from that Elbrus climb were our pains and aches, the memory of unbearable thirst and the fact that we managed to return from that exciting but dangerous quest alive. And this thought gives me some sort of relief and satisfaction… and after all, I think it was a great experience anyway.