The sun's heavenly rays slowly crawled across the western peak of Mount Elbrus and crept metre by metre, centimetre by centimetre towards our tired and trudging figures. We had been ascending for a few hours now, marvelling at the clear views of countless peaks under the cold moonlight. Only at 4 am was there a brief snowstorm.
We had earlier felt our lungs tighten by the minute as the atmosphere around mighty Mount Elbrus had reached its icy grips into our hearts, lungs and minds. However, nothing was going to stop both our unbreakable determination to soldier on and on in our quest for summit glory.
Earlier when the sunrise's wonderful golden dawn had sneaked its gaze on us, I was already squeezing and moving the middle fingers on both hands hand to get the blood moving. The golden rays had come at a very good time to revive my frozen fingers as the gloves had not kept me as warm as the manufacturer had so eloquently claimed.
We slowly ascended up the narrow but steep cut in the snow which was had a rope on the right to mark the optimal route, this was on the edge of the 30° angled slope down to the coll below. On the left were scattered streaks of yellow dots – the 'gung-ho' fools who had paid to get a snow Jet Ski to 5,300 metres. They had mostly not acclimatised and taken a 'Russian roulette' approach that they could make the summit and get up and down quickly and safely. All this whilst recklessly hoping that Mount Elbrus and its deadly icy fingers would not envelop them and made them join the long list of the many fallen on this cold mountain.
We eventually reached the top of the ridge and 600 metres away, our goal the summit was in sight...Mighty Mount Elbrus, whose summit at 5642 metres was the highest mountain in Europe. So how did we get here?
The first day I went to the pickup point. Eventually, I was joined by two Polish girls and after a short while, the bus arrived with the other climbers on it. They had all flown in on the infamous red-eye flight from Warsaw to Tbilisi that morning.
We sped through the streets of Tbilisi and eventually the Russian Georgian Military highway to the town of Stepantsminda. Here, Ewa from the Mountain Freaks directed the driver to bring all of us to a guesthouse where breakfast awaited us all. The team consisted of 13 people split between seven men and five women and was also further split between one Irishman and twelve Poles.
The excitement and anticipation in the air were clearly palpable. We were all here to fulfil a lifetime ambition. We were here to climb Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain. The table groaned with a typical Georgian breakfast and everyone got stuffed. Shortly afterwards, we left and after admiring the towering Mount Kazbek which was looking especially splendid in the sunshine, we headed for the Mountain Freaks office. After a short stop there to rent out some climbing equipment, we headed for the border and Russia itself.
The road to the border and eventually the first stop Vladikavkaz followed the river valley through towering peaks and deep canyons. We reached the Georgian frontier and passed through that relatively quickly. Between that and the Russian border, there was a no man’s land of approximately 2 km of windy roads, traffic jams and numerous queue jumpers in unlit tunnels. Definitely not a drive for the faint hearted or the slow-witted, at times even the chaos seemed to work in an unusual way. And that does not include the cows wandering on and off the roads!!
Eventually, we reached the border and we were processed in a very thorough way.
A short drive later we stopped in a supermarket in the instantly forgettable city of Vladikavkaz to stock up on supplies as we still had a long journey ahead. The journey passed along the highway through small towns with low lying buildings and fields of wheat. As verdant green hills plunged down to the road, there were monuments to battles of the Great Patriotic War scattered here and there. However, in this wonderful landscape stood also crumbling old concrete buildings and lumps of steel scattered along the roadside, left to rot in the heat.
Soon we headed up the Baksan valley where recent flash floods had washed the road away in a number of places. Finally, we reached our destination of the town of Azau which was located at 2353 metres above sea level. Were assigned rooms in the local hotel and had a few hours to rest before dinner in the restaurant. It included some caviar and vodka, kindly provided by a member of the Polish contingent.
We got up at 9 am for breakfast and told to assemble for the walk to the Terskol waterfall. We arrived at 11 am and having liberally applied some of our factor 50 sun cream as the forecast was good, we then walked down to Terskol village.
There we met the local guide Abdul, who was to lead us to this local attraction. From the village, we took a steep winding track through the forest which eventually reached a plateau with stunning views of numerous peaks on the Georgian border. This wide track then petered out a little bit for the final walk along a very narrow track to a wonderful waterfall.
Whilst there we saw some Russian women strip down to bikinis to duck behind the very impressive waterfall to take selfies which was exceptionally dangerous due to the very slippery rocks. We had lunch and enjoyed the waterfall and the views of the hills around.
Afterwards we descended and headed back to the hotel, had some free time and a long rest before dinner. For some of us, there was also the excellent sauna in the basement. This day had consisted of a 15.5 km walk and a total ascent of 806 metres to a high point of 2791 metres. An early night ensured as the next day would be a harder and much steeper climb.
We arose early and after breakfast got a lift to Terskol. This time, we headed to the opposite end of the valley to climb Mount Cheget. At the bottom of the chairlift, there was a track to the left and we were going to climb to the top of the ski lift and get the chairlift down. Today’s climb was about acclimatizing, getting the legs working and seeing Mount Elbrus in full for the first time from the high point we would reach.
This turned out to be a long hot steep slog of a climb on the track in the heat. The famous song by Jahn Teigen came to mind “Mil etter mil, etter mil, etter mil, etter mil, etter mil” as we headed ever on up the steep slope to a short distance beyond the ski lift station. During the climb we had a few stops to admire the mountains and glaciers on the Georgian border and eventually the magnificent snow-capped twin peaks of Mount Elbrus came into view.
We ascended a total of 1084 metres to stop at 3178 metres. Since we had been baked in the sun despite the odd icy blast from the nearby glaciers, for once the factor fifty was vital. Finally, we had a chance to look at the most perfect view of Mount Elbrus. As the snow glistened in the strong sunshine the full extent of the forthcoming challenge became apparent.
Then it was over to the ski lift and a descent back to the ground level. On the way, we noticed people grappling with mountain bikes on the ski lift, trying not to let them fall. They were going up via ski lift so they could descend on the track we came up. The opposite of what we did in essence.
A quick visit to the local bar and some local meat dumplings called manti and a beer and our day was done. We had a short walk back to the hotel and some time to stock up on supplies for the next day, as we would head up to base camp on Mount Elbrus.
Today was the day! Finally the training, the acclimatisation walks, all the preparation was over and the moment was upon us.... Mount Elbrus waits. Nothing can really prepare you for the contrast of the temperature and civilisation of Azau to the icy wastelands and the cold that awaited on the mountain.
Mount Elbrus is known as Mingi Tau, “a peak resembling a thousand mountains” in the Balkar language, a homage to the peak’s size. It is such a massive mountain that it has 22 glaciers alone feeding of its permanent icecap.
After an early start, it was a short walk to the gondola station for a ride to 3832 metres with three stops. As the gondolas and the station changeovers continued, we couldn't help but notice the contrast of the green of the valley to the volcanic rocks, dust and the ever-nearing snowline. We ascended without incidents and instantly noticed the much thinner air at this height.
We then descended to our accommodation, a converted freight container at 3735 metres. This had a split in the middle with the eight men on one side and the six women on the other. A scramble over the rocks led to the toilet which was a wooden hut with a hole in the ground. It was important to check the wind when visiting, as whatever you put down the hole could often be blown back up at twice the speed. Also nearby was another converted freight container. This was a kitchen area where could use our jet boils to cook the water for the packet food and countless cups of tea.
This was to be our home for 4 or 5 days. The snow was not fit to melt due to volcanic ash and diesel fumes from both snow jet skis and the snowcats. So to resolve the issue another nearby steel container was converted into a shop. This was where water or hot dumplings or tea could be bought. Water is vital up there as dehydration is a constant problem in the thin air atmosphere and bitingly cold winds.
This was still quite early in the day, so our very first climb on the mountain to further acclimatise awaited. We walked back up to the final gondola station which was at the edge of the snow line and walked over a brief plateau and ascended to the Priut 11 hut at 4056 metres, a total ascent of 325. We walked over the ice, snow and jumped a few minor ice rivers. At the Priut 11 hut, there was a memorial to the twenty on average people who die every year on this mountain with photos nailed onto a big volcanic rock.
We descended to the hut, prepared meals and went to sleep. Due to the thin atmosphere, very few people slept well that night. That would improve as we acclimatised better.
The next morning awaited us the final and highest acclimatisation walk so far. Again we started off by walking to the edge of the snow line at the final gondola station. There we put on the crampons and started to ascend slowly as the slope got steeper and steeper.
We passed the previous day’s high point and headed for the Pastukhov rocks. This was a wonderful day, hard going but with the sunshine blasting off the snow. We all had on the wrap around grade 4 glasses so we would not go snow-blind. It is noticeable when you just adjust them even slightly, as the glare of the snow in the sunshine is significant.
We also liberally applied Factor 50 as you tend to burn quicker when the air is thinner. Steeper and steeper, the ascent went till we reached our high point of the 4651 metres. We stopped for hot tea and water, sat in the snow and saw for the first time the unbelievable vista. From this vantage point, 137 peaks over 3500 metres can be seen.
This was one of the days I or anyone who was there would never ever forget. That view at the Pastukhov Rocks was just unreal and is impossible to describe in reality. No matter how hard you tried, no words could ever do it justice.
We descended from there relatively slowly as it was a steep 30° descent on the slope to the brief plateau just below Priut 11 hut. From there it was only a short walk to the converted freight container. The total ascent for the day was 921 metres.
This was the rest day as at midnight the activity started for the final summit day. We lazed around; some took short walks, others slept. Personally, I was happy to sleep or sit outside in the sunshine and admire the view which was simply stunning. I had a slightly dodgy stomach so resting was important.
Three of the group had decided to climb from the Priut 11 Hut and left at 2 pm. At around 4 pm most people cooked and by six pm everyone was asleep. Because as Wilson Picket famously sang
“I'm gonna wait 'till the midnight hour
When there' no one else around”
And that was what we all did in essence.
Summit day...Summit day. Summit day ...the most anticipated, the most exciting, the most daunting word any mountain climber will hear. This was the culmination of all our efforts, the height of our dreams... the moment of truth.
We arose at midnight and started to prepare carbohydrates and tea. We filled our flasks, boiled the water and poured it into various expedition type food packets. When we were finished eating and drinking, it was a question of last minute checking of the bags and double checking gear.
We attached ice axes, fitted the harnesses, checked gloves, crampons and head torches. Then we put on double layers, triple layers, quadruple layers, adjusted hats and buffs. We also applied the sun cream as that would be difficult at dawn in sub-zero temperatures. Then we were ready and we were off, we walked out and walked onto a nearby snow- covered area. Here we applied the crampons and ascended a few hundred metres.
We were being given a lift for some of the way by a snowcat, so we clambered aboard. Now the moment had arrived - we headed uphill at a good pace and then as we got higher the cold hit us. The mountain was extending its firm and icy grip into our lungs, our hearts, and our minds. For now, our physicality was not important...the endurance....the sheer determination....the will to succeed took over.
A short distance up a brief and icy blast of wind and snow hit us. We arrived at our drop off point whereby we met the three climbers from the Priut 11 hut that had already arrived there. We continued on for a while before once again the wind blew and the snow enveloped us. The cold at 4.00 am on a Russian mountain at 5000 metres has to be experienced to be fully understood. According to the most recent mountain weather forecast, it was to be between -18 and -24 degrees with the wind chill at that time and at that height.
The wind dropped down and the snow stopped and once again the moon shone and the view at that height with clear moonlight was magical. We then headed North West on a traverse of the eastern peak. This was a narrow track made through the snow with a steep angle on our left downwards so care was needed. Some wind slab was clearly noticeable on the upper slopes above us as we headed along.
Shortly afterwards we spotted the sun’s first golden ray peeping around the eastern peak of Mount Elbrus. We continued on for an hour or more and arrived at the coll between the two peaks where we stopped for much needed warm tea. The sun was slowly dancing its way towards us as the warm drops of tea enveloped us and perked us up magically.
This coll is where some reckless Russians play Russian roulette by getting a snow jet ski to this point. They have not acclimatised beforehand and try to get up and down the final short climb hoping the mountain does not catch them before they can make it out alive. This is incredibly reckless and you can see evidence of Russians vomit here and there.
Now the final ascent in a northerly direction ensured to the ridge, there was a guide rope left by previous guides which we kept on our left and after a long and slow ascent, we reached three quarters up the ridge. We had another rest with warm tea as the sun’s warm glow enveloped us. We were nearly there, another short climb and we reached the final ridge. After a short rest, we started off for the now visible summit 600 metres of a gentle incline and the moment had finally arrived.
What a feeling, I had done it...the highest mountain in Europe...the tenth most prominent mountain on the planet....5642 metres ....I had done it.......Unreal.
Soon everyone was on the summit and photographs were taken, handshakes ensured and the euphoria was universal. The view was stunning in all directions, and the eastern summit at 5621 metres looked just as fantastic as the one we were on. The temperature on the summit was -7 and with a wind speed of 10 to 15 km, that ensured the wind chill was not so bad for once.
We started to descend and after a brief stop for some more tea we continued along the traverse. It was then decided that as there was a storm coming in mid-afternoon (and no guarantee of when that could arrive) there was a need to get off the mountain relatively quickly. So our guide summonsed a snowcat to drop us further down the mountain. Thanks to this we were able to get to the sleeping quarters quicker than expected. A quick pack and we were on the gondolas and in the village of Azau in jig-time.
Just as we got off the gondola the heavens opened in a thunderstorm and we all got drenched, however, it was not too far from the hotel. We did not mind because firstly we had reached the summit and secondly should we not have got the snowcat we could have been in a severe snowstorm much higher up. A euphoric dinner later was followed by sleep as we had an early start for a largely uneventful journey back to Stepantsminda the following day.
Footnote: Like Mount Kazbek, safety is vitally important. This mountain should not be climbed without doing a winter skills course first and only with an experienced guide. Any mountain is climbable in sunny weather, broadly speaking. However, with storms and cold and tricky navigation, Mount Elbrus has proven many times over to be lethal. Also, proper good quality warm equipment (including two gloves + mitts on the hands) is vital as it is an extremely cold mountain.