6 August 2008
South Face Route
The highest mountain in Europe, located in Caucasus. This is one of the 7 summits and one of the 7 volcanoes. Summited 6 August 2008
Mt Elbrus is the highest peak in Europe. This mountain is actually a dormant volcano with two summits – east and west – with a saddle in between. The western peak (Zapadnaya) is the tallest. It’s 21m higher than the eastern summit. It’s permanently snow-covered and requires mountaineering skills using equipment such as crampons and ice axes. This is both a seven summits and a seven volcanoes peak.
Our journey to Elbrus started with a day of sightseeing in Moscow. It was so interesting to see the contrasts both on buildings and on the motorway with the old Ladas that were hardly holding up, side by side with the most modern cars you could imagine.
It was also interesting to see the Red Square with Lenin’s mausoleum, the beautiful orthodox church Saint Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin, and GUM (main department store). All these buildings, except Lenin’s mausoleum, were very beautiful buildings and the square is a UNESCO world heritage site. Growing up I had seen it many times on TV during the Cold War so to be there and see it for myself was nice. Much better than I had imagined.
The subway was also incredible with all the beautiful art in the subway stations. So different to and much nicer than the subway stations in Oslo.
At the same time, it was a big contrast to all the sad-looking tall concrete buildings that people lived in. Our guide shared with us how it had been during the Soviet era when all the politicians, sportspeople, and artists had better housing and more privileges than the average inhabitants. So, it was easy to understand why people would work hard to become very good at what they were doing to be able to get some of those benefits for themselves and their families.
Different style of service
One of the things that hit me about Russia is that the Russians who are waiters or in other service positions rarely smile or behave in a way that we would consider service-minded. It may be their style, but it was very different from what I’m used to.
From Moscow, we took a flight down to Mineralnye Vody in the Caucasus mountains. From there it was a few hours by car to Cheget village which became our base. The area reminded me a lot of Romsdalen in Norway, except that both the mountains and the summer flowers seemed to have been on steroids! They were all much taller or bigger than those at home.
On our way to Cheget, we stopped at a gas station. It was very different from at home where the gas stations are a combination of a convenience store and a fast-food restaurant. Here they had gas, oil, and vodka. That’s it.
What I also noticed in the Caucasus area was that they seemed to build very nice houses and gardens, but there was nobody that maintained what was created. Along the roads, we saw many buildings that were neglected and also some large ones that seemed abandoned. A thought that hit me was that it could have been because of their history with communism where they had not been allowed to own anything and hence have not learned to take care of things. If so, it will take time to change the mindset of a whole population.
First, we headed out into a side-valley for acclimatization on a peak on the border with Georgia. This was an experience in itself. There was a local horse man who was to help us with our luggage, the horses carrying the luggage and tents. When we arrived, we were told to wait. It took 30 min before the horseman came and he was there only for a few minutes then said he’d be back. We waited for another 30 minutes, 1 hour, 1,5 hours and while our local guide got more and more frustrated, we were patiently waiting in the sun. Finally, the horse man came back. He seemed to be a bit drunk but he loaded up the luggage onto the horses and we could finally start to walk. It was a very nice trail with green grass and summer flowers along a little river that was running a little lower down than the trail.
Suddenly the horseman seemed to lose balance and fell off the track towards the river with the horse he was holding onto tightly. It was only a few meters down, but it did not look good. He got himself up onto the path again and we continued. Not very long after this, it happened again. This time he and the horse tumbled down a bit further down the rather steep hill towards the river. Now I realized what happened. He was more than a little drunk and he’d lost his balance and dragged the horse with him off the path! Not good. I was thinking to myself, I seriously hope this does not happen again. He needs to keep himself on the track.
Before I knew it, he’d again lost balance and he and the horse tumbled round and round down towards the river. I was afraid that the horse had been hurt – perhaps with a broken leg or something. I thought to myself, this has to stop.
Thankfully a few of the boys in our team ran down towards them, helped them both up, and carried the luggage back up to the trail. One of them also took the horse’s bridle so the horse man could focus on walking by himself and not drag any of the horses down if he stumbled off the trail.
We finally arrived at the campsite, pitched our tents, and cooked some dinner. It was a very green area, especially for this altitude, and we could see the glacier not too far from the camp. The peak we were heading for was yet not in view.
The following morning, we woke up to a low-hanging fog all around our tent. Not what we wanted. We decided to still go for our acclimatization trip as we needed that as part of our preparation for Elbrus. We got to a point on the glacier where our guide stopped us and said, “The fog is giving us such low visibility that we cannot continue. Let’s take a break, eat our lunch even though it is a bit early, and see what happens.”
After the break, it was much better and we could continue, but only up to the ridge where we could see over to Georgia. There was too much fog for us to be able to continue to the summit. We sat there for 30 minutes or more to breathe in the thinner air before we returned down to our camp in the valley.
On our way back to Cheget, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. The weather was pleasant so we could sit outside in the sun at a large wooden table they had there. They had a big barbeque and cooked us one of the best barbequed meals I have ever had with meat and fresh vegetables.
What is mentionable was that on this acclimatization trip we’d seen a few places where there was anti-aircraft artillery stationed.
Moving up to the Barrels
The next day, we headed to the Azau station to take the lift up to the “Barrels” on Elbrus. A part of me felt it was a bit wrong to take the lift up, but that’s how it is at Elbrus. On this route, there is a single-person lift up to the Barrels at 3750m.
The Barrels (also called Garabashi) must have been amazing 20-40 years earlier. It was no longer luxurious but it was a dry place to sleep as an alternative to sleeping in a tent. This is where the snow stays all summer and where we stayed all the time. Previously, it had been normal to move higher up to Priut–11 Hut at 4050m, but when we were there, there was no access to clean water at this location and we were told that people who had attempted to stay there had become sick because of that. So, the decision was to sleep at the Barrels for our time at the mountain. From here, we did further acclimatization climbs up to Pastukhov Rocks at 4670m before we were ready to head up to the summit.
A sad day for the mountainering world
One of our rest days in the Barrels ended up being a very special day. We received news of the disaster at K2. We knew there were some Norwegians there and we waited more or less the whole day for information about how it was going with them. Our guide counted the hours from the time they were last seen or heard from, and it did not look good. I have to say that it was very special to sit at almost 4000m altitude knowing that southeast of us there were many people on a mountain at almost double our altitude doing their very best to survive what ended up being the worst single accident in the history of K2 mountaineering. Eleven people died.
The day that we could have gone to the summit the weather forecast was not good. Our guide decided to wait one day before attempting our summit push, which was a good decision as it was very windy with low visibility on the summit that day. An American team headed for the summit that day but not very successfully. Several people had to turn around because of the cold and one of them managed to lose his gloves and got severe frostbite on his fingers.
As always, it is cold and dark when you start the summit push. We all climbed in silence. On the traverse towards the saddle the sun came up and it all became a bit better. I felt strong and when we arrived at the saddle, I knew I had it in me to make it to the summit. It’s a bit further than most people think from the saddle to the summit.
It was a beautiful day and as soon as the sun was out it was not too bad temperature-wise. A few people from our team wanted to follow in my footsteps as they felt I had a good rhythm to follow. Something I learned on Aconcagua – when at high altitude it’s so important to have an even, good slow rhythm in your steps. It makes it easier and you preserve energy. Something vital at high altitudes.
It was wonderful to reach the summit. I was strong and nowhere near as exhausted I had been on the summit of Aconcagua, just 6 months earlier. I could actually help and support a few others in our team who were exhausted. Love being able to do so.
As always, the return from the summit was fast compared to the ascend. We were back down at the Barrels by late lunchtime. So, we packed up and headed down to Cheget. It was a treat to be back in the local hotel again; at the same time, it felt a bit unreal. We had summited Europe’s highest mountain in the morning and in the evening, we were sitting at a celebration dinner down in the valley. Big contrast. The celebration dinner was in true Russian style, 0,5l vodka set at each person’s place. I was smart enough to say, “There’s no way that I will drink all that, it’s more than enough to share a bottle between 2 people!” I’m not even sure if we even drank all that. After such a tiring day you absolutely do not need much before it’s time to head for bed. We had a fun evening with a great dinner and some good dancing before we called it a day. A very long day.
We had one more day before we were due to fly home so we used it to just relax and have fun with the rest of the team. We even went to the market and bought some interesting head decorations.
Very Special ending - War
The final morning, our guide came to us in true Russian style – stony-faced and just saying, “Not so good news today, my friends.”
We were like, “What? What’s the not-so-good news?”
That answer got us all wide-awake…
A war between Russia and Georgia had started. And we were on our way to the airport – the place they normally would attack first if there is a war…
On our way to the airport, we saw military cars and people mobilizing. A lot. We knew that in Russia they do not care how who is in the way if you are in the wrong location when the military is advancing. It felt very good to be heading to the airport and home; at the same time, it was a bit worrying to head to the airport. We could all remember the anti-aircraft artillery stationed in the area during our acclimatization trip.
One of our team members had an uncle who was working for a Norwegian television station, so we received news by text from him. I must say that I have never been so relieved to board a plane and for it to take off. I normally do not send messages to my family when I’m traveling. This time, I texted them saying, “I am all good and we are shortly taking off from the airport in Caucasus.” After that, we found out we’d caught the last commercial plane that had left that airport before had been closed off because of the war.
The term so close, yet so far comes to mind when I think about it.