My attempt at becoming the highest person on Elbrus ever
In August 2014, I had a crazy notion to become the highest person on Elbrus and therefore Europe. With the help of a ladder that is
I am not sure what started the madness. Maybe it is the result of spending too much time at altitude. Or maybe it is due to the fact that I bought a cucumber sandwich from a man called Steve who has never climbed Elbrus before yesterday. Umm, or could it have been one to many of the amber fluid that flows so easily in the Russian summers of late. Anyway, before I knew what was happening, I had ordered a ladder and was determined to become the highest person ever on Elbrus and go down in the climbing journals forever.
The route this year, which happens to be 2014, was to the West summit of Elbrus via the North route. And again, there is something not quite right with me. Why the hell would I want to take a ladder up to the summit via the hardest route!! Maybe one day, I shall find the answer to what I seek. Maybe it exists under the 45th stone from the summit? Maybe it is waiting in limbo in an attempt to diffuse with coefficient DNA molecules during free-flow electrophoresis.
Anyway, be that as is it may, I had a ladder and Elbrus expedition to lead.
We arrived at base camp of Elbrus on 23 August via Moscow and Minerlayne Vody. Now getting to the top of Elbrus does not involve a brisk stroll from 500m above sea level to 5642m just like that. Nope. Climbing high altitude mountains requires climbers enduring the physical affects of the acclimatisation process. Becoming the highest person on Elbrus ever was never going to be an easy feet. I mean foot.
Right, so the first few days came and went without any serious problems. From the comforts of our base camp in the valley below, our climbing programme starts to get a tad intense. Unlike the South Route of Elbrus where there are cable cars and even snowcats to aid a climbers well earned summit attempt, the North route is more od a purist approach. This involves climbers carrying their own gear up to high camp-twice. What was that? Did you mention twice the man in the back screams out. Well yes my dear, you heard correct. We carry 2 loads of gear up to high camp. 15kg loads a trip. So basically we trek up to high camp from base camp. An altitude gain of about 900m and takes about 6 hours to get up.
Once we have settled into the high camp, our next objective is an acclimatisation climb to Lenz rocks at 4600m. Elbrus is mountain that needs to be taken seriously. The lasts statistics show that about 30 people a year die on her slopes. The climb to Lenz is strewn with crevasses from the glacier that covers most of the mountain between 3900m and 4500m. This involves all the climbers roping up together for safety. The length of rope between each climber is about 3m and is attached to the harness of the climber by way of an Austrian or butterfly knot. If a climber happens to fall into a crevasse, we have the weight of 10 other people to arrest the fall and help them out.
The climb from high camp to the infamous Lenz rocks of Elbrus takes about 4 hours to reach. Besides the crevasses, bad weather also plays a roll in the success on an Elbrus climb. This year, we were pretty lucky in terms of that. Now this is where my plans to become the highest person on Elbrus ever went a bit pear shaped. Because the weather was so good, I decided that a few mountaineering skills were needed. Only the basic of course. These included a simulated crevasse rescue on the ice. This involved us putting a few ice screws into the ice cliff, hooking up a 3:1 pulley system and hurling poor old Jubber ( our assistant guide in training) down the ice slope. Each climber would then take a turn hauling him up on via the pulley system. The other mountaineering skill that had to be practised for an Elbrus climb was the ice arrest. This basically means a climber throws himself down an ice slope on his back and turns over, digs his ice axe into the ice, lifts his feet into the air and stops himself from flying down into the bossum of Mother Russia. Of course, being the trusted leader, it is my job to show the clients the art of the ice arrest. And man, what an art I performed. I managed to fling myself onto my ice axe with the end result of cracking my ribs. What the hell? The simplest thing in the world and I cack my ribs.
Anyway, I sort of figured that my attempt at becoming the highest person on Elbrus ever might not happen. I had other worries. In 3 days time we heading to the summit of Elbrus. And I had cracked ribs. Now I am not sure if you have ever had cracked ribs, but man, they are painful. I was battling to breath as everytime I took a breath of air I could feel a searing pain from my ribs. Not exactly a good thing when in a hypoxic environment on Elbrus where getting a good breath of air is vital. And trying to sleep or make any normal movement incapacitated me. The only relief came in the form of a bandage and duct tape strapped tightly around my chest. I was a tad concerned as I had 3 Russian guides assisting me with the summit attempt and myself. I had no option but to give the summit a go. And as goes with mountains, there is going to be statistical history that is going to influence who makes the summit and who turns around. Every time we have to turn someone around for whatever reason, we lose a guide. At 4800m we had to turn around our first client who was suffering from hypothermia and the onset of pulmonary oedema was imminent. Down to 2 guides plus me. Eish. About 2 hours later, we had to split the group again. Down to 1 Russian guide and me. Eish. No pressure. And the cracked ribs were not getting any better the higher we went. But onwards and upwards we went.
Now for any of you that have ever climbed Elbrus via the North route, you will now that the summit day is no joke. The average time to reach the summit from high camp is about 13 hours. With 5 hours budgeted for the decent. 19 hours at altitude in -30 temperatures ( and a cracked rib-poor me) is going to be a challenge. We left high camp at about 01H00 in the morning. We reached the Saddle at about 11H00. What lies before us is heartbreaking to say the least. The summit of Elbrus is still another 400m above us and the route up is no easy one. Especially when fatigue and the effects of altitude start to have an influence on a climbers morale and reasoning. The final stretch is up 40 degree ice slope which usually sees climbers taking about 10 steps before taking a 5 minute break. Excruciating stuff. Just before the final summit ridge there is a fixed rope that has been put up to help climbers up a pretty dangerous section of the cliff. Any fall here, would result in a 300m fall back into the valley of the Saddle. Again, one of the most stressful parts of the climb for me. A lot of climbers could not keep there balance due to fatigue. A fall here would require that they use their ice axe to arrest their fall. I was doubtful on their ability to do so.
But luck was on our side this year. At about 14H00, the group of 8 climbers made the summit of Elbrus. Alas, the ladder and my vision to become the highest person on Elbrus ever did not materialise. Oh well. there is always next year. I was just happy to be part of the emotions of the groups summit.