Facts and Figures (courtesy of 7Summits.com)
Original Name: The local (Balkar) name: ‘Mingi-Tau’ means: ‘Resembling a thousand mountains’
Height: Elbrus has two summits, the west summit is the highest: 5642m, the east summit is just a bit lower: 5621m
Location: Elbrus stands 20 km (18 mi) north of the main range of the Greater Caucasus and 65 km (40 miles) south-southwest of the Russian town of Kislovodsk. Its permanent icecap feeds 22 glaciers, which in turn give rise to the Baksan, Kuban, and Malka Rivers.
I traveled to Russia to climb Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe. We successfully reached the summit on Sept 2, 2005 amid the worst weather I’ve experienced in the mountains.
Mount Elbrus is a double-peaked mountain situated in the Caucasus Range, in southern Russia, near the border of Georgia. It is the highest mountain in the Caucasus which, together with Ural Mountains, considered to be the border between Europe and Asia. At 5,642 m (18,510 ft), it is also considered to be the highest mountain in Europe.
Elbrus stands 20 km (12 mi) north of the main range of the Greater Caucasus and 65 km (40 mi) south-southwest of the Russian town of Kislovodsk. Its permanent icecap feeds 22 glaciers which in turn give rise to the Baksan, Kuban, and Malka Rivers. The west summit is 21 meters higher than the east peak and is officially the highest one in Europe. Because this mountain does not require any technical climb in normal summer condition, it attracts many first-time mountaineers as well as many tourists.
There are two other people on my team – Damien, a Rainier alumni from Australia; Sami, a Kilimanjaro alumni from UAE; and myself. We arrived at the foot of Elbrus on Aug 28, and settled into the lodge Azau at 2300m, where we stayed for three nights while we were doing our acclimatization hikes around. Our mountain guide is Oksana, a cheerful mountaineer from Ukraine who has guided on Elbrus more than 60 times during the past 5 years. I was very excited to have Oksana as our guide as this was my first time climbing with a female guide, and only later I learned that she is the most raved-about guide on this mountain.
The next day, we spent a couple hours hiking Mt. Cheget (3300m). Those VFTT folks who have hiked with me all know that I’m always the last one in the pack, and speed is my biggest concern when going with group. Not surprisingly, I was always well behind again. It was only 3300m, but I was gasping for air so hard it felt like that I was diving with an empty tank. Seeing Damien and Sami flying up the trail so easily, I was really worried that I could be denied to summit just because of my speed. Oksana only commented that things can be different when we go higher and altitude effect kicks in for everybody.
On the second acclimatization day, we rode the chairlift to Garabishi Barrels at 3800m, then hiked up to the Diesel hut at 4050m. My breathing rhythm began to get more under control, and I was surprised that I could even pass Sami now.
On the third day, we moved our base camp up to the Barrels at 3800m, then hiked up to Pastuckhov Rocks at 4800m. It was a long hike in snow, but I felt much more at ease than the first day. I was happy to find that I could keep my pace well with Oksana and my muscles still felt fresh after a three day hike. My confidence began to grow. I kept telling myself, no matter how slow I am, I was strong enough to summit in a day!
The fourth day was a rest day to prepare for summit. We did a light hike up to Diesel Hut at 4050m again. We had blue sky and bright sunshine during the past few days, that I was able to take great pictures. But weather started turning bad later during the day. By the late afternoon, to walk the 20 meters to the washroom, I needed to put on more layers than I was wearing while hiking – two layers polypro and windproof fleece jacket — plus a Gore-tex jacket! The weather forecast for the next few days was only getting worse, so Oksana decided that we shouldn’t wait. We were going tonight!
Time to climb!
I felt really good at dinner time. It would be boring if the weather was perfect, right? We are tough mountaineers, and we seek challenge, right? There was a birthday party next door, and I happily dropped in for some drinks to warm up for my summit trip. There were several teams going up tonight. People are all so psyched!
I was so excited that I stayed awake most of the night, but I must have fallen asleep for at least a few minutes. I dreamt that I was due for a salsa dancing party, but was wearing a dark business suit and fanatically sorted through a huge bag for a pair of shoes for dancing! I couldn’t find any shoes matching my suit until the alarm clock went off at 3am!
At breakfast, I tried to keep myself relaxed, drank as much water as I could and put down as much solid cereals as I could hold in my stomach. It was windy and cold outside, so I put on the most layers I’ve ever worn in any hike – windproof soft-shell pants plus heavy-duty Gore-tex pants for my legs; For upper body, two layers polypro, one mid-weight polypro, windproof fleece, and heavy duty Gore-tex shell. My face was fully covered in balaclava + windproof fleece hat + Gore-tex hood.
The snow cat dropped us off at Pastuckhov Rocks at 4800m, and we started moving up the steep slope shortly before 5am. Wind was blowing hard from the west, filled with icelets and snow, and slashed hard on any exposed skin. About one hour or more into the hike, the sun started coming up. Despite the heavy clouds on the mountain, it shined sharply bright from my right side that I felt I could be blinded by just a glimpse.
So I had to force my face to the left side to face the harsh wind. Air became thinner the higher we went. Balancing between gasping for air and avoiding frost bite on the face became a delicate game. I frequently pulled down my balaclava to catch a few deep breaths then quickly covered up. From my past experience, I was expecting to be hot once the sun came up and was planning to take off the fleece once I started moving at a good pace.
This time it was different. As the day got brighter and we went higher, the wind also got stronger. The heat generated by my movement was instantly carried away by wind, I was left shivering all the way despite the multiple layers I was wearing. It was a constant effort to wiggle my fingers and toes to keep them warm. I also tried to touch my nose and ears from time to time to make sure they were still there and not frostbitten.
The trail above Pastuckhov Rock was very steep. Most people moved in one line at a snails pace while a few gradually dropped behind. Once past this section, it would be a long flat traverse. I could see people start turning left from a distance, and thought that would be the end to this relentless vertical climb. What seemed so close actually was hours away. Patience is such a virtue for any mountaineer. It takes an hour to move up 200 meters vertically for an average person at such altitude. So anything visible is actually is as far away as a star!
I kept my self patient by having my mind occupied. I kept encouraging myself with my memory of fun hikes and New England winter on Mt Washington. I also went through every detail of my climbings on Cotopaxi and Kilimanjaro, on both of which I was surprised that I could make it. Being patient is also very important as it helps to coordinate breathing rhythm with pace. It is exhausting once these two are out of synch.
Pushing past the physical barrier
After a long hour, I moved to the “turning point”, but only to discover that the so called flat traverse is still a long relentless upslope, only slightly less steep than the previous section. So I gave up hope for anything easy, and prepared myself for a relentless upslope. It was so cold that we were not allowed to stop for anything.
“You will be frozen to death if you stop”, Oksana kept telling me. A few people stopped for gear adjustment, but became too cold to move on afterward and ended up turning down.
Finally, I was rewarded a couple hundred steps of real flat trail to arrive at the Saddle, the 5400m low point between the east and the west summit. I have become very tired after the non-stop battle with the wind and shivering in the cold that I was walking as if drunk. Barely able to keep my balance, I felt ready to drop dead at any moment. A lot of people turned around at this point. The summit was still two hours away, and the wind kept getting stronger. Though we were just 200m below both summits, we could see none of them through the fog.
For a mountaineer, there is only a thin line between mental toughness and sound judgment. When I climbed Cotopaxi, my first mountain, I only knew to go for the summit, and I thought mental toughness overcame any challenge. Later, I learned – reaching the summit is optional, coming down safely is mandatory. There is a saying, “The mountain will always be there, don’t kill yourself on this one”. Learning to say no was a big step for me. On most mountains, more deaths happened on the way down than on the way up. But if you never take any risk, you could never become a successful mountaineer. It takes experience to learn the balance between the two sides.
At this point, seeing many stronger people turning around, I was ready for anything from my guide. I could be easily persuaded to turn back, but from the bottom of my heart, I wanted up. I said, “I’m really tired”. Oksana replied, “Everyone is tired here. You want to go up or go back?” Having had no food, and no drink for the past 4.5 hours, I barely had enough strength to squeeze out “up”. Oksana encouraged cheerfully, “You are still strong. Let’s go!”
Weather was turning worse really fast, and had to descend immediately after just one photo. This was the summit that I stayed on the shortest! Needless to say, I gained no knowledge about what the summit is like other than that blurry picture of a summit sign. On descending, the wind kept knocking me off the trail. The guy behind me learned to grab my backpack whenever a gust blew! The fog became so thick that we had to rely on Oksana’s GPS and experience to find our way through low visibility. We also picked up several people who got lost and were crouching behind rocks. Had Oksana not been there, not sure how many of us could have come out of this mountain alive that day.
Of the 20-30 people set off for the summit that day, only 8 made to the summit. It was lucky that I had Oksana, who has so much experience on this mountain, as my very encouraging guide. Mental toughness and physical strength are not the only things important. There are people who made Denali who couldn’t have completed Elbrus. Many people were under-prepared for the weather and came back with frostbite. No one who summited that day would have been able to navigate out of the mountain without Oksana.
Train hard. Prepare for the worst.