Monday, 3 November 2014

Elbrus - Skidoos look like fun

A summiteer had arrived at the Barrels a day or two before our planned ascent. He looked swashbucklingly heroically sun-burnt, windswept and knackered. For a moment I had a teenage yearning to be just like him. Weather-beaten, craggy and above all heroically successful – rakishly paying off the skidoo pilot (driver/cowboy whatever you call him) with a flourish of rubles. The mid afternoon sunlight glinted in his reflective sunglasses . . . . and he looked like twelve feet tall.

Two days later after a bone shattering journey on a stinking piece of two-stroke machinery that keeps cutting out and that takes all my fading strength to keep seated as it hurls over seeming limitless precipices of piste I arrive at the Barrels; beanie askew and in a state of mind numbed exhaustion. As we near the Barrels compound the skidoo pilot yet again re-starts the stalled infernal petrol leaking machine to negotiate the dip down and back up to the Barrels camp.

Photo courtesy of Moegammad Hendricks
I stumble into our barrel and re-emerge with a fist full of rubles of the agreed amount which I proceed to politely (I thought) count out in front of my erstwhile and unsmiling skidoo driver (cowboy or pilot) - who snatches the notes from me with what I can only assume is an exclamation in Russian along the lines of “only a dick-head would accept payment without doing the counting himself”.

Late evening sun struggles through the gathering stormy night clouds and slides haltingly over my smudged snow goggles. . . . .

Under more relaxed conditions, clad in bravely coloured spandex, sporting pristine sun-washed raybans and draped with a long legged blond  . . . .  I am sure skidoos are fun.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Elbrus - Tolstoy

Reading anything by Count Leo Tolstoy had never been on my literary horizon. Dostoevsky and Gorki crossed my path early on but the sheer and frightening weight of titles such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenia” kept me well away from Tolstoy and I fell instead towards the beguiling heavy Teutonic Hermann Hesse – which perhaps better fulfilled post adolescent angst. Tolstoy has been left unread and unacknowledged ever since until a generous friend gave me (yes, gave and not lent) a volume of three Tolstoy novellas – one of which was entitled The Cossacks – because he felt I would be interested in this having just returned from the Caucasus Region. This was in itself a revelation because I had not linked the Cossack people to the region of Kabardino-Balkaria that I had just returned from.

A little bit of research uncovered that during the latter part of WWII Stalin accused the Balkar residents of the region of collaborating with the enemy and banished the whole lot of them and they were only allowed back to their homeland a decade and a half later. This would seem to be a minor upset for the region when seen against historical dominance from the Mongols (1200’s), the Georgians (1200’s to 1500’s) the Persian Empire (1500’s), the Ottoman Empire (also the 1500’s), and then fractiously under the Russian Empire in the 1700’s. There was a brief period of independence in the 1700’s before the region was annexed by Russia, and then after various alliances and mis-alliances it was incorporated into the glorious Soviet Union where it was saddled with ever increasingly heavy and bombastic names – “Kabardin Autonomous Oblast”, “Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Oblast”, and then “Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic”.

Latterly of course it has been at the geographical heart of the mad-geopolitics that seems to have gripped the region with fighting in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ossetia – none of which makes any sense to anyone who has little or no knowledge of this dark and mysterious region. All this in a confined area with a declining population of less than 1m people, five majority ethnic groups among many others; where 55% of the population are Muslim, and there are at least three different languages spoken.  “Complex” and “fundamentally ungovernable” are phrases that spring to mind, not just of Kabardino-Balkaria, but the neighbouring territories.

So back to Tolstoy and his novella “The Cossacks” which describes in human terms this region in the 1860’s. Beautifully written it to me captures a time and circumstance that I suspect has changed in essence very little in the intervening 150 or so years. The geo-politics is still tinged with madness, people still live with it and make do as best they can, but over it all the magisterial landscape is solid and uncompromising.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Elbrus - Roast the Potatoes for a Rural

We are sitting outside a restaurant/cafe/bar on the edge of the village square of Cheget.

I say square but it is more “square” by function than “square” by shape, insofar that it is an un-surfaced, dusty, potholed open space around which various commercial buildings in varied states of repair sit. These buildings are almost exclusively hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars. We are luxuriating in cool Russian beers which we are drinking in isolation and in deference to our Muslim companions. I think we are drinking Terek, which is OK, but is really no different from any other average cold lager beer encountered anywhere else in the world.

As we are mulling over our recent summit success, a black expensive looking car pulls up in front of the terrace that we are sitting on and out steps what can only be the local Mr Big. A middle aged Mr. Big accompanied by two brutal looking henchmen. I can’t remember what they were wearing but in my minds eye they were “casually” dressed and while they might have sported gold chains they certainly had gold teeth. These are archetypal “baddies” straight out of any Hollywood C movie. As they saunter towards and past us in a swaggeringly sort of way I mutter “don’t look them in the eye”, and we feign studious interest in the menu.

As the danger passes we remain gripped by the menu, which is cheerfully presented and unusually written in English. For breakfast you can have “Rise Porridge”, which (in the guise of rice porridge) I can attest to as actually being very nice and wholesome.  On the salad menu is among others “salad fondness”, and for a first course you can dine on “Ear of Salmon”. I yearn for “Toe of Trout”, “Breast of Bream” or “Tongue of Tilapia” but regrettably these choices do not appear. Both Salmon and Trout do however figure in the section entitled “Dishes on the Grill (Kebabs)” as does “The liver in fat.” However under the section marked “Garnishes”, together with boiled potatoes, rice, and buckwheat is the intriguing dish “Roast the potatoes for a rural.” Perhaps it is the beer kicking in but we cannot fathom what this may mean.


That evening we ask Vladimir what he thinks the true translation of this dish may be. What, we ask, would be his translation of whatever Russian description was at the root of this strange mistranslation? He misunderstands the question and describes the dish, which (as I remember) is fried slices of potato. But I am still intrigued as to what the correct translation of “Roast the potatoes for a rural” ought to be.

Later, much later, using a translation program I enter “Roast the potatoes for a rural” and get “Жареный  картофель  по  деревенски” which I then re-enter  for an English translation and get “Fried potato wedges”. So Vladimir’s description of the dish holds up, but I am still intrigued by the etymology that has led to such a bizarre translation.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Elbrus - Snow Baskets

Lavern needed to buy snow baskets for her walking poles. Inexplicably instead of taking one of her poles to make sure that they would fit, I took one of my snow baskets, tried it on one of her poles (it fitted) and took that with us to the climbing equipment shop as an illustration of an exemplary snow basket. Quite how this extraordinary example of diagonal thinking came about I still cannot fathom. 

The gear shop was by far the most attractive in the village, serving as it did the most delicious (and free) espresso coffee. The walk there was arboreal and pleasant enhanced by the imagined smell of espresso leading and enticing us through the heady calming scent of pine trees. Wreathed giddily in the scent of coffee we explained our quest to the proprietor, one of the few incidentally in the village who spoke good English. He tried my shoe basket on one of his hire poles to check the size – and broke it. The screwed grommet broke away from the basket as he screwed it on to the pole. “It’s broken,” he said redundantly as the three of us gazed at the offending, and now useless device.

Secure in the knowledge that my (now broken) snow basket was indeed compatible with any other snow baskets Lavern decided to buy the two she needed. The shop proprietor handed the two pieces of my ex-snow basket to me and suggested that we needed to buy a third one. “Hang on,” I said “You've just broken mine. You should replace it.” With a great show of reluctance he gave me an old and battered ex-hire snow basket, and so we left the shop, with two brand new snow baskets and one well used one, and without a cup of coffee, feeling as we did that our continued presence quaffing free coffee would not have been welcomed nor conducive to good Afro-Russian relations; BRICS notwithstanding.

“I would have paid for a new one,” said Lavern, always generous. Fired by a sense of self righteous justice I pointed out that it was he who had broken the damned thing and was rightly forced to replace it, but I did so with sinking heart because we (or rather I) had just closed the door on a potentially endless stream of excellent espresso  . . . . 

As a post script to this - we are on one of our acclimatisation walks and I become aware that my trekking pole has suddenly become very short. This it transpires is not because it has become short but because the snow basket has detached from the screwed grommet that fits on the trekking pole leaving me with no purchase against the soft snow. I have a fleeting sense of déjà vu, or more accurately a lasting sense of ‘bloody hell’ and realize that I have a moral obligation to buy the equipment shop proprietor a cup of his own wonderful espresso, because he broke my snow basket not by being heavy handed, but because he was trying to screw a piece of crap South African equipment onto (I hate to admit it) far superior American manufactured equipment.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Elbrus - Adyl Sul


There is a place known as the Green Hotel. There are no buildings there, except for a couple of sheds used by Moscow University to monitor the health of the glacier that lies at the head of valley. Lying here among tufts of grass surrounded by snow topped mountains and ridges, sloping pastures, steep screes and vertical rock and ice faces, time fades away.

The river is fed by glacial melt-water with its characteristic peppermint coloured milky turbidity. At this point it is youthful and excited, clattering between pebbles and rocks that have come from the recently deposited moraine material scattered around the area. Although still in its infant stages the river’s gradient here is quite flat as it chatters its way across the flat glaciated bedrock between the lush green grass mounds before descending more aggressively through the deeply water incised Anul-Sul valley.

We are in that zone above the tree line and below the summer snow line that has an odd quietness – a serenity that is populated by small alpine flowers 
nestled under rocks or crowded between grass tufts and only the occasional and ubiquitous white necked Raven or some similar dog-collared Crow. The valley is ringed by high snow clad mountains and steep alpine steppe and vertical rock faces that beg to be explored and climbed. The serenity seeps deeply into the souls of the six of us who have walked the 2-3 hours up the valley to get here.

Giving the place a special poignancy is the sight of Mount Elbrus framed behind us by the cleft of the Anul-Sul valley. Two days ago we were up there, at the top, and it now looks benignly down on us. For a spit of time we were part of Elbrus and there is a strange intangible sense of belonging.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Elbrus 4 - Descending

We are attached to the fixed rope as we descend. Lavern and I have experience of this, but the other two do not. Vladimir is attaching them to the top of the rope, which is awkward because there seem not to be enough belay points, the rope seems to lie tight to the ground and we if we had each been using two karabiners on short rope lengths the manoeuvre would have been far easier. He says “Who did I give my gloves to?” I wonder why he asks this question and then notice a pair of mittens gracefully sliding and then whimsically gambolling down the slope towards the saddle. Yet another vital piece of personal equipment gone and a temporary glove keeper left mortified.

Once at the end of the fixed rope we rope up together and Vladimir asks if I will lead down towards the saddle – which I am happy to do. After 10 or so minutes Vladimir bounds past us and heads at break-neck speed down towards the saddle and I realize that he is after a spare pair of gloves left in his rucksack before his hands seize with frostbite.

We’re traversing, un-roped in a slow descent below the saddle. Vladimir is leading, followed by Moegammad. Then me followed by Ganief and as directed by Vladimir, Lavern is bringing up the rear. We are in a white-out conditions and visibility is between 10 – 15m and the there is no discernible distinction between snow and horizon. I am struggling to see the footprints left by Moegammad in front of me and I am following his progress almost by intuition along a traverse that is probably at an angle of 40 or so degrees. I hear Lavern shout “Steve.” I turn and see Ganief face down in front of her in the snow. He is immobile. I know he has been taking tremendous strain and am somehow not surprised. I shout “Vladimir!” Vladimir who is barely visible, immediately turns back.

Initially Vladimir ropes himself to Ganief, but I am concerned about the poor visibility, the steep slope that we are traversing and the fact that we had already become uncomfortably strung out before Ganiefs temporary collapse.  I ask Vladimir how long this traverse is likely to take – and he says a long time. I suggest that we should be roped together, and after much agonising manoeuvring and shouted instructions from Vladimir that’s what happens.


Clouds are pretty amazing wherever you are and if you can be bothered to look up for long enough.  For probably obvious reasons clouds seen at altitude have a greater clarity. It is not I think just because the air quality adds to cloud photogeneity but romantically because one is closer to the point where clouds are actually forming.

As we are descending I promise myself to remember the cloud forming above me. I am too tired and cold to stop and take out my camera. The cloud above me is performing slow gambols that are begging to be described in terms of earthly experiences. Forests are standing on their heads, pigs are smoking their own socks, wistful fairies are leaning down towards me, and gilded mushrooms are reaching out . . . . Jet stream winds are conspiring with temperature gradients and saturation points to create filigree intemperate and wild ephemeral sculptures that only I (and my companions) can and ever will see.

These are private moments; a very personal gallery that is unique and ever changing. Earlier I've watched a classic lenticular cloud formation settle into the middle horizon, extensive and embracing, defining the horizon; somehow solid even though it is ‘merely’ cloud. In contrast the cloud above us now is small and contained, almost insular as it clown dances within its own defined space, creating its own shape within its own time; the sock smoking pig loses its wig and transmogrifies into stand of pine trees . . .

And as I now write this I am oddly glad that I have no photographs because my now sharpened memory would be dulled and adulterated by poor two dimensional visual reminders . . . . and the trip would have been badly misremembered.

We have descended to 5,000m or so. Vladimir has phoned for a skidoo to pick us up. We are variously sitting and lying in an area of broken snow and ice that has been churned up by previous skidoo activity. We are terribly tired. The roped frog march to this point has been agonizingly slow and the incidents of missed footings increasingly frequent. It is late on Sunday. Most of the Skidoo drivers have knocked off, and who can blame them?

A second phone call confirms that the skidoo will not ascend this high. It (they?) will meet us at 4,700m. Another 300m agonizing descent looms. It is late afternoon, which after a 5am start means that this has been an achingly long day already. Below us as we stumble down the snow slopes we see a skidoo progressing across the snow towards the 4,700m mark which is at the top of the Pastukhov Rocks. Ganief has found new energy and is surging ahead following Moegammad and Vladimir who are well in front. Vladimir has placed Lavern at the rear of the group as sweeper. From above I see that Moegammad reaches the skidoo first and obviously instructed by Vladimir mounts the vehicle along with a spare rucksack and the skidoo takes off. From above I watch Ganief stop 50 or so metres away from the departing skidoo. From 100m behind him I feel that his back is expressing absolute dejection, perhaps even despair as the skidoo speeds away down towards warmth and safety. But perhaps I am merely imagining how I would feel in that situation.

 Vladimir and I have been waiting for a skidoo for a long time. At least it seems like a long time. We are at 4,700masl, at the top of the Pashtukov Rocks and it is early evening. The wind is beginning to pick up, and while the immediate skies are clear, across the valley clouds are gathering and swirling. We are sitting on our rucksacks and I am beginning to feel cold. The slope below towards the base of the Pashtukov Rocks is steep and below that the snow covered plateau stretches away and disappears into cloud. It is over this gentle slope that the expected skidoo will appear – if it does appear. There is no sign of movement. I wonder what it will look like when it does appear, how small it will be in the distance, and from where in the middle distance it will emerge from. I anticipate with relish the feeling of quiet elation and relief I will feel when it does appear, and the sense of satisfaction as it travels closer over the snow plain below.  It is awfully desolate up here; and down there. We wait.

I don’t know how long we wait before I suggest to Vladimir that he might like to phone again to find out what is happening with the skidoo. I feel the cold beginning to invade my clothing I have been in colder conditions but never have I felt so exposed –and despite (but perhaps because of) the surly unyielding presence of Vladimir so alone; and I begin to worry about hypothermia. How long does one wait before taking some sort of action? What sort of action? I cannot face walking another faltering downhill step. Downhill snow walking is at that moment the most exhausting activity I can think of and I cannot, I will not keep doing it. The colours of the landscape are becoming sharper as dusk grey blues and sunset pale yellows and oranges surge across the sheer mountain walls across the valley, chased by swift and lowering clouds. The sharpness of the canvas is reflected in the dropping temperature. The cold is beginning to seep into my soul.

Vladimir says that we must walk down to the base of the Pashtukov Rocks. “This I cannot do,” I complain. He gives me his spare walking pole and ignoring my whimpering he sets off down the further 100m descent to the base of the Pashtukov Rocks. My thighs, buttocks and knees are a dull mass of pain and my mind is numb. On later reflection it was far better that we were actually moving although at the time I was detesting everything about my condition and was swearing at Vladimir’s rapidly descending back.

I have survived the most bone crunching skidoo ride imaginable. The vehicle arrived as I stumbled down the last few metres to the base of the Pashtukov Rocks. Vladimir told me to mount the machine – as if I needed any encouragement – and said he was going to walk down the remainder of the way by himself.

I stand at the Barrels and look up at the mountain, which looks benign, almost gentle – certainly unchanging. From 3am this morning to now, 8pm this evening, it’s been a full day of intense effort, hardship, emotional extremes, and all sorts of other disjointed experiences.

It’s okay. We've achieved what we set out to do, and are better for it, but it will be some time before it all comes into focus and makes sense; probably much later. Now is the time to get food, hot liquid, lots of talk; and rest.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Elbrus 3 - Ascending

On summit day we breakfast at 3am loading upon on coffee and hot water and carbohydrates.
Bulked out with two thermal layers and two outer layers on the undercarriage, the same again plus a couple of additional middle layers on the torso, topped with fleece muff and beanie and tailed with plastic boots and crampons we clamber into the back of the snow cat. We travel for perhaps 15 to 20 or so bone wrenching minutes before we stop and tumble out of the back into an inhospitable environment of freezing pre-dawn snow driving wind.

We gear up, adjusting clothing and equipment. The idiotic ball shaped top of my new but clearly cheap trekking pole inexplicably unscrews and falls off – great start! Then one of the screwed sections of the pole detaches itself and try as I might I cannot re-attach it. Vladimir shouts “Okay, we all ready? Let’s go!” I shout “No, my fucking pole has broken!” He snatches the thing from me and wrestles with it for a couple of minutes and finally manages to repair whatever had gone wrong while I feel like a helpless out-of-depth tourist, not least because I also seem to be glove challenged.

The climb to the saddle is interminable. The lower slopes are steep and featureless. The angle is a tedious and regular 30 degrees or so. To break the monotony we swap between duck-like vertical uphill progress to traversing – 15 or so meters in one direction and then the same in the other direction. Absurdly I find myself disliking the left to right direction and look forward to completing that traverse so that I can commence the more enjoyable right to left experience. Oddly though I do not dread the transition to the right to left direction and only, by surprise as it were, find myself on the left to right traverse with a sense of regret and foreboding mitigated in the last few steps by the knowledge that I am graduating to the far more acceptable right to left traverse. This after all is the stuff of insanity!

After a cycle of ten or so of these emotional roller-coasters I welcome the stomping straight up scenario, and indeed break ranks before the allotted number of traverses just so that I can gratefully forge upwards.

I have always found breathing through any cloth medium difficult.

I cannot breath solely through my nose – I have to gasp and pant and gulp down air so my mouth has got to be free and uncovered.  I realized that the combination of a fleece muff and beanie does not give sufficient wind and cold protection to my face and in particularly my nose and cheeks. I had borrowed a spare cloth balaclava from Moegammad which has separate nostril and mouth openings. This also doesn’t work because my nostrils are still constricted and the cloth keeps slipping across my mouth. I have to drag the cloth away from my mouth with the freezing back of my mittens.

At this altitude ones nose leaks in the most alarming fashion , but clearing the nostrils is counter intuitive to breathing, and of course gasping for breathing does not clear the phlegm lined nasal passages. In oxygen starved agony I shake my head and am flayed by glutinous ropes of snot which wrap themselves unappetizingly across the balaclava and edge of the hood of the down jacket.

I had borrowed mittens from one of our generous party who due to a strained back had wisely decided not to attempt to summit. I had brought my thin under-gloves and my thick gloves, but had left the third fleece pair at the hotel. These latter would have fitted perfectly under the borrowed mittens but I had to make do with the bulkier pair. My hands were therefore jammed uncomfortably into gloves meant for external use and then further encased in mittens meant for altogether smaller hands. The nett result being immobile fingers and wrists that felt the size of thighs and extreme difficulty in fitting the trekking pole safety loops over my ballooning hands. These are the irritations that prey on ones mind under the pressure of walking uphill, at altitude, in the cold, against gusting wind. Any form of loss of comfort or security takes on huge proportions magnified by regret that you just hadn't got it right.

I stumble as I miss-step on a long traverse and my stupid hands seem not to agree what to do. With little feeling one hand inexplicably seems to grasp the other which in turn reaches out against the snow slope and in this tangle I sense rather than feel the loss of contact with one of the two extra vital limbs – a walking pole. Against the upper slope I lose sight of it, I swing round and back and see it treacherously sliding down the steep snowy slope. “Fuck!”

It looks tantalizingly close enough to retrieve – but if I am honest with myself I know it would take 10 – 15 minutes to harrowingly descend and trudge back up the slope and while the snow looks pristine and benign I don’t know how deep it is and I don’t know where the fabled crevasses on this slope are. The effort likely to be expended on this rescue mission would be enormous. I feel like an amateur, a stupid dilettante. Lavern soothingly says a little later “It’s really no big deal . . . .” and thankfully doesn’t add “and stop banging yourself around the head for something so trivial – and lets face it, it won’t happen again, now will it?”

“Where is your Pole?” Vladimir demands accusingly. Stupidly I wonder which particular Eastern European friend he means and then dully realize that he has noticed I am only walking with one trekking pole. “Lost it,” I gasp. “Here,” he thrusts one of his at me. Thankfully he doesn’t ask what stupidity led to my losing what was my favourite and most used and experienced stick. Perhaps he realizes that I am mortified enough at the loss of what is to all intents a third (or fourth) limb.

At the saddle we stop. We sit on our rucksacks and contemplate the dreadful sight of the long haul up the Western side of Elbrus. It has taken an awful lot of effort to get to this point. We know that it is here that many people make a wise decision and call it a day. This is after all at a very creditable 5,200masl and as such the rest of Europe is below us!

One of the four of us says “I don’t think I can do this. I cannot go on” and I suspect that at that point he is speaking for all of us. Of the eight adventurers that set out at 5am that morning there are only four of us left, a fact that I only became aware of at the saddle. Now we are faced with a quandary, because the three assistant guides who had started out with us had turned back with the other four, leaving only Vladimir to shepherd us up the remaining grinding slopes. It really is a matter of all or none. After half an hours rest we leave our rucksacks and all of us forge ahead armed only with ice axes, trekking poles, crampons, several layers of thermal clothing and a manic determination to measure ourselves against this beautiful but inhospitable environment.

We are climbing up from the saddle. Along and up – again a traverse – the initial goal of which is an outcrop of volcanic rocks, and the second goal is the summit plateau. We are not roped – making our own way up following a row of flags set at about 10m intervals. Lavern is well in front and Vladimir is well behind with the other two. The wind is gusting, sweeping up snow which is the consistency of caster sugar. The upper slopes provide ample white ammunition as the wind glides menacingly over the concave surfaces above. The powder snow gets everywhere, into every cavity, between seams, under zips and collars. This is snow that can fill an open pocket in minutes.

With ears full of invading snow, a frozen nose and a neck chilled by snow particles I miss my step at the same time as being caught by a particularly violent gusty wind; and suddenly I’m on my back doing a less than graceful glissade down towards the saddle which is an awfully long way below. A climber who I have just hauled passed reaches out to grab me but misses. Recent training kicks in. I twist over and assume the position – and self arrest. The pick of the ice axe embedded deeply in the snow, my weight fully on the axe shaft, feet raised to avoid the crampons digging into the snow and promoting an initially fun but potentially fatal gambol. It takes a few agonizing metres to stop. I lie prone for at least half a minute, static and safe and gasping for breath, waiting for the adrenaline rush to subside. Gingerly I pull my feet up towards my torso, lean into the slope and stand up. The gentleman who tried to grab me gives me a sour and inscrutable look as I again pass him. I nod and head up the windswept slope once more.

The steep traversing climb from the saddle ends at an outcrop of volcanic rock. From thence ascent is straight up a 50 degree or so slope that maybe assisted by a fixed rope, although this has more likely been installed to assist safe descent rather than ascent.  We head straight up to one side of the rope and collapse at the top of this stretch. The snow is comfortable, almost warm.  From this plateau we can see a mini summit and the trail of marker flags leading off to the right up a shallow slope towards the real summit. From here on it is easy . . .

The final ridge to the summit is perhaps 30 m long and is a shallow incline, 15 degrees or so  – but seems to take forever. I stop about 10m from the summit, bend double and pant in anticipation of the final few steps, which are made with a final rush to join Lavern who has doggedly got there first without anticipatory stops. Buffeted by high winds we cling to each other and emotions well over, mixing in the freezing air. A minute or two later Moegammad and Ganief with Vladimir are with us and we embrace in a magnificent group hug which even Vladimir seems to enjoy.

I take my glove off to retrieve my camera and immediately my hand starts to freeze. We give our cameras to Vladimir to take some quick summit-top pictures. It feels strange that we look down and across and over a brown and green landscape from this white wasteland. For eight or so hours our focus and thus our environment has been unremittingly white and blue – but now we can relate it to an outside and oh so distant world. In contrast to the Himalayas where the horizon is a throat constricting unremitting jumble of snow and rock peaks, and snow and rock valleys, here there is a clear definition between white mountain and brown and green fertile valley.


Friday, 26 September 2014

Elbrus 2 - Acclimatisation

An early acclimatisation walk is from Terskol village up to the Observatory that sits on top of one of the arms of Elbrus.

We walk up a farm track that passes a farm yard that is redolent with farmyard smells – fresh and heady cow shit. Above that we follow a winding contour path walk, actually more of a jeep track, through a pine forest.

As the trees become more sparse the slopes of Cheget Mountain which we were on top of the day before become more visible. The distant rock, the steep slopes, the snow are a counterpoint to the alpine grasses and flowers and the trees, and I really would not be surprised to see Julie Andrews hoving into view and belting out a number about the hills being alive with Edelweiss or some such nonsense.

This is really such a wonderful walk. We can stride on ahead of the rest of the pack and savour the quiet, the scents and the sheer delight of stretching ourselves in such magnificent scenery.  If this is acclimatisation – then bring on more of it . . .

Terskol is a winter sports resort. It is geared to Russians who enjoy snow sports and to a lesser extent to those who want to simply climb mountains. Like any self-respecting winter sports resort it boasts a number of chair lifts and tee-bars. The lowest chair lift comprises chairs in tandem hung on either side of a central pole. The seats are shiny with years of polishing by Russian bottoms, and there are no safety bars across the fronts of the seats which swing violently as we assume a semi-crouching position, knees bent and rucksacks clutched to our stomachs and are spooned up by the seats and whisked upwards.

As we swing perilously back and forth I ask “Are you holding on tightly?” Lavern looks at me as if I have asked the stupidest question in the world. “Yes’” she says. And after having asked the stupidest question in the world I start looking around at the surroundings.
The beauty of chair lifts is the silence as you drift like a bird on low thermals above and sometimes through the tops of the trees. We glide above the tree lined slopes of various nameless pines, and I see silver birch and (I think) rhododendron. And, having latterly read up on the region, there must also have been mountain ash and aspen although I confess I could not have identified them at the time. Above the tree line the mountain slopes are carpeted with tufted grass and dotted with occasional areas of snow. Not to get too carried away by this pristine mountain romanticism the slopes are also dotted with bits of abandoned pylon, cable and wheels left over from previous refurbishments of the chairlift machinery.

It has to be said that if the chair lift ascent is a little disturbing the descent could be sphincter clenching for the less experienced traveller, because just as the ascent involves taking a knees bent , bottom up crouching position so does the descent. It is the backward swing as we are flung over the vertiginous platform to the steep slopes below coupled with the insecurity of the aforementioned polished seats and the lack of any discernable safety measures that give that additional frisson of fear. Lavern’s sideways look of sympathy as I let out an involuntary little “Oops” should have elicited a withering look from me, but I suspect it was more a whimpering one.

Girlish Braids
The “Girlish Braids” Waterfall is aptly named – at least I think it is. If these are what girlish braids look like on Russian maidens then the falls are well named. But whatever they are called they are striking – with the water “fanning out over a convex rock formation creating a liquid filigree lace curtain” (my description). This is a bit of a mouthful in English and I suspect in Russian too, so “Girlish Braids” does seem more apposite, not to say more pronounceable, although still a rather clunky description.

There is an enticing gap at the base of the falls created by centuries of undercutting erosion. By dashing through the falls across slippery rocks you can, and we do, venture behind the braided water curtain – shrieking like pre-adolescents and daring each other to be the first to return back through the water curtain without landing ankle deep in pools of ice cold water. But only after we’ve all had our photograph taken gloriously horsing about behind a curtain of freezing cold water.

The groundcover in the vicinity of the falls is striking. It comprises uniform tufts of green and dun wirey grass that populates the rock-strewn 45 degree slopes, and more intriguing are delightful clumps of arresting blue five petalled flowers. These are so blue that they seem to be the essence of blue and my camera fails miserably to reproduce the colour.

I skip (well more of a jog actually – although my mind is hopping and skipping, because this is such a wonderful walk and I wish to be nowhere else) back along the detour track that we had traversed to visit the falls. I run down the short slope to the ascending jeep track that leads towards the observatory and as I slow my mad-cap pace to a steady jog up the track I am aware of my heart pounding, I start sobbing for breath and I get that dreadful rictus feeling when your whole body is craving for oxygen and your limbs flail in sympathy with that craving. Once again I have forgotten that we are at a height above which 95% of the earth’s population neither live nor venture and that irresponsible exertion is a very bad idea.

Cubist Rock Art

Mount Elbrus is a dormant volcano. It probably erupted sometime around 50 BP although there was no one round at the time who was taking notes or sketches and certainly there are no known photographs.  There are however some stunning testamentary formations left by the volcanic activity. 

What look like extruded pipes of basalt are reminiscent of photographs I have seen of Devils Causeway in Northern Ireland but these pentagonal pipes are only 150 to 300mm across and are beautifully delicate; twisted, turned and shaped. Viewed from below they are like heavily brushed oil paint daubs. There are thrilling changes in tempo and direction as upwards thrusting shapes are abruptly cut off, dramatically truncated by a horizontal flow, which has itself been knifed through by more recent weathering.

This is the most dramatic geological illustration of post impressionistic art by taking apparently non-uniform elements and binding them together to create rock wisps and flows . . . . the parts are indeed impressive – but the sum total of the parts is simply grand.

Snow Sports
I grew up with snow – at least I did when it was winter and it snowed. As children of the northern hemisphere we engaged in all those snowy occupations –snow ball fights, building snow men, tobogganing, walking knee deep in fresh powder snow, going blue with cold yet refusing to be the first to flee to the warmth of the house. As a youth I skied in the Scottish Cairngorms and learnt a little of the mysteries of snow and the mechanics and intricacies of moving around on snow; how to fall, snow-plough stops and stem-christiania turns.

Now, years later, I am glissading down snowy slopes on the flat and unyielding soles of double plastic boots. It is a combination of scree-running and skiing and is hugely exhilarating. I am bounding out in front, Lavern is close behind laughing like a banshee. The others (like Lavern, children of Cape Town but not like her used to walking and descending on snow) are well behind variously leaping, bum-sliding, or gingerly picking their footsteps.

I come to a snowy halt, gasping for breath as my thighs, knees and ankles scream for respite because this is a downhill sport that involves muscles that are acclimatized to African environments and are unused to this strain  - but what a rush!

The Barrels is a high camp, sitting at about 4,200 masl. You can access it either by walking there from the Mir cableway station, which we did on one day; or by taking the chair lift, which we did on another day; or by catching a lift on a  snow cat or a skidoo, neither of which we did.

The barrels are aptly named because they are like a number of smallish grain silos that have been up-ended; painted in uniform stripes of snow white, sky blue, and dirty red; and fitted out with beds. I suspect that whatever authority that was responsible for establishing this camp was given a job lot from some abandoned Arctic research station. These structures are surprisingly comfortable, and most important, warm. They sleep four in one portion and another two in a door-less annex. As with similar accommodation the world over the curved walls are cheerfully decorated with stickers from tour firms, fanciful sketches of the ascent route, and the equivalent of “Kilroy woz ‘ere” in at least ten different languages. All this and the once bright but now threadbare carpet strips makes the place cheerful and homely.  Which is more than can be said for the toilet facilities.

The Barrels feel a bit like a cultural melting pot. It is temporarily populated with folk from all over the world who have come either to scale the mountain or to ski down it.

Here at the Barrels brave and macho Russian men sit naked except for underpants (it could be worse) exposing their alabaster skin to the unremitting sun. We, more conservative Africans remain fully clothed, and even the local dogs are properly dressed for the conditions.

There is a slightly less transient population of guides and skidoo cowboys and remarkable women who cook the most splendid high altitude meals, none of which I was delighted to discover had a hint of beetroot in them. Replete after feasting on soups and pastas all that remains before turning into inviting barrel number three for a high altitude night of broken sleep is a trip to the one of the worst latrines in the world.

There are no ablution facilities at the Barrels. And because of a complete lack of privacy washing is restricted to a cursory swipe over with wet wipes or similar damp and perfumed synthetic handkerchief – unless of course you are a guileless Russian willing to disport yourself in your underpants – or worse! Foot cleanliness has to wait until lower altitudes, and as for normal bodily functions, well if one is not used to this sort of thing the lavatories are something to write home about. One great advantage of altitudes where temperatures rarely exceed freezing is that organic decay is exceedingly slow and odours are suppressed. To be honest I’ve crapped in worse, but the public privies at the barrels should not (like sex, politics and religion) figure in polite dinner table conversation. 

My one fear when negotiating any external high latitude privy is losing something valuable down the gaping maw of the long-drop, and lets face it anything in your possession in those circumstances is valuable, otherwise you would not be carrying it.  Call me anal, but I always make sure that there are no extraneous objects in my pockets, that I am wearing a well secured headlight, and that I have a toilet roll in one pocket and antiseptic hand cleanser in the other.

Beyond sharing these simple and vital preparations I am unwilling to elaborate further, save to say that privacy is a bit of an issue if you are not dextrous enough to do your business and hold the rudimentary door closed at the same time. My only further comment on this ghastly subject is that under no circumstances, irrespective of the awfulness of the “facilities” can one afford not to answer the call of nature. I did once ignore this advice and the consequences are too awful to contemplate.