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.


Thursday, 25 September 2014

Elbrus 1 - Mountain Memories

This story is a very simple one. On impulse I decided to join a group who planned to climb Mount Elbrus. I knew if I didn't just get on with it I never would.

The Caucasus Mountains form a formidable yet politically edgy boundary between Russia and Georgia.  The historical geopolitics of this region is intricate and fascinating. Mount Elbrus is the highest peak in the Caucasus range, the highest mountain in Russia, the highest point in Europe, and is therefore one of the celebrated “seven peaks” – the highest point on each of the seven continents.  An opportunity for such a climb is not to be passed by

I knew none in the group so this was initially going to be a very individual and personal quest.
However, to my delight after a period of indecision my long time trekking/climbing companion also decided to join this mini-expedition and the adventure was cemented by the promise of a new shared experience with someone of a like-mind and previous shared experiences.


Mountaineering memories tend to be random. The generally avowed intent is to clamber up the side of a mountain, celebrate the summit achievement and slide exhausted down again. On the face of it while this a linear ascend-stop-descend sort of activity, the memories of sights, sounds, smells, fears  . . .  are decidedly non-linear. A chronologically exact tale of ascent and descent is not actually a particularly good story because it doesn't really describe all manner of turbulent emotions in attaining (or not) whatever was set to achieve be achieved. Frankly a blow-by-blow account of a five hour grind up a thirty degree featureless snow slope is about as captivating as, well as walking up the self same slope for 5 hours.

Little episodes in gigantic environments describe a mountain, and as such celebrate in my mind at least the ineffable timelessness of landscapes, and the sheer exhaustion of tribulations far beyond ‘normal’ life. The fact is that long after it’s over minor events, or smells, or sights trigger vestigial memories and for a moment, just for a moment, the mind wanders back . . . . . .

Oh - and lets just dispense with that old chestnut of climbing “because it’s there”. George Mallory actually presented a far more quotable quote -

“So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.” (Sourced from -

He of course famously died during the ultimate challenge on the then ultimate mountain, but hidden somewhere in that glorious jumble of words is the equally succinct (not to say facile) unsaid phrase  – “and because I’m here!” What a celebration of life!

 The conventional Elbrus ascent seems not to be a steady climb from one point to a higher one. It is a series of acclimatisation hikes interspersed with exciting chairlift and cable car rides.

We stayed close to the village of Terskol . From there we ascended and descended Mount Cheget, climbed to the Terskol Observatory and climbed down again. We rode the cable car to the Mir Station and walked up to the Barrels huts and ran back down again. We then relocated to the Barrels huts and did a couple of further acclimatisation climbs and then finally made a summit attempt. For some reason this disjointed exercise seemed to be more tiring than a gradual and continuous ascent, adhering to the “walk high and sleep low” dictum.

So this is a disjointed story of an up-and-down sort of trip. However there is an underlying theme in this and all such stories. There are many wonderful quotes that illustrate this theme; and here’s one from Arlene Blum, “You never conquer a mountain. You stand on the summit a few brief moments and then the wind blows your footprints away.”

The initial acclimatising walks are followed by the ascent, and unsurprisingly the exhausting descent