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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.