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.


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