Thursday, 12 September 2013


Mount Elbrus from The North
Mount Elbrus ( 5642m) is the highest mountain in Europe and  dominates the Central Caucasus of Russia. and has two summits which were originally separate volcano vents: the western peak (Zapadnaya) is the higher peak; the eastern peak (Vostochnaya) at 5,621m, has a crater 250m in diameter. The mountain is covered by a huge sheet of ice which covers some 145 sq kms and is reputed to be up to 400m thick. Often ferocious weather surrounds the mountain and there is permanent snow and ice cover year round. From the col that divides the two peaks the snow slopes descend to tongues of ice and crevasses lying in the many valleys that radiate from the mountain.

This was my first time in Russia and the Caucasus. I was guiding four guys from the Midlands who had all previously been out with me on a 4 days winter skills course in The Cairngorms of Scotland last February. Jim, Scott B, Scott S and Mitch hatched their plan way back in November 2012 to climb something big, exciting and in a fascinating part of the world, so Elbrus fitted their criteria well. They had all been training hard, living in a flat part of the UK this isn't easy. Running up and down their wee local park hill with a 20kg pack was one of their regular training programmes!

Our chosen route was from the North side of the mountain. This route has very little in the way of infrastructure and apart from the base camp and a couple of small private huts higher up the mountain there are no other forms of accommodation. This was a camping expedition, carrying all our equipment and food for up to 9 days on the mountain.

Elbrus from Cheget mountain
Day 1. 18 August and after 3 flights form the UK we all finally arrived at Mineralnye Vody and then a short taxi ride to the small town of Pjatigorsk arriving at midnight. The next morning we decided to buy all our supplies in Pjatigorsk which has a good supermarket. This was a smart move as the smaller villages at the foot of Elbrus have very limited food shops.

We had employed a local company (Pilgrim Tours) to organise our transport, red tape and usual Russian paperwork for our logistics to the foot of the mountain.

Day 2. 19 Aug we had a five hour drive, the final half hour through the beautiful Basken Valley to the small ski resort of Cheget (2100m) on the South side of Elbrus to complete the formal red tape. The Southern route of Elbrus is where the vast majority of groups ascend. It has a small ski area and at 3750m accommodation in 'barrel' huts not far beyond the top of the chair lift system. Beyond this there is even a skidoo service to over 4000m if that is what you want! We were all pleased not to be climbing via this route.

Day 3. 20 Aug dawned clear, bright and hot. Our first acclimatisation walk was the wee rocky summit of CHEGET (3100m) which is to the south of Elbrus The very easy track and paths up from the village took us to the top in 4 hours and gave fantastic views to Elbrus but even better views to the shapely peak of Dongozorunbashi. The actual summit of Cheget is at over 3400m but due to military operations the top section was closed off.

 Dongozorunbashi. from Cheget
Day 4. 21 August and we had a five and a half hour journey, virtually all by dirt track around to the north side of the mountain. The vehicle we were in was a military spec van, similar to a souped up and beefed up VW camper van with amazing 4 wheel drive, climbing tracks that are badly rutted, steep and  loose with  spectacular scenery all the way and a grand finale of a river crossing. After our 5 hours of bouncing about we eventually arrived at 'basecamp', 2530m in a beautiful valley and out numbered by the local cow heard. For just a few Rupels we camped inside the fenced area to avoid a stampede by said cows! The rumours of trampled, trashed tents was enough to splash some cash. After getting the tents up we had an afternoon stroll up to 3200m onto an area known as the 'Mushroom Rocks'. They really did look like mushrooms! The clouds descended and we had some rain on the top and descent. It was a slippy descent.

Our transport to 'basecamp' at 3500m

Day 5. 22 Aug  After steady overnight rain the morning dawned clear and bright, our first sighting of the elegant snow slopes of Elbrus from coffee on the lawn of base camp. An hour or so of packing ruck sacs for our gear and food carry up to our high camp at Servernyi Prijut (3760m) which lies on the moraine at the edge of the northern glaciers. This was to be our high camp for the rest of the trip. Carrying around 20kg the guys could feel the first effects of altitude, taking it easy on our way up we got to camp in 6 hours. En route is a good path up to and across two plateau's. The final hour gains some steep, bouldery moraine. Our first close up views of Elbrus and a deceiving glance up to the twin summits, looking much closer than 1800m higher than our viewing point. It was a speedy decent back to base camp with empty rucksacks.

Food carry up to our high camp
Day 6. 23 August. Another hot and clear skies morning. We packed up tents and the rest of our gear, leaving base camp behind to our new home up at Servernyi Prijut. A wonderful clear evening and great views of our objective under Alpenglow. Overnight snow showers.
On the first steep ridge up to our high camp
'Home' at 3700m at the foot of the glacier
Day 7. 24 August. The overnight snow and cloud was a bit disappointing. After breakfast in the mist we had a leisurely mid morning acclimatisation walk and our first steps onto the huge glacier leading up to the north ridge of the East summit on Elbrus. We had a re cap on crampon technique and rope work on glacial terrain. There are hardly any crevassed areas on this lower section of the mountain. The clouds broke up a wee bit. We went up to 4100m where the wind was much stronger and the cloud came in again with a few more snow showers as we made our way back to camp.

The guys first taste on the glacier

The evening before the storm
Day 8. 25 August. There was a lot of thunder & lightening overnight with snow showers through out. We woke with a few cm's of fresh snow at our campsite and low cloud. After another leisurely breakfast in the cloud and cold we decided on heading up a little higher for some more of those vital red  blood cells. We were back on the route and headed up to 4600m at the base of Lenz Rocks, the obvious huge rock band that stretches from 4600m up to 5200m below the East summit. Shortly after setting off we got wonderful breaks in the cumulus clouds and lovely views in the sun.

The guys enjoying it
Day 9. 26 August. A rest day after a good effort yesterday. The sun shone and blue skies after some early cloud again. We potted around camp and got gear dry. Chatting to some folk coming down off the hill reports were of strong, cold winds on the summit.
Another clear night
Day 10. 27 August. First summit attempt. It dawn crisp and clear and a beautiful moon. 2am start on the glacier and everything fine. A few other parties about 1 hour ahead of us. At around 4000m the wind started picking up and shortly after a lot of drifting snow blowing down the hill. We started to pass groups descending and getting some feedback about the conditions. Not good. We persevered a little more then we hit the cloud which had bubbled up from the south and started rolling down the hill. Conditions becoming unpleasant at only 4300m. We decided to abandon our summit attempt. The guys disappointed but the right decision, we had plenty of spare days in store.

Day 11. 28 August. We were getting weather reports from other teams and occasionally from the phone but there is limited network coverage on the mountain. All seemed good for a few days of settled, clear mornings, light winds with some cloud bubbling up in the afternoon. We set off at 3am for our second summit attempt. There was a glorious moon, fantastic stars in the clear skies. This was it! Our now well known trudge up the first slopes. We reached the base of Lenz Rocks just as the sun was rising. The views wonderful.
Fabulous sunrise at 4600m
Alpen glow on the west summit
Heading toward the top of Lenz Rocks

Half an hour till the summit, the effects of high altitude
A quiet mountain, only half a dozen folk around.

.......and finally the summit!
A great effort from the guys, we summited in 10 hours. Over 1800m of ascent. We took 4 hours down which seemed a tad easier! We were 1 hour back at our high camp when the cloud and snow flurries started, how was that for timing? We had a spare day in store but the next morning the guys wanted to pack up and get down for some well deserved beers!

Your's truly

I found Russia a fantastic place, the people helpful, friendly and we came across absolutely no corruption from anyone wanting cash! Before this trip it was hard getting hold of any guide books in English. Good sources of info out on the net though.

Just a few words on kit:
I was clad in my old Scarpa Vegas, a bit heavy and slightly clumsy but my feet were like toast all the way. Which can't be said for some of the boots that the guys were wearing. Another fantastic bit of kit was my Mountain Equipment Randonee gloves. I had these on from the word go to the summit and back. My hands were never cold. Whilst a couple of the guys had some inferior gloves backed up by massive mitts on top! BTW I m not getting sponsored by this gear! :)

Apparently there is a movie in production by Jim and the guy's. Watch this space for Elbrus - The Movie.

1 comment:

Mitchell Renton said...

Awesome read Gary, bought back some good and bad memories!