The Caucasus mountains are climbing skyward in a tectonic crumble between the seas. Among them Elbrus, the highest.
What do you need to know about Elbrus?
• 5,642m tall (18,510ft)
• Located in the western Caucasus – within the geographic Europe
• One of the seven summits (the highest mountains in each continent)
• Our challenge for the week
The taller summit (the one we went to) was first reached in 1874 by Akhia Sottaiev – a guide working for a few Englishmen and a Swiss.
One hundred and forty-three years later, as part of the guide team I found myself among the ranks of Exped Adventure. We were a ten-strong team of varied backgrounds and ages, ready for an attempt for the summit. Of course, there’s much more to be done in order to achieve such a goal and most of the things have been covered in the training day. Typical questions include the effects of altitude, the boots, crampons and the warmth of the kit that you may need.
The answers to most of the questions are “depends”, but kit-wise you can expect to need double boots (our team favoured Spantiks), walking crampons, a reasonably light axe, poles and a variety of warm layers with a mother-of-all down jacket should things start getting dodgy. The altitude had struck each and every one of us in varying amounts but headaches, lack of sleep and incredibly frequent urination were a common theme at ‘base’, at least at the beginning.
The trip started in London where we met the rest of the team and the guides as well as picked up the last pieces of kit in case we didn’t get them before. From then on we enjoyed two flights and one transfer before ending up at the beginning of our Elbrus journey – a village called Cheget.
The next day we headed up onto one of the smaller local peaks, also called Cheget, which boasts a ‘modest’ 3,772m of altitude – here we got to experience the first signs of altitude; the physiological impact was beginning to show, the walk seemed a bit more tiring than expected. The breathing rate increased and the feeling of the heart thumping away became more apparent.
I stopped and looked out. Above, serrated snow-swept crags strained into the rush of clouds. At their base alluvial fans of sediment, snow and rock streaked the mountainside. It was like watching geological time unfolding before your eyes.
Having come back from this little trip we packed the things we would be taking up to the mountain and stowed away the things we would not. The journey up to the ‘Heart of Elbrus’ happened by using the system of ski-lifts through which we had to take up all the supplies we would need for the upcoming days – food, water and the like. This made for quite an interesting exercise of trying to fit as much as possible onto a lift which never stopped moving. One of our team has also picked up a rucksack belonging to a participant from a different group, kindly preventing ‘the walk of shame’ of trying to retrieve a rucksack left at the bottom.
Once that process was complete, we moved our stuff into the accommodation – the ‘Heart of Elbrus’ is essentially a warehouse-style building with shipping containers on the bottom, used as canteens and living quarters at the top. (At the bottom you will also find the biggest source of entertainment; a TV with a ‘classic’ music channel – combined with a rocking chair.)
The living quarters are basic – consisting of bunkbeds and blankets – I would suggest you bring your own sleeping bag and a liner as well as a source of entertainment (such as book or music) to make it a homely experience during the more passive aspects of acclimatisation – my recommendation includes Guy Grieve’s Call of the Wild (Hodder, 2007) and some jazzy music to spice up your evenings.
The quality of the food is good, although the mentality surrounding catering is slightly different to what we are used to in the UK. Being an Eastern European and a vegetarian I seem to have dodged the dishes which raised the most controversy. I found pretty much all of the food absolutely fine and certainly above the standard which would be ‘passable’ in a place with no road access, while my teammates were eying with deep suspicion what looked like a grey wiggly doughnut and turned out to be sheep’s fat wrapped in sheep’s stomach. Vodka washes down most things.
As things go with mountain environments, sometimes you do not have the luxury of enjoying the views and instead have to either focus on a task at hand or use your imagination. However, when the sky is clear everything becomes beautiful.
The acclimatisation process is a tough one, and often the views help to take the edge off. Mark, who was the in charge of the trip, often ensured that what could be perceived as ‘suffer fest’ was actually quite entertaining. Mark used every opportunity to squeeze in a little bit of knowledge into the days, discussing and practising different techniques for navigating in bad weather, ice-axe arrests and even demonstrating different kinds of belays you can make up using snow, ice axes and some rope.
One of the best things noticed by myself and Mark is just how well-jelled the group was – taking a risk of sounding like the most common of clichés, the team became a temporary family which, despite some pretty savage banter at times, took the most care in making sure everybody was all right.
Being up high in this environment is not easy, so the camaraderie and support of the other teammates goes a very long way. It pays to be fit when going for this trip; however, nobody should think that any level of fitness will make it a cruise – the physiological demand of operating at high altitude is rather significant and should not be underestimated; while the way from the hut to top of Elbrus and back is only around 13km, it takes the best part of 12 hours and a significant toll on your body. The challenge is quite respectable but not out of reach for a ‘mortal human being’!
Over and out – until next time!