Climbing the highest peak in Europe
From the Scottish Monros to the icy slopes of Russia’s Mt Ebrus, Jamie Annetts talks about his enduring love of mountains.
One of the many types of rain in Scotland keeps pouring down on us, obscuring the view. It has been creeping up the arms of my waterproof, which I haven’t reproofed for ages. A few metres away, a guy in a kilt unwaveringly plays a Scottish tune on his bagpipes, while another cracks open a bottle of bubbly. We’re on top of my friend’s last Munro. Celebrations like this may be a familiar sight in the Scottish Highlands where keen Munro-baggers collect all peaks over 3,000ft.
Today, there is an unfaltering fascination with mountains and adventure – from watching Scott Fisher’s battle with Everest on-screen, to flocking to some of the numerous Mountain Festivals, people are caught with the idea of challenge and extreme conditions. The idea of collecting mountains has inspired generations of climbers – experienced and novice alike. Mountain ‘tick lists’ include summits
in many countries and across continents, among those the six great North Faces of the Alps, the Alpine 4,000m peaks, the Three Poles and, as probably the most renowned, the Seven Summits. The Seven Summits, the highest points of each continent, have drawn many with the prospect of travel around the world, and true challenge in reaching the summit.
The accounts and photographs of those brave enough to venture out there to face extreme weather, and standing with their ice axes raised to say, “We’ve done it”, inspire others to get out there and do exciting things themselves. But where to start?
Sitting across the table from the enthusiastic owner of Exped Adventure in their small office in Staveley, I’m captivated by his passion for big mountains and remote adventures. Driven by a love for the outdoors and desire to take others out there, he has built up his own trekking and adventure company. Jamie talks about the struggle in the adventure industry. “Asserting yourself in a market dominated by big players isn’t easy, but being a small company has its advantages. We know all our clients personally and really want them to feel well looked after.”
So where to start, if you want to go big, but not too big? Chatting to Jamie in his Exped Adventure jacket, Elbrus, in Russia, looks like a promising answer.
Of the great Seven, Mt Elbrus could be one of the first steps on the ladder to Everest. Among the mountains of the Caucasus Range, Elbrus is distinctive as a twin-summited peak, covered in thick ice. An icy col known as Sedlowina Saddle connects the east and the west summit.
While the angle of the slope and the lack of crevasses on the South Route offer a safe opportunity for getting a true big mountain experience, altitude and high winds may still defeat summit attempts. The mountain becomes treacherous in the winter, when the wind blows loose snow off the higher slopes and exposes large areas of ice.
Elbrus joined the list of the Seven as a latecomer, after its rank had been challenged by Mont Blanc for several years during the initial race for the first ascent of the highest points in each continent. Hidden away behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union, Elbrus was only acknowledged as the highest peak of Europe after Reinhold Messner climbed it in 1983. At 5,642m, Elbrus beats Mont Blanc by 800m, and is in good company of 14 other giants in the Caucasus Range, which are all higher than Mont Blanc.
In his freshly branded-up softshell, Jamie seems eager to get back ‘out there’. “Catching the first proper views of what it will be like on the ridge, and looking across … to Elbrus on the first day, gives a sense of what you’ll be doing over the week. There’s unspoken excitement that we’ll be standing on top of the biggest thing in the area, described as ‘resembling a thousand mountains’.” Elbrus has also been called ‘Little Antarctica’ due to its large glaciers, which cover the mountain with 145 square km of ice. “From setting foot out of the cabin in the mornings, you’re met with the glare of the snow and expanse of the glacier.”
Small companies specialising in adventure, trekking and unusual destinations are on the rise. Exped Adventure has been going for four years now, grown from the enthusiasm of its founders, and backed by a trusted team of guides.
“Over the course of the week you get a true sense of the rawness of Russia. It is rundown and harsh in places, with refuges of barrel huts and chairlifts scattered across the snow slopes. The burnt-out skeleton of the Priut 11 hut still stands near the new Diesel Hut, which provides a base for several acclimatisation days before the summit push.”
Jamie gets excited when talking about the precarious journey on 65-year-old ski lifts which take people a long way up the mountain. “The crossovers from the chairlifts require some skill to catch a massive duffel bag and then a load of eggs and bacon before the next person arrives on the platform.” From there, it is still a long way of walking with crampon and ice axe, up to the summit – seven to nine hours from the huts to the saddle and a further one to two to the summit.
From humble beginnings on the rounded backs of Scottish mountains to the glaciers of Elbrus, the fascination with mountains is a strong one. Exped Adventure has been running trips to Elbrus for several years. With years of mountaineering and guiding experience, and true passion for the mountains, Exped is a go-to contact if you’re keen for a challenge. They will help you define your challenge, from Elbrus to an array of mountaineering experiences across the globe, and tailor it to fit your ability and ambition. Book onto the next Elbrus trip of 2016 by contacting Jamie on firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information visit expedadventure.com