Last week saw the culmination of our training to date: the ascent of Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. Mt. Elbrus tops out at 5,642m above sea level, well over 4 times the height of Ben Nevis and more than 1,000m higher than Mt. Rainier, our last major summit.
Our journey started with a trip to St. Petersburg, where we would meet the rest of the climbers attempting Mt. Elbrus with Alpine Ascents. We were in a large group of 15 individuals – a discouragingly large group for us really – but were lucky to be guided by the husband and wife team of Vern & Carole Terjas. Following an obligatory tour of St. Petersburg, we flew down to Mineralnye Vody, the nearest airport for Mt. Elbrus. After a relaxing 3hr flight accompanies by what seemed like all the upset children in Russia (resulting in a team name of ‘the cry babies’), we still had a three hour drive to get to Terskol and our hotel in the valley at about 2000m above sea level.
The following day saw our first acclimatisation hike, following a ski-lift ride for a couple of hundred meters, we climbed up to around 3,100 in what would soon become familiar sunshine. Both of us were feeling good on this hike, and it allowed fantastic views of the main Caucasus ridge across the Terskol valley. The following day was another acclimatisation hike of around 1100m, from the base of the valley to the Cheget observatory on a shoulder that leads up to Elbrus itself. Again, we were treated to fantastic weather and it was satisfying to feel strong on both these days, before we headed up to our high camp the next day.
High camp was at about 3600m, and we completed our first day there by spending the afternoon on a short glacier walk in roped teams. We were in a new set of huts at the high camp, which were very comfortable, positioned on the edge of a shoulder. Because Mt Elbrus is a volcano, it is actually set on its own, away from the main Caucasus ridge, the position of the huts gives a fantastic view across the Terskol valley to the main ridge. We were lucky to have the weather to make the most of the views, and there were many photos taken in all lights.
The second day at high camp was used to push our acclimatisation further by ascending an additional 1,200m to the top of Pashtokov rocks at 4,700m. Apart from the final 150m or so, we both felt good on this hike, and we returned to high camp in good spirits, but looking forward to the rest day ahead before the scheduled attempt on the summit. Our rest day never came to be however, as Vern and Carole had other ideas and we spent the morning practicing our self-arrest skills in every style of falling possible. But after lunch was scheduled for ‘naps’, before a short mechanical advantage reminder lesson for crevasse rescue, then dinner and early to bed in advance of the 2.30am start we would be making.
At 2.30am everybody was up in the hut, getting their final packing and dressing done before breakfast. At 3.50, we met the snow-cat’s which were to take us to Pashtokov rocks, below where we ha climbed to on our last acclimatisation hike. The weather was clear and unseasonably warm, and we were treated to the first glows of dawn over the mountains as we made the 20 minute journey to our start point. By 4.30am we were walking, and making good progress up the steep flanks of Elbrus above Pashtokov rocks. This was already hard work, and slow going, with each of us taking at least one and often more breaths per step. However using both the pressure-breathing and rest-step techniques that we have learnt along the way, we were making good progress.
At the top of this first steep section, there is a shallower traverse around to the saddle of the mountain between the two peaks. Both of us were feeling the effects of the altitude on this section, but with some determination we made it to the saddle at about 5,200m, where we could have a slightly longer rest than the customary 10 minutes. Having left our packs at the saddle, we started up the steep final section before the summit plateau. Because there was so much snow (despite the relative warm) we were able to forego the fixed line route, and take a more contouring route up to the plateau. By this time Rona was feeling more positive, but I was still finding it hard going, and I was certainly pleased when at the first break after the saddle we were told it was only 30 minutes to the summit!
The plateau allowed some views back to the East peak as well as forward to the true summit on a small raised area ahead. Finally, about 7 hours after starting walking, we arrived at the highest point in Europe, the summit of Mount Elbrus at 5,642m above sea level!
The descent was, as always, harder than it might be but easier than going up! However, the sun was now making itself felt, and we sweated our way back to the saddle to rejoin our packs and put away all of our insulated gear. It had been only around -5 celcius on the summit compared to an expected temperature of around -20 or -25, so we had been very lucky in that respect, but it did mean that we were somewhat over-prepared with the warm gear! Our descent from the saddle was fast and hot, but with no significant problems we met a snow-cat at the top of Pashtokov rocks again for the descent back to camp for lunch and a hard-earned rest.
The following days were taken up with descending back to the valley, using our contingency bad-weather day to go horse-riding and for a short walk, and heading to Moscow via Mineralnye Vody once again. Moscow was even hotter than we had been, but we survived the pre-organised tour, and before we knew it we were on a plane heading back for St Petersburg, and home.
Our expedition to the summit of Europe was fantastic, and certainly an excellent bit of training. It provided us a reminder of the difficulties that come with altitude, and the size of the challenge to climb Everest from sea level. Having returned, we now have an opportunity to take stock and think about our next steps. But seeing as we have put all this effort into building up our red blood cell counts, we might be tempted to try and get out and about closer to home in what remains of the summer.If you would like to see more of our photos from this trip, we have set up a ‘Mount Elbrus’ album on our photos page. We hope you like them!
The last of the sun on the Caucasus ridge
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