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Sarah Kingdom

30 June 2020

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From Russia With Love…Mt Elbrus

AT 5,642m Mt Elbrus is the highest peak in the Caucus Mountains, a mountain range which straddles Asia and Europe. It is also the highest mountain in Europe and one of the coveted ‘Seven Summits’ (the highest peak on each of the seven continents). The mountain has two almost identical peaks, the west summit at 5,642m and the 5,621m east summit; we would only decide which peak we would attempt once we were on the mountain and could assess the conditions; but we knew that reaching either summit would count as a successful climb.

There are two main routes up Elbrus, the ‘usual’ route from the south side, and a more precarious and challenging route from the north; we would be attempting the north side. Elbrus is not a technically difficult mountain, but it is notorious for brutal, fickle weather, strong winds and freezing temperatures. As we would discover ourselves, the weather here can change from sunny skies to blizzard very quickly. Bad weather conditions, coupled with the elevation, can create problems for ill equipped or inexperienced climbers. By number of deaths, Elbrus is one of the most lethal mountains in the world, with an annual death toll of between 15 and 30. The climbing season had only just begun and already four people had died on the north side of the mountain.

So here we were, a team of eight climbers, assembled at Base Camp. The conditions on the mountain were cloudy, it was snowing up high on the summit, we couldn’t make out even the outline of the mountain we were here to climb.

Over the following days we would do a series of hikes and up and down the mountain, getting used to the climbing conditions and carrying all our gear up to High Camp ready for our attempt on the summit. Unlike in the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro or numerous other mountains, there are no porters/sherpas on Elbrus. We would be carrying all our own gear. Our various climbs up and down to High Camp would be ‘load ferries’, where we would drop off much of our equipment’ including snow boots, ice axes, crampons, ropes and harnesses; all of which would be need on our summit attempt.

High Camp on the north side of Elbrus is at an altitude of 3,800m, approximately 1,820m below the summit and has a breathtaking, uninterrupted view of the mountain above. With all my climbing expeditions in the past I have slept in tents, no matter what the weather conditions. On Elbrus however we would sleep in what are referred to as ‘barrels’. In reality the ‘barrel’ was a slightly insulated metal shed, with enough space, just about, for the twelve members of our group to sleep, on the floor. We would spend four nights here.

On our third night, we set off for the summit. Conditions are not looking favourable. However knowing conditions were forecast to get worse in the upcoming days and that there were fair number of experienced climbers in the group we decided to make an attempt. So just after midnight we set off.

It took us almost exactly twelve hours of nonstop climbing to reach the summit. Two of the team dropped out at 5,000m, another dropped out at 5,100m, leaving just five of us to continue on to the top. In almost total whiteout conditions and with constant snow and high winds, every hundred metres gain in altitude was taking us about 40 min, so when the third team mate dropped out we still had an expected 4 hours to go, to cover the remaining distance to the top, followed by another three hours to get back down.

It was bitterly cold and my fingers, despite being in gloves rated to -35deg, were frozen and felt like a million tiny needles were being stabbed into them. I kept wriggling my fingers. I didn’t want them to get so cold that I couldn’t feel them. The few exposed portions of my face were stinging from the constant blasting of wind-blown snow. My insulated water bottle, which had started the night filled with boiling water, was ice when I finally managed to retrieve it from the depths of my rucksack. One team mates GoPro had frozen and stopped working, as had her GPS and tracking device. The last few metres to the top I was walking about twenty steps, stopping to catch my breath, walking another twenty steps, and resting again.

With poor visibility and numerous crevasses on the mountain, it was important not to separate. When we finally reached the summit, the conditions were so bad and visibility so poor that we could have been anywhere! Five minutes to attempt to take a few photos and then we started our decent. Fifteen hours after we set off, we returned to High Camp, where we fell into our sleeping bags and slept. The floor didn’t feel so uncomfortable this time!

Our expedition ended the following night with an evening of vodka drinking lessons, conducted by our support crew, back in Base Camp.

Counting climbers, guides and support staff, we were 14 tipsy people, who hadn’t washed for 8 days, still wearing our climbing clothes… in a tent, in a field, in the wilds of Russia!

What You Need To Know

ORIENTATION: Mt. Elbrus, 5642M, is the highest peak in the Caucas Mountains, the mountains that straddle Asia and Europe. Elbrus is also the highest mountain in Europe and hence one of the Seven Summits.

After arriving in Moscow you will need to take a domestic fl ight from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to Mineralyne Vody and then transfer by road to Kislovodsk (the closest town to Elbrus), the town is located 50km from Mineralyne Vody airport.

CLIMBING ELBRUS: There are 2 popular routes to climb Elbrus – the standard southern route and the more challenging, tougher and less populated northern route.

SEASON: Whilst you can climb Elbrus from April to October on the North Side (and even into early December on the South Side) the very best season for climbing is June – August.

BOOKING THE CLIMB: It is imperative to climb Elbrus with an experienced guide. I have climbed the mountain a number of times and always use Elbrus Tours as my support company when taking my clients to do the climb, you can book fixed date departure tours direct through them.

PREPARATION: It is important to start training to climbing Elbrus several months in advance, as dependent on weather conditions, the climb can be a tough one. You need a good level of fi tness and stamina. Running, hiking, cycling, are all good ways of preparing for the climb, as is time spent in the gym. Focusing on your leg strength is pretty imperative, so even without a gym membership you can fi nd a good long fl ight of stairs and spend time simply going up and down them over and over… boring but useful! No great technical skills are required for the climb, and things like use of ropes, ice-axes and crampons etc. will be taught to you on the mountain by your guide.

VISA: Most nationalities require a visa to travel to Russia. Passports need to be valid for at least 6 months from date of submission of the application. An online visa application form needs to be fi lled in, printed off, signed and have two colour photos attached, as well as a covering letter from the applicant stating purpose and duration of stay, copies of air tickets and a letter of invitation or voucher receipt from the tour company. Visa application is then submitted, with application fee, to your local Russian Embassy. Embassies are not open every day and so some advance planning is essential.