Thursday, September 14, 2006
Elbrus - insulting the mountain gods
Elbrus. What a beautiful mountain – we saw it the first time when we were acclimatising on another mountain in the area – and what better way to acclimatise than to go up as high as the ski lifts will take you, and then walk a bit extra for a picnic on the summit. I loved the ski lifts – quiet, no-one chattering in your ears, with a great view of the mountain you came to climb on the one side, & snow-capped mountains with dark blue glaciers and a live avalanche on the other side.
Mt Elbrus itself is huge, but you only realise it once you start climbing the real mountain. We went up with cable cars and ski lifts as far as they would take us – probably the whoosie way to do it! The last ski lifts stop almost at the Pruitt of Eleven huts. The view is something out of this world: the (slightly intimidating) twin peaks of Elbrus on the one side with blue-green crevasses at the bottom, and snow-capped mountains on all three the other sides – this view alone made the trip worthwhile - you have to go see that for yourself! I had visions of the pictures I would take from the summit – but that was not to be.
My backpack weighed far over 20 kg's with the tent, cold-weather-gear, harness, ice-pick and other ice-gear, and minus-25degrees-sleeping-bag. I have an 80-litre-bag, but when the sleeping bag alone is in there (properly squashed), my backpack is half full!
We dragged the backpacks to above the barrel-huts, pitched the tents, put our crampons on the snow-boots and then went for an acclimatisation-hike up to the next day's campsite.
It was a beautiful clear sunny day. I vaguely remember someone insulting the mountain-gods, and someone else shouting an apology to them: "Mountain-gods, he was only kidding! It's a joke, please, he didn't mean that!"
But it was too late – you don't insult a mountain-god & get away with it. That evening, just as supper was almost cooked, the weather turned against us, & it only cleared up once we were off the mountain. It started with a thunderstorm & turned quickly to hail. Elsie (my tent-mate) had to go for a wee; the hailstones bruised her bum!
Somewhere during the night the storm calmed down a bit, and we woke up in a snow-covered tent that looked like an igloo, and virgin snow all around. It was beautiful! We melted some of the snow for morning-coffee & drinking-water, packed the tents & then built a snow-man while we waited for the others to pack & get ready.
If you ever want to experience a "big mountain" without having to summit, this is the one. There're huts at all the campsites, & where the ski-lifts can take you no further, you can hitch a lift with a snow-plough from one hut to the next! Or if you want to climb the mountain, but don't want to carry your backpack, you can send that up with the snowplough. The huts are comfortable enough – there's a stove that always have boiling water – just add some snow to the pot every now and again – and dormitory-beds with mattresses…climbers' non-climbing significant others can share in the whole experience without too much discomfort. Two members of our party took the snow-cat to the last day's hut - & it corrupted them totally; they decided there & then that they are not even going to attempt the summit.
Not sure exactly how many nights we spent on the mountain. Anyway, we generally dragged our backpacks to the next campsite, pitched tents, & then hiked up to the next day's campsite to acclimatise. The last night before our summit bid we camped at the blue hut. Lots of garbage lying around there :(
By this time the weather was really bad; everyone opted to sleep in the hut, except my tent-mate (who is climbing Denali in May and wanted to get used to the expedition-style camping) and I ('cause I was sharing a tent with her)!
Still think it might have been warmer in the tent than in the hut – the minimum temperature that my watch recorded the night before we attempted the summit (with a snow-storm outside) was zero. The -25°-sleepingbags a total overkill! We cooked in the hut & I got warm water from there to bath & wash my hair – heaven! It certainly was quieter in the tent than in the hut – two Italians got off the mountain in the wee hours of the morning, & apparently they made a big commotion in the hut trying to warm up again. We were oblivious of it all & at least got a good night's rest.
Summit-night just before three in the morning the weather cleared up a bit and we decided to go for it. We were so far north, I expected it to get light by 5-ish, but the time-zones are the same as Moscow's – so the sun would set very late, but rise only at 6-ish. Staying awake during those first few dark hours was very difficult – the sleep-monster attacked me big time! But there were stars & the weather was better than it had been in days. By the time we reached Pushtakov rocks (to where we hiked the previous day after pitching tents & a snowball-fight) 3 people already turned around. It was freezing cold, the biting wind picked up & you dare not take your gloves off to take a picture. A pity, because the signs of the temperature were beautiful: frost in every crease and seam of every rain-jacket & on the backpacks, eye-lashes covered in frost, frozen droplets on the bits of hair visible under the hoods, frozen breath on the outsides of the buffs that covered mouths and noses.
The sun rose shortly after, but visibility was restricted to a few metres due to snow blowing all over the place. The only way we knew we were making progress, was the guide telling us every now and again where we were (according to his GPS), and our watches that told us that we were gaining altitude fast. We had to be at the summit by 2 o'clock if we wanted to be off the mountain before dark, and we were making good progress in spite of the howling wind.
We seldom stopped – it just is too cold! So we never realised that the wind blowing into the backs of our rain jackets & hoods was already gale-force. At about 1-o'clock we were about 200 metres (horizontally) from the summit – according to our guide, it would have taken half an hour at the speed we were going. A group of people with National Geographic-branded clothing came from the front, saying that it was really dangerous up there; they almost blew away & the wind is still picking up. When we stopped, we realised that we could hardly hear each other above the wind, & visibility was about 1 metre.
We had to make a call – going for the summit, or going down. We were SO close. But there was one particularly dangerous climbing-spot between us andthe summit about which both Lance and the Russian guide were worried. Tanya was very tired, & I knew that once she would turn around, I would be the weakest link. Anyway – we could not leave one person there to wait for us, and turning around on your own with no-visibility would have been a no-brainer. If you get lost there, you might end up in the crevasses … & if you wait the storm out, the night might catch you & you might – no, you will - die of exposure. We decided to turn around – it was heartbreaking! But we opted to live – so that we can try again, or so that we at least could tell the tale.
The going down was the hardest part of the whole day. The gale force wind was now in our faces (& I got some frostbite to show for it!). The scarpas (the plastic snow-boots) were eating into my shins & I couldn't take any painkillers because I hadn't eaten anything since that morning 3-ish. (My shins are still sensitive at those spots & it's now almost six months after that day!) As we went lower, the snow became slushy & the crampons (even with anti-snow-collecting-plates beneath them) collected snow underneath, so that it became a balancing act to stay on top of them. Every five steps you had to stop to remove the snow. Later we removed the crampons & tried to slide-ski down, but that made the boots eat even more into my shins. It might be a design-thing: Tanya had the same boots and the same problem, but none of the guys with those boots had any problems at all. Elsie used Scarpas on Aconcagua and arranged other boots for this mountain; she was fine. I'll definitely get different shoes if I do something similar again.
We arrived back at the blue hut by 5-ish. Lower down visibility was much better –just as well, 'cause you can easily miss the hut. Erik (who turned around early that morning) missed the hut & only realised it once he was far below it. That last 100 metres to the hut was the longest 100 metres I've EVER done. And tea never tasted so good!! That evening we discussed if we were gonna try again the next day – we had an extra day on the mountain available. But I just couldn't face coming down with those boots again, and I guess everyone was tired – so the next day we went down to the ski lifts & back to our hotel for a hot shower, chilli vodka & Russian beer. Bliss! The next day was a beautiful clear sunny day; the summit clearly visible.
There are more stories – about the flight from Moscow to Mineralyevode-airport, the airport itself, the bus-trip to and from the mountain, St Pete, Moscow … will write them later!