Climbing the highest point in Europe. Mt. Elbrus (5642 m) – Part 2 – “Where has the oxygen gotten to?”

The hotel accommodation was more than a big surprise upon our arrival. After 3 days on the road, spent in 40 degrees of South Ukrainian and Russian heat, any minimum form of civilization was welcomed. Instead we got more than we were hoping for. A 4 star hotel with free meals, nice beds and what we haven’t seen for a couple of days; hot showers. We ate and went up to our room to celebrate our arrival with a bottle of wine from home. Soon enough our guide, Dima, appeared, a guy straight out of the Russian story books. A man without a clear image of where he actually comes from (from all parts of Russia, according to his own account), living somewhere in the forest. A freelance guide and climber, who climbs Mt. Elbrus 15-20 times a season and as we soon found out, drinks a form of fermented local milk (with more than an abundant amount of salt and pepper) and is able to casually smoke at 5000 m.

The plan was laid out before us, in a mix of Russian, English, sign language and occasional moments of double guessing whether this guy will actually be responsible for our lives up there. The plan was simple. The first two nights we would spend at the hotel, with one day for acclimatization between them. Then we would go on the Mountain, have 3 days of further acclimatization and attempt to reach the summit on the fourth one.

Day 1

The first day started as in a fairytale. We woke up at 7.30 am, had a good night rest and a wonderful breakfast. The day’s goal was Cheget peak at 3600 m, an initial acclimatization climb. The gear we needed was also quite light. Hiking boots (I took my La Sportiva Nepal Extremes, which are proper insulated mountain boots and handled the job easily), shorts, a base layer and a raincoat. We also managed to meet our group of eight people, only two of us being non-Russian speakers.

The climb itself to Cheget peak was quite easy but with stunning scenery. We managed to mingle a bit with the rest of the group and also have some linguistic talks with our guide, Dima, who turned out to be quite skilled in the theory and history of languages. One of our team-members already showed signs that the summit will be something almost unreachable for him. But he persevered to do the first day’s walk. Our view of Elbrus was overshadowed by a layer of clouds and mist which made our descent quite wet and forced us to spend an hour in a small restaurant/outpost where a good glass of wine and tea, with some Russian soup made the stay quite enjoyable.

The air above 3000m is already thin and you can feel the change in altitude. Your body gets more easily fatigued but physical activity is not yet too strenuous, so any normal, healthy human being can do a climb till 3600 m.

Day 2

The second day also began with good breakfast at the hotel and packing. We packed up all our equipment with the food provided by the agency and headed to the cable cars. The cable car journey is an adventure in itself. It is done in two steps. The first ride is quite pleasant if you manage to get one of the new cable cabins. The second leg of the journey is a whole different story. Single, old, rusty, commy chairs hanging on a piece of wire provide the ride. You have to jump on them and then secure yourself with a metal rod 😀 The cable car system takes you from 2000 m to around 3600 m. Our initial enthusiasm declined a bit with the amount of clouds and rain that followed us through our cable car ascent. From the end point, we packed all our luggage on a snow-cat which took us to 3750m, and our NOT 4 star accommodation, the Azau barracks 😀

The barracks are what they are supposed to be; old containers, pinned on some rocks. The toilet is an outpost, hanging on the edge of a cliff. The journey to the toilet is an adventure itself, so I recommend not using it in the dark, as you might end up with a twisted ankle or who knows, at the bottom of the cliff. There are three barracks, which can accommodate 8 people each. Electricity is only available between 9-11 pm, a time when almost everyone is fast asleep (or trying). There is a fourth barrack where two women cook for the teams and there are also two long dining tables. The food is simple but definitely does the job. The ladies cook well and put everything on the table, that your body needs in the upcoming days. It is recommended to eat dairy products and meat, and also drink plenty of fluids while not yet climbing.

Day 3

We started our third day with an early rise and proper breakfast. We had to gear up for our first day of acclimatization. The day’s goal was to reach 4200 m in elevation and then come back to the barracks. For this climb you already need crampons, proper mountain boots and walking poles. I wore a base layer and a fleece on top. I used a base-layer and gore-tex trousers for my legs. It is advisable to have a balaclava or a face mask, due to the risk of having sun burns. For my feet, I had a first layer of thin socks and a second layer of warm socks. You also need a first layer of gloves, but mittons are not yet needed. For extra assurance, it is also good to have a gore-tex jacket when you stop or if the weather changes. The weather conditions were excellent. The sky definitely cleared out and we managed to see the summit in the distance.

Whenever you climb, a small back-pack is enough. Some chocolate and a thermos of tea or water is a must! Don’t even think of doing even an acclimatization walk without a thermos. It is also better if the water is warm, as cold water makes you sweat more.

Our group had a steady rhythm. Dima dictated the rhythm, which is one step one breath. At the end of the walk the terrain gets a bit steeper. There are also occasional water streams in the snow and small cracks. Try avoiding them. The temperature is close to 0 C in the summer, so do not worry too much.

We did the climb and came back to the barracks by mid-afternoon. The appetite at this altitude changes and many climbers either do not feel hungry or eat less than usual. Sleeping is also a challenge. My first night was delirium tremens in its fullest 😀 If you have ever been high and sleeping afterwards, this is definitely the feeling. Your body is adapting to the lack of oxygen, so sleeping can be tricky, and by most you will manage to actually sleep just a couple of hours.

Day 4

An early rise, a heavy breakfast, water in the thermos and the daily packed lunch (a fruit, chocolate, biscuits, a small sandwich). The day’s goal was to reach 4800 m, the upper part of a place called “The Rocks” and then descent to our barracks. The difference in altitude was already 1000 m, and the air at almost 5000 m is much thinner than at sea level. For this day I took double gloves and an extra fleece. I only used the gore-tex jacket when stopping or when descending.

The group had an excellent rhythm, with few stops but a steady pace. On the steep section, Dima, also did the classic “S” type walking, where you slowly wind yourself up the slope, instead of going frontal. It is less tiring and you can do the climb without having to constantly stop (and freeze :D). At 4800m the daily temperature was slightly below freezing. We were also told how to use the ice-axes in case we fall and we had a general instructions session (mainly in Russian, but by this time we got used to the fact that people in Russia think that everyone speaks their language; especially “the English speaking” guide provided by the company).

By this time the body definitely feels the lack of oxygen and every movement slows down. To make things worse, the last section of this walk is more than steep and can be a bit excruciating. On our way down everyone was left to descent in his own pace. At this point Hunor got a bit ill, as his body took some time to adapt. He instantly fell asleep in the barracks but managed to fully recover.

We also had a group gathering and decided to skip another day of acclimatization, due to fears that the weather might change on the day we initially decided to summit. So with one day less of acclimatization, we decided to go to bed early, as at 2 am we had to wake up and get ready for the summit.

Day 5

The alarm went off at 2 am. We all woke up feeling exhausted. None of us managed to sleep well. Also the idea hit us, that this is what we came for. So we had to make it right. We silently had breakfast and filled our thermoses. Luck had it that both Hunor and I had our ‘periods’. Both of us blew our noses and due to an already high blood pressure at this height, the blood vessels in our noses ruptured. Not exactly an ideal way to start a climb, with a make-shift paper ‘tampon’ in our noses. There was an eerie silence in the group. We all knew that 10 h of heavy climb will be needed to reach the summit and then several hours to descend. We put our harnesses and carabineers on as well. I personally put 1 layer of thin socks and 2 layers of thick socks. I also put one base layer pants, a fleece layer of pants and the outer gore-tex one. I put two base-layers, 1 fleece and the gore-tex jacket. I also had an extra layer of fleece in my backpack. Double gloves, face-mask and warm hat.

The temperature in the morning at 4500 m plummeted to -15/-17 C. The winds also picked up as well. We turned our headlights on and continued the climb. The best way to walk this section is by using the “S” type, due to the steepness of the slope. If anyone thinks this is child’s splay, this is the time when it is recommended to turn back. The member of the group, who had problems with the first walk to Cheget Peak, didn’t try to summit and the wife of one of the guys turned back at this point. What ensues from 4500 m and until you reach the saddle between the two peaks is a good couple of hours of grueling and painful climb. The most strained parts of the body are the lower legs. Our nose-bleed was still in a semi-operational phase 😀 and the air is as thin as it gets. Before reaching the saddle I had the toughest moment of the climb, where I simply dropped in the snow and could not move for 5 minutes. My mind was blank and there wasn’t any clear thought I could grasp. It really is a matter of mental strength and determination to do the remaining climb from this point onwards.

Elbrus has two peaks. We took the southern route, which passes by the first peak (on the right), then goes down to the saddle and follows up to the second peak (the higher one, on the left).

The saddle is the part where your body is given the opportunity to rest. The route slightly descends and it is advisable to sit down and rest before attempting the last leg of the trip. We set down in the snow and instantly fell asleep. We got up again at 10 am and geared up for the last part. Sasha, our second guide, took the lead while Dima set up the ropes for the descent. The guides know the mountain and told us to reach the summit in 2-3 hours, as the weather was about to change (even if it is completely sunny). The first part after the saddle is remarkably steep. The first 1,5 h have to be done on this section.

This is followed by a plateau and on the plateau you can spot a small hill, which is the highest peak. By this time we were so weak, that even the idea of the summit did not give us extra energy. Step-by-step we went ahead. 10 m before reaching the summit, we grabbed our shoulders with Hunor and summited together. This is the moment when a grown-up man is allowed to cry and the moment I cannot describe, even if I tried. Everything comes together and suddenly makes sense. You can barely move but you feel a deep sense of happiness, mixed with the knowledge of one’s self.

Making the summit is only half the deal. One must also descend from it. And our descent was met by an incoming snow storm. Dima made the preparations and hooked us to the ropes which were put on the side of the first peak. We slowly descended and re-grouped in the saddle. After resting, Dima took the lead and tied us together. We took the ice-axes in our left hands and one walking pole in our right ones. The path was narrow, and the slopes steep, so any slip could mean a long slide to the bottom, with almost zero visibility. We did an agonizing descent till 4800 m, when several members of the group started quarelling in Russian with Dima. We stood there with Hunor not understanding what was happening and I yelled at all of them to explain what the hell was happening. Several found that being tied together after the steep section was useless. So we untied ourselves and did the following section like this, in conditions of minimum visibility. One of the guy’s knees started failing so we called a snow-cat. We waited for the snow-cat to pick us up at around 4300 m, where we celebrated our climb with half a liter of coca-cola, which Hunor found in the snow.

Day 6

After our climb we slept like angels for the first time. 12 hours straight, without even going to the toilet (hazardous to our lives). We packed up and went to the cable cars. The ride down was a mix of accomplishment and nostalgia that the best part of the adventure was over.

We rested at the hotel and went in the evening to have a victory dinner. Dima came completely shit-faced and handed out our certificates. We ate good local food, drank vodka and wine and left Dima dancing on the table with the waitress. Not even the Russians could handle our Hungarian Pálinka, and quoting one of our Russian friends, “it feels like baby Jesus is walking on my veins”.

One last night at the hotel and another long and strenuous drive back home.

Some important things to know

–          Do not underestimate any mountain! Above 5000 m the weather conditions are extreme and without proper acclimatization, you can have brain or lung damage.

–          Always have enough fluids in a thermos but do not drink too much during the climb

–          Try walking the steep section in the “S” style as you will not stop so many times and expose your sweaty body to the cold

–          For the summer climb, a pair of Nepal La Sportiva Extremes or any boots in this range (one guy even did it in Scarpa Mantas) is sufficient. You do not need plastic boots, although the most commonly used plastic boots were the good old Scarpa Vegas/Invernos. Just make sure your boot has a layer of Thinsulate or Gore-tex if you are not using plastic ones. It also has to be crampon compatible with a fast locking system (so rigid soles)

–          Have at least 4 days of acclimatization before you summit. It is a high mountain and the biggest danger to the body is the lack of oxygen. By the time you reach the summit you will feel like a vegetable anyways.

–          Try sleeping, even if sometimes it is impossible, and eat as much as you can before doing the climbs. During the climb do not eat too much and drink too much. You will feel like vomiting constantly so it is also difficult to eat or drink.

–          Due to the poor hygiene of the toilets, we did not do number 2 for over four days 😀

–          With the proper equipment, guides and days for acclimatization, any normal, healthy individual can do it, who also exercises regularly during the year

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One response to “Climbing the highest point in Europe. Mt. Elbrus (5642 m) – Part 2 – “Where has the oxygen gotten to?”

  1. congrats! now you’re definitely the coolest guy I know, way ahead of others!

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