Homecoming. That’s what coming to climb Elbrus feels to me. I hale from a tiny republic, a 3 hour drive towards a Georgian border. When I come here my body language changes and so does my accent. Innately, I know the customs, admire hospitality, can crack a local joke, but sadly am also aware of a great reliance placed on fate in all mountain matters.
In Russia time stalls and everything is done last minute. Our impulsive decision to climb Elbrus straight after Carstensz meant pulling on the strings of odd contacts: a cook that helped us on the last year’s ascent and a homestay wife who comes from my hometown, all volunteering time to help us organise logistics.
The trip down was suitably epic: a 48 hour marathon of a helicopter flight from the base of Carstensz to Timika, a flight to Jakarta with a stopover in Bali, a flight to Moscow via Doha where we proudly sported ski boots casually thrown over the shoulder amidst palm trees in the pre-dawn airport and a mad rush to make a one-hour connection to Mineralnye Vody followed by a 3 hour transfer to Cheget.
While on a stopover in Bali, we looked up the weather. Gasp! The weather window was closing on us in 48 hours. Out went a plan for a stopover in Moscow, in a plan to front-run foul window with an ascent the following day, just 5 days after climbing Carstensz and 24 hours following our arrival to Russia. A bit mad but a prospect of being stuck here for another 10 days meant cutting into some R&R time before the North Pole-Everest-Denali combo.
And so it went: spring resort skiing followed by a night in a windowless lodge room with odd dirty blankets thrown over wooden birth and rotten food on a side table. A 2am rise to cook breakfast and a 3am start. By that time some 13 other climbers of varying degree of skill and experience have merrily boarded a snowcat that delivered them at an altitude of 4700m.
Last minute we decided to enlist services of a local guide due to the worry about blue sheet ice from 4400m and the traverse at 5000m. The guide looked sane and was my late dad’s age.
I handed him my 50m rope. He disappeared (with a rope) an hour into the journey as we skinned up ahead of him. Just didn’t arrive to Pastukhov rocks. Colin and I looked at each other in disbelief. Turned to the sight of the 30* blue ice sheet ahead and wondered what was a sound thing to do now that we were without much protection save for a few ice screws, carabiners and slings. Turn back or find patches of snowdrift to transition to the snowy traverse leading to the summit pass?
By that time we have caught up with the merry party of 13 having skinned up some 1000m of altitude gain. The scene was odd – people not moving. ‘Hm, exhaustion or altitude’ I thought to myself. In the million years, it would not have occurred to me that they were all sitting stuck on a side of a narrow crevasse opening, small enough not to notice, big enough to fall through. We passed them one by one not realising what went wrong with neither of the 3 local guides volunteering information. What is remarkable about crevasses after all?
A minute later Colin fell waist down into the opening and so did I. Unnerving but an ice-screw and a leash combo later we managed to pull ourselves out. Hm, another set-back. We went on determined to find a way up to the snowy traverse at 5000m and out of the crevasse zone. By that time almost every climber has turned back.
Now, 7 hours on every step took an effort: a combination of wasted emotional energy and jet lag. ‘Just one step at a time, one foot ahead of the other’, ‘keep moving’. Strong winds and windchill of -35*C but good visibility and my experience of the mountain to take the comfort from. Mentally, I could focus on intermediate objectives, landmarks that I knew. A great comfort when you are fully spent. As well as remembering to eat. My climbing partner, a pro-endurance athlete, reminded me to do so every hour.
Elbrus traverse is at an odd angle cramping one’s calves and testing the willpower. Then comes a brief comfort of flatness of the pass with yet another 200m climb to 5600m of the sugar cone, the Western Dome with an unremarkable ripped out summit tablet.
Exaltation. We are here. With a brief moment of documenting the ascent. Do I care enough about flying this flag or looking good? Wind hales of 40km/h and the most serious part of the journey ahead of us. Descent back to our skis left at Pastukhov rocks. On blue ice. Avoiding crevasses. Trusting beautifully forged Petzl G14 crampons. Being there every second of the way. Looking out for each other on the 14th hour of the ascent. Making a turn to the lodge to mount another bag to the backpack and the last run of the day. Frozen moguls. What else could be more comforting at the end of a 15 hour day? Type 2 fun at its best. A big hug at the bottom of the hill with a relief of the day being over and a completed ascent. 2/3 of the Explorers Grand Slam in the bag for both of us. Feeling a tad sad about the speed at which this challenge is passing.