Mount Elbrus (5642m) is a dormant volcano located in the Kabardino-Balkaria region of southern Russia. It lies in the upper Baksan Valley among the Caucasus Mountains and about 10km north of the border with Georgia.
As the highest mountain in Europe, it is one of the seven continental summits and therefore sits on the bucket list of many would-be, seven-summiteers. I am not an aspirant seven-summiteer and never have been. I just wanted to have some adventure and pursue my love of mountaineering.
I travelled in 2012 with a UK-based climbing company who deployed both a British and locally employed Russian guide. We were a very mixed, all male client-group of six. Although I was the most experienced client-climber I was the only one who had not previously climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa and another of the seven summits. Although over 200m taller than Elbrus and a substantial challenge in its own right, Kilimanjaro is recognised as the easiest of the seven summits. Nonetheless, there is generally a high rate of expeditions success on Elbrus.
We all met in Moscow and travelled to Baksan via Mineralnye Vody. Our hotel was a basic but modern, accommodating several climbing groups of different nationalities. I was there during the period of the London Olympics and during Britain's many medal successes, our group played 'telly on - telly off' with another group of another nationality whose Olympic team would have struggled to win an egg and spoon race. Apparently they don’t like to have the television on during mealtimes in their country. Of course they don’t!
Our acclimatisation involved some lower level hikes near Mount Cheget (3650m) followed by a three-day backpack and wild camp to the col beneath Kumrychi (4058m). On Day Two, we all successfully hiked the south ridge to the summit. The ascent involved a long ridge climb on loose rock and boulders, with some scrambling and occasional exposure. The summit views across to the main Caucasus ridge and beyond, however were spectacular and better than anything I saw from Elbrus.
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Unfortunately the southern part of the Baksan Valley, close to the border with Georgia, is politically unstable. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all but essential travel to the region and have done for several years. During our visit we had to pass through border checkpoints with heavily armed Russian guards. We were wide-eyed as we drove past a huge artillery piece pointing towards Georgia. All areas in that part of the valley now require separate permits that can be a challenge to obtain.
Back at the hotel we did our final kit checks, packed our food and took the cable car and chairlifts to Elbrus base camp (3800m), affectionately known as The Barrels. The cable cars had broken windows and doors that didn’t shut properly. The chairlifts were antiquated, rusty and in most cases the seat bars didn’t work or had dropped off.
The Barrels, so called because the accommodation huts look like large barrels resting on their side, provided basic accommodation.
The base camp area in general resembled an extensive scrapyard and was as far from an idyllic mountain wilderness as it is possible to imagine. The ground outside the main accommodation area had been concreted. I am no engineer but I know that glaciers move, slowly, but with incredible power. Unsurprisingly the concrete surface had turned to crazy paving.
The base camp restaurant, I use the term loosely, provided simple and wholesome food but as one walked inside it appeared to be on a slight lean. An external inspection revealed one corner resting precariously on a concrete plinth, this being the only thing preventing it from slipping off the mountain.
Anyway, enough moaning, it did the job. We spent the day making a further acclimatisation ascent, this time up the glacier towards a rocky outcrop at the top of the ‘dry’ section. We got as far as Diesel Hut (4157m), drank some hot chocolate and retraced our steps to base camp.
The following day we rested and acclimatised in the vicinity of our barrel. We planned to leave about 3.30am the following morning, meaning a wake up call at 1.30am in order to force down some food and fluids and get our kit together. We were all suffering the effects of altitude but one of our group had struggled more than the rest. Nonetheless he refused to be discouraged from the ascent.
We had collectively agreed to avoid the most tedious initial section of the route and use a snowcat; a tracked vehicle, to take us as far as Pastukhov Rocks (4690m). We were one of three teams attempting an ascent that morning. There was a Polish and a South African group, both of whom started shortly before us. It was 13 August 2012.
We arrived at Pastukhov Rocks at 4am and started the long, slow process of ascent, in darkness.
Mount Elbrus does not require any technical mountaineering skill apart from the use of crampons to stay upright and ice axe for support and self-arrest in the event of a fall. There are steepish sections towards the end but nothing that is particularly exposed. All that said, it is a physically and mentally demanding 1000m of vertical ascent, at altitude.
There are, however, numerous signs in mountain huts in the valley and at base camp warning of the dangers of attempting the complex navigation without a qualified guide. Given this challenge I was surprised not to have seen our guide with a GPS; map or compass. It started to get light about 5am, at which time the technical navigational aids became clear - a series of red flags at regular intervals marking the entire route from Pastukhov Rocks, presumably all the way to the summit!
The sun shone brightly across the snow although the wind had picked up significantly and menacing clouds appeared on the southern horizon. Our struggling group member had slowed almost to a halt and, after some persuasion, was escorted from the mountain by the British guide.
The further we went the more the weather deteriorated. As the cloud drew in, visibility reduced to about 20m and was getting worse. With windchill, the temperature was about -20 degrees celsius. It began to snow heavily. I was in the middle of our group line and had lost sight of my friends in front and behind in an encroaching whiteout. I sensed that our Russian guide was attempting to make fast progress in an attempt to reach the summit before the weather had deteriorated too much.
I walked alone for about an hour before eventually catching up with our Russian guide at the saddle between Elbrus' two summits (5416m). My friends who had led the way were lying in the snow, freezing and exhausted. I, and my friends that followed did not feel great either. Our guide was in discussion with the leader of the Polish group, who were also there and looked in a worse state than we were. We were joined moments later by the South African group, two of whom were retching and vomiting in the snow as they walked - the effects of altitude and over-exertion. All had halted their attempt to ascend the summit and returned to the col in the face of the ever-deteriorating weather. Our man reluctantly concurred and called off our attempt.
When the mountain says NO, the mountain says NO.
As we started the long trek back down the mountain we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of a fist-fight at 5000m, between the guides from the South African and Polish teams. I am not quite sure why and didn’t really care. It soon petered out. We walked back into base camp about 6pm and, cold, tired and desperately disappointed by our failure to reach the summit, went to bed and fell into a deep sleep. There was no opportunity for a second attempt. We had to return to the valley the following day.
We all climb mountains for different reasons. I enjoy the scenery, the wilderness and the physical and mental challenge. I have my own bucket lists but they go further than climbing mountains just because they are the highest or best known. I do not consider myself a purist or snob, but this trip convinced me never to undertake another ‘tourist mountain.’. Others of course, will have their own motivation and must make their own choices.
All photographs were taken with a Nikon S9100 compact camera.
This article was written in 2016.