Heading off to Barrel’s Hut

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Finally, the day has arrived where we will be setting foot on Elbrus for the first time. Today is an exciting day. We got up in the morning at around 6am and had breakfast. Dasha came to the hotel in a van that is to take us to the starting point of the cable car to the Barrel’s Hut. After breakfast, we checkout of the room and left some of our luggage with the landlady. We took the essential items with us and dumped it in the van. On the way to the cable car, we stopped at the shop that sold the SIM card. Luckily, the shop was open and we each bought a SIM card with 3 GB of data. It was something like 600 roubles. Quite cheap considering the plan that was selected. Once again, we were on our way to the cable car station which was another 15-30 minutes ride in the van. Once we reached the cable car, we found out that the ski-lift to the Barrel’s Hut was not working due to the bad snow storm the previous night. An alternative arrangement was to be made at the top.

The trip to the top consisted of having to transfer between 3 sets of lifts. 2 of them were a cable car and the last one was a ski-lift (which was not working). The location of the cable car was a nice place with a lot of restaurants and watering holes. In the morning, it was relatively empty as we sat for the cable car to come from its rounds.

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Once the car arrived we boarded it and moved to the first stop. The car looked pretty old but was quite sturdy. The view on the way to the top was amazing with the surrounding mountains and valleys. From afar, the station at the top looked quite futuristic, but it was quite simple and unassuming.

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At the station, we walked through a narrow passage way to the next cable car which was equally old and sturdy. The view was even more beautiful as we approach the second station. By now the lush green vegetation had given way to barren rocks and scree. From this station, we were to take the ski-lift. But since it was not operational, we had to take an army truck that was ferrying people to the Barrel’s Hut. We could see Elbrus with clear skies. The climbers who were making their summit attempt were lucky to have such wonderful weather. Again, the weather forecast indicated morning to be clear with snow and showers during noon and evening.

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While we waited for the truck to return from its rounds, we had an opportunity to rest and look around.

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There was a monument of the lift of soldiers who had fought on the slopes of Elbrus during world war 2. The Germans had occupied Elbrus during their invasion into Russia. Equipped with much better gear, they were well prepared for the extremes of the altitude and weather. The Russians, on the other hand, were poorly equipped to fight the Germans at such high altitude. Many of them lost their lives in the ensuing battle, but Elbrus was regained by the Russians again. Even to this day, apparently, the glacier reveals bodies of soldiers who show up when the ice melts. It was quite a solemn thought.

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On the South side, the entire Caucasus Range was visible in all its glory. I managed to take a panoramic shot of the entire range. Words simply cannot describe the magnificent view nor does the photos do justice to the scale and depth of the mountain range. You will need to be there and experience it to believe it.

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After about 30 minutes, the truck came over and we boarded it at the back. The truck was one huge beast and climbing it was quite a challenge with some acrobatics involved. Once boarded, the truck was on its way. The route was quite steep so, we had to hang on to anything that will prevent us from sliding to the back. I pity the poor folks who were sitting at the back as they got crushed by the weight of those in front of us. Overall it was a fun and exciting experience.

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Once at the Barrel’s Hut, we got down and unloaded our luggage. We made our way to the hut and we got assigned Barrel Hut 3 which is quite close to the Canteen. At this altitude of about 3,700m, every activity took some really heavy breathing to get done. By the time we brought our luggage to the hut, we were all panting for breath.

The weather was relatively warm at about 18 degrees. Dasha had mentioned that the last few days, the temperature at the Saddle of Elbrus was a scorching 33 degrees. We joked that we should have brought our beach wear to the hut. Although the temperature was 18 degrees, the wind caused a chill that soon got us wearing multiple layers.

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Once we settled down, we spent some time wandering around the place. All of us had heard stories about the toilets and how awful they were. So, curious enough, we visited the toilets. At least, to my surprise, it was relatively clean considering other toilets that i have visited in other mountains. We were at the Barrel’s Hut by around 11pm. Our lunch was to be prepared by the cook, Ms. Mariam, at 1pm. Following that, we were to make our first acclimatization trek to the Prijut 11 Hut, which is located at 4,100m. So, we just rested till Lunch, soaking in the atmosphere and taking plenty of photos.

Trek to Prijut 11 (4,100m)

Prijut 11 is located at 4,100m and has a shelter where people could stay. However, sometime back a group of climbers set fire to the place while cooking. Ever since then, it has not been used. Currently, an alternative site is being built with a possibility of a ski-lift to the top. The ski-lift is mainly used for skiers who would normally ski down the slope of Elbrus.

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Our first acclimatization climb was to reach Prijut 11 and spend some time there before we came down to Barrel’s Hut. Normally, the trek to the top should take about 1 to 2 hours. So, after lunch we put on our climbing gear including the double boots and crampons and we set out. For many of us, double boots and crampons was a first at such an altitude, so it was a laborious task of climbing with such heavy gear. Although i have used crampons on another trek, i never did get to use double boots.

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We laboured on for more than 2 hours before we reached the Prijut 11. On the way, we stopped by many times to take photos and look around. The terrain was initially rocks, followed by a combination of snow and ice. Climbing on snow was easier with crampons than on ice.  The weather was quite clear during the climb but we could see clouds forming on the top of Elbrus. The path was quite well marked with flag poles at appropriate locations and red flags indicating areas of crevasse. The crevasse were not that wide, but were quite deep. So, we had to carefully step over these while Dasha was breaking trail. Dasha said that we were slow compared to her other normal guides. So, we were a bit disappointed and worried about the summit attempt. After a brief stay at the Prijut 11 Lodge for about 30 minutes, we came down  the slope.

As we started our descent, the weather turned bad with extreme fog. Visibility was greatly reduced but we were having fun.

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In between the climb down, Benson slipped and fell and his feet got stuck into the icy glacial waters. Since i was with him during that time, i immediately rushed to his help and tried to retrieve his leg. But with his crampons on, his feet was firmly stuck in the glacial bed. We could not remove it vertically. So, i used the trekking poles to start punching holes near the feet to loosen the ice. Slowly Benson was able to move his feet horizontally and that freed his crampons from the bed. Then he quickly removed his feet and we immediately made it to the Barrel’s Hut. Water had seeped into his shoes but the damage was limited as he was wearing gaiters. While trying to retrieve his leg, i had to put my hand into the freezing water and soon my little finger was numb with cold. I had to constantly keep moving them to make sure that i did not suffer any form of frostbite.

Overall, we took nearly 5 hours to go up and come down, which according to Dasha was slow. Luckily no one felt any altitude sickness and everyone was still in high spirits.

By the time we got back, it was 5pm and in two hours we were to have our dinner and spend the first night in Barrel’s Hut. It was quite exciting to be fully geared up and walk on the mountains.

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Dinner was ready by 7pm and we huddled into the kitchen. The kitchen is a nice cosy place with walls covered with posters and leaflets of past expeditions. We could see a variety of countries, agencies and organizations that have climbed up Elbrus. We also saw pencil drawings of famous people who have visited the mountain – many of whom we did not know or ever hear of. Dinner was cooked by Mariam, a very beautiful old lady but a serious disciplinarian. We got scolded for everything from eating candy before porridge to shaking our legs. She will especially be pleased with people who finish what was put on their plate and even more thrilled if you asked for some more. A nice motherly lady who takes special care of her cooking. Dinner was a vegetable soup, bread, and some other dishes like cookies and pasta.

The kitchen provides hot water for drinking, so we brought our flasks to be filled up. Other than that, water is a bit hard to come by and most of the source is taken from the glacier. That is one of the reasons that people are extremely cautious about not peeing or doing their business anywhere except in the toilets. Considering other camps, Barrel’s Hut is very cleanly maintained and we are to collect and remove our own trash when we leave the place.

Electricity came up from a generator at around 7.30pm and lasted till 10.30pm. We quickly charged up our phones and power packs and soon retired to bed as it was no point hanging around the huts as the temperature started to fall. Each made a quick beeline to the toilets so that we do not have to get up in the night in the frigid cold to take a leak.

The next day, we were to trek to Pashtukov Rocks at 4,700m. It is going to be a very long day and the weather forecast was not that great.