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The Turbulent History of Mount Elbrus

After having climbed Elbrus in August 2015, i have been fascinated by its beauty and curious about its history. What piqued my interest was the monument of the soldiers who perished on Elbrus.

Monument of Soldiers on Elbrus

So, i did some background digging on the internet and read some books and found that Elbrus has been the center of some very historic events. Though not a lot of information is available on the mountain, it has been a focal point during World War 2. The guides did not say much about the incidents other than some facts about how the glaciers reveal bodies of soldiers and some artillery occasionally and how the Red Army suffered to gain control over Elbrus, which had fallen into the hands of the Germans.

History

Caucasus Mountains

From wikipedia

The Central Caucasus range extends along the South Western part of Russia. It contains some of the tallest mountains in Europe of which Elbrus is the tallest. It is a region that is rich in oil and natural resources.

Caucasus Mountains Range

From wikipedia

To gain a strategic advantage to proceed further into Russia, Germany wanted to take over the control of these vast oil reserves. This will enable the army to have sufficient supplies of fuel for its further advancement towards the east. The army was already having problems with getting fuel supplies to the German army who were in the front lines and with this capture, the problem could be solved. As a result, Operation Case Blue was created where the German army was divided into two groups. The Edelweiss group was tasked with the capture of the Caucasus region. The Edelweiss land forces comprised of 15,000 oil industry workers, included 167,000 troopers, 4,540 guns and 1,130 tanks and supported by 1,000 aircraft of the 4th Air Fleet.

As explained by Yasen Dyachenko, a leading authority on Russian mountaineering:

The action is named after the 1-st mountain division “Edelweiss”. Vermacht thoroughly prepared for еру War on all possible battlefields – both in desert, and in Arctic regions, but the special place was borrowed with mountain armies. There were some specialized divisions of Mountain Huntsmen in Vermacht structure, and undoubtedly elite division completed by locals of mountain areas of Southern Germany, Bavaria and Austria was allocated among them. These guys were single and not younger than 24. They possessed fine training of operations in mountain above a snow line. They have been trained to move at all forms of a mountain relief, to choose a position for supervision, for fight points, for an ambush and an attack, for defense. There is no need to write that their equipment and gear was the best for that time. All arms, provisions has been adapted for pack transportation. All kinds of shooting arms have been extremely facilitated, but have standard calibers, and, that the most important, their aim systems have been calculated in view of a corner of an eminence down to firing vertically upwards or vertically downwards.The officers has fine region maps of the whole battlefield and many officers had climbing experience received particularly on Caucasus before the War. And, at last, they had the faultless radio communications. Any minute leaders could receive the information on a site, character of battle conditions of each platoon separate battery.

With such a strong presence, The Edelweiss was quick to move and capture key strategic points in the Caucasus including all the key passes across the range. By end of August, most of the southern region was in the hands of the German army. The Red Army were no match to the advancing Edelweiss team. Yasen Dyachenko explains:

The Red Army had no specialized mountain divisions. It is terrible even to think of destiny of those parts and divisions which, being cut off from a way on the Southeast by an avalanche of German tanks, have gone to foothills of gorges of the Main Caucasus Ridge. Without maps, without radio communication with staffs and with each other, they went up by numerous gorges of the Western and Central Caucasus, reaching sooner or later a glacial zone. It is difficult to image the behavior of the people exhausted by long transitions, wear in bad army boots on a glacier. And they was under aim machine-gun fire! Those who could see rare films of German military chronicle, and those whose fathers were lost their lives in this terrible battle, hardly could stop their tears. I saw it and could not.

As a symbolic move, a small detachment of the Edelweiss division was sent to climb Elbrus and plant the Nazi Swastika on its summit. This was to indicate the conquest and dominance of the German army in the region.

The Edelweiss group was fully equipped to handle the rough and cold terrain of the mountain and eventually posted the flag at the west summit. The mountain hut, Prijut 11 at 4,160m, which was initially built by Russian scientists, became the Barracks for the German Army.

German Army resting on Elbrus

From Sputnik News

Although many in the upper echelons of the Nazi party were happy to hear the news of the swastika flying on top of Europe’s highest mountain and tried to promote it as a symbolic victory over Russia, Hitler, apparently, was furious at this “gimmick” and threatened to court marshal the officer in charge of the operation.

The Red Army fighting in the Causcasus Range

Photo: mucsn-fsin.ru

All was not good on the German side though. By December 1942, The Red Army had some success in fighting the Edelweiss army with their limited equipment and preparation for high altitude warfare. The Edelweiss group had to retreat to avoid defeat. This was followed by several other losses on the German side in other areas of Russia.

Eventually, the Edelweiss team had to leave the Caucasus range and

On February 1943, the Red Army was instructed to examine the abandoned camps in Elbrus and to replace the swastika with the flag of the Soviet Union. A group of ill-equipped soldiers lead by the legendary Alexander Gusev with nothing more than civil winter clothing, army boots and assault riffles but with a lot of patriotism climbed Elbrus and replaced the swastika with the flag of the Soviet Union.

Russian troops on Elbrus


from Sputnik News

Planting the Soviet flag on the summit of Elbrus

from Sputnik News

A very rare footage of the Red Army climbing Elbrus to place the bust of Lenin and a memorial plaque is found here.

Video courtesy of Net-Flim.ru.

Since the re-capture of Elbrus, there have been several monuments that are placed in the honor of those who lost their lives in the war. This picture below was taken by me during my climb of Elbrus before going to Barrel’s hut.

War Memorial

I am struck by it’s beauty as well as its heritage in world events. I pay my absolute respects and tribute to the soldiers who have died on this mountain. To this day, Elbrus reveals many of the remains of the war through the melting glaciers like guns, artillery and mines. A grim reminder of its turbulent past but also a symbolism of human achievement and perseverance.

Climbing Elbrus (5,642m), Russia – Video Compilation

It has been more than a month since we summited Elbrus and thoughts are getting a bit hazy on the beautiful Trip. However, thanks to Boon Leong, our climbing buddy on Elbrus, they have been caught in this wonderful video compiled by him.

The video captures the best of everything from pictures to small clips that were taken from our mobile cameras and GoPRO devices. The background music is from a CD on Russian folk songs Boon Leong purchased during one of our shopping escapades at Cheget Market.

Climbing Elbrus (5,642m), Russia – Summit Day

The Summit Attempt

The D-day has arrived. This is the day we have been waiting for and training for. It was a day of mixed emotions.

We were woken up at 1.30am by Dasha. Breakfast was ready by 2am, so by that time, we got into our clothing. We had a silent breakfast. There were other groups of people who were attempting the summit on the same day, so the kitchen was quite full but silent.

After dinner, we headed out to the hut to put on our double boots and crampons. It was quite cold and the process was slow considering that we were wearing them with our headlamps on.

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Once we were ready, we headed out to the area where the snow cats were parked. Since there were quite a few people going up, the snow cats had to make multiple trips up and down the mountains. Our planned departure was set at 3am. However, the snow cat only arrived at 3.45am. Till then we were all standing in the dark silently wondering how the day is going to turn out. We could see lights from climbers and snow cats dotting the mountain. The snow cat was an open top vehicle where you need to sit behind the snow cat in the open. It was quite cold and nothing could be seen in the dark.

The climb up to 5,100m on the snow cat was quite challenging with people sitting at the back getting crushed by those up in the front. The climb was quite steep towards the end and the driver had some trouble navigating the snow cat past other climbers and returning snow cats. Eventually, after about 45 minutes, we reached the drop off point. We all got down and wore our bags. We took the ice axe in our hands and started the climb. The time was about 4.30am and the sky was turning blue in the horizon. We would need our headlamps for another hour before the sky will be bright.

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We were told to walk in single file as the pathway up to the saddle and beyond is going to be quite narrow. So, first was Dasha, who set the pace. Then came Uantchern, Benson, Myself, CK, BL, Vinnie and two other guides. The two guides were experienced climbers. Nikita, was as nimble as a butterfly and Ali was a strong and broad man who can lift you up with one hand. We got introduced to them the previous day.

The path up to the saddle was a relatively steep climb, but manageable with short steps. It took about an hour to get to the saddle.

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By the time we reached the saddle, the sun had come up, but we were hidden by the East Peak, so, the temperature was quite cold. We stopped at one point where some of the folks needed to empty their bladder.

As we were sitting, i decided to drink some water. So, i removed my mittens so i could undo my bag and reach for the flask. But instead of placing the mittens on the pole, i put it under my arm. As you might expect, i accidentally loosened my arm and my mittens fell. With the strong wind, my mittens were blown away down the slope. I and the others watched helplessly as it kept rolling down the mountain without stopping at all. I could only imagine what would happen if one of us fell off the side of the slope. There was nothing to stop you from rolling other than our half-baked learning of self-arrest using ice-axe.

By that time, Ali, who was behind me started shouting in Russian. Not sure what he said, but i am sure i got a good dressing. Luckily i had a spare glove, so i took it out of the bag and wore them. They were not mittens, so, i had to keep moving my fingers frequently as they would become numb if i didnt.

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The picture above shows the right way to remove and place your mittens. A hard lesson learnt.

After that brief incident, we continued on our journey along the saddle. There was a photographer who took photos of us in angles that we would not risk taking. He looked like a real pro. Aparantly, he goes up the mountains and takes photos when there is a large group going up.

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As you can see, there was a large group of people who were going up the mountain. The amazing thing was that, we were able to overtake several of the groups of people on our climb towards the saddle, even though we were roughly about 45 minutes behind them. So, how you perform on the acclimatization trek has nothing to do with the actual day of climbing. It was good that we took the acclimatization trek slowly and also had an additional spare day to rest.

By the time, we reached the saddle, the skies were very clear and bright. We did not need the headlamps anymore. So, we rested before we had to climb the steep wall up the west face.

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The west face is really steep with a near 45-60 degree climb. A clear vertical climb would have been impossible. So, we did a zig-zag up to the top. It would take another 2 hours before we reach the plateau at the top. Before that, we had to climb the steep face as well as rope up to traverse some rock and ice sections towards the top.

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There were two sets of ropes that were set up. One for those going upwards and the other for those moving down. So, Ali, Dasha and Nikita positioned themselves along the point where you need to transfer your carabiners from one rope to another. After another 30-45 minutes of climbing on ropes, we were at a plateau.

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Again, we rested after a hectic climb up the slope. From there we could see the East Peak of Elbrus. An awesome sight. The summit was another 20 minutes from the place where we rested. The walk is a slight climb, followed by a walk along the near horizontal stretch. The final summit rests on another section of climb of about 30 degrees. However, you do not need to take the bags to the summit. So, we left the bags there and took our camera and ice axe and began our final push.

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Finally, we reached the summit. It was the most beautiful sight i have ever seen with near plateaus on the north side and the Caucasus mountain range on the south side. As we turned around ,we could see a whole bunch of people walking towards the summit. It was about 10.30am by the time we reached the summit. So, a total of nearly 6 hours to go up.

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The summit was quiet crowded with groups of people taking photos. There was one group that removed their shirts to take a group photo. A brave act that i will easily pass if offered to me. The weather was very cold and the winds were strong. But the sky was clear as the weather websites had indicated.

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Coming Down

We spent about 30 minutes on the summit taking photos. After all the high fives, hugs and hand shakes, we started our way back to the place where we left our bags. We rested there for about 20 minutes and then started our way back to Barrel’s Hut. The climb down will be faster. But the walk down the slope was quite tricky. At several places, we nearly slipped and fell as the sun made the snow very soft. Getting a grip on the loose snow was tough and we had to take extra precaution to make sure that we had a firm footing. This slowed things up a bit. We rested again at the saddle and soon enough we were walking along the narrow path that lead us to the point where the snow cat dropped us.

By this time, my knees were really aching from the constant breaking and pressure while coming down. A few others as well were not too good in shape to walk all the way down to the Barrel’s Hut.

As we rested in on the saddle, we wanted to get back to Terskol that day itself. We did not want to spend another night at Barrel’s Hut. But the last cable car that goes down is at 4pm, So, there was an urgency to get back to Barrel’s Hut and then make our move down to Terskol. Add this to the fact that we were not in good shape to walk all the way down, we decided to take the snowcat from 5,100m.

Dasha radioed the snowcat to come and pick us up. The rates were fixed and we waited for 45 minutes before the snowcat showed up. We all eagerly boarded the snowcat and in 30 minutes, we were back at Barrel’s Hut. If we were to walk all the way down, it would have taken another 2 hours at the least.

By 1pm, we were at Barrel’s Hut. Excited and Exhausted. We quickly got out of our clothing and rested. By 2pm, lunch was ready and we quickly gobbled it up and went to our respective bunkers to pack up and leave. We had to carry the entire garbage footprint that we had left on the mountain over the last 5 days. These included, cartons, waste, food items and empty plastic bottles.

Since the ski-lift was still not operational, we had to take the truck back down to the cable car station. The truck was crowded as usual with limbers, skiers and casual visitors. We barely managed to catch the last cable car back to Terskol.

Arrangements had been made by Dasha for the vehicle to pick us up and also at the hotel to prepare our rooms. Soon enough, we were boarding the van to our hotels in Terksol and reached the hotel by around 6pm with some stop overs in the middle.

We rested for sometime after a much needed hot water bath. Then we headed down to the Cheget market to have our celebratory food and drinks. A drink we did. Like there was no tomorrow.We had the special 5642 beer available only at Terksol. It was great tasting and considering i refrained from drinking since the beginning of the trip, it was a welcome celebration.

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Soon after that, Dasha, who had gone back home to refresh herself, joined us and took us to a very nice bar and disco. Shortly after that, Nikita joined us as well and the party really got going.

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There again, we had vodka and some thing called Cha Cha a very strong alcoholic drink that can burn your throat. A group of Russians kids danced to traditional Russian music and invited us to dance with them. Both myself and Benson complied and had much fun dancing in the middle, surrounded by people clapping.

Soon the traditional dancing gave way to techno and all of us got into the dancing mode.

After all the drinks and partying, we headed back to the hotel and were sound asleep. Tomorrow, was going to be our last day at Cheget and was reserved for shopping and relaxation.

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