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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.