(South African Elbrus Expedition)
My Voyager card wasn't even cold yet. We had just returned from climbing South America's highest peak, Aconcagua, and already the plans for another expedition were well underway. I can even remember the sun glaring off the aluminium blinds; I put down the phone and said beamingly “Russia… 21st June!” Part excitement, part disbelief. Correction… mostly disbelief.
Elbrus is the tallest peak on the continent at 5642 metres above sea level, and for the next five and a bit months, it would be the focus of my every waking moment.
In order to get into Russia, it is necessary to be invited, so we pulled some strings and before we knew it we were all thumbing through our passports trying to pronounce our own names as they were written on our Visas.
Finally the day came, June 21st, and the slog would begin. I was travelling up from Cape Town, so by the time we were told that our flight to Frankfurt was cancelled, I had already been in the Airport for 3 hours. Engine trouble, not delayed, not late… cancelled. It was about that time that the departures terminal turned into a boiling cauldron of irate Germans, rerouted flights, hotel reservations and lines long enough to make the Nigerians proud.
Two hours later, the Lufthansa lady was in tears (oops) and we would be leaving the next day. Luckily, Robby's mom has a friend in Virgin Airlines and she managed to pull some strings (different strings to the ones John had pulled earlier) and we were sent bolting down the tunnel screaming “hold that plane”. We were bumped up to Upper Class (you get to keep the headphones) via London - the land of the worst Burger King I have ever chewed through.
From London, we flew four hours to Moscow, where the people are so sour; you'd swear that they were still mourning Stalin. Once out of the airport, we were driven to our hotel where the night disappeared into a couple of beers, some Vodka and a cover band doing a great rendition of Alphaville's “Forever Youngski”. Photos from the next morning prove that Robby slept on the floor, two feet from his bed, but he still maintains he was looking for his contact lens.
Day two started with an hour-long drive to the Domestic Airport, where we flew Siberian Airlines to Mineralnye Vody. Siberia stands for Suddenly I've Become Extremely Religious In this Aeroplane. Minvody is a one-horse town similar to De Aar, but without the stop sign.
This is where we met Marina Ershova, later to be named “The Machine”, a forty-year-old woman who looked fit but a little shy. She was to be our guide on the mountain and she ushered us to the mini van for our four hour drive to Terskol, the village at the base of the Mountain. I had left Cape Town on Saturday morning and we finally hung our hats late Monday afternoon. By the time we reached our fourth floor rooms, I was so tired, I couldn't even run next door to show the guys that the toilet paper had no hole in the middle. All paper, how practical!
I suppose this would be a great opportunity to introduce the team and correct any misconceptions from the paragraphs above.
Rob “grew up” in Johannesburg and was introduced to mountaineering by John. Since that sordid day, we have climbed in East Africa, Kilimanjaro (three times) as well as Aconcagua, which is where we met Dirk. Rob plans to summit the big seven and wants to be the first horizontally challenged person to do so. Oh yes, he tends to lose contact lenses as well.
John lives in Cape Town, working for Cape Union Mart as a buyer. He was introduced to climbing through Scouting. John masterminded the SA Scouts Three Peaks Expedition, with the intent of summiting the three highest mountains in Africa in a month. Rob brought up the idea of climbing Kilimanjaro one day, and John turned into an epic. Talk about mountains and molehills. John has since climbed Kili three times with another ascent planned for September, Aconcagua in Argentina as well as Mount Stanley and Mount Kenya.
Coming from Van Der Byl Park, we were glad to have Boertjie on the trip on the evening of the bar brawl. He says that odds of 8:1 aren't that uncommon, but he is usually on the other end of the ugly stick. Dirk comes from a background of hiking in the Drakensberg, summiting Mont Blanc and a new found love of ice climbing. “Hy is nie so slim nie, maar hy kan swaar dinge optel.”
Ollie joined us on our second ascent of Kilimanjaro. It is always good to see the mountain bug bite, and when we mentioned our trip to Russia, he was committed like a German shepherd on a lamb shank. Ollie is also Rob's dentist so it is needless to say that he is a bit painful to be around and he is usually down in the mouth.
a.k.a. The Machine. The team had words with me on the first acclimatisation walk we went on. We discovered that Marina was not only an Olympic Cross Country skier and climber, but her mountaineering portfolio had more peaks than the front row of a Backstreet Boys concert, including Everest (to 8500 m). She was also in training for K2, as in The Savage Mountain, as in K2 the mountain you usually do last… Forty years old, 1,7 m tall, mother of three. Blood type - Titanium.
By now summit fever was rife and were itching to get onto Elbrus. It had been a week since we left not seen the top yet as it was hidden like a Tsar's daughter behind a shroud of silver satin cloud. Our last acclimatisation day would take us onto Elbrus to the main ski slope, which is the start of the main ascent.
The start of our trip was a series of two cable cars and ski lift, which whisks you up past the loose scree slopes and up to the altitude of 3500 m, to the Camp known as “the Barrels”. Unfortunately there would be no whisking that day, as the final chair lift was not in operation. So we shouldered our day bags and started the two-hour trek to the first camp.
The following day was the actual start of the climb, the real reason we were in Russia braving the “omelettes” and the “porridge”. Again we went to the cable stations and again we chugged our way up to the snow line.
Marina's gift of a bottle of brandy got us shacked up in one these steel coke cans for half price. Proving that money makes the world go round, and alcohol lubricates the bearings. The cylindrical zozo hut sleeps five and has a kitchen counter for cooking, but still was only big enough to swing a very small cat inside.
From the Barrels the next day, we left the snow boarders behind and made our way up to Priyut, a stone wall hut with a roof made of timber and iron. The Priyut penthouse sleeps about 25 people with a stunning rustic dining area and double glazed airplane windows. It isn't much but it was home for next 3 nights.
Once again after lunch we would take another walk further up the slope in an effort to prepare our bodies as best we could. We wanted to give ourselves the best possible shot at success, even if it did mean an extra 3 hours in the frigid cold.
That afternoon Marina lost most of the popularity points she had begun to accrue. She said after lunch it would be good idea to walk maybe two hours up to Pastukhov rocks for good acclimatisation. Some thought that time out in horrible weather like that would be more destructive than the added acclimatisation was worth. Needless to say they were outvoted we trundled off into distance for an hour and half, braving the blizzard… enjoying the lack of Welshmen. The K-Tech and Thermalator clothing was all that stood between us and the raging Russian blizzard, it is at times like this that good gear really comes to the fore.
Tuesday, June 29th the fifth day of our ascent. The alarm went off at 2:55 am and I tried in vain to ignore it using my car park attendant impression (“I heard nothing, I saw nothing”) but alas it was time to go - this was it. Ollie and Dirk put on the bare essentials and went downstairs to check if the weather was going to smile upon us. I cursed as they came back reporting no clouds and reasonable winds.
By the time we had dressed into our thermal underwear, fleece layer, salopettes, outer jackets, two pairs of socks, plastic double boots, gaiters, crampons, beanies and goggles, there was just enough time to fill up our water bottles and swallow some Oats-so-Easki (Boomerang Banana flavour - it repeats on you, coming back for hours afterward). We were in good time to make our 4:40 am start. The thermometer read -14°C.
The next few hours were spent in a prudent space walk, left foot followed right foot. Tick followed tock, followed tick, followed tock. It was so cold that the ice squeaked with each footstep, the teeth of my crampons and the crunch of the ice axe, the only things between me and a slip 'n slide back to the barrels.
The way to the top is a straight and featureless slope all the way up to Pastukhov rocks, a small dark band of granite, a common starting point for some expedition teams. Rob had been carrying the video camera in his hands, filming what he could along the way, until we stopped for a well deserved rest, two hours since we had started. It was about this time that he realised the camera battery was frozen and had stopped working. The catch 22 with cameras at high altitude, balances between keeping the camera warm, which causes the lenses to fog up with condensation, and keeping them cold which freezes the battery… Not only were we unable to continue filming, but Rob had to lug a R30 000 brick of sh** to the summit. He was unimpressed to say the least.
From Pastukhov rocks, the summit route leads across to the left and into the saddle, a small valley between the two bosoms of Elbrus with left / western summit being slightly higher… well that's what the guidebook says. What it doesn't say is that it gets steeper and the foreshortened route appears a lot shorter and easier from the lower camps.
By now exhaustion had set in and the episode with the camera had left us bleak. Some were tempted to turn around, but the thought of the schlep involved in a return trip soon made the option of going home seem like a bad idea. So it continued, left foot, breathe breathe, right foot, breathe breathe, rinse, repeat.
As I sat there that day, I could help but wonder what would be more painful, standing up to continue in the snow, in the scathing cold, my swollen ankles like stone ploughs, or the pain and defeat that accompanies the coward on his walk home.
By now it was around 10 am we sat surveying the escape route up the sidewall of the western summit ridge. From here it was going to a piece of cake (month old fruit cake… really, really bloody hard). The sidewall ascends at approximately 60° with a vertical rise of 200 m. Add the knee-deep snow, howling head wind, extreme fatigue and you have the recipe for the sequel to Stephen King's Misery. As we topped the ridge leading on to the summit plateau, we met a heap of Canadians, sheltering in vain from the wind. Ollie, The Machine and I were about 60 m ahead and after the third repetition, everyone managed to decipher what I was shouting, “can- see-it”. My heart soared, and the wind was in my sails again… for the next four steps. Despite the summit being 300 m in the distance, we were still unable to increase our pace to anything more than out left foot, right foot, rinse, repeat routine.
photos: Marina Ershova and Alexandr Pashkov
[NEWS & REPORTS]
address: Fontanka 64-63, 191002 St.Petersburg, Russia