Sam's Elbrus Experience
Our goal for this expedition was to Summit Mt Elbrus (The West Summit) - Altitude 5642m – “One of the Seven Summits”.
We departed the UK on 29th August 2019, traveling via Paris for a quick re fuel and then onwards to Moscow. Upon our arrival in Moscow we spent two days in the city and conducted some low-level cardio training. Maintaining our fitness levels is key, even when transiting to new regions on expeditions. Keeping the body ticking over is a way of life. Jake was preparing for an ultra-marathon at the time, so a nice 20-mile run was on the cards along with a couple of other runs around the city. It’s a great way to maintain the fitness and take on a few of the sights, the Red Square being a favourite and a must see whilst in Moscow. After our short layover we could catch our final connecting flight onwards to Mineralnye Vody International Airport. We then joined the rest of our group and began the three hours mini bus journey to our hostel near the summit of Cheget which is located in the Caucasus Mountain range, on the boarder of Russia and Georgia. The Caucasus mountains are a mountain system at an intersection of Asia and Europe. It stretches between the Caspian Sea and Black Sea it surrounds the eponymous Caucasus region, home to our goal Mount Elbrus the highest peak in Europe – 5642m.
Acclimatisation Day 1
We had arrived at our hostel the evening of the 1st September 2019. We started to quickly bed in and make the most of the limited luxuries. After a good night’s sleep and some good local food, consisting of locally caught fish and lots of mash potatoes we were fuelled and ready to conduct our first hike on the expedition: Boarder walk towards Cheget.
The summit of Cheget sits across the boarder in Georgie at 3400m. The summit on the Russian side of the boarder – “Cheget Altitude 3100m”. Today we carried minimum kit and took our time to reach the summit this side of the border. Our guide pointed out some local thyme which we picked for cups of tea and also some local fruit we could use as snacks in the mountains. The views were stunning and we made great progress reaching the summit within 2 hours and our decent took us roughly 45 minutes. On our way down we stopped off at a local mountain cafe where they served us a homemade meat pie. The pastry tasted like donut quite sweet and soft in texture. Later on, in the day we explored the local market in Cheget, where we brought some supplies and snacks for our summit bid. That evening we sent our final messages/good byes to family and friends before going dark being offline comms until we’d return from our summit bid. We packed up all our essential kit ready to head up to high camp – (Our base camp for our summit bid – 3800m).
Acclimatisation Day 2
Another early rise and another day of mash potatoes, eggs, and local delights. We grabbed all of our equipment after our breakfast and departed on our way towards high camp 3800m “our base camp” for our summit attempt on Mt Elbrus.
We conducted another acclimatisation hike from 3800m to 4100m today. Training with crampons and getting use to the weight of the kit at altitude. It took the group of 6 roughly an hour to reach our destination on the hill. At 4100m we stopped to have cups of local tea we had brought with us in our bergans. Consisting of thyme which we had picked the day before on the foothills of Cheget and some honey we’d bought from the local market. At 4100m we found a suitable location to conduct some vital training with ice axes. We practiced a variety of different falls which meant we had to practice a selection of different ice axe drills, (Ice axe arrests). On our hike today we spotted blue ice which is very different compared to certain ground sign and fresh powdered snow. Blue ice it is very dangerous as your speed after three seconds can pick up to 30kmph. On lots of fresh soft snow you have more time to react if you fall or slip.
After we had conducted enough training for the day, we headed back to high camp to rest up and prepare our kit for further training. The weather conditions each day around 1200hrs would always become worse. Almost dangerous if you were at a high altitude. The visibility would completely drop to white out and the clag/visibility would not clear again until the early hours the next day. This was a clear indication to ourselves that our summit bid day would consist of a very early start with the intention of being off the hill by 1300hrs to make best use of the weather window.
Acclimatisation Day 3
More carbs to fuel the engines for the day. We began the day by climbing up from 3800m -4100m this took us roughly an hour/just under. We then took a quick 10-minute break to refuel and catch our breathe before heading on higher up the mountain.
We then proceeded to climb from 4100m - 4400m the skies were bright blue without a cloud in sight and you could see so clearly up to the summits, both the West and East summits. Looking back down the route we had come you could see across the whole of the Caucasus mountain range across to mountains which share the boarder with Georgia. At 4400m we took another 10minute break to rest and adjust to the altitude. A stray Dog appeared out from behind some rocks his breed looked like a St. Bernard cross of some sort. Red eyed and slow moving he was no novice to the hill. He plodded over to our team and greeted us, very friendly and looking for a snack it felt as if he had appeared to almost check on us. He stopped for a stroke and sat on Toms bag for a bit before trying to beg for some of my KitKat. We then packed up our bags and began to climb again. The dog followed us for a while before heading off in front and disappearing not to be seen again.
4400m- 4800 the weather had begun to turn the change in clouds. It was turning dark and the clouds moved in quickly. Visibility started to drop the mist/clag was coming in closer and looked as if a storm may be on the way. Within a total of 3hours we had climbed 1000m of elevation. The last 100m had become a bit of a test taking it slowly we made it to the rocks which look like a no7 on the side of the East summit of Mt Elbrus. We took a 30-minute rest to acclimatise to the higher altitude before beginning our decent to high camp.
On our decent to high camp a local/ another climber laughed at us because of the speed we were descending, he made out how easy it is to move quickly downhill. So, with that in mind I challenged him to a Race 50m sprint back up the hill. It seemed like a great idea at the time as I was feeling fresh. Holding my own I showed him up and beat him in the challenge although I was absolutely blowing afterwards. We arrived back at High camp just in time before all visibility was lost for the next 12 hours.
Day 4 Rest Day
Our rest day at High camp consisted of lots of sleep and lots of food. We prepared and turned our kit around the previous evening after we returned from 4800m. This gave us maximum rest and down time knowing our kit was good to go at a moment notice to move depending on the weather window for summit day. That evening we had our last super of fish and more mash potatoes. The team all sat around and discussed the weather window for one last time and arrange that we needed to depart at 0200hrs on the 6th September 2019 to make our summit bid. With that in mind everyone carried out a final kit check ready to depart the next day. Feeling ready and raring to go not much more sleep could be had turning restlessly for the last few hours knowing that Summit day was coming ever nearer.
Day 5 Bid for Summit Day 6th September 2019.
It was a fresh cold start to the day, torches on and keeping close together we began our summit bid. The climb became noticeably more difficult from 5000m onwards because of the altitude. Other groups on the hills were moving slowly. We reached the saddle of The West and East summits, having overtaken several other teams on our way. Daylight broke as we reached the saddle. We took our first break at this point before continuing our ascent towards the West summit. The majority of the climb from this point onwards became harder with each step. We had to clip onto rope which had been pre laid from previous climbers, it was a steep ascent with lots of ice and fresh powder snow. It would’ve been easy to take a potentially fatal fall at any moment.
After a final 10-minute break we began the “zombie walk” the final 100m ascent which took roughly an hour or so. It’s known as the zombie walk for obvious reasons. Altitude sickness could have quite easily set in before this point for individuals. Altitude sickness, the mildest form being acute mountain sickness, is the negative health effect of high altitude, caused by rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation. Symptoms may include headaches, vomiting, tiredness, trouble sleeping, and dizziness. Acute mountain sickness can progress to high altitude pulmonary edema with associated shortness of breath or high altitude cerebral edema with associated confusion. Having a high level of fitness can help to prevent Altitude sickness but anyone can be affected by it. High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is a life-threatening form of non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs) that occurs in otherwise healthy people at altitudes typically above 2,500 meters (8,200 ft). If you are an on looker to the mountain watching climbers ascend the slopes to the summits you can see the effects of the altitude on the groups of climbers making their final approach to the summit.
Slow and methodical some struggling more than others, battling those inner demons and with little oxygen in the atmosphere some struggle harder than others. Each step can be a huge battle against the altitude and against the mind to complete the task at hand. I had to dig deep and have serious words with myself to push through those final boundaries and steps to reach the summit. The last steps upon reaching the summit I felt overwhelmed with joy and relief with tears of adrenaline and accomplishment. It had been a long journey getting to this point on the expedition, not wanting to fail so close to the final goal, I pulled myself together to soak up the views. Standing proud with the Wilderness Navigators Team, on the highest Summit in Europe, the West Summit of Mount Elbrus 5642m we had made it “One of the Seven in the Bag”.
Blog Written by Samuel Dean.