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2017 Mountaineering, Joe Stickland, Mount Elbrus

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Elbrus Expedition 2016

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Elbrus Expedition Diary (8-21st July)

Day 1: Late on a Friday night I set off to Heathrow airport from my home in Rotherham. Our team was allotted one of the last flights to Moscow airport. I settled in with the members of my team which I had just met for the first time; they seemed pleasant and intrinsically like-minded (as you’d expect). I received a text from my sister which was inspiring and I kept re-reading the message on the flight to Russia, where I had two seats to myself – luxury.

During the five hour layover in Moscow, I settled into my Muhammad Ali autobiography. Eventually, we caught the flight to Mineralnye Vody airport in the South of Russia. Following a slight complication with my immigration papers, we proceeded to the hotel – a three hour drive from the airport. We met with our guide Irena, who explained our itinerary for the coming five days. I played table tennis with a young 15 year old boy named Kimmy, who I assume was the son of the hotel owner. Somehow, I won.

Day 2: After a sedate start to our day, I was not prepared for the turmoil to come. It would turn out to be one of the longest days of my life A two and a half drive took us to over 2500m, where we left the vehicles to commence our “warm up” trek. The conditions were poor; visibility was no more than 10 meters, with thunder and lightning putting on an awesome display of nature’s destructive brilliance.

We ascended to over 3300m, and traversed across a small gully of compact snow. Shane slipped harmlessly about 15m, to cries of “moron” from Sam. Once over the col, we descended following a stream and scrambling over some loose rock formation. The weather was drawing in and the day turned to night. It was at this point when I first feared that the guides were clueless.

We saw a heard of horses in the mist, a surreal scene. We trekked in the dark for a prolonged period, very few people had brought their head torches as we were told we wouldn’t be needing them– a mistake which I will not make again! After running out of water and food, we continued aimlessly after the sun had set around 19:30hrs. Because of the constant rain, we asked the guides whether we could take refuge under a band of trees until the sun rose.

At around 1:00am, Ali made a matter of fact analogy, namely the guides were in fact: “idiots”. We would recall this phrase with amusement throughout the trip. To her credit, Ali’s description was spot on, the guides did not even have a compass and map and were using their iPhones (which obviously had no service) in an attempt to find camp.

We finally stumbled upon the yellow mess tent around 1:30am, were we dried off. I had a cup of Russian tea which was just what the doctor ordered; paradise in liquid form. I tented with Shane and Jason after a wholly tiresome day, wondering what madness was to follow.

Day 3 After last night’s disaster, I expected to wake feeling miserable. However, after a light breakfast I felt re-charged and ready to acclimatise once more. We started in the late morning and quickly crossed a precarious bridge that presided over one of the many fast flowing streams. The terrain quickly made walking difficult and we scrambled up the hill. I led the group just behind the guide and we entered into a pine cone war as we trekked.

Soon after we had started, Michael turned back to camp with Dafidd (a member of the “oldies” group). Michael claimed that the terrain was too difficult and that the guides were acting irresponsibly. We frequently rested on the steep and arduous terrain, taking photos and actually enjoying a day free from rain and darkness. We were surrounded by trees and consequently struggled to see the brow of the hill we were attempting to reach.

Eventually, our guide took us out of the forested area and onto a grassy area. The severity of steepness was still forthright, and Aryaki struggled to keep pace. We stopped on the hillside looking down at the dots that now represented our campsite. At this point, Sam took his bag off and in that moment one of the funniest episodes of the expedition took place.

Sam’s bag started rolling away from him, quickly turning into a fully-fledged flip and eventually his bag came to a rest 150m below. Obviously, the rest of the group found this event extremely funny. As it happened, the bags dive acted as a rather appropriate excuse to call it a day and head down for camp. I didn’t sleep well; I recall overthinking about life at home.

Figure 1: Ali concentrating hard, walking across a precarious bridge

Day 4: We awoke earlier on the third day, our aim being to complete an acclimatization walk to 3200m. We waited patiently for Shane to ready himself and we started walking around 7:30am. I walked with Dafidd, where he entertained me with his “Russian-Borat” impressions. After a short while, we arrived at a stream which we had to wade through without shoes or socks on. We arrived at the next camp where we pitched our tents next to a herd of innocuous cows, the altitude was around 2400m. Eagles fluttered high above, circling majestically and clearly waiting for an opportune moment to pounce. This setting was also the first time we saw our eventual target; Mount Elbrus. It was nice to visually witness our goal first hand, but it also gave me a sense of how far we all still had to go.

In the afternoon, we began our trek to 3200m. Aryaki became unwell and waited for our group at a formation of rocks. This confirmed to our group that the guides were clueless about health and safety and common guiding protocol. The trek to the summit was steep and we crossed a small area of snow before we were greeted by amazing views over the Caucasus Mountains and into Georgia.

On the descent, Shane decided to “ski” across the snow – an act that the rest of the group found very amusing, Shane’s choice of footwear left much to be desired. We discovered that Aryaki was not where we had left here and latterly found that she had descended with another group of hikers. Everyone’s feet began to ache due to the steep terrain, but this only meant the soup tasted even sweeter at camp. It was then time to re-charge the batteries ahead of tomorrow’s endeavours.

Figure 2: The sun setting at our campsite after a hard days walking

Day 5: The guides decided that Aryaki was unable to participate in our trek today, due to her inability to keep pace with the group on the previous day. We set our alarm for 6:00am and began trekking sat 7:30am. I had a fruit tea and cheese and bread to fuel for the day’s work. The first hour entailed a hard slog over undulating terrain. But the environment quickly changed into a jaw-dropping scramble, with a frightening drop on one side of the highland.

I helped Michael clamber up the last section of rock before we had a break for lunch on top of the ridge. Irena seemed pleased with our efforts and even let out a smile; a nice surprise for someone now dubbed “the wicked witch of the East”. We then embarked on a tiresome walk to 3400m, I struggled to keep pace with the main group but Ali, Jason and Michael all fell behind myself to form three separate groups. We reached the Col around 1:00pm, waiting for the older group to catch up before beginning our descent.

With the heat of the day on our backs, we made our way down. The semi-frozen lake was a spectacular sight and once we reached the bay, we rested. Some bathed their feet in the water, but I merely put my bag behind my head and blissfully slept for around 30 minutes in the warm sun. The Georgian portion of the Caucasus Mountains seemed so close that one could simply stretch out an arm and touch the peaks.

The trek down to 1800m was painful. Many were suffering from wearing feet and I was filled with annoyance at the guide’s perceived enjoyment of our pain. I suffered an impromptu nose-bleed on the descent, my first symptom of the altitude. The campsite was in a forested area, where I indulged in some herbal tea and biscuits. Jason actually asked if the camp housed running showers, a Jason-esque query. I saw a black squirrel hopping between the branches before getting some settling down to get some shut eye.

Figure 3: What a place to have a snooze!

Day 6: Today, the guides told us that we would descent to the main road, getting transport to another side of the Caucasus Mountains and embark on a trek to 3700m. The guides generously bought us ice cream at the bottom, and after a short journey we departed the vehicles and began trekking. I broke trail with Irena, who recommended we stop and fill our water bottles with a mineral stream. The water tasted rusty however, and most discreetly decanted their bottles soon afterwards.

We passed a formation of rocks called the “dragon’s teeth”, eagles circled above as we crossed this ungainly terrain. When we stopped for a break, Tej failed to catch his bottle, when thrown by Aryaki. The path took us on a comfortable incline, we passed two tethered dogs that looked like huskies. The terrain suddenly became extremely steep and we gained approximately 400m in just over half an hour. At the time of the ridge we waited for the horses who were bringing equipment and supplies to the camp.

The guides decided that we would stay at 2600m for the duration of the day and get up early to climb to the 3700m col. So at 13:00hrs, our day was complete. As a result, we all bathed our feet in the ice cold stream and took to relaxing for the rest of the day. To cure our boredom, halfway through the day we decided to indulge in a challenge – who could keep their feet in the ice pool for the longest. I set the record initially with 1 minute and 30 seconds.

However, this was comprehensively beaten by Hans (a Dutch member of the other party). Halfway through he remarked that he “didn’t have a heart rate”, as if to emphasise how easy the task was. Hans was a very nice middle aged man from the Netherlands; when Sam asked if he had done any running on a previous day he said “no”, Sam then enquired about his marathon t-shirt to which Hans informed him he had completed eight marathons. Not bad for someone who doesn’t run! Despite this, Hans’ record was eventually bettered by Shane.

Later on I went for a short walk with Tej and Michael for about an hour and a half. When climbed up a steep path, the direction we would be trekking in the morning. It was nice to have the later afternoon sun on our backs, on a steep and physically demanding section. One exploration lasted about an hour before we returned for hot tea and a bite to eat. I prepared my items for the early morning start the next day, and got as much sleep as possible. The night sky was amazing, not a cloud in sight and more stars than I had ever seen, it made me feel lucky to be in this most wonderful of places.

Day 7: We woke at 1:00am, I had cheese and bread, which was quickly becoming my stable meal of the expedition. Only Sam, Ali, Tej and myself participated in the trek from our party. The other group comprised of James, Hans, Pascal, and Dafidd (Richard and Clive had opted for a break at the hotel the previous day). We packed for the night ascent, with the moon-kissed Caucasus Mountains boasting their natural beauty.

We started on the same path I followed the previous day with Tej and Michael, with the terrain compromising mainly of loose rock. Dafidd stopped for a tactual toilet break on the way up, which I suspect served as an appropriate disguise for him to catch his breath. As the sun rose around 04:30hrs, we caught an amazing view of Elbrus. The guides pointed out the snow tract that was taking people to a higher point on the South side of the seemingly monstrous peak. I took several pictures of the glistening mountain and thought about how hard the task would be in the days to come.

The sun rose around 4:30am. After trying to cut ice for around 30 minutes, our guides gave in and decided to leave those without crampons on a small rock face. As the only member in the younger group to have crampons, I accompanied the older group through the last 100m to the Col (altitude 3715m). I felt rather nervous using crampons for the first time on an extremely steep bit of ice. After five minutes the ice got so steep that we were “front pointing”. I concentrated intensively and eventually reached the Col were I was warned about the huge overhang of snow. We took pictures, with the outstanding landscape making an aesthetic mockery of my awful hat-hair.

When we returned to the others, they seemed rightly disgruntled and cold. Despite this, everyone congratulated me and we descended as a group. I conversed with Hans on the way down, who confessed (much to my amusement) that Swedish girls “were wild when drunk”. My feet began to ache harshly on the descent and when we returned to camp I wondered how I would make it all the way down to the valley. I thought about the hotel bed and the night of rest.

After being a bad-tempered companion to the others on the way down my spirits eventually picked up when we our vehicles were sighted. I immediately took my boots off, with the smell forming part of the atmospheric bond we were starting to form. After getting into the hotel, I rested throughout the day. I was unable to nap like the others, I was fanatically excited for what was to come. I phoned home, checked social media, eat and read my book before an early night. I roomed with Michael once again.

Day 8: Today was the day were we would step foot on Elbrus proper. Before this however, we spent a frustrating two hours in the rental shop, mainly due to Shane forgetting every essential piece of equipment possible (including gloves!) At the bottom of the cable cars, I noticed knifes everywhere – a stark reminder that we were still in a hostile nation, not far from the war zones in Chechnya and Crimea. The cable cars took around an hour, I noticed the old fashion cylinder huts on the ride; a prominent and renowned feature of Elbrus.

After leaving the cable cars, we stopped in a café. I stocked up on Mars Bars and noticed the “5642m” Elbrus beers. I told myself I would be having numerous bottles of this beverage once I returned from the summit. After we dropped the equipment in our hut, most people walked a short distance up the mountain. We talked about summit day and gossiped over who would make it. Ali took a great picture of me seemingly lost in amazement and in ore of the surrounding peaks. This picture would later become my Facebook profile picture and is the image that introduces my diary (see opening page).

After our walk, we remained in communal hut throughout the rest of the day. We passed the time playing Articulate, a game similar to Charades. Sam angered a male who I presume was the owner of the hut by whistling. Unbeknown to us Westerners, whistling indoors is supposed to lead to loss of income in this part of Russia. When it was Jason’s turn, he described an exercise bike as: “a bike you do exercise on”. This brought the room to laughter (in Articulate, you’re not allowed to state the name of the entity you are describing).

When it became dark, I used the wooden toilet facility. The toilet must’ve contained 20 years of waste and to say the smell was horrendous is more than an understatement. I then prepared my gear for the next day and tucked into the bottom bunk. I slept surprisingly well given the increased altitude (4000m).

Day 9: We arose at 7:00am and, after breakfast, everyone prepared their crampons. For most of our party, this would be there first day at using crampon. We hiked up to 4300m were we rested and we told to practice self-arresting. This encompassed throwing yourself down a small decline and burrowing your ice axe into the snow to stop your descent. After this, we continued on our acclimatisation walk with everyone seeming to be coping aptly with the increased altitude.

We played “kiss, marry, boat” while trekking. We stopped around 4550m, were we lunched and I took some epic pictures of the serene mountains. The surrounding postcard imagery sure helped the light headache I had developed. We were taught how to slide/ski down the mountain, without crampons. Some people slid on their bums and I recall thinking that I would not lower myself to sliding on my backside as a means of descent.

When we arrived back at camp, most people napped and began preparing themselves for the next day. Later on, the guides confirmed what many of us had feared, that we wouldn’t be able to have another day of acclimatisation because of the incoming storm. This meant that our summit day would have to be the following day.

Our team was considerably quieter at the evening meal, everybody obviously had the following day’s task at the forefront of their minds. Before bed, I phoned home, and told my parents of our plans. They wished me luck and asked that I stay safe. I knew my Mum would be worried sick but I also knew that deep down, she wanted me to do this. Before bed, I relayed my message to the group: namely that: “It’s not the altitude, it’s the attitude” (credit to late Mountain Madness leader, Scott Fischer, for that one)

Figure 4: The Caucasus Mountains, viewed from our acclimatisation walk on Elbrus (4550m)

Day 10 Summit Day. We woke at 11:00pm. After fuelling up on cereal, we readied our equipment, turned on our head torches, and set off into the moonlit night. 1642m to go.

I had saved my iPhone charge in the preceding days, so I was able to loose myself somewhat for the first couple of hours of our trek. We were accompanied by extra guides on our summit day, one of which had brought a beautiful mountain dog along (named Bisk). Much to the annoyance of our group, the dog galloped up Elbrus with relative ease in comparison to us.

The sun began to rise as we reached the point where we had halted our acclimatisation walk the previous day. As this happened, the older group rocketed past us in the snow mobile. This sparked anger amongst the group. We knew that we wouldn’t be taking the snow mobile up to the 4600m mark. As a group, we had decided that we wanted to summit the mountain using the most natural means. We also knew the older group had opted for the snow mobile. Despite all this, the waving and smiling of the other group as they passed seemed inherently patronising (though I’m sure it wasn’t).

I was leading the group and pushed myself to the 4600m mark. I presumed I was the first at this checkpoint, but Bisk was laying blissfully in the snowing, catching some morning rays. We rested for approximately 20 minutes, taking on food and water. We scaled over a subsidiary peak and lost the sun’s heat again. It was like going back in time and I began to go extremely cold, pleading for the sun to rise once more. The route became crowded, I figured that the majority of trekkers had taken the snow mobile. Tej and I walked together now, forming the middle bracket of our increasingly disjointed party.

I was becoming exhausted, and Tej and I decided break up our walking with rest periods (30 steps to 15 seconds rest). We waited for Ali, who was struggling immensely with the altitude. The machines that were Sam and Shane had gone ahead with Irena and we presumed that Aryaki had headed back. It took another hour for the sun to reach us once more and finally I was able to regain some warmth.

To my delight, we regrouped with the others at the bottom of a plateau before the summit push. While we waited, I had a quick twenty minute snooze. I once again resumed my position in the middle of the group as we commenced, destined for Europe’s highest point. After approximately 40 minutes, the weather suddenly turned. The wind had picked up markedly, and I feared not only for a failed summit bid but for our safety. No guides were around us and we had a significant drop on our right hand side. I waited and other groups passed us, all fixed to a guided rope. One of the guides caught up with us, but only to get Bisk down the mountain. We were on our own. Michael made a judgement call and headed down. I implored him to carry on, but he had made up his mind.

After a dangerous 20 minutes or so, the path evened out. We saw Sam and Shane who informed us that we were on the summit ridge, the summit was only another 100m ahead. They had been on the summit only five minutes previous. We left our backpacks with Irena and Shane. Sam came with me, Ali, Jason and Tej to the summit. I recall the summit being extremely underwhelming, with a little symbolic statue. The view was awful, a complete whiteout and after taking a few photographs of me with my Yorkshire flag and some other poses, we headed down.

Despite the disappointing view at 5642m, I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I had just completed the second out of seven summits. All the way down, I couldn’t help but smile. We reached the summit ridge and to our surprise saw Aryaki. She had trudged to within an hour of the peak. However, Irena rightfully decided that she was to head down with the rest of us. The weather was horrendous and it was too late in the day.

After getting to the 4600m mark, I had nothing left and preceded to bum slide with Tej (something I had promised myself I wouldn’t do the previous day). I shot an incredible video of the panoramic view of the Caucasus Mountains while bum sliding and quickly got back to base camp; it was 13:00hrs. Once there, I slept for the rest of the day. I would only wake to have lunch and dinner.

Figure 5: Not the greatest picture! But I made it!

Day 11: The next day was bleak. A white canvas enveloped Elbrus, reducing visibility to virtually nil. The weather forecast had been correct, I breathed a sigh of relief that we had summited the previous day and we were at the end of the expedition. We would have never summited in a white out. Everybody congregated in the main hut, and we proceeded to play articulate and card games for the next two hours. After around four hours, there was a break in the storm and a snow mobile had come to take us down to the cable cars.

It took us another hour and a half to descend. Getting the equipment from one cable car to the next was arduous work and my fingers were freezing. Eventually, we got to the bottom of the mountain. Our party gave their equipment back to the hire store and after another two hours or so, we were at the hotel. It was 15:00hrs.

Day 12: Our reserve day compromised of a tour of the surrounding area with one of the guides. Weexplored a small mountain via chair lift and sipped on mint tea as we recounted our expedition.Ali was suffering badly from an illness, which we later found to be a pulmonary edema, a condition caused by altitude where blood fills the lungs. We shopped in the local market square, were I was accosted by a man who informed that the crisis in Ukraine was the fault of the West. I was forced to bite my tongue.

We stopped at a café, having traditional Russian food and, at last, I was able to drink the coveted “5642m” beer. The next day, we travelled home. I was thankfully that I was able to achieve what I had set out to do. On the way home I made preliminary plans to climb the next of the seven; Aconcagua. I missed the mountains already.

Figure 6: The coveted 5642 beer, well deserved!