Elbrus the 360 way

Expedition: Elbrus North-South Traverse

Rolfe Oostra

The main problem working with Daniel, our Russian guide is the language barrier. I ask him how long he has been a mountain guide and he says eight minutes. We are working in a time warp where yesterday becomes tomorrow and today becomes a pelican. Still, I like the guy. We both work in the mountains and we both love guiding clients up monster mountains to fulfil their dreams and ambitions. In this case, 10 mountaineers hungry to summit the highest mountain on the European continent.

Last week I climbed the mountain via the normal route from the south (check out my blog here). Just like everybody else does but the experience left me with a hollow feeling of not having reached the summit in the style this great mountain deserves. Call me an idiot – “climbing” from the south requires little more than being zoomed up to nearly 4,000m by machines with the option of being zoomed to 5,000m by even more machines. Ticking off a member of the sacred Seven Summits this way surely has got to be the way to go? Imagine if all the other six were the same: Denali would be “climbed” by a granny in a wheelchair and Aconcagua by a six year old girl on her way to school. Everest?  Pah… a bow-legged tourist would just take a machine and whiz up to the top, have a nice cup of coffee and soak up the views before continuing on his way with his sightseeing of the Asian continent. Well, personally I like a challenge, untouched scenery and a bit of solitude. Call me mad but that’s just the way I am. Thankfully, the 10 climbers who formed my team had similar thoughts and together we rolled up our sleeves, shouldered big loads and started up the mountain from the rarely climbed Northern side.

Together we launched into an epic that proved the adventure itself is the price and the summit the bonus, an ordeal where there were to be no guarantees of a successful outcome and where blood sweat and tears is the only currency to pay for the way to the top. It starts by boarding a bunch of four wheel drive vehicles for the 6 hour drive to the mountain. Think rough roads through mind blowing landscape, think bashing your head against the car roof as you hit pothole after pothole and think driving along a strip of road fighting hard to cling onto the right side of the abyss and you’ll get the idea of what it takes just to reach base camp. From here there is no rest, for as soon as we have swallowed the wild mix of ingredients that constitute a Russian’s lunch we set off to climb into a world of contorted volcanic rock and swirling afternoon mist. Then the hard work begins as we haul loads up to what will be our high camp: an unfortunately low high camp that lies at the bottom of the near 2,000m long glacier that forms the road up to the summit. We occupy this camp, a mix of tents and a tin hut for two nights and revel in the feeling that it is just us against the mountain. The route roars up before us. Nothing short of spectacular. For more than a vertical mile above us the majestic twin summits of this quite sexy mountain continuously changes colour from sunrise to sunset.

The reality of the task ahead sinks in as we climb up the glacier to an altitude higher than Mont Blanc in order to acclimatise. From here it’s still roughly another kilometre to the summit. The load carrying days are tough. The acclimatisation days even tougher. God, how are we going to feel come summit day?

Summit day: nobody except perhaps the captain has slept on the rest day before we are to attempt the west summit. At 5,642m this point forms the highest point on the European continent and therefore has become sexy to such a large group of people. We spend our rest day playing a card game called shit-head and listening to the hail bounce off the tents. The reality of what is to come slowly dawns as we walk onto the glacier before the midnight hour. A cold blackness surrounds us and a fidgety wind swirls between the ice and rocks. Our world is nothing more than what our head-torches brighten up but still we can’t help but peer into the dark to see what we are in for.

We start off, each lost either into a private world of deep contemplation or the wild static of the Ipod. Step by step we get closer to the top of Europe. Step by step the gap between the fastest and the slowest begins to widen. As with each expedition the war of attrition has begun. You can either hack the attempt or you can’t. The mountain is now beginning to show its teeth and the battle is on. As the sun rises over the spectacular Caucasus Mountains everyone is still moving up, all wrapped up in their own private battle of willpower. But the Captain and the lovely Emma are the first to slow down. They are falling well behind the steady plod set by Simon the tortoise. We reach the 5,000m mark. Our breaks have been short and the cracks are beginning to form. And then unexpectedly, Andy is the first to go. He has reached the beginning of the saddle separating the two summits but his legs, having already climbed a mile of vertical ascent have begun to buckle. Thank God I have a solid Russian crew on hand, they might not understand the difference between today and tomorrow but they know a mountain rescue when they see one and are over Andy like a rash.

The rest of the group move up. A long traverse to the south saddle, and then a longish break before the final headwall and the traverse via a few false summits to the top. It’s on. The bitter forecast predicting all kinds of nastiness is not developing yet and the group begins to ascend the last steep snow separating us from our objective. Step by step. Crampons biting hard snow, then ice, then scratching rock. Everyone holding it together as the summit looms ahead and the thunderheads hiding snow and lightning begin to gather around us. It is going to be close but one by one the remaining six team members climb the last meter onto the back of the mighty Elbrus and raise their hands in triumph. Simon sheds a few tears as he comes last, the hares having beaten him to it. Elation mixed with absolute exhaustion overwhelms the team. Collectively they have climbed some high mountains and run some very impressive ultra-marathons but never has an objective been so hard to obtain. A few photos and we descend into the industrial wasteland that makes up the climbing route on the south.

A battle hard won and a battle fought hard. Nothing can be more satisfying than to have truly earned a mountain summit as noble as the mighty Elbrus in the most honourable way possible.

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