From Russia with love…sleeping beauties, Mallory and big blisters
A very personal account of Mt Elbrus – July 2015
I left for Russia feeling broken, emotionally and physically. The toll of the run up to the expedition of my life and the aftermath of that earthquake plus the last 3 months was starting to show. From the events in Nepal to putting my head in the sand and getting stuck into a huge amount of work when I got back and not letting myself take a breather, why should I, I felt ok. The straw, to coin a phrase, was 2 particularly stressful trips just before I got on the plane to climb Elbrus along with the possibility of having to put down my lifelong friend, my beautiful nearly 15-year-old Spaniel. The thought of climbing a big mountain was exciting but daunting, our route being the North – South Traverse, a significantly harder climb to the usual Southern up and down. This time I was a client, not a leader, and this was my holiday.
I packed in about an hour, throwing what I needed in a bag, picked up Ben and headed off to Heathrow for my hols. My head hurt, my eyes stung with tears, I was trying to laugh on the outside, I hadn’t trained enough and I just wanted to curl up in a ball and go to sleep. We met at check-in, 9 excited individuals about to make an incredible team. We all knew each other by default, Hugo being one of my fab colleagues at 360; his twin brother Ross; Raz who climbed Kili with me 18 months before; Tom who we met in London a month ago; Aggi, our Alpine Queen, who had been on Island Peak with Marco; Jonathan, a year into his new passion for mountaineering and with a couple of 360 expeds under his belt; Jamie, who we would get to know as an after dark party animal and the aforementioned Ben, who in April this year was a polite 19 year old on EBC and Lobuche East as one of my DofE students (just turned 20 and a changed man!). Our Mountain Goat Guide, Rolfe, was heading out to Moscow separately so for now we were on our own!
Hunger called so Ross, Hugo and I managed to grab bangers and mash plus a much-needed pre-trip pint or G&T in departures before boarding our Aeroflot flight to Moscow. 2245 was our flight time and with just over 4 hours in the air I knew that I needed to get some sleep. Alas I was no company for Jonathan who was seated next to me as I was asleep before we even took off and missed the culinary delight of an airplane meal at 0100, never mind!
Waking up as we landed, feeling groggy and in need of coffee we all set off to work our way through Moscow airport with an essential Costa stop along the way. Shortly after finding our gate the ‘boys’ (ie the under 30s) were asleep under the stairs, the men (over 30s) were in the business lounge and the ‘girls’, who are of course ageless, were settled in a café drinking tea. I found Rolfe in a bar and at 0600 had a beer with him…when in Rome!
After another short flight to our final destination, Mineralnye Vody, and with all of our gear thankfully arriving with us, we headed to our hotel via a rather nifty gear shop to hire some kit for Ben and Aggi. I was pleasantly surprised with the hotel, very comfy, great beer, plenty of food and a great shower!
With another catnap under my belt I was starting to feel a little more human again but it was going to take more than a few hours of broken sleep to get me back to normal and with a big expedition looming I was somewhat concerned. I’m quite a tough gal mentally but we all have our limits, could this be mine?
The following morning after a breakfast of chicken kiev and unidentifiable sausages we piled into 2 jeeps and headed off to them there hills. Rolfe had waxed lyrical about the 6-hour journey from hell but what transpired was 2 ½ hours of fantastic windy roads with incredible views being squashed in-between Hugo and Ross, (I was asleep for most of it!) with a quick stop off at a local café for meat soup then off onto an interesting bumpy road for the final 45 mins to base camp. Fortunately the road had been repaved so our journey from hell was no more.
We arrived at lunchtime and were immediately whisked into the mess hut for more soup and more unidentifiable sausages. Once we had our tents sorted the rest of the team went on a walk down to the hot springs and waterfalls. I, unsurprisingly, went to sleep.
Life at base camp at 2600m was nice and relaxed. We were camping here for 2 nights and with ‘comfy’ facilities such as new long drop toilets, with seats no less; it was time to settle in. The next morning brought our first foray of load carrying up to high camp at 3600m. The sun shone, a light breeze wafted around us and a man in his pants wandered passed on his way up to high camp, a sight for sore eyes. We took it slowly and enjoyed our little 1000m jaunt. With full packs secured to our backs, we were taking a load up to our second and last camp, which would be our home for 2 ½ nights. I walked with Ross and Hugo for a while who were doing an ‘old vs. new’ experiment on the mountain plus testing their twin physiology with GSK. Hugo started to film me, asking about Everest, I choked up, we moved on.
After touching camp, dumping our kit and checking out our next home we wend our way back down to the land of oxygen via some very strange mushroom rocks and to a rather late lunch of…you guessed it….unidentifiable sausages..and pasta, yum! You certainly don’t come to Russia for their culinary delights!
Life on this expedition was rather relaxed. Breakfast at 8am, leaving by 9am, getting in to camp mid avo, lots of time to sleep, this certainly was my kind of holiday!
Day 4 in Russia was a windy one. We were wrapped up and raring to go, hauling anchor from our comfy base camp and heading up to the not quite so comfy high camp. We were quite sheltered for the first part of our walk up through the meadows but as soon as we hit the plateau and started to climb up to the ridgeline the wind blew and blew. We felt for those trying to summit today as their chances would have been minimal. We had bright sunshine but the wind was biting and 2500m higher things would have been pretty unbearable.
Making good time we trotted into camp early afternoon, looking forward to lunch, which in Russia seems to be whenever it turns up. Most of our group opted to stay in the hut but camping is my thing and as I settled into my tent the ‘lunch’ shout could be heard. Our chefs were working their magic in very rudimentary conditions and we had a great soup and main meal. Life in the mountains is all about acclimatizing, resting, eating, sleeping, walking high, camping low…and repeat and having done the walking bit it was time to rest, eat and sleep, bliss! Another meal beckoned just before the sun set and then it was time for some proper shuteye until the sun rose at 0530. I always feel completely at home in a tent, I’m so used to sleeping on a matt tucked up in my super warm sleeping bag with my ‘E’ pillow and with my sparkly new Therm-a-Rest Neo Air I had a very comfy night’s sleep.
A new day dawned and after a fair amount of coffee, the obligatory liter of water and a bowl full of porridge it was time to hit the snowline and head up to Lenz Rocks at 4600m, another ascent of near on 1000m. We were heading into glaciated terrain so time to don the crampons and get our ice axes out. We roped up after a short climb up the hill, Rolfe putting us into teams, our team of Tom, Jamie and me with Russian Man Mountain Alex on the front. We plodded up our steep slope in ever decreasing oxygen, me reveling in the most amazing views, in the challenge of the day, in my element.
2/3rds of the way up we stopped for a short break and were treated to an amazing rendition of Ave Maria by Grigory, our Russian guide, we sat mesmerized. Shortly afterwards we were joined by a couple of climbers and their Tin Tin dog. He was just trotting on up as if nothing was unusual, quite a sight to see. Just above this resting place and before we hit our goal, Lens Rocks, his owners popped him in their backpack and off they went to the summit. We arrived in good spirits on 3 separate ropes and spent ½ hour enjoying the views, popping up to the top of the rock before descending back to camp. I was hungry, very hungry, omitting to eat enough on the way up and started to go downhill, pardon the pun, very quickly. Getting back to camp I wolfed down some nuts and inhaled my very late lunch, another good reminder that I need to eat during the day!
As our Chief says ‘no time is ever wasted on reconnaissance’. Climb high and sleep low is a great mountaineering mantra (I had to get it in somewhere Dad!) and yesterday’s little jaunt up another 1000m and back was well worth it both for getting to know the lie of the land and with greater acclimatization we are more prepared for our summit push, due tonight, but we had some work to do in the meantime. I was testing some great Paramo gear and it was getting a good beasting in the various conditions we were experiencing and holding up extremely well.
Rolfe took us down to a little slope next to camp to practice ice axe arrest. This is a vital skill to learn when on the snow as any slip can prove to be serious. Getting yourself out of trouble is a must, you need to be self-sufficient and this was a great place to learn. These types of expeditions are all about learning, clients get more than just the climb and come away with many new vital mountain skills that they can then use elsewhere. We had a great couple of hours of entertainment, learning, practicing, and going over and over getting yourself out of trouble. Once our lesson was over we headed back to camp for more food and a rest. Tonight was our summit night so getting our bags packed and gear sorted was the order for the afternoon along with the obligatory catnap.
2300 came and Rolfe’s ‘wake up you lot’ rang out from his tent across camp. Tugging on your gear at this time is always a little strange. I should be used to it by now but with groggy eyes, putting on my Brynje thermals is a little challenging at best! Once summit ready, we headed to the cook hut for porridge and coffee before heading up to crampon point to get ready for the off. Temperatures were surprisingly high…it’s all relative and we had to hop over the stream of water coming off the glacier, taking care not to get our boots wet. Once at rope point, we got into our teams and off we went, head torches pointed at the snow watching the terrain in front, keeping up, not getting too close to the person in front, one foot in front of the other. Our last trip up to Lenz Rocks had taken 4 hours. This one took The Man Mountain team about 3 ½. With just one stop for a quick snack along the way we just kept on plodding. I turned around to see the other 2 groups a short distance behind and as we got to Lens Rocks and unroped dawn was rising and the sun was starting to show his bright face.
The higher we got, the stronger the wind blew and the lower the temperature dropped. Off went the head torch and on went my Julbo goggles and my down jacket. Once the rest of the group had joined us we carried on up to the next section of our climb. I like to break down every summit, or climb, into sections. Up to x in y hours, onto x in y hours, across the traverse in y hours, up xxx..you get the picture. This summit push is ideal for that with lots of little sections to tick off and then onto the next.
I was loving every step, reveling in having no obligations but still encouraging my fellow climbers, breathing in the rarified air, this is where I’m happy, this is what makes me smile. Our summit attempt is 2000m of ascent over a 10km distance, the longest summit push that I have done to date (I think our Everest and Lhotse double whammy next year may put pay to that claim!) but I was taking it one step at a time. I was eating at every break, a mouthful of nuts, half a ginger bar, just 1500kcal eaten during the entire day with just one litre of water, not enough on a good day but my body just seemed to keep going.
The traverse was the most deceptive part of our climb, a long section underneath the East summit that just seemed to go on forever! Once we had finally come to the end of that little section, all 2 hours of it, we were on the right side of the saddle. Time was passing and we were pushing our limits so the decision was taken to head straight up rather than head across the saddle and up the normal route. I just kept plodding on, slow and steady, on a rope that we had been attached to for a while for safety. We were in heavily crevassed terrain, not an area to go it alone. This little climb, all 300m of it, was a short, steep little stinger. One foot in front of the other, one step more is one step less, but I just didn’t want this to end, all 13 1/2 hours if it, I still didn’t want it to end. Once at the top of this climb we dumped our packs and walked the final 20 minutes on a well-trodden snowy path to the summit. The weather had been amazing all day, strong winds, freezing temperatures but great views right up until we were about 5 minutes from standing on the roof of Europe! Then the clouds rolled in. Great.
Reaching the summit of any mountain is always a great joy whether it’s Snowdon, Kilimanjaro or Manaslu. Each journey is hard fought and each success is well earnt. Success is all relative depending on where your personal summit may be but it is always a success, not a failure.
Standing on top of Mt Elbrus at 5642m was pure joy for me. I never thought I would ever climb Snowdon once let alone all of the mountains I have now climbed and they all seem a little surreal, my life seems a little surreal, like someone is going to burst my bubble, pop my balloon and wake me up from this most amazing dream. Standing on top with Rolfe was special. We had been denied our Everest, our attempt at the roof of the world but we had our lives and for that we will always be eternally grateful. This was our little summit for this year and a well earned one at that.
The rest, they say, is history. Up to the top and back to the hotel in one day, now that is surreal! I came on this expedition feeling broken, Mt Elbrus and my incredible co-climbers, probably without knowing it, had put me back together. I thank you very much.
One life – live it, love it, do it….just don’t waste it x