I had already spent 2 days in St Petersburg when I met the rest of the IMG (International Mountain Guides) team that were assembling for a tilt at the summit of Mt Elbrus with me – 10 climbers and 3 very experienced guides.
We spent 2 days sight seeing in St Petersburg before making a very early morning start to take the flight south to Mineralyne Vody (Min Vody from here on in) and then drive from Min Vody to Cheget, a small village in the valley floor below the twin extinct volcanic peaks of Mt Elbrus
The first few days were acclimatisation walks for the whole team, each reaching a little higher up the slopes of the mountains that surround the area. The mountain range to south of the village is the natural border between Russia and Georgia and on two occasions we were approached by border guards totting machine guns and either asked to explain our movements or advised to go no closer to the border area.
On day 4 we moved from our hotel in the valley up to the private hut at 13,500′ that was to be our home for the next 3 days. From here we completed one more acclimatisation up the rocks and then a rest day before commencing our summit attempt.
At 3:30am were are awake and preparing to head out onto the mountain au up toward the summit at 18,481 feet. The first few hours are straight up the ridge line just to the east of the hut. With the sun rising around 6am the fews are fantastic, south the to Caucasus range (“the border”) that stretches a east / west as far as you can see.
At approx. 15,500 feet we reach the point at which the traverse to the west commences. It’s a worn path in the snow so not technically difficult but the exposure is significant, it would be a rather long slide if you couldn’t complete an effective self arrest in the first few metres. The traverse completes a slow clockwise spiral to bring us into the saddle between the summit cones and it’s about there that the deteriorating weather becomes quite obvious and a threat to a successful summit. There’s just time to pull on some warner gear, eat and drink before Mike our senior guide has a roped up and working hard soon the crux section up the steep snow slope from the saddle to the ridge that gains the summit. It’s was across this section that we came across some seriously exhausted climbers, some that we would eventually see nearing the summit, others that would wisely recognise their exhaustion and return back done into the saddle.
By the time we reached the summit it was white-out conditions and visibility was down to 20-30 metres max. We took 20 m minutes on the summit before commencing the return trip down to the saddle. Downhill, tired and bad conditions conditions – a poor set of ingredients and for our group of 6 it resulted in one stumble and fall that required a team self-arrest to protect from a worse outcome. In the saddle we stopped again to unrope and take on food drink again. The rumble of thunder was plainly obvious and it wasn’t long before Mike was hustling us along to get underway and out of the danger zone. By now the thunder storm was directly overhead, hair on the back of our neck was standing on edge – you feel the the electricity in the air. getting down immediately was a necessity.
And I was I exhausted – my poor lead up training was now evident and yet I didn’t have any option but to keep moving. At times on the return trip down the traverse I would stumble and be shocked into the realisation that more care was needed. I knew the drop was below me even if I couldn’t now see it. At times i fell of the pace and the group moved ahead of me and I was relieved to regroup at the top of the ridge line that dropped down to the hut.
All of our team returned safely to the hut over the next hour. Sasha, Mat and Sarah are last in after having run the last section to minimise there time in the electrical storm.
The next day we defended back to Cheget and on the way down were reminded of the dangers in the mountains when we heard from the mountain rescue team that there had been a death above us when a climber was struck by lightening.
Thanks to Mike, Igor and Sasha from IMG for leading a successful trip to Russia and Mt Elbrus. That’s now 4 of the 7 Summits in the bag – whats next, maybe a return trip to Mt McKinley, or maybe somewhere new- Mt Vinson in Antarctica.
Here’s a gallery of photos from the Mt Elbrus region and summit climb – enjoy.