As soon as I saw our transport after arriving at Mineralnye Vody, I knew our Russian expedition to Elbrus was off to a good start. A classic 4×4 with the appearance (and performance) of being from the Soviet era swallowed our ski gear, and after a little contortion, us as well. We were getting the full value expedition experience!
Gazing through the windows at the local scenery, with occasional eyes shut traffic related terror, we made our way out of the city and to the remote north side of Elbrus. Away from the popular ski resort on the south side of the mountain, Base Camp was a collection of purpose built huts, and old buses on blocks.
Basecamp cook, christened Fiona by our team, seemed to run the show and despite not speaking a word of English talked to us in non-stop rapid Russian the entire time. Never have I eaten so much cabbage in one week, too scared to not clean my plate.
With only one other team on the mountain, the acclimatisation treks and skis felt pretty wild, with regular close encounters of Lammergeier vultures, Marmotts and tracks that looked like some big cat was prowling the lower mountain. Getting acclimatised meant covering the same ground a few times, and we gradually cached gear on various parts of the mountain where we would need it the following day. The wildlife made use of our lower ski cache one night, when the weather had been very wet (snow up high and rain at base camp). An empty upturned ski boot must have been a nice dry refuge for a Marmott, and doubled up as a toilet too.
Carrying gear and moving into high camp at 3760m was a long day, but this being the off season the camp was very quiet, with just one other team of two sharing the facilities with us. A much less scary camp cook looked after us well, producing vast quantities of breakfast, lunch and dinner whilst the boyfriend kept the hut warm by tipping engine oil into the stove for fuel. Some lessons in ventilation and propping open of the door ensured an air flow, and less fumes. It was definitely warm though.
By now we were settled into our weather patten for the week, with bright sunny mornings, followed by cloud, thunder and snow during the afternoon. Being at high camp meant we were now in position to take advantage of the fresh snow, and we had a couple of excellent ski days breathing thin air and enjoying long ski descents, putting fresh tracks on the mountain. It was really excellent skiing, with limited crevasse danger, almost zero avalanche risk and views for miles.
We’d held out for the weather for our summit day, and Friday turned out to be the best of the week. From the North side there’s no leg up from ski lifts or snow machines, it’s all human powered and a long day from the camp at 3760m to the summit at 5642m. After some dozing, everyone was up for the 1am breakfast, and away skinning by half past. The stars were out, as well as the wind and it was pretty cold skinning for the first three hours up to “Lenz rocks” when we had a longer stop as dawn arrived. The next section leading to the col between the twin summits was rumoured to be icy, so playing a conservative game we cached the skis and continued on foot, now roped up for crevasses. As the sun came round, and the time wore on, it got hotter and hotter until we were down to single layers again and slapping on the sunscreen.
After a long drag, and multiple false summits we made it to the col, and the junction with the normal south side route. Having basically been on our own for six days it was a slight shock to be in amongst a lot of teams from the south side. Ditching all our gear including rucksacks we joined the teams climbing the last couple of hundred meters to the summit, where we found a space for our own summit photos.
Now it was time for my standard “we’re only half way” summit speech, followed by a reversal of our ascent route to the skis. It was turning into a very long day on minimal sleep, and it was a relief to clip into the planks and slide the last 900m to high camp, arriving a fraction under 13hrs after setting off that morning. A massive effort from the multi-national team of Sam, Andrea, Chris and Todd who I still don’t think realise quite what they’ve achieved.
All that was left to do the next day was try and cram all the gear into the ‘sacks and get ourselves to the road head and finally to a shower. The ski gear was getting a little “ripe” after seven long days on the mountain, and despite the quantity and relative quality of the food at the camps, we were looking forward to a celebratory meal out, and a couple of beers too 🙂