You don’t remember how painful the contractions were until you go into labour for the second time. Then you scream "Oh no, not again".. What on earth am I talking about and what can it possibly have to do with climbing?
Let me see..... your watch alarm goes off, you ignore it…. it then goes off again, it's 2am, you don’t think you slept but you're not sure. You spent the whole night being pushed on one side by Hubby and by his mate on the other - three people in a two-man tent is cosy! It looks like -20 degrees outside with the wind chill and you need a pee! Twenty minutes later and with a cold bum all six of us are roped together, Tikkas at the ready (Petzel not Chicken unfortunately). I have just vomited for the second time and I can’t walk at the back because I am afraid of the dark.
Last year was my first attempt at this mountaineering thing. Three weeks without the kids and nothing better to do! After taking out a second mortgage to buy a pile of gear I didn’t know how to use, I told my friends "I’m going for a walk in the mountains" and left for the 12hr drive.
Early on the second day of the normal route on Mont Blanc (my first ever peak) I remember chanting to myself ‘I must remember how bad I feel so I never do this again’.
So why did I do it again?
The trip to Russia was planned whilst in Chamonix sharing a camping pitch. Si, Chris, and Dave had done a couple of seasons and had plans! On leaving Si said ‘Next year how do you fancy Elbrus’, ‘yeh, ok’ I said ‘count us in’. I remember thinking as we kissed and hugged our goodbyes that that would probably be the last we saw of them. Three months later an e-mail arrived from Si: we need to set some dates, ASAP. I really didn’t think it would happen, but you just go with the flow. Next the itinerary & kit list comes through, and believe me it was an itinerary to beat all. Si knows how to organise!
The flights got booked, visas arrived and we welcomed a new member to the team ‘Fearless Phil’ and yet again I went shopping and made Mr Visa very happy.
You can imagine my surprise when I found myself stood at Moscow airport with my three rucksacks and my Lonely Planet guide to speaking Russian. Oh shit, is it too late to change my mind? I’ve got a funny feeling I will be saying ‘oh no not again’.
We spent one night in Moscow at the youth hostel (strange building) and then we transferred to Mineralnie Vody airport (very strange airport). We met our local fixer and settled down for the six-hour minibus transfer. We were too wired to sleep so spent the time counting the cracks in the windscreen and cow spotting: they seem to prefer the middle of the road rather than the fields. Somewhat tired and after stopping to have our permits approved in Tyrnyauz we arrive at our Hansel and Gretel accommodation. It’s the middle of nowhere, it’s dark, we don’t speak the language and we are too scared to leave the room in case we become the subject for the next Blair Witch Project.
After a good night’s sleep, however, things looked a little different. The setting is just perfect. We could see our first acclimatisation peak in the distance, the sun was shining, the birds are singing and our landlady’s husband had just finished chopping wood for the shower.
Jantugan is a fantastic looking mountain; at 3991m it sits proudly at the head of the valley, right on the Georgian border. This border is slightly unstable - a fact that was brought home to us when we approached our first armed border post - this is definitely not the Alps! This wouldn’t have been a problem had the Police in Tyrnyauz not written the wrong date on our Permits only to cross it out and re-write it, so they looked fake! Explaining this to a guy with an AK47 when you don’t speak the same language is interesting, if not a little worrying. After a few English words with the commander they finally said we could proceed.
The guidebook said that the route was Russian grade 2b (no, it didn’t mean much to us either). However it all looked possible. We camped high on the moraine and were in high spirits. Soon after the first of our 2am starts the slope starts to raise sharply and I found myself on a 50-degree slope and not feeling too fit at all. The two ropes of three started to split, as I was moving slowly, leaving the three led by Hubby disappearing into the distance. Si, Dave and myself watched them make slow progress up what appeared to be a 65-degree couloir filled with soft powder snow. Sense soon prevailed and my rope started to make our way back to base camp to wait for the others to appear. Five hours later and with very red faces the successful team got back. Phil declared he had never being so scared in his life and that abseiling down a 70-degree snow slope was not his cup of tea. He also questioned what would have happen if he had slipped down the North Face….we decided not to answer that! He really made my day as I realised that good sense had prevailed and a difficult climb & descent had been avoided.
A rest day bouldering in the woods and swimming in the rather chilly glacial stream went down well. Dinner of kebabs and Russian beer prepared us for peak number two. Gumatchi is 3810m and shares the same approach route as Jantugan, up the Jankuat Glacier. We camped higher this time & it was a much more pleasant experience. I was able to lead my group across an amazing ridge at dawn to reach the summit in guidebook time. This route up also gave us our first real view back across Elbrus Valley to the one we had come for and she did look easy from this side. Little did we know!
Our fixer met us as planned and the transfer went smoothly, apart from the fact that the river had washed away the bridge causing us to carry 40kg of kit the final 1km to the Hotel Cheget. First impressions looked good, but we had just come from a gingerbread house. In the 60’s this was a thriving ski resort and would have been a hip place to visit, unfortunately it hasn’t changed much since, including the décor, but for $20 per person for a suite we didn’t complain.
I must just mention the bar as I have never in all my travels experienced anything quite like it. It’s called Deep Purple and most nights we sat alone singing for our music. What I mean is that we discovered that the owner, who speaks little English was a font of knowledge when it came to rock music. We would all sing a few lines of a song and a few minutes later he would smile across at us and the track would play, a bizarre Russian form of Jukebox - the challenge is to try to catch him out...
We planned an acclimatisation trip & used the two cable cars and chair lift to gain height the easy way. Easy but scary as we travelled up in the first car with a bucket of sand attached underneath just for good measure. The chair lift was fun too as you attach your bag to the chair in front and hope that firstly it stays on & secondly the person in front takes it off for you! The first time up we thought that the ticket price at the bottom included the chairlift. It didn’t. However that didn’t stop us from arguing with the attendant and as we didn’t believe we had to pay we just got on it - oops.
The top lift takes you to the Garabashi barrels. These ex-diesel barrels form the first class accommodation on the mountain, and were mostly booked up by Mountain Madness and other organised groups. There were also a large number of tourists on the mountain - which always makes you look fit & hardcore (even when you're not). The route looked so simple, the top was just a stone's throw away and we could just make out the whole route, from the barrels to our proposed campsite at the Pastuchov Rocks at 4,690m and then the col in between the two peaks. We had planned to gain another 500m but the weather turned, so we headed back to the bar for some more karaoke.
The walk to the rocks on approach day should have been fairly straightforward. Technically, this was true, but after passing the burnt-out wreck of the Pruit 11 hut we never seemed to get any higher and it was starting to get late. We camped too low - only 4,450m - and the weather closed in. It was 8pm and snow was falling outside, I just had a feeling our luck was not in. After only two hours walking (4am) I decided that I was not going to make it and Hubby, bless him, had to turn around too. The four remaining guys soon joined us in the tent after almost getting lost in the cloud. Enough was enough. We surrendered.
Deep Purple that night was fun but I will never touch vodka again [Oh, sure - UKC Ed.], and the whole of the next day was spent in bed. You just can’t say no to the Russians for fear of insulting them and I am not one to be rude.. Chris will also never look at Russian women in the same way again, but that’s another story.
We still had a couple of days in hand, so a second attempt was launched. I immediately caused a dilemma when I spotted the snow cat revving up. I wanted to take the easy way to the rocks. The guys protested, arguing that it was not ethical. However when I climbed inside they all soon joined me; I wonder why? Poor Chris, however, kept his head down and was glad that no-one knew him. The tents went up easily, including Si’s 10 year old Eurohike, the weather was perfect: I had a good feeling about this one. Alarms, 2am, eat breakfast, pass Pringles tube to Rich to empty (no, not to eat Pringles - guess, guys), get dressed and off we go.
As the path up was clearly marked we didn’t rope up but I kept close to Hubby and held his rucksack strap for the first few hours. Eric Clapton helped me to keep up with the pace and we all felt strong. I knew at sunrise why I was doing this thing, and the heat gave us all a second wind. More snow plodding later and we arrived at the col (5416m).
It was here that things started to go wrong. Suddenly Hubby slowed down and we decided to let the four lads go on ahead so we could rest a little and warm up my feet. I thought that we would be joining the lads soon - how wrong could I be. Had I known how bad my other half really was, I wouldn’t have let them all go. He lost all his fluids, from both ends (not great on a mountain) and started to collapse.
How I got him down as far as I did I don’t know, as he is too heavy for me to carry. I knew that we had radio contact every hour, and in a few minutes I would be able to tell the guys to hurry up back down to get us. They ran as fast as they could, considering the fact they had just summited. Back in the tent he started to drift in and out of consciousness, we started to get seriously worried and tried the radio to raise help from the barrels. However the snow cat driver was having his lunch - so much for an emergency. We needed to get him down quickly, so whilst Dave and Chris ran for help Phil and Simon strapped him to a Therma-rest and started to drag him down. When that didn’t work Si and Phil carried him the last two kilometres on their shoulders. The one thing they forgot was that when big groups come off the mountain so does all of their kit: they left me with three tents and six rucksacks of gear.
After crying like a girl for a bit and feeling really ill I packed up all the gear in the rucksacks, dug out the tents (never again) and made one large gear train which I started to pull down the mountain. The others on the mountain must have thought I was mad and loads did ask if they could help, but your own gear is enough and I just dragged on.
You can guess how glad I was to see Chris, Dave and Simon walking back up to get me. After 17 kilometres - the last 3 kilometres carrying 30 kilos each - we were all relieved to arrive at the barrels, especially when I found out that Hubby was now fit and walking around. The boys were a little bit annoyed though; one thing with altitude sickness is the speed of recovery, and after carrying him so far, to see him laughing and joking so soon was a bit much.
The only good thing to come from my beloved’s illness was that Chris had just managed to walk the entire route from bottom to top - well, middle to top then bottom to middle. I got 200m from the top!
Failing to reach the summit has made me reassess this mountain thing. I spent two days in Moscow unbelievably unhappy: I had told everyone I would do this trip and to not reach the top was a big problem for me. I know that I would turn around again to help a member of the team if faced with the same situation; I just can not describe how disappointed I felt. The good thing, I suppose, about the failed summit for me is that I get to go back.
The Elbrus region is a fantastic place, the people are so friendly and you can organise the trip alone with the help of a local fixer without too much hassle or cost: our entire trip only cost £500. The experiences, both good and bad, can only benefit us all in the long run.