Monday July 26 – Summit Day
At 11am we stood on the top of Europe. It was a long and tiring climb, but fun and exciting.
It was very busy in the hut which translated into a lot of noise, but I don’t sleep much before a summit climb anyway. I went to bed about 8pm, but did not really fall asleep until 11pm and even then I woke every 30 minutes or so. I was awake before my alarm went off. We woke at 2:30am. I had packed much of the stuff I would need for the summit climb before I went to bed, so all I had to do was get dressed and put on my boots and go down for breakfast.
Breakfast at 3am before a summit climb it kind of pointless. I am not very hungry, and the excitement of the upcoming climb intensifies this. I had some tea and a slice of bread with jam. Most everyone else was similar to me.
Just before 4am we put on harnesses and crampons and met outside the hut. The interesting thing about climbing Elbrus is that it starts with a snow cat ride; nothing like the roar of a diesel engine and fumes in your face to start a climb. It is not really necessary, but cuts off about 3 hours from the start of the climb. You can choose not to take the cat, but it is hard to refuse when it seems to be the norm. There is lots of climb above it anyway.
We piled into the open back of the cat and hung our packs off the snow blade on the front of the cat. It is about a 15-20 minute ride and we get dropped off at the bottom of Pastukhov Rocks at about 4500m. The ride up is quite steep and we immediately all slid to the back of the seats squishing up against one another. The engine belched black fumes out the exhaust pipe as we climbed higher and higher. We could see the headlamps of many other climbers already on the route above us.
Some climbers, mostly Russians, carry a tent above the rocks and start the climb from there. I think that would be a nice way to do it, but it would be a lot more work on a relatively small climb. Some do it for style and some do it because they do not want to pay for the hut or the snow cat ride. Many options.
After jumping out of the cat, we started our actual climb around 4:20am. It was not very cold (maybe -5c), but there was a strong side wind of about 30-40 kmh that gusted to close to 50-60 kmh at times. This did increase the wind chill a bit, but it still did not seem very cold.
I had on my long underwear bottoms and my gore-tex pants on the bottom and a light Sherpa shirt, my Sherpa softshell jacket, a light insulation layer and my gore-tex jacket on top. I was just about right for comfort and maybe a little hot at times and a little cold at times. Overall I think it was the right choice.
A full moon hung in a cloudless sky making our headlamps almost unnecessary. The snow crunched under our boots as we climber slowly higher. As on every mountain there are groups that are faster and groups that are slower and it takes a few hours for everyone to sort out their position. Many of the fast teams power by us only to be found sitting on the side of the trail 30 minutes later, exhausted from their speed. Others can truly handle the speed all the way to the top and summit well before us.
One team pulled out to pass us and walked beside us for almost 30 minutes making no progress to pass. They wanted to overtake us, but soon realized they were moving at the same speed, and ultimately a little slower, than us. After a long time in the realization of their actual speed they fell back in line behind us.
We moved at a slow, buy deliberate pace. At no point was I out of breath, but it was physically demanding. Just like all climbs however, it is the mental part that is tougher than the physical part. It is tedious to spend hour after hour walking up hill in the cold, and it is physically strenuous and your mind needs to cope with the physical demands of the effort.
The route starts fairly steep and continues at a constant angle for a couple of hours. It is tiring on the legs and feet as there is no change in the terrain necessitating a change in foot position every now and then to relieve tired muscles. We alternate between duck walking, and side stepping right and side stepping left to try to break up the monotony of the repetitive movements.
After about 2 hours we began a very long traverse to the left towards the saddle between the two peaks. This traverse is at the constant angle and seemed to go on forever. We have affectionate named it the “40 mile traverse”. It is not that long, but it feels like it.
The views across the mountains were amazing. I like to walk at the back of the pack and I was constantly stopping to look out across the mountains. The sun was close to coming up and the additional light from the full moon provided an amazing light making the jagged peaks pop in colours of white, black and gray. As the sun rose higher in the sky, shades of red, orange and purple were added to the mix. It was all I could do to stop looking and keep walking. It reminded me why I love the mountains so much. It was cold, silent and beautiful. The wonders of the planet we live on.
After 4.5 hours of steady upward progress we leveled out and came to a stop at the saddle between the West and the East peaks of Elbrus. The West peak is slightly higher by 26m and this would be our ultimate target.
As we were climbing close to the saddle the wind picked up slightly and the clouds dropped right on top of us. Visibility was quickly reduced, but the trail is well trodden and has marking flags every 50m so there is little danger of getting lost.
Looking up the trail I cold see about 60 climbers ahead of us making their way to the top. We made a small cache of gear to leave at the saddle and started up. The trail arched right at this point and is a welcome change to the leftward traverse we had just spent the last several hours on.
At this point we were at 5416m (17,700+ feet) and we were all starting to feel the altitude. Others were also experiencing the same reduction in oxygen and the pace slowed. Due to our slow and steady approach we still had energy, whereas others who had sprinted past us were slowing to a crawl. Our upward movement was slowed by the slower climbers ahead of us. Often they are oblivious or just do not care that they have a huge line of climbers strung out behind them itching to pass. Passing is difficult and exhausting, so patience is necessary to wait until the slower climber pulls off to the side of the trail and allows those behind them to pass.
As we climbed higher the wind picked up a bit more and the clouds became thicker. Visibility dropped to less than 50m and we lost any view of the surrounding mountains that we had earlier in the climb. We crested the traverse after about 1 hour and took a break on a flat spot. Many other climbers were also stopped here as it provided a bit of a wind block and therefore was a slightly warmer and more comfortable place to top. Some climbers were totally spent and were sprawled out across the snow. Some of our team members were also starting to run out of gas and were sitting in the snow staring blankly at the white sky.
It was cold, but not bad at all. At no time did I need to put on an extra layer or my down jacket or heavy mitts. After a short break we were back on our feet and moving again. At this point the trail continues to traverse to the right and we slowly plodded our way upward. A climber in front of us would stop after about 20 steps and sprawl out on the ground in a state of complete exhaustion. As we drew near, he would stagger to his feet and speed ahead for another 20 steps before collapsing once again in the snow. He obviously new little about pacing.
Once we crested this smaller traverse we stopped for a short break. Two of our team members were really feeing the effects of exhaustion and altitude by this point and they were very lethargic and losing their dexterity. We split into two groups with the faster climbers going on ahead with Ryan and the slower climbers moving up with Oksana. We were only about 15-20 minutes from the summit by this point.
Once we started moving after this short break the terrain flattened out quite a bit. We were now on the summit plateau of the mountain, but had a bit of a walk to get to the final summit bump. Due to the vast size of the summit plateau it was almost like walking in a park in the winter. The path to the top was wide and flat with only a small incline.
I’m not sure if it was the altitude or just the fact that we were almost at the top, but I started to feel quite tired at this point. I stopped several times to get my breath, but continued to move at a good pace. After about 10-15 minutes of walking a definite peak started to materialize from the clouds. The final few steps to the summit ramp up steeply and then I was on the top. Ryan and four of us made it in the first wave at 11am; 6.5 hours after we had started.
The top of Elbrus is about 20x20 feet and relatively flat. At the absolute highest point there is a rock that almost appears if it were put there on purpose. The rock is covered with flags and other things people have left behind to mark their summit including a 20lb kettle bell. We took a few photos standing by the rock, but there was no view whatsoever. Visibility was 75-feet at best.
Only about 10 minutes after we arrived on the summit the rest of our team came up with Oksana. They had done an amazing job considering their current condition. Reaching the summit provided a jolt of energy and we all took many, many summit photos and high fives and hugs marked our success..
We spent maybe 30 minutes on the summit. It was very windy, but it was not cold. Eventually we decided it was time to start down. Walking across the plateau was easy, but as we turned the corner and started down we began a steep and potentially dangerous downward traverse. Ryan and Oksana short roped our two most tired team members for additional safety, but the snow was quite soft and the going was relatively easy.
The visibility at this point dropped to almost nothing and continued that was for the next couple of hours. If the team got separated by more than 20 feet they disappeared into the white. I was leading the descent and I was glad the trail was heavily used and that there were marking flags every 50m. The descent to the saddle seemed to take forever, but in reality it was only about 30 minutes. Once at the saddle we located out cache and took a break.
The next phase of our descent was the 40 mile traverse and even going down it seemed long. By this point we had taken packs from the two suffering climbers on our team and Ryan had one and I had the other. We were moving really slow, but losing altitude well. Eventually we split with Oksana and the faster climbers heading down, and Ryan staying with the last two members of our team.
As we got close to the Pastukhov Rocks the snow stopped, the wind dropped, and the clouds rose once again providing us with a view of the mountains and where we were going. Looking back up hill the mountain was still socked in with clouds and very low visibility.
We could see the hut and it appeared painfully far away, but the only way to get there was to put one foot in front of the other. As we dropped in altitude the sun took hold of the air and the temperature rose dramatically. I stripped off everything but my base layer top and unzipped the legs on my gore-tex pants as far as I could and I was still hot. I switched from my winter hat to my sun hat and pulled my buff up over my face to prevent a severe sun burn. With the heat the snow became thick and deep and my boots sunk 6-12 inches with every step. It was like walking in mashed potatoes. Other climbers were also around us and we all stumbled towards the hut like zombies in a bad horror movie. As we descended however, the richness of the air began to revive us and the final steps to the hut were long, but enjoyable.
We made it back to the hut around 2:30pm giving us a 10 hour day. Elbrus may not be overly technical in nature, but it is far from a walk in the park. Overall it was a great climb and I have now made it to the top of six of the seven summits.
Once inside the hut I went upstairs and stripped off my summit clothing and then made my way downstairs to the dining area. Several of us sat at the dining table and drank juice to quench a huge thirst and then Tatiana served the most delicious pasta and fried chicken. The chicken was greasy and salty and that was exactly what we were craving.
After some food and drink we went back upstairs for some rest. I was not able to sleep although I felt I should have been able to. I was working on very little sleep over the last 36 hours and had just expended a huge amount of energy and yet sleep would not come. I laid in bed for a while listening to music and then got up and went outside to get some fresh air. Far too soon it was dinner time and I did my best to eat, but I was still full from lunch. Another climbing team had left us a large bottle of water and I drank almost a liter. It felt and tasted so good to drink water that had not been boiled and or tasted of iodine.
Todd and I played cards for a while after dinner as we were still not tired. A Russian boy of about 6 or 7 sat and watched us play. He sat beside me and would smile and laugh every time I picked up a good card. He was rooting for me and we had fun together even though not a word was spoken.
It was then time for bed. It had been a long and successful day. Our team enjoyed 100% success and for some of our team members it was their first real mountain climb. We were a great team and Ryan was a great leader as always.