Monday, August 10, 2020

Summit of Mt. Elbrus (5642m)

Mt. Elbrus (West summit 5642m on the left, East summit 5621m on the right)

[Along with my experiences during this Mt. Elbrus expedition I have also added some relevant details of the entire program so that it can be helpful for the aspirants in planning a similar program]

Its was in April 2018 when I got a message from my friend & a very experienced mountaineer Debu da (Debabrata Mukherjee, Kolkata). He was organising an expedition to Mt. Elbrus in July or August that year and asked whether I would like to join the team? Definitely yes!

Being in a job (away from mountaineering) it is always difficult to find time & arrange resources to participate in climbing expeditions. An addicted mountaineer keeps dreaming of getting the next chance to go back to the mountains. I too am not an exception and how happy I was to get this opportunity.

More so Mt. Elbrus (5642m, 18511ft, west summit, Caucasus range of mountains) is the highest mountain of Europe & positioned towards southern Russia. It is also one of the mountains listed in the ‘Seven Summits’ which is a very famous and difficult mountaineering challenge. So without a third thought I confirmed my participation. Ofcourse there was a second thought how to arrange for the expenses? This part was also resolved after discussing with Debu da that I can keep depositing some amount every month with him till we depart. It sounded fine & I started planning to schedule my work and arrange for leaves from office.

Unfortunately after around a month into it I was informed that the plan is being cancelled due to some passport issues for two other members of the group. The chance to climb with Debu da was also gone but there was an interesting twist to meet him which I have mentioned later in this article. Within next few days I decided that I will go on my own and started checking for a climbing agency, along with finding suitable weather window for climbing. After some research like online reviews, response time to queries, details of charges, etc. I shortlisted one climbing support agency based at Russia (Elbrus Tours) and confirmed my booking for complete plan starting from 4th August 2018 and returning back to India on 15th August 2018. Then followed it up with travel tickets booking, hotel booking, gathering personal gear, coordinating with agency to confirm renting of technical climbing gear, aligning expedition days with office work so that leaves could be managed, and applying for Russian visa. Visa was not difficult to get. It had to be applied in-person & I had selected Chennai visa office. Within a week of submission I received the visa through courier.

Till I could confirm all arrangements the time left wasn’t enough for fitness preparation. I increased my daily walking & running activities and some attention to the diet. My office at the 11th floor also helped as I started climbing stairs to it daily. I could feel some improvement in the fitness levels but it is never enough for the mountains. Health & weather are two most critical elements which can turn the face of any mountaineering event from positive to negative, and vice versa.

The wait got over and the departure date was there. On 4th August 2018 a long journey of around 30 hours started from Bangalore, through cab, flights & bus. I had taken a close call to save some money, & booked the flights separately for each sector instead of booking a combined sector. I was lucky that I didn’t miss any flight though I wouldn’t recommend this type of plan unless there is no other way. From Bangalore to Delhi it was a domestic flight, & later an international flight to Moscow (Shermetyevo airport). There are three airports in Moscow but I chose Shermetyevo as the flight to Mineralnye Vody (Russian for Mineral Water), which is the closest airport to Terskol, departs from here. It would also save my time which otherwise would have increased in shifting from one airport to another. Mineralnye Vody was also the meeting point with the climbing agency’s representative. I would suggest to buy the local SIM card from Shermetyevo airport’s main terminal itself as it was not available later at the smaller shopping area of departure terminal for the flight to Mineralnye Vody. At Terskol village the SIM cards were available but not for foreign passport holders. I missed to buy the SIM card at Shermetyevo airport thinking that I will buy after checking in for the connecting flight.

Mineralnye Vody airport

Leaving for Terskol

Hotel Snow Leopard (left part of yellow building), Terskol

It was 5th Aug when I reached Mineralnye Vody, and some more team members also arrived there. Our agency and a mini-bus took us to Terskol, which took around 2.5hrs. Terskol is a small village situated at a height of ~2000m (6500ft) above sea level and is the last village towards Mt. Elbrus. It is also a good location for snow-skiing and is fully occupied by skiers from across the globe during the season. We reached our hotel Snow Leopard, and got to know that our climbing group was of total 11 climbers, 3 women & 8 men, and apart from myself from India the others were- 2 from Italy (Francesco Genovese, Federico Balducci), 2 from Scotland, 2 from Russia, 1 from UK, 1 from Germany & 2 from Japan (including Takashi Naganeyama) (I will add more team members' names as I get the consent) and our guide from Russia. It was a double occupancy stay but I got lucky and got a single occupancy room.

Next day (6th Aug) was for our acclimatisation climb. We left around 9AM in the morning for the trek to a point called Observatory which is a weather station situated atop a hill, at an altitude of ~3200m (10500ft). It was a nice sunny day with clear sky. We walked through the village which was maintained so well and clean that it added to the experience. The houses & roads were like the ones in a city, only the size makes it to be called a village.

Terskol street view

Within ~45min we moved away from the tar road and got on a mountain trail. It had an off-road vehicle route till the weather station, which moved through the pine forest. The clear weather made it too sunny for me, and I improvised with my head scarf to use it like a sun screen shifting it to left or right to avoid direct sunlight. Enjoying the views and taking short breaks we continued up, and took a long break along the way at a beautiful waterfall called The Virgin’s hair. It is 5min off the main trekking route & worth the efforts. Some of the trekkers from other groups even had a bath under that waterfall.

Improvising the bandana

On the way to 'Observatory'

The Virgin's Hair waterfall

Around 1PM we reached to our high point, took rest for some time and finished our lunch packets. I felt some tiredness which affects the appetite but in any case one has to eat properly to avoid any health issues & maintain energy levels.

Having lunch at the high point, near 'Observatory'

We started our return after touching an altitude of 3200m (10500ft), through the same route. While coming back we also came across some more trekkers still going up at this time, probably motivated by the good weather. Otherwise by afternoon generally all activities are halted on the mountains as the weather starts to deteriorate.

Returning to Terskol, 'Observatory' building also visible

Trekkers still going up at noon

In some time as soon as we touched the tar road it started to rain. We were lucky to not get interrupted by the rain during most part of the trek. We reached back at our hotel around 5PM. It was a long trek of total 20kms and took us 8hrs to complete (5 up & 3 down). I kept my speed steady throughout so as not to exert. I had a slight headache but thankfully it was over in some time after reaching back at the hotel.

In the evening we received our technical equipment (additional hire charges, & to be informed in advance while confirming the booking) from the agency, which included climbing shoes, crampons, ice axe, down jacket, etc. The hire charges were a little bit more than what are available in India. But I had planned to hire bulky & minimally used but critical equipments to reduce my luggage, & it came out to be a good decision. By that night all the packing was done as the plan was to leave early next morning towards our next stay at the refuge called Barrel huts at 3847m (12600ft).

The following morning (7th Aug) was also bright & sunny, and from Terskol to Barrel huts the travel was to be done through cable car. The cable cars start from the Azau station at Terskol & drops at the last station Mir.

At Azau cable car station

The route is of three continuing sectors for which the passengers (along with their luggage) have to change cable cars at each connecting station. The view from the glass cabins throughout the journey was amazing. The mountains all around, changing of terrain from pine tree laden to moraine and then to snow on higher altitudes was a sight to remember. As we reached closer to our destination the weather started to change and clouds overtook the scenery. The entire journey took us ~2hrs from Terskol to Barrel huts. We were allotted our bunk beds in the huts soon after arrival. There were around 9-10 huts at this place and most of those were already occupied by other climbers. This was the last stay point on the way to Mt. Elbrus through south route.

On the way to Mir station

One of the cable car switch-over points en route Mir station 

With team mate

Approaching Mir station

Our hut, which had a restaurant in the same structure

The room allotted to us, on the first floor of the hut

The mysterious mountains had something else in store for us. Within few hours the weather changed drastically from sunny to completely cloudy, and from 18*C to 9*C. Still we had to comply with the acclimatisation rule of climbing (climb high, sleep low) and we got ourselves ready and went up till 4300m (14000ft) to a point which is called Shoulder-11. While going up we got lucky for a while as the clouds partly cleared for a few minutes, & we had the first look at the Mt. Elbrus twin peaks standing tall in front of us. The west summit of Mt. Elbrus is the taller one at 5642m (~18500ft) and east summit is 5621m (~18400ft).

Going to Shoulder-11

Practicing self-arrest at Shoulder-11

Practicing self-arrest at Shoulder-11

We did some practice of self-arrest (stopping oneself during a fall on snow/ice slope using body position, ice-axe & crampons) for around an hour. I felt fine as the exhaustion was not much, possibly due to better acclimatisation. We were back at refuge around lunch time. The daily menu was fixed to typical Russian servings. It started with salad, followed by soup with boiled meat and ended with main course of meat balls/patties with mashed potatoes or fries.

The weather was still deteriorating and it was not a good sign for us. Snowfall had also started and temperature further went down to -1*C. Along with that news of some other climbing groups postponing the summit due to bad weather added to our woes. Anticipating better weather we finished the day and got into our cozy sleeping bags which were tested to work till -15*C temperature. It was not so cold inside our wooden huts which were made well to support during such weather. It became a bit stuffy in our cabin which had eight beds (four bunk beds) and all occupied. I kept my sleeping bag’s zipper open for some time and one of us also opened the small window of our cabin to have better ventilation. The cool air didn’t generate any objection as thankfully our group had good understanding regarding health & hygiene issues.

It was 8th Aug. & we started in the morning for further height gain to a point called Pashtukov rocks, at a height of 4800m (~15700ft). The weather was still not better and snowfall was going on. We were lucky for a while when we reached at ~4200m, as we got clear weather for an hour or so.

The heavenly sight we got during this window is one of the most fulfilling & delighting view for any mountaineer. The hypnotic view of unending mountain ranges standing tall with so much grace and poise, colourful sky above them with interesting twists of clouds sprinkled a little here & there makes one get lost in the bliss of nature, wishing such relaxed and empowering feeling never comes to an end. But as it happens, it did end and we were engulfed back in bad weather. We reached Pashtukov rocks in next hour and stayed there for half an hour before returning to the refuge.

On the way to Pashtukov rocks

At Pashtukov rocks

At Pashtukov rocks

It took us 5hrs up and 2hrs back, and during the climb I felt exhausted a couple of times. I felt my lack of fitness preparation but being careful & moving on is the name of the game.The snowfall was still going on and the temperature was gradually falling down. We all stayed awake a bit late on this day discussing all concerns and trying to avoid the skepticism of failing to summit due to the bad weather. Our guide was asking me to hire a warmer down jacket and down mittens which I had refused earlier as I had my own. I was not sure of its use as I generally feel a bit less cold (& I like cold weather too) but agreed to what our guide recommended, and he got it delivered from Terskol the next morning.

Weather further deteriorated after we came back from Pashtukov rocks

9th Aug. was a rest day for us to recharge our bodies as much as possible and prepare for the summit attempt, which would start by waking up at night at 1am and would be a 9-11hrs return climb. We had a brief harness fitting session after breakfast and checked all our personal and technical climbing gear to be taken along during the summit attempt. During the day we were getting some updates regarding a Taiwanese climbers group who left at 4am in the morning but hadn’t returned until 3pm. The snowfall continued the entire day and many other climbers were also praying for the safety of the Taiwanese group. To everyone’s delight the Taiwanese group returned at 5pm and all the climbers had reached summit. We got to know through some other climbers that they could get through as they covered some distance using Ratrak (snow vehicle) and saved some time & energy in this bad weather. Our guide had informed us earlier regarding this option for which some group members had agreed. The remaining ones, including myself, agreed on this day after seeing the unwavering weather condition & feedback from other climbers. The highest drop point for Ratraks was 300m above Pashtukov rocks.

Our itinerary had one day as a reserve day for second attempt to summit, in case we fail during the first attempt. If the second attempt also fails the group had to come back to base and the expedition is considered unsuccessful in summiting the peak, though the focus then changes to be successful in getting all members safely back to base.

Our guide informed us that we will get our breakfast at 01:45am for summit day and hence with all sorts of thoughts storming in our minds we got into our sleeping bags early at 7pm.

On 10th August, the summit day, we woke up at 1am and finished our breakfast on time. Subsequently we kept our food packets in our backpacks and started putting on the climbing gears. To avoid damaging the wooden floor of the hut the crampons are put on later, once we move on to thicker snow. We started on time and fortunately the snowfall had reduced for some time. Such bad weather is part & parcel of mountaineering and it demands the mindset that it is not a luxury holiday where one can enjoy at leisure. The mindset must be to face as much extremities one can and stay strong. Mountaineering is done in tough circumstances and that’s why we were there and that’s how we started for our summit.

Getting ready for our summit attempt, ~2am, 10th Aug 2018

Getting ready for our summit attempt

Soon we boarded our Ratrak and it took us ~45min to reach the height of 5100m (16700ft). It was still dark and we had our headlights on. We put on our crampons quickly, & carefully, to avoid our fingers from freezing as the temperature was around -7*C. We all rechecked our essential stuff and started climbing slowly towards the summit. I knew I didn’t go through a continuous fitness regime hence was very cautious in preserving my energy throughout this expedition, and the same caution was still alert in my mind for this most important part of the climb. We were the second group to start on this day and there were some more groups coming later. I kept a slow but steady pace and was among the last of our group. One of the Russian members of our group was a true inspiration. He was a well built 60 years old happy fellow who loved to talk, and he was always ahead of many of us. There were two Japanese friends in our group, Takashi Naganeyama & his friend. They couldn’t speak or hear, but their physical energy and coordination was excellent and they set an example for all of us.

At the saddle, between West & East summit, snowfall was continuous

Our summit route to west peak was called the south route, and the east summit is closer through this route. There is a north route as well and is considered more scenic. But it takes couple of days more hence I had chosen the south route.

We started moving uphill towards the east summit, and after some time traversed to left towards the saddle between both the summits. Slowly the day started to break and we could see the entire white snow all around us. The snow fall had stopped only for a few minutes until now. We took breaks after every one hour and these had to be kept short so that we don’t make our bodies cooler by taking more rest. When we entered the saddle, it directed us to the right towards the west summit climb. After another 25-30min the free climb ended and our group reached the fixed rope point, where each climber was attached to the fixed rope for safety.

This was the final push towards the summit and the steepest & most tiring one. Our group had got divided in two and I was in the rear one. We had 10-15min time gap between us. During this stretch I started to feel the physical exhaustion and kept reminding myself to keep going and managing my energy levels. It is very important for mountaineers to plan every aspect of the climb carefully. Due to inexperience, overconfidence & exhaustion, and this information surprises many, most of the climbing accidents happen while going down a mountain. I was competing with myself and stretching with every step, controlling my breathing and not letting the high-altitude pressure take over me.

Climbers visible through the snowfall, moving towards fixed rope point

I also knew that I must be very careful not to let the headache or any other altitude sickness problem cross the danger level as a slight miss could jeopardise the entire efforts. Many of the times various climbers have had to return due to health or weather conditions, while they were very close to the summit. With all these regular alerts, we kept moving one small step at a time and after around 40-45min of fixed rope climbing we saw our leading group coming back towards us. It was the first rush of joy I felt in my whole body as it meant that they were successful in their summit and we were not far from having one of the most cherish-able lifetime memory. The weather was still cloudy & snowfall was also on, and hence we were not able to see the peak but we were charged up with the thoughts of soon reaching the top of Mt. Elbrus. We exchanged wishes briefly with our leading group and kept moving towards the summit. In next 10min the hazy view started getting clearer and in moments the summit was within a few metres of our reach. It was a small hump fenced by makeshift snow-wall of ~1ft height, made by the climbing guides for safety of climbers standing on top, which could accommodate 7-8 climbers at a time.

While the truth started to seep in I didn’t realise that the warmth of emotional rush rolled out of my eyes a bit. The mix of emotions was so exhilarating that I forgot all physical & mental exhaustion for a while. Thoughts of my family, friends and all those who matter in my life started hustling in my mind. I bent down and touched the summit with my head and then took the much-awaited step on the summit of mighty Mt. Elbrus. It was 08:38am (Russia time) on 10th August 2018. What a feeling it was! I don’t know whether I can explain the feeling properly but it was one of the most fulfilling that I have ever felt. I was using my phone for taking pics all these days on the mountain, and took it out to click the most memorable ones. To my surprise, it froze and didn’t start. Fortunately, I had kept one back up camera (it is advisable to always keep a back up of critical items during such expeditions) which saved the day and got my pics clicked by the guide standing close to me. The first pic I got clicked was with our Indian national flag and the other one was with a t-shirt with my son’s name on it. The weather was still cloudy with slightly lesser snowfall and due to the same the surrounding view of the summit could not be captured. Otherwise, for all the mountain summits, the surrounding view from the top are always the most beautiful & the grandest.

At the summit of Mt. Elbrus (5642m), 08:38am (Russia time), 10th August 2018

Other climbers coming towards summit

I stayed for only 4-5 minutes on the summit so as to vacate space for others & get back at our refuge in time. I checked my backpack and got back on the trail. The physical exhaustion was there but I had to be more careful while descending so that any accident can be avoided.

While descending my spectacles started getting foggy even though this time I was using the OTG (over the glasses) ski-goggles. It was increased due to the hot air exiting around my shirt collar through my layered clothing. The over-mittens were also a bit of hindrance in cleaning the glasses. The ski-goggles did help a lot in saving half of my face from the cold temperature & the snow blizzard which was there for a while. I could feel the snow pinch-hitting my exposed face during that time. It also became hot inside all the layers of clothing and made it a bit nauseated. I opened the jacket zippers half way to balance the temperature.

Our group was disbanded now and I kept walking on the track following other climbers & guides at a visible distance. Throughout the climb the guides were very helpful in managing the concerns related to the climb. They were always helpful and agile on the mountain. In around next 1.5-2hrs we were back at Pashtukov rocks. Our guide called the Ratrak through his mobile phone and in next half an hour it was there to pick us up. Getting back on the Ratrak this time was a completely different feeling from what it was at night. The feeling of anxiousness had converted into a sense of achievement & relief. It was as if a heavy load was relieved off the head, though with simultaneous caution as one can’t be complacent at any time on the mountains. By 11:00-11:30am we were back at our refuge, took off our technical climbing gear and got into relaxed outfits.

With team member Takashi Naganeyama from Japan (picture courtesy Takashi Naganeyama)

Our group’s timing was very good and basis the same we made an instant plan to move to Terskol the same day, after lunch. As the last ski lift took off at 4pm we had just enough time to have our lunch and pack our bags to move down to Terskol.

Everyone turned around quickly and there we were at the take off point all set to go down. Seated in the ski lift and enjoying the beautiful view, it was like rewinding a movie. Flashes of memories while we were going up the same route some days ago and feeling the difference in the stories we all now had with ourselves will be something to remember throughout our lives!

Back at Azau cable car station

As we all came out of the ski station at Azau a van came soon after to pick us up. Within 15min we reached our hotel where the staff greeted us for our summit and handed over the room keys. We all planned a celebration dinner at a cozy restaurant that evening. It was nicely decorated with wooden handicrafts and had a small fireplace. All 8-10 restaurants built in that area were having a unique build and character, and it was a nice feeling to spend some time there in that cold weather.

Summit celebration dinner at a restaurant in Terskol

The next day (11th Aug) went by in sorting our clothes and gears, washing some essentials, returning the hired equipment and then taking a stroll around the village. There was another interesting incident while clearing my balance payment to the agency. They had asked for balance payment in cash and I went to the only available ATM in the village. The moment I inserted my card the machine showed error and my debit card was swallowed by the machine! Fortunately our guide was with me and he even tried to contact someone from the bank but nothing happened. He also informed the incident to the person collecting the payment and she agreed to take payment through Paypal. Paypal didn't connect as my mobile no. was not active for receiving SMS pin no. Then we agreed on credit card (with some extra charges for clearance) & fortunately my credit card was pre-activated for international payment otherwise I don't know how would I have resolved this issue. My debit card was also blocked the time I departed from India, as I had made three consecutive withdrawals from the airport & the bank deactivated my debit card as a precautionary measure. I got it activated later by contacting the bank.

While moving around in the vicinity I noticed some skiers practicing roller-skiing (which is done on road) & cycling. Probably it is their way of being in practice during off-season. Later, after dinner, we had a small felicitation ceremony & all summiteers were awarded a summit certificate & a t-shirt by our guide Sergey. During the same time, I also met Ms. Anita Kundu from Haryana Police (India) who had arrived that day at Terskol. A week later she was also successful in summiting Mt. Elbrus with another group. All of my group members were delighted to meet her and were surprised to know that she had summited Mt. Everest twice (later thrice as well). She also received the 'Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award' this year (August 2020), which is regarded as one of the highest national awards for adventure sports in India.

With Ms. Anita Kundu at Terskol

On our last day at Terskol (12th Aug) we were ready to leave for Mineralnye Vody airport at 9AM. The van dropped us at the airport around 11:30AM and from here the agency’s role was over. We all were on our own and waiting for our different flights. I had my flight to Moscow where I had planned to spend a day and a half before boarding the final flight to India.

The brief stay at Moscow was an enlightening one. The city is very old and a big one, but wherever I went it was maintained very well and clean. I usually keep my hotel stay near transit points and it helps a lot in planning the time and saving some money in travelling. Here also I booked a hotel which was 1.5km from the Moscow train station.

Moscow (Belorussky) train station

View in front of Belorussky train station

On 13th Aug., I had booked a free walking tour of Moscow which takes one around the main attractions of Moscow, for 2.5 hrs. on foot, and without any charges. The tips can be given if one wants to. It covered some major tourist points such as St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Lenin’s mausoleum, GUM mall, Kremlin, Alexander Garden & Tomb of the unknown soldier. For all these locations, the entry fee was to be paid by the tourist as desired, else the guide took all to the closest possible without any charges. On this day, I also met Debu da, who was on a trans-Siberia program with his team. We enjoyed this meeting as we hadn’t met for many years in India, also missed to climb together during this expedition and still were able to meet in Moscow!

St. Basil's cathedral, Moscow

Red square, Moscow

I boarded my flight to India on 14th Aug. and landed on 15th Aug. on our country’s 72nd Independence Day. What an occasion to come back home after a big achievement!

* © This article & all the pictures (except the one with mentioned source) in this article are copyrighted by the author.