After some climbing in different parts of the Alps, the four members of our team gathered at the airport of Munich (Joris already saw his only pants had been stolen in the youth hostel, luckily Jan brought two with him). Somehow we managed to pass our heavy equipment through the customs. Next moment we found ourselves in a plane heading for Istanbul. This is where our long journey by bus to the Caucasus mountains started. It is not the easiest way to reach Mount Elbrus, but it is by far the most cheapest way. It took us as much as four days of traveling, two nights in the bus, one in a ‘friendly’ hotel in Vladikavkas only 50 km away from the infamous town of Grozny. We noticed that a police officer was shooting at us at the Russian border, luckily it was a toy gun, was it?
Anyway we arrived at the foot of Elbrus totally exhausted, only to find out that there were no campings left due to the tourist decline the last years. Hotels, although empty, wouldn’t lower their prices one roebel: "We’re not on the market here!". Finally we were able to pitch our tents in the garden of some kind of summer school, where three Romanian climbers had done the same. The following hours we were busy signing our autographs for the very curious school kids. Next days were mentioned as rest days, but became days of surviving the hassles of the, for us difficult to understand, Russian culture. Time for higher grounds....
We planned to climb up Elbrus not by the normal route, where you can take the cable car up to 3900 m, but by the far more challenging and scenic Irikchat-route. This meant we had to walk all the way up the deserted Irikchat-valley, starting from the ‘pitoresque’ village of Elbrus. As the path became higher and steeper our loads became heavier and heaviest, each one of us carrying a load of up to 30 kg. At the same time the view became wider and farther. We gasped at the immense twin peak of the Ushba, the ‘Matterhorn of the Caucasus’. With assistance of our guidebook and a pair of binoculars we learned the names of the other mountains, most of which we are already forgotten. In the afternoon of the third day we reached the Irikchat col. It took us longer then we expected. We were faced with bad weather on the second day, forcing us to make bivouac early in the afternoon. Luckily we found two prepared campsites at the col, saving us a lot of time and work. The view on the main range in one word was great and at last we could see Elbrus, but only the east summit, which is just 20 m lower. The west summit remained hidden from view, but we knew it was there waiting for us to be climbed….
The next day we woke up very early, we would have to make a long day tour all the way to the Priut hut on the other side of the mountain. It was still freezing outside, which slowed down things a bit. After a few cups of tea we left and had to rope up soon as we stood in front of the immense Elbrus icecap. The weather was excellent, a clear blue sky and almost no wind. The only problem was that there was no marked route on this side of the mountain and we didn’t find any lecture about it, we had to find our own way. We were faced with the decision of going high first and then traverse to the Priut or to stay low and climb up in the end. The first option would make the circle much smaller, but the second option looked easier and safer. After an hour or so we found ourselves in the middle of a crevasse field, from this point it looked impossible to climb any higher so we automatically choose for the latter option. We had to jump across the bottomless crevasses, but we managed our way through the field. By midday we met three Ukrainians, who invited us to a journey in Siberia before we even introduced ourselves. If you’d look at their equipment you will feel ashamed for your own high-tech gear, they didn’t even had a harness, just the rope around their waists.
Jan: "I was glad that I had one. After our lunch break we went on and as I was inspecting a crevasse, ready to jump over it, the bottom beneath my feet fell away. Before I knew I stood in the water to my waist, hanging on the rope. I fell maybe about 4 or 5 m because I just had collected some rope for the jump. I could easily manage to put my crampons in the ice just above the water level, resting with my rucksack on the other side of the crevasse, while the others took up the rope as far as possible and made a belay by digging in an ice-axe. No matter how I tried the ice was to hard for my ice-axe to get into, so I decided to prussic my way out of it. But as I looked at the knot, it slowly went down, probably because the rope was wet. So I had to improvise another knot which worked out well and after 15 minutes I saw the sun again, asking for a cigarette to lower the adrenaline content of my blood. Unfortunately we had none of them left."
It became already late and we had to move on again, but the whole incident had made us a bit uncertain, who was to go next? Finally we reached a rock island at 4000 m and in the distance we could see the Priut hut. Between it and the place we stood there was still an enormous glacier, full of dangerous crevasses. This would take us hours, but we decided to give it a try. As we stood in front of the glacier we were faced with a very width and deep bergschrund. The only way to get on the glacier was to cross it on one of the ice-bridges, which looked as if they could collapse anytime. We were not in the mood for that on this part of the day, we were already too tired. The decision was made easily, we would bivouac on this rock island. As we watched the beautiful sunset we discussed our changes on this route. We lay already two nights behind the schedule, food supplies were running out. Those supplies were meant for the important acclimatization days. Besides this logistic problem we couldn’t forget the crevasse-incident. It seemed the best to us to quit with this attempt and to aim for the normal route. So next day we went down. The rock island seemed to be a rock peninsula, so there was no need to rope up again. As we reached the pastures of the Terskol-valley, we expected to find a trail down to the village. Unfortunately we were in the Caucasus, not in the Alps anymore, we had to find our own way down the steep slopes. At some points the convex slopes were so steep that we only could hope not to end up at a precipice. It was already late when we finally arrived in the ‘civilised’ world again.
A few days later we were recovered from our first attempt and ready to go on for our next. We took a lift to Terskol, where the cable car starts. The first one brought us from 2200 m to 2900 m, the next to 3600 m. The last one was a one seat chair lift we had to take our rucksack in front of us, which tried to pull us out the seat. At 3800 m our walk to Priut starts, it was an easy walk and it only took us about 1.5 hour. We placed our tents on a rock island near the hut and had a nice meal. In the distance we could see our highest campsite of a few day ago. There was so many trash and wood around the place, that we decided to make a big fire. And big it was! With flames of three meter and higher, which gave of a nice warmth. People in the neighborhood must have thought we were insane, or at least influenced by the height. Next day was a day of rest and we paid a visit to the Priut hut, a kind of three floored aluminum caravan (A few days after our return in Holland, we heard it burned down. No, we didn’t do it. One person jumped out of a window and got injured.). We played cards the whole day and drunk a lot of water, which is very important for good acclimatization. None of us had any trouble with the height, so the plan was to try for the summit this night. But the weather was changing…
As we stood up at about 24 hours everywhere we looked we saw lightning except for our mountain. It was to risky to leave for the summit, so we crawled back in our warm sleeping bags. It was a good decision. Next day it snowed very hard and it weathered. We were right in the middle of it and heard thunder after thunder. Everything was static, quite frightening when you had to go out. Nothing rested us but to stay in our tents and play some card games, with additional screaming of course. Only at the end of the day it began to clear up, maybe we could go tonight.
But then the wind came. It came from the other direction as the last days, so the rocks didn’t gave us any shelter anymore and our tents had to suffer winds of up to 100 km/hour. Going out for the summit was out of the question, as soon as you left the tent the wind would take your breath away, up there the wind must be even stronger. Our tents could easily withstand the strong winds, as one might expect if one sees the price of them. Somehow, don’t ask us how, two Russians with a self-made tent of plastic and two wooden poles also managed it through this night.
Another lost day followed, again we had to stay in our tents. The wind kept on blowing. Another problem arose, it was now the first of august. As we all didn’t want to make the long journey by bus back to Istanbul again, we made a reservation for a flight from the airport of Mineralnye Vody on the third of august. Since the plane would leave early in the morning we would have to go there the day before, as it was a five or six hour drive from out of the Baksan valley. Our only chance was to go out for the summit early in the night, come back early in the morning to pack our stuff, take the cable car down again and leave for the airport. So we went to bed after dinner, to take a few hours of rest, and stood up at about 10 p.m. The wind was still there but had lost his strength, the sky was clear. After a cup of tea we were ready to leave.
Remko: "After some calculations we came to the conclusion that the magnificent play of lights of sunrise will expose itself at the time we are high at the mountain, or even at the summit. And because we are the only one who start this early, we will celebrate this moment with nobody else! What would be nicer than that?"
The first hours we made good progress, moving at a steady pace. The wind was almost gone, but it was bitterly cold. As the moon set behind the horizon, the only lights came from our headlamps and the stars above us. Every now and then we could see a falling star. The only sound came from our boots as we placed them in the frozen snow. We were the only team now heading for the summit, the highest of Europe. "I’m alive!".
As we reached the Pastukov rocks it became clear, that Loek had some difficulties keeping up with the rest of us. So we took a break, but as we went on, he felt weaker and weaker. Daylight was still far away. The slope didn’t decline at the traverse towards the saddle as one would expect seeing it from photo’s, who called this part of the trail a traverse anyway? At last, we were now progressing very slowly, light appeared in the east. We thought the sunrise would do good for Loek as it gives one usually more faith in reaching the summit. Unfortunately it didn’t worked out like that, going any further would be dangerous in this situation. People have died ignoring the signs of altitude sickness or dehydration, as some of us had seen before. Leaving anyone behind was of course out of the question, we had to go down as fast as possible. So, just before the saddle at 5200 m, 400 m under the summit, we turned around, back to the tents. Luckily Loek felt better when we reached the tents and after a short break we were ready to pack our stuff and leave the mountain. From out of the cable-car we could see the summit for the last time, for this expedition that is…….
"So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life."
--Peter Gibbons (Office Space)