It started with a phone call out of the blue from the Mountain Club of South Africa’s member on the UIAA Youth Commission on a warm June afternoon in 2004. My almost long-forgotten application to go to Mount Elbrus, at 5,642m the highest mountain in Europe, on a UIAA International Youth Meet had been approved, and there were some funds were available if I wanted to go. Never one to resist such an enticing offer, I tentatively accepted the invitation, and in the course of the next few days proceeded to arrange a healthy bank overdraft, buy additional equipment and organize the leave from work.
Just six weeks later and I was landing at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport, doing my best to decipher the Cyrillic signs everywhere and ward off incessant cab drivers. I was booked into the Hotel Ishmailotov, the common choice for most mountaineering tourists due to it being one of the cheapest and most reasonably priced hotels at roughly $30 per night. I wanted to head off to the Kremlin and Red Square that evening, but thought I’d have ample time on my overnight stay in Russia on the return leg, so I was satisfied having a few trips on the Russian Metro.
The next morning I was back off to the airport on board a Tupolev twin-engine for the two-hour flight to the southern town of Mineral Vody in the Kabardino-Balkaria state. The plane shook and rattled its way to our destination, which couldn’t have been a more contrasting scene to Moscow. It was as though we had gone backwards in time, as we came to a dilapidated airport with battered doors and peeling walls. It was here that I was greeted by Alexander Zaidler, the president of the Ukrainian Mountaineering Federation, who was hosting the Meet. His eyes sparkled behind his coke-bottle lenses, and he waved his hand to slow down my dialogue in order for him to try to understand my English! Outside the airport I met the other mountaineers from Spain, Austria and France. They were all about my age, but the overall level of English being used meant I was going to have to pick up on some German and Spanish phrases!
Our vehicle, which was reminiscent of a 1960’s Magic School bus, took us across the plains and gradually into the foothills of the Southern Caucasus range. Our destination was the Adirsu Valley ‘Resort’, which was more of a campsite on either side of the Adirsu river. Meals were served in a canteen and seemed to comprise meatballs morning, noon and night! There were several young Russians on holiday at the resort, whose popularity stems from the snow-capped mountains surrounding it. And it was these mountains that we were to use to assist us in acclimatizing for Elbrus. Before setting foot out of the camp however, we had to display our passports and visas to a military guard. We all joked about how obsessed the Russians were about documentation – how these thoughts came back to haunt me!
Our acclimatization was centred around an overnight hike at an altitude of 3600m, where we would ascend into the 4000’s using crampons and an ice axe. Having never used either tool I was keen for a bit of experience, but our plans were washed away by a nasty thundershower that came from nowhere that evening after we had enjoyed a superb sunset from our campsite, perched below several surrounding peaks. That night we heard the rumbling of distant avalanches and were relieved that we had not arrived at Mount Elbrus just yet!
And so the next day we had to descend back to the resort in murky weather, having gained neither significant altitude nor any crampon training. The rain picked up again in the afternoon, but by this stage we had moved all the tents into one room and were in the bar trying to get to grips with Russian alcohol!
Thankfully when the time came to move across to the Elbrus region the skies were blue once again. We split our bags between the one to remain in Elbrus village, and the rucksack needed to carry all our necessary belongings up to our overnight camping spot, from where we would launch our summit attempt the following day. The base of Mount Elbrus is a bit of a tourist trap, where you can buy everything from sheepskin slippers to yet more meatballs. An old cableway took us from the base at 2400m to 2800m, and then another took us up to about 3200m. But our short cut wasn’t over yet, and a few minutes later we were getting hustled onto a ski-lift that seemed to have been around for decades. It was quite a harrowing experience looking up at the small, rusted piece of metal holding you and your chair-ski to the rickety steel cable above. However one by one we made it up to the ‘Barrels’ camp at about 3600m. It is so called due to the presence of a collection of barrels that have been renovated into makeshift overnight accommodation. Not luxury, but probably more conducive to sleeping than a tent outside. Throughout the duration of the rapid upward ascent one could see how grand it must have all looked in its heyday. Unfortunately the passage time and a lack of re-investment has left this cableway looking derelict and unreliable.
What we had gained in altitude in the past hour, we had also lost in temperature, and thermal tops and pants were essential as we readied ourselves to plod up to our overnight spot at an altitude of 4100m. There was a bit of cloud covering the top of the mountain, and we only caught a glimpse of our target at sunset, although the pinkish hue on the snow capped twin peaks made it worth the wait! We set up tent and filled our water bottles from an underground pipe that remarkably produced some running water. Given that my hands inside my gloves were numb from the exposure, it seemed uncanny for the pipe not to be frozen over. A healthy dose of two minute noodles filled the stomach nicely, and after forcing down another litre of liquids I fell into an uncomfortable sleep.
The plan was to set off at 3am to make the most of the relatively peaceful weather during the early morning, but I was wide-awake by 2am. I packed all I needed, kitted up and woke up my Spanish tent mate before crawling outside to strap on crampons and ready my ice axe. There was a slight breeze which added to the low temperature, but once you got walking it was almost pleasant. It was a cloudless morning and the stars were radiant, and I was somewhat lulled into a false sense of security as the uphill gradient was easily negotiated. However my optimism waned as the wind started picking up and the slope (there was no real path in the snow) grew steeper and harder – I knew the hard work had started. Getting your own rhythm is all-important, and although I seemed a little slower than most of the other foreign delegates in our group, I was more concerned at keeping my pulse rate and breathing under control. As dawn broke the route seemed to climb ever upward, and the gradient must have been around 50 degrees as I sat down for some liquid refreshment at Pestuchov Rocks (4800m). The one water bottle was nearly frozen already, but I had another litre in reserve.
The sun lit up a majestic view of the Caucasus range in the distance, and by now all the distant peaks were below eye level. I could see a host of people winding their way up into the saddle between the East and West peaks a few hundred metres above me, like a snow, slithering snake. Some climbers from other parties were below me and catching up, so I thought I had better get going again as I shoved my numb hand back into my down glove. At was at this point that the enjoyment factor had temporarily subsided and the war of attrition began – it was man against mountain, a both physical and mental challenge all the way. As the air grew noticeably thinner my energy waned, and I found myself taking short rests every 50m or so. What amazed me though was the fact that some of the German team members were walking up in skis – what a mission going up, but what a pleasure to go back down!
By the time I got to the saddle at around 5300m I was almost spent. A short traverse towards the base of the west summit (which is only 20m higher than the east summit) offered no respite and I just could not go any more than a few metres without sitting down in the snow and resting. I tried to eat a muesli bar but it only made me feel nauseous. I decided to leave my trekking poles behind and press on using the ice axe only, as the snow started getting thicker. One of the Russian guides told me I should turn around, as the weather might close in and it was already half ten. Although it was tempting and made logical sense, I was 15000km away from home, 400 vertical metres from the summit, and I wasn’t at the end of my tether just yet. A few clouds had formed but the weather was holding, so I told him I would give it another hour and then turn back if it had got worse.
That gave me the impetus I needed and I started a strategy of taking between five to ten long steps, followed by ten to fifteen breaths, before repeating the process again. The path headed diagonally up and then switched back on itself as it stretched ever further. I tried to ask every other climber on the way down how much further I had to go, and got responses ranging from forty five minutes to an hour and a half. After another hour or so I reach the apex and had a 200m traverse to a little ridge where the summit flags were blowing wildly. I almost ran up the steepest but shortest route to the summit, and collapsed at the top of Europe, taking some time to catch my breath.
I had done it! I felt like I had scored the winning goal in a world cup final! The fatigue momentarily left my body and was replaced by jubilation and ecstasy, as I marveled at the continent below me. A Norwegian climber staggered up a minute later, and we happily took photos of each other as a memento of our trip. Two German climbers made it a few minutes later on skis, and I must admit to feeling extremely envious at the downhill ski of a lifetime awaiting them!
It was still really cold and windy on the summit, and so after a few minutes of recuperating it was time to set off again and complete the mission, keeping in mind that the day was only over once I got back to my tent. Things were predictably faster going down at first, but I had used up a lot of energy on the ascent and had to take rests frequently. It was near the top of the final switchback that I sat down and realized for the first time that the bottom of my rucksack was open. In the process of examining what had happened, I let go of my remaining water bottle, which sailed off down the side of the mountain without any hope of being recovered. More important to me though was the fact that I was sure I had packed my travel wallet into my rucksack that morning, and it was now nowhere to be seen. Half-hoping that I had actually left it in my tent that morning, and half being too tired to acknowledge the seriousness of my situation, I continued downward, stuffing snow in my mouth to ward off the increasing effects of dehydration.
Going down was tedious, and at stages I would sit down and rest, closing my eyes and drifting off to a warm beach on the African coast. The extreme steepness that I had come to hate earlier now proved to have its advantages, as I was able to glissade down large sections at a time, using my ice axe as an anchor. I eventually hauled into camp at 4.30pm, more than 13 hours after leaving. I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and sleep, but first I had to find my travel wallet. I searched the tent inside out, but it was nowhere to be seen. I faced the sickening realization that I had lost everything - passport, wallet and plane tickets! When I asked one of the Russian guides what I should do, he could only scratch his head and say: “Oh, in Russia this big problem. You want some vodka?!”
And so the real challenge began, so to speak. The mind boggled as to what would happen if I did not catch my domestic flight, if I couldn’t get my passport in time to catch my connecting flight, etc. There was no way of knowing where I lost my documents, as my bag could have split open at any time during my ascent. The wind was such that it would have been carried a considerable distance, and I didn’t have the strength to mount a search after 13 hours’ climbing. I felt absolutely helpless, and whilst the other guys tried to make me feel better, I think they all got the idea that I was in big trouble!
After an even more uncomfortable night we had to pack up and go, and despite asking just about everyone in the vicinity whether they had seen anything, nothing had turned up other than a piece of paper with my travel insurance details. This was all I had left to get me back home! One of the Russian guides managed to take me to a post office in the nearby village of Tyrnause, where I was able to relay the sorry information back to my family. Fortunately my girlfriend had insisted on making copies of all my valuable documents before I left, so if I could only get those I would be in slightly better condition…
Whilst the Germans went back to Adirsu and the Spanish departed for Mineral Vody as their flight was also the next day, Alexander deemed it necessary that I remained in Elbrus village overnight as the loss had to be reported to the police first thing in the morning. One of his friends kindly offered to host me for the evening, and although she couldn’t speak a word of English nor I a word of Russian, she let me take my first shower in three days and cooked me a meal. Unfortunately I my stomach hadn’t really recovered from the altitude and I spent the rest of the night close to the bathroom as my body reacted violently! And so I reached the lowest point in Europe just 24 hours after summiting – lying awake at 2am, hugging the toilet bowl, pale as a sheet, and being deafened by Alexander’s snoring!
I felt no better the next morning, but we had to be quick as I needed to obtain a police report prior to traveling a few hundred kilometers back to Mineral Vody to catch my flight that afternoon. Fortunately one of Alexander’s other friends in the village had an internet connection and had printed copies of my documentation for me, which at least gave me some identification. After waiting on the military police officer for an hour he finally arrived at 10.30am, and set about typing out some sort of official note on his typewriter! I later learned that he was paid a princely ‘gratuity’ fee for coming in on a Sunday to help me out.
With the police documentation at hand we then had to race against time to get to the airport before my plane left. We had no transport of our own as all the buses and military trucks had taken the Germans back to Adirsu, so we had to hitch a lift and bargain with the drivers to take us all the way to Mineral Vody and then take Alexander back to Adirsu, which they agreed to. With Lady Luck shining down on us, we made it through the hills and then the traffic back to the airport about an hour before my plane was to depart. However we were first taken to an interrogation room that looked like something out of a war movie, where they were highly suspicious of my motives. After an hour of pleading and bargaining with airport and Siberian Airline officials, they reluctantly allowed me to board, but not until another ‘gratuity’ fee was paid! Alexander bade me farewell and left me with 1000 roubles (about USD45) to survive in Russia, and it was sad to see him go, as without him I would probably still be stuck in Southern Russia! The baggage officer charged me 300 roubles for excess baggage, even though I was wearing my double plastics. But I was the last person on the plane, and my chances of getting home safely had doubled by getting out of Mineral Vody on time.
After arriving in Moscow at around 6pm, I now had 18 hours to arrange to get myself on my Emirates Airlines flight the following afternoon. I found out from the airport officials that they wouldn’t let me out of the country with a photocopied passport, and even made the suggestion that I get deported back to the UK (my country of citizenship!). My only chance would be the following day at the British Embassy in Moscow, and a further complication was that the following day was Women’s Day in South Africa, so my folks could not transfer any money to me! With only 300 roubles left after storing my main backpack, I did not have enough money to stay in a hotel for the night, so I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible in the steel chairs at the airport. My food poisoning was slowly subsiding, but it was a long, painful night at Domodedovo Airport!
I caught one of the first minibuses into town, and then took the Metro into the CBD from where I could walk to the British Embassy. The Consular General was fantastic, and informed me that they could arrange an emergency passport and an emergency exit visa in two hours. The only problem was that it cost about 5000 roubles, and I had less than 300! Enter some form of guardian angel in the shape of a Scottish gentleman behind me in the queue, who kindly offered to lend me the $300 to cover my costs. I was dumbstruck at such an act of kindness to a complete stranger, as were the consulate officials. But you don’t say no in times like these, so I thanked him profusely and was soon on my way back to the airport with my emergency passport and exit visa intact. My visa was stamped at the airport, and so I gleefully made my way to the check-in counter, perhaps naively assuming that the copy of my plane ticket would suffice. It would not.
The airline official said it wasn;t a problem and he would happily re-issue my ticket – for the small price of $50! I only had the equivalent of $35 in Russian Roubles, leaving me a sickly $15 short. I begged and pleaded, offered to host him in South Africa, repay him personally from South Africa, and was practically about to go around the airport begging for small change when he conferred with senior management and they agreed to waiver the difference. I thanked him with tears in my eyes and headed off for customs control; I was so close to getting on that plane!
The customs lady looked unimpressed with my emergency passport and disappeared into an office for about five minutes. The longer I waited the more agitated I became, surely they couldn’t stop me now, could they? After what seemed like an eternity she returned and grudgingly stamped my passport, allowing me to proceed to the waiting area. An hour later and I was on the plane home via Dubai, with just one Russian Rouble left in my pocket and my spirits as high as when I had summitted a few days earlier!
Touching down in Johannesburg was an exhilarating experience, and I have never been happier coming home after a holiday. I felt like a POW returning back to his family after years away! But I was home safe, with my health restored and a summit photo in the camera!
Overall my trip to Elbrus was what one could describe as an out-and-out life experience. I am glad to have done it, but as I told the airline official, I hope never to set foot in Russia again!