A dense shroud of rain covered Terskol, a village under the foot of Elbrus, the highest mountain of the Caucasus. Grey curling clouds hid the tops of the neighboring mountains. Wet and rueful feels such weather in the mountains. And far there in the
sky a terrible wind lashes the black basalt rocks by scourges of snowstorm, destroying on its way all the particles of vital heat...
Having some extra days in stock, we decided not to hurry up with the beginning of our Elbrus climb and to wait here, in the valley, in comfortable civilized conditions of a hospitable village, for better weather. Thus, due to the wrong kind of weather an opportunity presented for us to meet with Boris Tilov, the chief of the Elbrus rescue service, a very interesting person who, as a rule, is constantly busy with his very intensive work. But this time everything was quiet and we had a good chance to have a talk. The meeting was held at the rescue station, in Boris's private office.
Alex Trubachof: Boris Osmanovich, I would like to begin our conversation with some general questions in order to make the matter easier for the readers. How long you have you been working for the rescue service of this area? What current tendencies in the development of tourism and mountain climbing in the Caucasus would you note? In what condition is all this at the present time and what forecasts can you make for the future?
Boris Tilov: I have been working for the Elbrus rescue service for over 20 years. During this time many changes have happened in the Caucasus as well as all over Russia. I worked here in the times of the USSR, when many popular tourist routes passed through this area. A lot of these routes led to Georgia, to the beaches of the Black Sea. Now, unfortunately, this opportunity is not present - Russia and Georgia have some difficulties in political relations, which result in a toughening of the border policy and impossibility to get from Russia to the South side of the Caucasian mountain range. Getting to Georgia is possible now only through a check point, having a visa. It is very bad for tourism in our area, because many historical monuments and interesting natural objects are located in the southern Caucasus (much more than on our, northern side). All that is inaccessible now for the majority of the people. And, of course, after the breakdown of the USSR the number of people who come to us became less. Tourist centers and mountaineering camps lie in ruins. Though recently the activity of some businessmen has increased - new bases are being built, some hotels are under construction. Attempts of restoration of the old sites are undertaken... The tendency seems positive, I think. I hope that with the stabilization of the Russian economy, tourism in the Caucasus will develop. We, the Caucasians, are hospitable people and are always glad to welcome new guests...
A.T. Well, what do you think, are the mountains of the Main Caucasian Ridge possible for climbing, are the border regulations favorable for climbing on Caucasus in general?
B.T. Except for Ushba, which is entirely in Georgia, the climbing routes on the northern (Russian) side of the Main Caucasus all are convenient for ascensions. As to Ushba, the border between Russia and Georgia passes from the summit of Shkhelda to the peak of Schurovsky, so the most interesting climbing site of our area, the famous Ushba, located in the southern branch of the Main Caucasian Ridge, is formally impossible for climbing. It is a pity, in the past it was one of the most popular mountains of all the Caucasus. Though, certainly, climbers continue to scale this mountain, but all ascensions are done unlawfully. The criminogenic situation in the Elbrus area, to my mind, does not differ from the average level for our republic in general - I would say that here it is quieter. We are interested in attracting tourists, therefore we keep the order closely, and our goal is that all our guests would depart from us with only positive impressions.
A.T. Boris, what do you think, which is the most problematic mountain in the area of your responsibility. Where do most of the accidents happen?
B.T. Certainly it is Elbrus! Basically, almost all the accidents occur there. In this season (our talk took place in the beginning of August - A.T.) there have been already fifteen death cases, and all of them took place at Elbrus. In the Adyl-Su valley, Adyr-Su, Shkhelda - in the places where there are most difficult climbing routes, there were also emergencies, but fortunately, all of them had more or less happy ends - no deaths there. The situation is far more serious on the Elbrus...
A.T. How many victims, on the average, does Elbrus take annually?
B.T. I can say that on the average from 15 to 30 people perish every year on Elbrus. It is about 80% of the general statistics in the area. The reason, as I think, is that many unorganized and poorly equipped people attempt to climb Elbrus, unlike the more difficult mountains, people who sometimes do not even bother to register and to receive some advice at the rescue service. I can say that in 95% of all cases the accidents occur among the so-called "wild" tourists and climbers - those who usually have neither sufficient qualification, nor routing documents. Even if such people are not first-timers here, in the mountains, they expose themselves and others to a serious risk by their self-confidence. This year there was a case when a group trying to climb Elbrus from the West lost one participant - a girl. We have found her body at the altitude of 5000m, and one more lost participant of the distressed group has been picked up by our group frozen almost to death... This group was not registered, nobody knew where they were going, by which route, what condition they were in... In an emergency the leader of this group, being, to put it mildly, a man not experienced in the mountains, became incapable of estimating the situation correctly and, as a result, the girl has died through his fault. I'd like to add that the group went to a high altitude route without following the obvious rules of acclimatization, which turned out to be insufficient, and at the altitude of 5200 the girl fell ill. It was necessary to descent immediately, to go downwards as soon as possible - this is the only way of salvation, but instead of it, they made camp, spent a night at the altitude of 5300m and the next day, despite a poor state of health, climbed to the top, whence the girl who suffered of mountain sickness fell down to the south slope. Descending in a fog, the group lost one more participant. It is the most standard scheme of an accident on Elbrus. Its cause lies in the overestimation of the capacities of group, underestimation of the route danger, in the consequences of insufficient qualification of the leader of the group, in a poor level of moral and physical training of the participants.
A.T. Well, all this that we spoke of above basically concerns Russian citizens who neglect elementary rules of behavior in the mountains. And what about the climbers from other countries? What number of accidents occurs among foreigners?
B.T. It is strange, but the foreigners, whose culture of mountain climbing should be more advanced than that of the Russians, get in emergencies more often than our compatriots. We can clearly see it by an example of this year - seven out of ten lethal accidents occurred to foreign citizens, it amounts to 70%...
A.T. It has been mentioned in the mass media that this season a group of Canadian climbers was lost on Elbrus in this season, can you tell about this case in more details?
B.T. The situation was rather standard: despite a warning by the guides, two Canadian climbers after an ascension of the Western Summit of Elbrus decided to climb the East One by themselves. All the group with two guides remained on the Saddle to wait for them. The Canadians climbed the top, and when they were going down, the East top was covered by a cloud and the visibility was gone. A strong southwest wind blew, and the climbers were drawn by it to the northern slopes of Elbrus. There are many crevices there and going this way is possible only when knowing where to go, and only in sufficient visibility. The Canadians vanished without a trace... Helicopter searches were organized, rescue services both from the South and from the North were involved in the business, not only rescuers but local people, tourists. But, same as many who have gone to Elbrus, the Canadians were gone for ever... Nobody can tell in which of the dozens of thousands of bottomless glacier crevices their frozen bodies lie. Last time they were seen halfway between the East Summit and the Saddle. The guys were going downwards.
A.T. Boris, please, conclude, what is the most widespread, common and main reason of the accidents on Elbrus?
B.T. First, most important as I think, is the general attitude to the Elbrus as to an easy mountain. At first sight it is true. And many are mistaken, taking the appearance for the truth. They start climbing late, go up to the Summit losing their last strength, and on the descent get caught up either by the nasty weather or by the darkness. The result in both cases is the same - people lose their way and perish in crevices. Or they freeze to death. Another cause is the sudden change of weather. The weather conditions on Elbrus can change literally in half an hour. Finding a track without visibility is very difficult, and losing it is easy as a nut. The result remains the same - a fall into a crevice. There are thousands of holes in the glaciers, more than a hundred meters deep - it is practically impossible to find an injured person who perished there.
There was a case when the climbers, going down to the South by the Classical route, lost their way and were led by the wind and the fog far to the right on the Northern side in the direction of Pyatigorsk. They have been found in 15 kilometers from Elbrus. This group was guided by a person who had climbed Elbrus 40 times. It shows how difficult it is to keep the right way on Elbrus in unfavorable conditions - even an experienced guide can lose the way. And the people who are for the first time on this mountain - what is it like for them? The famous climber Tenzing Norgay, the first to scale Mount Everest, couldn't climb Elbrus because of bad weather, he was wise enough to turn back. This fact of the Elbrus history speaks for itself.
The next cause of accidents is insufficient acclimatization. Many climbers overestimate their strength, hurry to climb. And sometimes they even succeed. But the exhaustion tells upon the health during descent, the weather turns bad, then darkness falls. The possibility that a person will be alive next morning after a night on Elbrus with no shelter if he did not reach base camp is very slight.
A.T. What do you think, Boris, does the use of high-quality equipment reduce the risk of accident?
B.T. Of course the use of expensive equipment can not compensate lack of personal experience, but actually good equipment significantly increases the level of your safety. For example, many climbers use portable GPS - navigating systems. This device helps to find the way even in conditions of total invisibility. But it will help only if you are able to operate it properly not only in favorable conditions, but also in extreme conditions, when the wind can lift a person in the air, and a snowstorm reduces visibility down to a couple of meters...
A.T. Which season in the Caucasus is most charged with emergencies?
B.T. I would say that it is somewhere from December 20 to the beginning of November of the next year. Especially productive here are the holidays - New Year, May, November - this is the busiest time for us. It is normal, because during these periods the flow of the people rises significantly, and consequently the probability of accidents increases. The quietest times are November and December, it is a time for our rest - we call it off-season time.
A.T. Does the specificity of your work differ depending on the season?
B.T. Strangely enough, such a dependency is not so clear - in high mountains the seasons are not delineated clearly so we have to work both in winter and in summer with the same public - climbers, skiers, snowboarders, freeriders, heliski fans. The mountains are wild here, creating an emergency situation is very easy. It is just enough not to return to your hotel in time and we have to send a rescue party for a full-scale search. Fortunately, we find most of the "victims" of such incidents at neighboring pubs, which, as a rule, we check first of all. But sometimes situations come to be really serious and very far from a comic happy end...
P.S. Thus ended our conversation with Boris Osmanovich Tilov. On the next day we had only vague memories of yesterday's rain - the sun shone brightly upon a newly washed world, against a background of a deep dark blue sky two mountains dazzling white with fresh snow, Donguz-Orun and Nakra, towered above the village. On this day we have reached "Priyut 11" - the starting point for the climbing of Elbrus, and in two days, following all the advicå given by the chief of the rescue service, we climbed both summits of Elbrus. I have never had any illusions concerning this treacherous mountain, and I hope that this short story will warn somebody against rash and risky behavior. May the magnificent beauty of the mountains as rarely as possible clouded by a dark shadow of tragedy...
This project was supported by C.A.M.P. (Italy), manufacturer of high quality climbing equipment.
I climbed Elbrus in June 2004, and my guide told me the story of the Canadians who died on the East summit happening in 2002.
Funny that the rescue guy said it happened in 2005. They should get their dates straight. I don't have a problem when someone tells me to be careful on a particular mountain because of the weather, but don't try to scare me.
I was there in 2004, and I had Alex as a guide for the region...They do have a helicopter, its a 1970 Russian "Yak". There gear is old, but in the hands of an experienced climber, it makes no difference. There is no need for a web service when you are at 4000-5000 meters.
I heard this tale also, but can not say whether it is truth or not. One thing I know for sure: sometimes climbing Elbrus becomes too dangerous and the experienced climber most likely will forbear from the ascention.
That day was in late june/ early july 2003, I climbed that day and saw and talked to those guys coming off of the west summit headed for the east. It was horrible weather, the worst summit day I have ever had there. There had been a lenticular on both summits throughout the morning, then it grew and descended. They were headed over when the weather still looked doable; within an hour the winds were up to 50 mph with higher gusts and visiblitiy dropped to 15' or so. The weather didn't improve substantially for the next 3 days.
Elbrus is not so bad when conditions are good; but they can change quickly, and then you are on a huge rounded volcano with few usable landmarks (especially in a whiteout, which happens frequently on the upper mountain), with ice, multiple huge crevasses, and a lack of shelter. Hypothermia is usually the next issue, compounding the "routefinding". Most people don't bring clothing or gear to allow them to hunker down and last a night (or more) up there.
Spasibo to you, Alex, for the great interview and good posts and pictures elsewhere. I have spent a lot of time on Elbrus and know how bad it can get up there. Many people do not take the climb seriously enough; each year many die. Posting good information like your interview is important, and hopefully will help people be better prepared.