I went to Mt. Elbrus with Pligrim Tours, Sept 10-22. I have climbed peaks all over the world, and this is the first time I have gone with a guided climb. Russia is a difficult country to travel independently through (because of lots of red tape), and it is difficult to get a visa without going through a guide service.
Our group consisted of 12 people: Arletta (Dutch), Sebastian and Norman (German), Ian and Jim (South African), Chris (Canadian), Donald (Irish), Ron, Craig, Lorrain, my wife Kim, and myself (all from Colorado).
We spent Sept 11-12 seeing Moscow before flying to Min Vody on Sept 13 and then driving to the mountain lodge in Terskol. It was raining the whole drive, so we were a little worried about the weather.
On Sept 14 we climbed Cheget in brilliantly clear weather. The Cacausus are simply breathtaking, more rugged and spectaclar than any mountain range I have seen except for the Himalayas. Elbrus is the highest, but easiest peak to climb in this area. Nearby Donguzoran is very near Cheget and was compared by some of the group to the North Face of the Eiger.
Sept 15 was spent hiking up to Diesel Hut from the cable car station. It had snowed and all the peaks were covered in fresh white. There are great views of countless surrounding peaks including Ushba, said to be Europes toughest peak, from the hut. A huge lenticular cloud covered Elbrus, which Chris said always preceeds a storm on the peaks around his home town of Vancouver, B.C. Chris said this was the biggest lenticular he has seen, so we may be in for a storm.
On Sept 16 we hiked up to Pashtuhova Rocks at 15,300 feet. There was a raging blizzard and white-out. The tempurature was 20F (-7C), but the windchill was lower than -30F (-34C) and there was no visibility.
Sept 17 was a non-stop blizzard all day. The summit attempt was postponed until Sept 19. 1.5 feet (0.5 meter) of snow so far. Jim and Ian had had enough, and headed down the mountain. That night was also a blizzard that lasted through the morning of the 18th. It began to clear at 11 AM, and we finally got to see Elbrus (the first time in 4 days) bathed in sunshine. Our hopes had been regenerated, but it started to snow again at 12:30 PM. Still blizzard at dinner time; 3 feet (1 meter) of new snow on the ground.
It had snowed again most of the night, but it was starry by 3AM. There was 4 feet (1.3m) total new snow on the ground. Eigth of us set off to try for the summit; Kim suspected she was pregnant (and she was; it was confirmed on arrival back to the US), so she opted not to go. Lorrain decided to stay back also.
It was 18F (-8C) at the Diesel Hut, but the wind was screaming, and the windchill was in the -20'sF (-20's to -30's C). It got colder and windier as we went higher. By the time we reached Pashtuhova Rocks it was 7F (-16C) with 60 mph winds (100 kph) and the chill factor was in the -40's. Brrrrr. We were all very cold. Conditions were also icy at this time of year. Chris said that these were the most brutal conditions he had ever experienced, and he has worked many winters in the Canadian Arctic, far north of the Arctic Circle. He turned back about 1100 feet (330 m) higher than the rocks, because he was feeling ill. Conditions got even worse. The temp dropped to -2F (-19C) and the chill factor dropped into the -50's or maybe even the -60's. It got even colder, but I don't know the exact temperature (someone else in the group said -19F/-28C?). My toes were cold, and I was getting worried. See also the comments below.
Ron, Craig, and I turned back before the saddle; Arletta, Donald, Norman, and Sebastain continued on. In the end no-one reached the summit, and everyone else who continued on beyond me except for Donald returned with frostbite. Sebastain's was the worse; his right side of his face was black and blistered. The wind died as we were returning, and I wished that I had continued on, because the weather did improve. We were actually baking in the sun with all our clothes on coming down.
Sept 20-22 were spent returning home. The weather was brilliantly clear on calm on those days! Unfortunately, our time was up and wwe had to go home. We had some really nice views in the morning from the Barrels Hut the morning of the 20th. Figures.
Yes, Mt. Elbrus is a fairly easy climb in good weather, and one who summits on a bright and sunny day in summer may blow off this little story, but the following fact remains. Any peak that kills an average of 22 climbers a year deserves to be taken seriously.
A few hints for very high cold peaks like Mt. Elbrus: Mt. Elbrus was much colder than the similar altitude peaks I've done in the Andes or Mexico, and though I was fairly well prepared, I did make a few mistakes about a few things I didn't think about when I packed.
1. Take only insulated fuel bottles. The summit day is very long and you need to drink plenty which is hard to do when your water is frozen solid! I tried to keep a bottle next to my chest, but then I had to unzip my coat to get a drink (did I mention it was cold?). We filled our water bottles with boiling water, but they were still frozen solid after not very long.
2. Take some sort of gloves that you can put on and adjust crampons with; bare hands freeze quickly!
3. -40 boots are not really warm to -40.
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