Climbing Elbrus, just feel it! :)
This project was supported by C.A.M.P. (Italy), manufacturer of high quality climbing equipment.
20 kilometers away from the Main Caucasus Range, quite independently and separately, elevated by the force of Hermes to five and a half kilometres into the sky, rises the white dome of the highest place in Europe - Mount Elbrus. It is an ancient volcano, covered by thick glaciation, which still manifests signs of its activity - in its vicinity many active thermal springs are located, periodically hydrogen sulphide, a volcanic gas with a distinctive smell, is being emitted. While traveling around Elbrus, one encounters all the time the products of its volcanic activity: huge basalt crystals, blocks of volcanic pumice-stone, solidified lava flows - the traces of ancient eruptions.
Elbrus is a place of ongoing pilgrimage for people keen on various kinds of sports associated with mountains. Mountaineers, trekkers, skiers, snowboarders come here.. As Elbrus is officially considered to be the highest spot in Europe, ascending it is a part of the "Seven Summits" program - this attracts climbers from all over the world. The other reason for Elbrus's huge popularity is its technical simplicity, its accessibility. For many beginning mountaineers Elbrus is the place where they first get acquainted with the mountains...
Having returned from Khan-Tengri and rested for several days in Moscow, I set off again for the Caucasus where it was originally planned to shoot a telefilm about Svanetia, which did not work out due to certain logistic and political problems, as well as another attempt to climb Ushba - it seems that this becomes an integral part of my annual mountaineering program.
But first of all - Elbrus. There is no way to avoid it. The necessary acclimatization can be obtained only here - on the easy slopes of the highest mountain in Europe and in the Caucasus. The place is ideal for acclimatization - after climbing Elbrus one can fearlessly proceed to more complex routes on other, less high but more exacting mountains.
The weather seems to rejoice with us! Not a slightest breeze, the sun is scorching. I am sitting and hugging my backpack - the seat of the cable-way is creaking gently, black basalt rocks covered with a layer of clean freshly fallen snow are slowly drifting by. Its amount increases as we rise higher, and a well-founded desire forms to add something to the clothes which we had on us at the beginning of the climb. Hats appear on our heads and mittens on our handss... And in the clear sky Elbrus reigns serenely - it seems so near, like a toy! What a deceptive impression! There simply exists no criterion to evaluate and compare the gigantic, overwhelming size of this Mountain with anything else.
Well, here we are! The last station of the chair-lift - Gara-Bashi. Or, as the name goes - "The Barrels". Wow! There are people skiing here! And this is the beginning of August!
Having quickly changed into warmer clothes and gone to greet Iskhak - the chief of the "Barrels", we begin our ascent. The walking is easy and merry - the breathing at Elbrus is especially easy after two weeks on Khan-Tengri - we march briskly along the tracks left by the Snow Cat which are now softened under the sun towards the former "Shelter of the 11" - the legendary hotel which burned down several years ago. Occasionally we stop so as to admire the Main Caucasus Range - a staggering view! All the geography of the Caucasus lies there, below us and open to our gaze. To the right is the Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Dombai, a little to the left, beyond the ridge - Svanetia, the Svanetian ridge... Beyond it in a bluish haze - this is already very far - spread out the expanses of Georgia in bloom, which is now inaccessible to us from this side due to an evil twist of fate... The next in the panorama is Ushba. About this mountain I shall tell you later, as it is a topic for yet another story. Still further to the left rises the snow-white mountain range of Bezengi, with Ossetia beyond it. And to the very left, at the border of visibility itself is the barely discernible Kazbek - Elbrus's younger brother.
The vast expanses enthrall the spectator, enslave his willpower...One can sit like this for hours, simply viewing the numerous details of this stunning landscape, immutable since the creation of the world and at the same time constantly changing - like a child's kaleidoscope which constantly creates new variations of colour and shape...
Meanwhile the top of Elbrus is covered by clouds from time to time. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon - the main thing is that there are no "cirrus" - fleecy clouds, the surest sign of an abrupt worsening of the weather.
Far above us, at the traverse, small black spots can be seen - these are mountaineers who are descending from the summit. You are lucky, guys!.. Already done it... For us it still lies ahead...
The wind is droning behind the thin walls of our flimsy shelter, slashing at the black rocks. An evil, ruthless wind... How many lives has it ruined? - it is hard to count... But every year the Mountain takes a levy from the people - on its slopes, in the crevasses, under a thin layer of solid snow remain the frozen corpses of those who happened to be weaker... 15-20 people annually... - such is the sad statistics of the local rescuers. The mountain is seemingly not \difficult. A gentle slope which does not require any special skills. The way to the summit is well marked by landmarks. No visible danger. But that in itself the most terrible danger. Elbrus is treacherous. Innocent by appearance, it conceals many deadly traps for a careless and inexperienced climber. And not merely novices - even experienced guides, who had been to the summits of Elbrus many times, occasionally are deceived by the Mountain...
It is morning. The neighbouring summits are closed by dense clouds. The great Mountain appeared for several minutes and then concealed itself with confidence in a lentil-shaped cloud. Those of brave spirit who decided to start the ascent this night are well seen on the traverse. It is not easy for them now... The strong western wind at the altitude of 5000 metres turns into a hurricane, it gushes at the face, hinders breathing, takes away the last strength. A sudden squall may knock one down or lift a person into the air for several seconds. Even in good weather the traverse is the most physically difficult part of the route, - the altitude, the lack of oxygen is felt keenly. And with a head wind...? After all, it is not possible to hide from it, to turn away... One can only go on, making several steps between the gusts of wind, hiding one's face, turning back to draw a deep breath...
If anybody does manage to reach the summit today - there will be only a few.
The forthcoming acclimatization walk to the Pastukhov rocks will take not more than three hours, so we do not hurry. The goal is to sleep well, to have a hearty breakfast, then to rest for another hour. The weather does not impede us - the acclimatization is going on in due course.
Slowly, without haste, I gain altitude. Hurrying in this work means losing time. The less you hurry - the faster you go. Such a paradox of the mountains... The ridge of rocks "Shelter of the 9" remains behind, I pass another bend, and here they are in full view - the Pastukhov rocks. It does not make sense to go any further, we need to save our energy. It is better to sit down for a while, to rest and then descend - the body should get adjusted to the altitude, become adapted. If everything goes well - tonight we shall start the ascent.
It is two a.m.. The wind abates somewhat, the horizon is clear, there are stars in the sky. It is frosty. This is good - a sign of stable weather.
- Sergei, get up! - Nay...
- Get up, it's time to go! - No, I don't wanna...
But we have to get ready... The people start moving, coming out of their drowsy state. Here and there noses and other parts of the body start appearing from the depths of their down-filled sleeping bags. If at this time one does not display one's will-power and show the necessary example, - the people will quickly hide their noses back and will start snoring again.
Get u-u-up!!! Don't sleep!!! Well, all are awake now. Even those who do not understand the meaning of this brief military command. Or do not understand Russian at all. The intonation is what does it. The gasoline burner starts from the first attempt and is humming smoothly and respectably, - it becomes warm and cozy in the little house at once, - and leisurely preparations begin.
- Where are my crampons? - Wherever you put them!
- Hey, give me my flashlight back! - You fool, this is my flashlight, you never had one like that!
- Yesterday I left my mittens here, where are they?
- Give me the cream please... - You have your own, so use it! - and so on, and so forth...
If it is crowded, the best thing is be the first to wake up and get up - thus to avoid the general crowded pushing around, which is unavoidable during an early rise. Listening to the sleepy squabbles of my freshly-awoken team, periodically glancing at my watch, I make breakfast ready.
An early start is an option which has been tried out and approved long ago and many times. It gives one many advantages, among which the most attractive thing for me personally is that one is able to get higher up before sunrise and to witness a fantastic view - the morning awakening of the world... Not just some one part of the world, no. All of it at once. The performance is worthy of the gods.
At first the horizon in the east turns somewhat paler - this is the prelude to the actual thing. A certain tension appears in the air, the premonition of the encounter with the Sun.
The next phase is the 'false dawn'. The most mysterious time. It is no longer dark, but not light yet either, the tension in the air decreases and gives place to a feeling of a strange foreign presence. I once read that in this particular brief period of time the borders of the objective reality of our world disappear, and with a wish one can see and hear strange things... But this door closes very fast, and the Sun comes to the world.
The summits of the mountains blase up in a crimson fire, at the horizon there appears 'the ghost of Elbrus' - an enormous shade cast by the Mountain for many hundreds of kilometers - this is a classical picture witnessed by all those who are lucky to climb Elbrus in clear weather.
The traverse... In order not to get disappointed, it is best not to look up - there is a lot of work left yet. We go from landmark to landmark. How many of them are there here...? The slope is very monotonous. The flashlights go out one after another. An involuntary glance up automatically measures the distance - and, as always, wrongly. It is very hard to estimate the distance here, on the slope of the huge mountain. It seems to be very close, just a stone's throw. But the walking takes about three hours, no less. Many turn back here and give up.
Well, here is at last the Saddle - a huge gully, a half-kilometer deep gap between the Eastern and Western summits. The scale is impressive. This is where the feeling of realizing one's insignificance in comparison with the Mountain first comes. Another 500 metres or so to the ruined house - here we can rest a bit. But it isn't possible to sit there too long - it's very cold... The little thermometer on my backpack shows -20C. How nice that there is no wind. The slopes of the western summit are lighted up by the sun brightly - we wish to be there sooner, beyond the border of the shade. But there is no strength left to hurry. Drinking hot tea
from the thermos, we wait for those lagging behind.
So, are we all here? Ready? Then let's go! The last part of ascent is left - 400 metres of climb, and we come out to the flat plateau of Elbrus's Western summit. The summit itself is in the farthest end of the huge 'football ground' - a small hill with streaming flags - the goal for which a huge amount of strength and energy has been spent. What for?.. Answering this question down below is a hard and ungrateful job. They just don't understand... But when you are standing on the summit - the very bringing up of this question is weird, everything is extremely clear here, where only the sky is above your head, and the whole world is around you. The goal justifies the means, believe me!
The traditional photography takes just a short time - we need to hurry down, so as to have time to run up also to the Eastern summit. We still have some strength left and the weather permits - it would be a sin to miss such a chance, Elbrus is not often is a good mood!
At ten o'clock in the morning we are back to the shelter... The whole ascent took less than seven hours - a very good time, taking into account that we had been to both summits. The prior acclimatization in Tian-Shan shows. We didn't want to go down - it is always hard to leave a place where one's heart draws one, being deeply and incurably wounded by the unearthly celestial beauty of this snow-white world... But we will come here again, many a time! Good-bye, Elbrus, till new encounters!