Day 1: Mineralnye Vody - somewhere on the border between Russia and Georgia:
Having just landed in a town called Mineralnye Vody onboard a Tupolov 154 after a 2 hour flight from Moscow the three of us are pretty happy. we are happy because the plane didn't leak too much AVGAS on the runway, the wings didn't fall off, and the already wasted co-passengers pretty much knocked themselves out on vodka and schnapps about halfway through the flight.
Waiting at the airport terminal we've had our passports taken away by security because our luggage hasn't arrived and i guess they haven't got anything better to do with us in the meantime.
Eventually all the other passengers pick up their luggage and disappear, we are left mooching around trying to communicate with some official who looks like she never recovered from communism, meanwhile trying to avoid bribing the policeman into giving us our passports back.
No bags means no equipment means no climbing (no passports means no getting out of the airport), but after two hours the policeman gets fed up of not being bribed and gives us our passports back. One hour after that our bags arrive on another flight and so we finally hit the road - a 4 hour dash to Terskol village through the Caucasus mountains in the middle of the night.
Day 2: Terskol, Baksan Valley - Foothills of Mt. Elbrus
From our hotel we get our first view of the mountain - it's a lot more impressive than it looks in the pictures.
We meet the rest of the group: Anders and Casper who are Danish and just got back from climbing Mera Peak (6200m) in the himalayas and came away from it with frostbite. Ken and Joe, who are Irish and are on a seven summits bid. Olga and Maxim who are Russian, very much into extreme sports, and generally not to be messed with. Alexis who is Spanish, a very serious climber, and speaks virtually no English on account of his English teacher having "the verry beeg teets." And a professional Russian photographer called Vadim.
Early in the morning we start our first acclimatization hike on the mountains surrounding Elbrus. A pretty tough scramble up 45degree rocky slopes - we start from 2000m where the weather is perfect and end up four hours later at about 3000m where the weather is not so perfect. After spending about half an hour at that altitude we descend back down to the hotel for tea (and soup).
Day 3: Prijut-11
Today we hike up to the remains of the burned down Prijut-11 hut which is at about 4000m. So far so good, no-one seems to be suffering from any significant effects of altitude, the climbs are not too strenuous and the weather's been pretty good. Plus we get to go back to the hotel for soup, shower, and sleep.
Day 4: Pastukhov rocks
The morning starts off badly - I've got a bad stomach, and Doc has got very bad stomach cramps. Neither of us have eaten anything, but we set off anyway. We take the cable car up to the barrels with all of our equipment and begin hiking up to Pastukhov rocks - 4,700m. the plan is to hike up to Pastukhov for acclimatization and then descend back down to the barrels for the night. It starts off o.k, but after about 4200m it turns very hellish. A storm breaks and we have to stop and put on more clothes. I have a thoroughly pounding headache and have run out of water. Doc is a long way back. every now and then I turn around and see him buckle over and drop to his knees in pain. Zubs looks pretty strong so far - as does everyone else in the group. I stop for a little break and then get going again. Zubs is 30 meters in front of me; it takes 20 minutes to catch up to him. When I do, he is kneeling in the snow, leaning on his ice axe. In-between taking deep breaths he threatens to kill me for coming up with this idea. All of a sudden he is absolutely finished; headache, stomachache, nausea, exhaustion - the works. He doesn't think he can make it to the summit. I tell him we've got another day to worry about that. We look back at the figure of Doc in the distance, he isn't moving.
We are at 4,600 meters and he would probably be o.k. to stop and turn back - it's enough acclimatization for one day. But I haven't told him.
I keep going. The weather gets worse and I can't see more than a few meters, I try to retreat into my hoodie to avoid the icy wind but it's futile. I'm following the Russian couple and the Irish guys - all of whom seem to be struggling very badly now. After a grueling couple of hours we make it to the Pastukhov rocks. I collapse into the snow and it feels like a summit in itself. That same bizarre combination of being glad you made it and feeling so buggered that you don't really care. I don't know who else is there because I can't see very far. after a few minutes I gather myself and head back down to the barrels for some rest and the inevitable - soup.
Day 5: The Barrels
It snowed prodigiously last night. Everything this morning is covered in a thick blanket of snow, but the sun is out and there is not a cloud in the sky. Today is our rest day before the summit push. Generally we sit around drinking as much as possible and lazing about the camp.
Doc is bound to his sleeping bag. He leaves the hut for nothing other than to take a piss. which is difficult to avoid, although the Irish guys managed by using an empty water bottle. there are risks associated with this which we were not prepared to take on in our hut.
In the afternoon the guides Oleg and Igor take us to a steep glacier nearby where we practice self-arrest techniques, i.e. what to do when you fall off a cliff. Doc digs deep within himself and summons enough strength to start a snow fight. Zubs plays snow football with crazy Spanish Alexis in goal. There's only so many times I can cope with the phrase "puta madre!" in one day, so I head back up to the camp for rest and soup.
Later in the day while everyone is loafing around waiting for dinner we decide to give Alexis a brief English lesson (which I think got him into a whole load of trouble a few days later).
The toilets are extraordinary. While Zubs is making his video diary, Anders walks past having just been to the toilet and says "I'd rather shit in my pants."
The calm of night is punctuated every now and then by someone or other looking out of the window to see how the weather is holding, or getting up and rummaging for clothes to go outside and take a leak. Doc at one point couldn't find his clothes and ran outside in his underwear... outside was about minus 10degrees. Still, no piss bottles in our hut.
Day 6: The Summit
We are up at 2:30 A.M. for breakfast. We set off at about 3:30. The mood is quite sober mostly. We needed the whole of the previous day to acclimatize and our strength is only just about recovered. Another 2000m climb today seems like a tall order, but the first few hours are encouraging. By torchlight we slowly snake our way up the steep slope and settle into a rhythm that seems to dull the passage of time. It is about minus 15degrees and I'm completely numb.
A few hours later the sun breaks over the side of the mountain and the entire horizon is basked in a misty orange glow. We stop for a break, take some pictures, and take in the view. Beneath us sharp, jagged peaks penetrate the clouds and the rest of the earth is a calm parabolic ocean of orange haze.
Our drinks bottles are frozen so hydration is a bit of a problem. We keep climbing as the day gets brighter, up towards the lower peak before traversing round, through the saddle and heading up the higher peak. On the traverse Zubs collapses into the snow and tells me he is finished. He can't open his drinks bottle. I estimate that we have about four hours left until the summit... it's a long way. Our kabardino-balkyrian guide karina opens his thermos and pours some hot tea down his throat and tells him to keep pushing, before going off on some random biological/philosophical tangent about human endurance. it might have been in a different language, nobody knows for sure. either way, we decide to make a push and try to catch up with the rest.
The whole group is stopped at the base of the saddle taking a final break before the hardest section of the climb yet - the summit slope.
I try to eat an energy bar but it's frozen stiff and i'm scared i might bite my tongue off if instead. Zubs looks in very bad shape but manages to eat a few dried apricots and do a video diary. Anders has a pounding headache and wants to head back. Joe and Ken don't look happy either. We are at about 5500m.
The view from up here would have been profound and poetic had somebody from another group not decided to take a shit in the snow right in front of us.
We start up the steep slope and for the first time I feel confident we are going to make it. Doc collapses into the snow every now and then before collecting himself and pushing on. We reach the top of the slope after a superhuman effort expecting to be at the summit but there is another plateau to negotiate. We don't know how long because the mist has rolled in and we have lost visibility. After what seems like hours of trudging through the deep snow the summit is finally in sight - a small cornice rising 10 vertical meters above us (I think someone laughed at the prospect of having to climb that cornice, almost as though there was still a possibility of passing out on the plateau and not being able to make it). Slowly, we trudge up to the summit and everyone collapses on the snow. For a few minutes there are no congratulations or remarks, just a few grunts and profanities. Gradually people get up and hug each other. A shared sense of accomplishment sinks in to the atmosphere as people round off their introspections and prayers. We take some pictures and because it's too cold to hang around we head back down.
The descent is a nightmare. It is long and unrewarding. My crampons keep catching on my waterproofs tipping me headlong into the snow. I haven't got the energy to arrest myself so I simply slide as far as I can before getting up, shovelling the snow out of my mouth, and throwing myself down the mountain again. This lasts about 6 hours - almost as long as the climb itself. In all we have been on the move constantly for about 14hours.
Sitting outside the hut waiting for the others to arrive and exchanging congratulations as they stumble back into camp is for me possibly the most satisfying time. It's when you see your own struggle reflected in the condition of the people around you. it marks the real culmination of the 14 hour summit slog, the 5 days of climbing before it, the months of training before that, and the years that you've been wanting to do this.