Early October 2016 I was in the position to travel to the Russian Caucasus and attempt to summit Mount Elbrus north face. Read about my experiences below.
Mount Elbrus (5642m) is the highest summit of Europe and Russia. This makes Mount Elbrus one of the 7-summits.
It took me 10 days to summit Mount Elbrus, including necessary traveling. I decided to climb Mount Elbrus north face. This side of the mountain is less crowded, wilder but also more demanding than Elbrus south face.
I left Amsterdam Airport at 29th September at 00:15h. At Mineralyne Vody I met the rest of the group: 1 guide and 5 other climbers. The first days of the trip were used to acclimatize and to get used to the surroundings. We acclimatized the traditional way, during the day we climbed (part) of the mountain and left some stuff on High Camp. Then we descended to sleep in base camp. This way you can fully recover from your climb, but your body will start making the very necessary red blood cells. While acclimatizing, one climber decided to quit; his preparation was not good enough to continue.
Attempting to summit Mount Elbrus
Our attempt to summit Mount Elbrus started at Wednesday October 5th at 23:30h. We got out of bed to have breakfast (or diner?) and put the last things in our backpack. Around 01:00h everybody was ready to go, and finally we left. At 01:30h we arrived at the glacier. Time to put on our crampons and rope up. This starts the very long hike to the summit. As expected, it’s completely dark but fortunately not very cold. I’m wearing three layers of clothing for my upper body and a Goretex hard-shell. My legs are covered with thermopants and wind-stopper pants. And, of course, I’m wearing gloves. I keep my head warm with a cap and there’s a headlight.
I always enjoy walking on the glacier. It’s calm, but you should never underestimate the possible danger. When I look around I am able to see the lights of the surrounding villages and towns. It’s indescribably beautiful.
At 4500m we take our first break. I took a thermos filled with tea, and drink some. The others eat some, but our break doesn’t last long. While standing still you get cold, fast! There’s no wind, which makes everything very quiet. I love this!
We leave for the next place to have a break, which is at around 5000m. At our arrival, daylight slowly appears, which gives us beautiful views. I’m starting to feel the altitude and the morning. This is the coldest moment of the day. There’s no wind, but it’s still cold. It’s probably far below 0 degrees Celsius, but I have no idea how far below. I’m taking another sip of tea and eat something. I’m thinking about getting some extra clothes, the cold is getting uncomfortable.
Again, our brake is short, therefor I decide not to change any clothes. Daylight has fully arrived, as did the wind. Some climbers of the group are having a hard time, while for me our pace is a little to low to really warm up. Besides this, we walk in the shadow of the mountain. This all makes the cold very uncomfortable.
At around 5200m two climbers are ready to give up the climb. They have had a hard week, and at this moment, lack physical strength to continue any further. As they go down, this leaves the three of us to continue the climb; two climbers and the guide. I use this unexpected break to put on extra clothes. I change my hard-shell for my down jacket. Because I got pretty cold, I also decide to put on a balaclava and ski goggles. This was a good decision, about 30 minutes later I warm again. I do notice my balaclava makes it hard to breath. This give me a headache, so little later I decide to put if off. That helps!
At this point, we clearly see Elbrus Summit. I feel very confident we will summit Mount Elbrus today. And I start to think about what will happen when we summit; I want to dance, scream, party! There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind.
At 5300m we reach the saddle. At this point you can choose between either the west of the east summit. The east summit is about 20 meters lower, and therefor not an option. My fellow climber and me don’t have any doubts; we will summit Mount Elbrus west at 5642m. I’m still feeling great, my headache is gone and I’m feeling strong. Of course I notice there less oxygen, but that’s what I expected. We start with the last 300m. It’s a pretty steep traverse which will end at a relatively flat area that leads to the actual summit.
A little while later my fellow climber stops walking and sits down. She talks to the guide, who’s first on the rope. I decide to walk towards her to help her up again. Just before I arrive, she’s already at her feet again. While doing so, I wonder what just happened. She appears to be in a different world? I don’t pay much attention to it and continue walking. The path is narrow, so focus is required.
I notice it’s getting harder to keep balanced while walking. I’m using my trekking poles, and fully lean on them while shifting my weight while walking. I wonder why for a sudden I’m so tired. My legs feel so heavy! But, summit is getting closer. I just have to keep walking and I’ll get there. We pass a descending group. I try to walk as normal as possible. I don’t want them to see how weird I walk!
20m below summit we leave our backpacks. The last piece is easy, not steep and a very wide path. I do take my trekking poles. Walking without them is really hard. I notice my fellow climber also has a hard time walking straight. I walk slowly, my legs feel so heavy and tired. But at last, we summit Mount Elbrus; the roof of Europe and Russia. At exactly 13:00H we are there!
At the summit, there’s only one thing I want to do; sit down. My legs feel so empty. The guide asks how I feel and I try to answer. While speaking I notice I can’t understand my own talking. I suddenly have 3 extra tongues in my mouth..Where did they come from?
Of course we need to take some summit pics. I decide this can also be done while sitting. After about 15 minutes we start our descent. Back at our backpacks I notice walking is getting easier. And, I left most of my extra tongues at the summit!
We take an different route for our descent. While getting lower, I feel I’m recovering. My strength is getting back. Of course I’m tired, but this is the kind of tiredness I’m used to. The only thing that remains is a bad headache. That doesn’t worry me, because that what I always have when I suffered badly.
At around 16:30h we are back at High Camp. I’m exhausted! After a cup of soup some of my strength is already coming back. I go to sleep at 21:30h after a very nice diner and some champagne. Very happy, but tired.
High Camp is at around 3800m. Elbrus summit is at 5642m. This results in a ascent of about 1900m to get to the summit. And 1900m ascending leaves another 1900m to descend. But, this day is not only vertical. We need to cover some distance; 23km in total. This all took us about 14 hours.