11th Aug. 2017, I will always remember this day when I made it to the summit of Mt Elbrus, Russia, the highest peak on the European Continent. Days of walking with heavy gears & backpack, exhausting acclimatization walks, one failed summit attempt and then finally the grueling 17 hours climb to the summit and back. We returned Exhausted, Emotional, Inspired and at Peace!
A group of 12 strangers met in a small Russian town called the Kislovodsk. People from different walks of life but with a common goal to summit Mt Elbrus. A mountain which is known for its precarious weather, was seeing some of the climbers making their 2nd or even 3rd attempt.
For a newbie like myself, keeping an open mind was more comforting rather than thinking of the perils and all the other things that could go wrong.
The North Slope base camp was a comfortable serene place at the foot hills of Elbrus. We make our way up to the high camp carrying our heavy backpack and return to the base camp as part of our acclimatization hike. Next day was a similar story! The idea was to “climb-high and sleep-low” to have better acclimatization. Exhaustion and limited sleep started taking a toll on our bodies. We lost our appetite and even though we’re exhausted, we couldn’t sleep due to high altitude.
2 of our group mates had to discontinue their journey due to extreme exhaustion and sickness. The mountain stood tall and continued to push us beyond our limits. Signs of altitude sickness were all around us with people experiencing headaches, nose bleeding, high heart rates etc. These symptoms are quite common at high altitudes and gradually the body gets use to it. After reaching the high camp (3800m) we made a few more acclimatization hikes in the snow with our heavy boots, crampons and ice-axes. There were several other groups at the high camp, with whom we shared our small wooden cabin and dining space. Just one day before our summit attempt the high camp got hit by a hail storm, while one of the other group was still out on the slopes for their acclimatization hike. They returned completely drenched and battered by hail stones, thankfully no one was hurt. At this point, we were all at the mercy of the mountain and weather gods.
At midnight, we geared up and started our summit attempt, 1 more person had to stay behind due to sickness and we were now down to 9. Lighting the way up with our head lamps, the team started climbing the icy slopes taking one small step at a time. The sky was lit up by millions of stars, it was a perfect day for our summit bid. No winds, no clouds, all we could hear was the sound of our crampons and hyper breathing. We reached the lower Lenz rock (4600M) around 5:30 AM and it got very chilly, the coldest time of the night is the time just before Dawn. Stopping to take a break felt extremely cold, so after a quick breather, we decided to continue walking. The key in the mountains is to keep walking slowly and maintain the momentum. Too many breaks or a long break just disturbs the rhythm and it feels difficult to gain the momentum again. We walked in small groups of 3 plus 1 guide, connected to each other via a safety rope. The group was doing very well so far and we had already been walking for nearly 6 hours.
It takes hours to gain a few hundred meters at high altitudes. By the time we crossed 5200M, signs of dehydration and fatigue started to kick in. The summit was in sight and we could see some of the faster groups already making their final push on the summit slope. But we still had the long saddle slope ahead of us. What looked like a short gradual slope, felt never-ending as we began walking through it. Hours of hiking at that altitude started to wear me out, I was dizzy and extremely exhausted. When you’re walking as a group tied with a rope, you must match everyone’s pace and can’t slow down. I was feeling the additional pressure of being the first in the row. Summit Day is a grueling day that takes 8-11 hours to reach the summit and another 4-6 hours to get back, subject to group’s speed and weather conditions.
From this point, the summit was another 3-4 hours away but I was more concerned about the return journey. My water supply was nearly over and I began calculating my options. After a quick chat with my lead guide, I decided it was right for me to turn back. It was a very hard decision to make, returning just a few hundred meters before the summit. A support guide offered to help me with the descent and with a very heavy heart we made our way down.
Upon reaching down at the high camp, people approached me to find out what went wrong but I was terribly fatigued and went straight to sleep in my hut. A few hours later I could hear voices of the other faster groups who returned successfully from the summit. Everyone began consoling me how it’s just a mountain and how I could always come back again to do it next season. An older gentleman from my group who had stayed behind also shared a few words of wisdom. At that point, nothing made sense to me and I was furious inside for giving up so quickly. A couple of hours later my group retuned from the summit and showed pictures of their triumph. I was part happy for my group and part sad. Months of training and now, all down the drain.
I was beginning to accept this as part of the climbing experience but the mountain had some other plans for me. I heard the older gentleman from our group, the one who had stayed behind, talking to a guide and planning a summit attempt for himself. Seeing the perfect opportunity, I joined the discussion and expressed my interest of making a second attempt. Adrenalin started rushing in, I was feeling strong and better acclimatized after returning from 5200M. Though some of my group members had a mixed feeling about me going back again immediately without proper rest and recovery break. I knew in my heart that I am not coming back to climb Elbrus and if it must be done, then the time is now. We quickly arranged for 2 guides, one for each of us, packed our gear and decided to leave at midnight. The weather forecast was a bit tricky and there were chances of snowfall in the afternoon. We had a small window to reach the summit and make our way down safely. For the second time, I left high camp at midnight that day hoping to make it to the summit this time. Fingers-crossed!
After 11 hours of slow hiking in the snow, I reached my destination. A moment of pure bliss, an emotional cocktail. We were among the last ones to reach summit that day, but nothing mattered at this point. It was no race. After a few candid photo shots we were ready to make our descent. On our way down, the mountain decided to throw another surprise in our way. Soon we saw clouds emerging from nowhere and found ourselves amid thunder, lightning and heavy snowfall. At that altitude, one is literally between the clouds and with all the metal gear and an ice-axe pointing out of our backpacks, we were the perfect lightning conductors. We had heard a few stories about people getting struck by lightning and didn’t want to be the next. Me and my guide ran our way down to the nearest rocks and covered our metal gear with the rocks. We waited for 2 hours at the rocks and as they storm passed, we slowly made our way down. I wasn’t expecting this adventure on the summit day but I guess it was a bonus. It was still snowing and we finally made it down to the camp. All the support staffs were waiting for us anxiously and I was so happy to see them. Our language barrier didn’t seem to matter at this point and everyone hugged each other with a feeling that can’t be expressed through words. We had many experienced climbers around us but every summit experience is unique in its own way. I saw the toughest, most experienced people getting emotional while sharing their experiences. It was truly a psychological, emotional and physical journey! ■
For the love of the outdoors:)
Words + Photos by: Bishworanjan Das