Wednesday August 8th 2012 just after noon I reached the summit of Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. We had really harsh and dangerous conditions particularly on the descent. This successful summit gets me one big step closer to achieving my goal to climb the 7 Summits. I have now climbed 6 out of the 7.
Flying half way around the world August 3 – 4 from Montreal to Moscow and then on to Mineralnye Vody, I was met at the airport and driven another 3 hours to a tiny village at the base of Mount Elbrus called Azau in the Caucasus. For the next 2 days I did acclimatization hikes first to 3500m (11,500’) and then up the glacier to the Pastaho Rocks at 4400m (14,500’). Advanced base camp was at 3800m. Tuesday was a rest day to prepare gear, organize and evaluate weather for a summit bid that night. Weather is always a big issue on Elbrus. It changes on a dime and often goes from one extreme to another in minutes. That said, Tuesday evening the clouds cleared and the skies were beautifully clear.
At 4am next morning weather had moved back in and there were low winds, some snow and moderate visibility. We started up the mountain in the clouds and frankly I struggled in the thin air. I really should have had one extra acclimatization day to develop more red blood cells. My heart raced to get enough oxygen to my muscles, I paced myself to 50 steps and then rested to allow my heart to quiet down a little.
My guide, Dasha Chuenko, a local young female climber and snowboarder set the pace for us in the dark and misty night. Her passion for the mountains to guide and excel was truly inspiring to me. Her father had introduced her to climbing and mountaineering at a very young age. At 21, she is already a natural in the mountains.
Elbrus, a dormant volcano, has 2 summits – east and west. The west summit at 5642m is 21m higher. A col or as it is called ‘saddle’ separates the 2 cones. After reaching the ‘saddle’ we diagonally climbed up the snowy route to a rocky outcrop and soon found ourselves on a rather flat plateau. A long gradual traverse brought us to a steep rise and on the small ‘table top’ peak. We were in the clouds with little visibility and no views but we made it.
On the climb up above the saddle we met Ahmed from the Republic of Abkhazia, climbing Elbrus to represent his young country situated on the Black Sea bordering Georgia. Together we reached the summit and made a special connection between Abkhazia and Canada.
The real fun began on the descent back at the saddle. The winds picked up to 50+km with blinding snow and practically zero visibility. The route down was not especially steep but one miss-step could be fatal. My experience has taught me that with that mix of low visibility and new snow the eye easily gets tricked with what is real ground or an illusion.
Best of all back in Azau the next night, Nicolai Chernny, a legend in Russian mountaineering took Dasha and myself out for a celebratory dinner with the best champagne and local Kabardino-Balkaria cuisine. Nicolai at 73, still leads climbers up Elbrus and other high-altitude mountains. He was leader of the K2 Russian Expedition West Face 2007.