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Ascent of Elbrus on 2014-07-27

Climber: Peter Stone

Others in Party:Jenny C
Konstantin Zazdravnykh
Jenny H
Paul H
Boris Diakonov

Cameron G
Mark H
Emma M
Pat M
Jonathan P
Matt Parkes

Harriet N
Richard S
Catherine T
Date:Sunday, July 27, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:4x4 Vehicle
Peak:Elbrus
    Location:Russia
    Elevation:5641 m / 18510 ft

Ascent Trip Report

I did a lot of research before booking a trip to Elbrus because of previous violent activity on the south side of the mountain and ongoing Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice against "all but essential travel to Kabardino-Balkaria (including the Elbrus area)". After due consideration I decided that 2014 was the year to give it a go, exactly 140 years after the first (British) ascent of the mountain in 1874.

However, this was well before developments in neighbouring Ukraine and as the months passed by, particularly with the annexation of Crimea in March and the shooting down of Flight MH17 just 2 days before my departure, I was concerned that I'd never make it to the mountain at all. Nevertheless the trip went extremely smoothly and away from Moscow I found that the Russians we met were equally dismayed by the political and military manoeuvreing that was going on. Whereas the Muscovites couldn't believe that we'd survived a visit to such a region of terrorists and diverse other dangers!

A Jagged Globe/NewRoute expedition via the more pristine and tougher north side. A beautiful volcanic wilderness in a landscape of magnificent proportions. Unlike the south side there are no crowds, no assortment of buildings in various states of repair, no cable car, no chair lift and no snowcats: therefore one has to backpack all gear above base camp and truly climb the full height of the mountain rather than getting a lift much of the way up. Views arguably not quite so good on the northern slopes though, as the massive double-headed peak itself screens out the great chain of the Caucasus' other mountains until you are very high up.

Ably led by Matt Parkes and Russian guides Konstantin and Boris. Epic trip, awesome mountain, extreme weather and a marvellously entertaining and supportive group of co-participants. Furthermore I managed to lose 4 kg in weight during my preparatory training programme and a further 2 kg on the trip itself.

Getting to Elbrus has become easier of late. Aeroflot is improving and even uses Airbus jets these days rather than ageing Tupolevs. Connections to Mineralnye Vody are conveniently timed and the drive to the resort city of Pyatigorsk is reasonably short (Terskol for southerly approaches is a little further).

The road to the northern base camp has recently been upgraded to service traffic to and from a developing spa complex nearby (Dzhylysu) and presumably for military reasons as well. It's now of excellent standard apart from a few kilometres of untarmacked road just beyond Kislovodsk (birthplace of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) and a few more rutted and muddy kilometres along the access road to Hathansu Meadows. In dry conditions the Soviet-era UAZ-452 Bukhanka or "Bread loaf" off-road vans can get all the way to base camp fully-laden but in the pouring rain the ground and river ford were not in suitable condition and we made the final approach on foot, crossing the river by narrow plank bridge and collecting our bags later. The valley is remote and empty other than the various established camp sites, all protected by fencing against over-friendly cows. Ours had the luxury of a permanent mess hut, a marquee for kit storage, excellent Red Fox tents and wi-fi! However, it was squat/drop toilets from now on.

The next 5 days were spent on an acclimatisation walk to the Stone Mushroom rock formations (Kamennye Griby) via "The Aerodrome", portering equipment up to a cache by "Moon Plateau" (informal but generally used names), moving up to Camp 2 (Severnyj Prijut camp), glacier skills revision, an acclimatisation climb to Lenz Rocks in stormy weather and even a rest day. All this designed to get us as high as possible as early as possible and in as good a physical state as possible. The trails are not maintained but are clear nonetheless, however the final climb to Camp 2 up the loose scree of the morraine is challenging when heavily laden and especially so if wearing your plastic boots to save weight and space (otherwise trail shoes are sufficient to get to Camp 2, full mountaineering boots and crampons are necessary above there - a climbing helmet is not required at any point on Elbrus).

Summit day involved nearly 2,000 metres of ascent and 21 km of travel - the toughest day I ever recall in the mountains. After an evening of rest, we breakfasted at 23:00 and started climbing just after midnight, reaching the bottom of the Lenz Rocks (4,601 m) by around 04:00 and the top of the double rock ribs (5,297 m) by about 08:00. This was where our guides redistributed the rope teams into anticipated faster (West Summit) and slower (East Summit) groups and announced a strict turn-around time of 12:00. Fortunately we had enough guides to make up 3 groups but the pressure was on not to bail out and jeopardise anyone else's chance of success later on. I wasn't absolutely certain that I was truly one of the faster ones but I was feeling physically and psychologically stronger as the climb progressed as I'd got into a good rhythm of pressure breathing and use of the rest step and I was becoming more alert in phase with one's normal diurnal cycle. Through sheer bloodymindedness I wasn't going to miss my chance of success if at all possible. So my rope team set off briskly and got to the col (Sedlovina Elbrusa saddle 5,373 m) at about 09:30. At this point we were joined by several large groups of people coming up from the South and the climb steepened significantly, curling left up to the summit area, the route being marked by a series of wands (with a particularly exposed section protected by a fixed rope which we used for protection on the descent). Racing against time and pushing my body well beyond its comfort zone I briefly wondered, as I was gasping in the freezing air, my heart pounding prestissimo, whether I would survive long enough to achieve my goal. However, I quickly cheered myself up with the thought that if I hadn't had a heart attack by now then I'd probably be OK. We summitted at 11:30. I was so relieved and happy to get to the top that I nearly burst into tears, but there were no views and we were aware that the weather was rapidly closing in, so it was hugs, handshakes and backslapping all round, quickly taken photos and a warm glow inside as we started our descent. 4 clients made it up the higher West Summit (all from Yorkshire) and 5 up the East (all not from Yorkshire), 2 had remained at Camp 2 and 1 had retired hurt at Camp 1.

Initially good visibilty from dawn to 08:00 but thereafter thickening cloud during the final push from the col to the top and snowfall with increasingly strong winds progressing to near white-out conditions throughout much of the descent from the col downwards. The electrical storm on the way down was unlike anything I've experienced before with near simultaneous thunder and lightning at the same time as continuous heavy snow. The hazards of the conditions were confirmed by news of a Russian man's death by lightning on the summit later the same day (see: http://en.mchs.ru/news/item/1651746/). Our return was slowed by the need to take 2 extended respites from the blizzard in our group bothy bag and also by waiting to link up with the East Summit team after their own epic experiences. The navigational skills of our guides in leading us straight back to a cached rucksack, in keeping us above and away from the icefalls on the northern slopes and precisely back to the top of the Lenz Rocks where we rendezvoused with the others were truly impressive - the marvels of modern GPS (when it works). The storm eventually abated mid-afternoon and sunlight re-emerged but it was still hard work walking down with incessant balling of soft snow under the crampons. I trudged back into camp at 16:30. Nevertheless a beautiful mountain in a fascinating region and one of my most complete mountaineering adventures ever.

Over the next 12-24 hours I developed a severe sore throat with swelling and blistering of the pharyngeal mucosa to the extent that I thought I might obstruct my airway. I resorted to using the handle of my toothbrush to burst the blisters and was coughing up fragments of tissue for the next two days. I assume I was suffering some sort of thermal injury due to hyperventilating such cold ice-laden air through my mouth but I've never read about such symptoms in any other mountaineering report so if you know anything about this phenomenon please let me know.

Our itinerary:

Days 1/2: Fly London to Mineralnye Vody via Moscow. Overnight Intourist Hotel, Pyatigorsk.
Day 3: Drive Pyatigorsk to base camp (Camp 1) in Hathansu Meadow at 2,594 metres asl. Overnight Camp 1.
Day 4: Acclimatisation walk to Stone Mushrooms at 3,180 m and caching of climbing gear at 3,450m. Overnight Camp 1.
Day 5: Hike to Camp 2 at 3,763 m, collecting gear en route. Overnight Camp 2.
Day 6: Practising snow & ice techniques on the glacier up to 4,000 m. Overnight Camp 2.
Day 7: Acclimatisation climb to Lenz Rocks, 4,800 m. Overnight Camp 2.
Day 8: Rest day. Midnight departure.
Day 9: Summit day. West Summit 5,642 m. East Summit 5,621 m. Overnight Camp 2.
Day 10: Descend to Camp 1 (Reserve summit day).
Day 11: Return to Pyatigorsk.
Day 12: Sightseeing in Pyatigorsk (including ascent of Mashuk).
Day 13: Fly to Moscow for 3 days' sightseeing.
Day 15: Return to London.

Map (covering both the North and South Routes): Elbrus; Climbing and Trekking Map 1:50,000; ISBN 978-3-9523294-3-6 (published by www.climbing-map.com).

However, if you've read this far into this trip report it's likely that it's because you're wondering whether the North Route is worthy of consideration at all or whether you should go with the vast majority who climb from the south. In answer to that I'm afraid I can only reply with hindsight bias, from personal experience and from talking to local guides who have ascended via both routes. If you've been successful on Elbrus then it probably would have been a more fulfilling experience from the north side, but if you've been unsuccessful then it probably would have been better to have given the south side your best shot. Of note the two following JG/NR trips this season were both unsuccessful via the northern approach but succeeded after rapid re-attempts from the south.

The major drawback of the northern approach is that base camp is too low for meaningful acclimatisation and Camp 2 is not high enough to enable an easy summit day. With approximately 2,000 metres of ascent at this altitude it is hard to get to the top in good physical state (having enough sleep, drink, food and stamina) in the alpine "golden period" of dawn to 10:00 when the snow is firm underfoot and before the weather is likely to turn bad. By comparison summit days on Mont Blanc, Mount Rainier and Kilimanjaro only need maximum elevation gains of about 1,600 metres, 1,290 metres and 1,300 metres respectively (or less depending on exact routes and overnight accommodation) and are much shorter in distance too. Some of these problems can be reduced by making a Camp 3 on the glacier near the Lenz Rocks but that involves a lot of extra effort to carry all one's equipment to that height and is very rarely done purely for a summit bid. On the southern approach it is common practice to use artificial uplift on summit day, hence the much higher success rate. The grading on either route is much the same and only Alpine PD with maximum 30-40 degree snow and ice and no crevasses (as long as you stay strictly on route) but of course that's only part of the picture.

So north or south (and west or east), the choice is yours; but in reality a positive result will also depend on your fitness, acclimatisation, resistance to sleep and food deprivation, the weather, the condition of the others on your rope and your guide, and all these factors are variably unpredictable!

Zhelaju vam udachi !!
Click on photo for original larger-size version.
My view of Elbrus at Base Camp after my successful ascent (2014-07-29). Photo by Peter Stone.
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Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:3382 m / 11096 ft
    Extra Gain:120 m / 394 ft
    Route:North Route
    Trailhead:Base Camp (Camp 1)  2499 m / 8202 ft
    Grade/Class:PD
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Ski Poles, Guide, Hut Camp, Tent Camp
    Weather:Snowing, Frigid, Extremely Windy, White-out
Snow thunderstorm



Other Photos

Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Elbrus from Camp 2 (Severnyj Prijut camp) on the North Route. The higher and more distant West Summit is on the right (2014-07-23). Photo by Peter Stone.
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Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Left to Right: Me, Paul, Konstantin, Jenny H, Jenny C and Boris on top of Europe (2014-07-27). Photo by Peter Stone.
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