W.B. Yeats wrote about a “Terrible Beauty” but here in the Caucasus Mountains we were surrounded by a savage beauty. The view from 4,000 metres on the slopes of Europe’s highest mountain was beautiful, but there was more than a hint of danger all around.
Sasha, our local guide and general all round good guy, would point and say “Over there is where the snow plough fell down a crevasse with 10 people on board…. Over there is where a man died of hypothermia…. Over there is where a 30 year old died of a heart attack….. Over there is where who a bloke who got lost and died with his mobile phone still in his hand…..” – And we weren’t even nearly at the dangerous part of the mountain yet!
I was with my six new friends from Norway and England on an expedition organised through Adventure Alternative to try to climb Mount Elbrus in Russia….
I woke in Terksol, the gateway to the mountains, a Muslim village and still surrounded by the vestiges of civilisation. We packed up and headed off in a mini bus after a fruitless attempt to find Candy, our lovely local canine companion. After a short bus trip we were on a cable car taking us up to 2,900 metres. Not only did we have our rucksacks etc. but we also had food for a week i.e. we were like an army on the move. My Achilles heel, my back, started to play up and I couldn’t carry too much but considering I couldn’t stand up two weeks previously however, I was doing alright. I had gone to my chiropractor, Paula Fyfe and we went through the usual drill as I hobbled into her surgery, “What event have you entered and when is it, she asked “Walled city Marathon…. This Sunday…” I mumbled back. I go into her clinic like Humpty Dumpty after the fall and leave like a spring chicken. Of course, 42 kilometres of shuffling around the streets of Derry didn’t do the back much good, but one session later, I was on the flight to Moscow.
“Frozen wet feet could be the difference between being able to summit – or not”
I was still pleasantly surprised at the facilities at 2,900 metres i.e. I had a bed, a bog and electricity! We went out for a hike up to 3,500 metres i.e. up above the snow line. Mandy from London really struggled and started to get sick, not a good sign of things to come. We went up to 3,700 metres eventually and on the way down ice got in my boots and my feet got very wet. No problem today, but this would be a major problem on Summit day unless I got my gaiters changed. Frozen wet feet could be the difference between being able to summit – or not. The Norwegians were brilliant on the snow, especially on the downhill sections. I tried to dry my boots with an electric boot warmer I had purchased the day before. The device looked like a piece of torture equipment, but at least it worked…
Our aim today was to get our kit and us transported to 3,900 metres. I heard thunder and lightning seemingly all night. When I groggily got up I enjoyed what was to be my last shower for 5 days. I spent ages putting on my boots and gaiters. As my back was un-corporative again, the lads were great and carried all the heavy stuff. We then shared another cable car with a bunch of Russkies whose main luggage seemed to be 60 cans of beer – maybe we would have a party on the Summit together?! Then we transported kit and kaboodle in a snow plough up to our ice box, sorry, sleeping quarters. It was so cold up here that we were surrounded by three foot steep snow drifts. We had to kick the door open to push the snow back. The snow plough is a great form of transport and the drivers have probably been Red Arrows fighter pilots in a previous existence because this terrain is scary enough to walk on, let alone drive a vehicle up a 25% gradient!
“Climb high, sleep low”
We then went out for a hike to over 4,100 metres with the idea of “Climb high, sleep low”. We followed the small flags which were put in the snow every hundred metres but on the way down we got a bit lost in the freezing fog. I wouldn’t like to stray too far off course here. The facilities in the Ice Box were primitive so if you had to answer a call of nature, we would just say, “I am going out to make some yellow snow”!
I was feeling ok, no headache but the environment was much tougher than any other mountains I had been on. They say that being here at 4,100 metres is similar to being on top of Kilimanjaro at 5,800 metres. Today I was higher than Kinabalou in Borneo and also the Atlas mountains in Morocco, but thankfully no sign yet of the dreaded altitude mountain sickness.
Friday the 13th – what a night! The door blew open, Gary and Magne tried to force it shut at 1.00 a.m. but we still ended up with snow inside when we eventually woke. As usual we had porridge for breakfast from our cook Natalia who was creating gastronomic wonders in the kitchen with very few facilities. I felt very week this morning, but we left at 8.00 a.m. Tom leant me his gaiters to prevent the snow from coming into my boots, what a life saver! So typical of the kindness and generosity of everyone on this trip. We hiked for 5 hours up to 4,700 metres to the Pryut Rocks. We were passed by snow ploughs and snow mobiles taking up skiers and snow boarders who were set for a much speedier descent than we were. On our trudge down I met Chris and John whom I had met at the airport, they were looking strong. The views at the stage were fantastic, we were above the clouds and seemingly above real life as well. It was just surreal but basic up here. All you wanted to do was climb, sleep, eat, recover – repeat. Our meal of course consisted of more borsch (the Russian staple kind of meat soup) and some pasta. Mandy couldn’t eat anything, she was sick and getting sicker. No phone signal up here. Friday the 13th is normally a day of calamity, but for us it meant there was only two more sleeps to go before Summit day!
We have decided to pay a bit extra today to hitch a ride in a snow plough to take us up to 4,700 metres, then walk up to 5,100 metres. This way we would be able to say that we walked every last tough metre on this mother of a mountain (because on Summit Day we would get the same form of transport up to 5,000 metres and start from there). We moved into our new digs at 4,100 metres, there was no electricity, but there was ice inside the window, snow on the floor which didn’t melt, a long drop toilet (which dropped a very long way off the side of a cliff) i.e. all the usual home comforts! Sasha took us out on the ice to teach us how to use an ice axe properly. It could cost us our lives if we didn’t know how to arrest an unscheduled descent down the face of the mountain so we were very good pupils. The other end of an ice axe is to gain purchase on the snow and ice – kick hard with both crampons in to the ice to gain a foot hold, then drive the ice axe in to get an anchor, then repeat with both feet every half metre for several hours, i.e. tiring!
As we rested at over 5,000 metres, masters of all we surveyed and as we gazed out over clear blue skies over what seemed to be most of Europe, we couldn’t believe it when we saw Mandy struggling up to join us. She hadn’t eaten for three days, had been throwing up and was doing this on willpower alone. This was to be the high point of her trip however. When we got her down to the sleeping quarters, she was confined to bed until she was medivacked out the next day on a snow mobile.
“It drags and all you want to do is get the waiting over and get on with it”
The day before Summit Day is like the day before race day – it drags and all you want to do is get the waiting over and get on with it. We all retired early to our beds. I put on three layers before crawling into a sleeping bag liner inside a sleeping bag and this bag has made it to the top of Everest and to the North Pole i.e. it was very good kit – and I was still frozen! I also happened to be on the most uncomfortable bed in all of Russia! Sasha told us there were gasses in the air if we ever did make it to the saddle at 5,300 metres. Elbrus was an extinct (I hope) volcano. The oxygen level is not only half of what we enjoy at sea level but is of poor quality – brilliant, that’s all I need, little oxygen, poor air quality, surrounded by crevasses and imminent death all around and wondering what the weather gods have in store for us the next day as we attempted to drift off to sleep when an apparent hurricane tried to rip our condominium off the side of the mountain – these were my last conscious thoughts as I tried to grab some much needed rest and recovery….
DAY 8 – SUMMIT DAY
None of us had slept, thanks to the wind. In the dark and cold we all thought that we would be confined to quarters all day. At 3.00 a.m. I eventually got up and wandered up to the kitchen to seek confirmation from Sasha. Instead of the expected answer he merely said “It’s a beautiful day – we go!” Thirty minutes later I was having the porridge and black coffee of a condemned man. In additional to the usual paraphernalia I also had to put on a harness which I might need later to help cling to the side of a cliff. At 4.30 a.m. we were on the snow plough. Thirty minutes later the driver was 1,000 Euros better off – we had just had the most expensive taxi ride in Europe! As we were going up such a steep incline and as we were all crammed together, I was dying to get out to actually try and breathe. We leapt off the snow plough which was now at a precarious angle. Gary yelled for me to move, the snow plough took off and threw up snow and ice all over me, welcome to Elbrus Pete!
“not only was I ready to take on this mountain, I was ready to go to war!”
To our right, we saw the first vestiges of dawn breaking over the horizon. It was 1 minute past 5.00 a.m. Our head torches were activated, we were all set. I was wearing two pairs of socks, inner boots, big plastic outer boots, gaiters, crampons, thermal leggings, hiking insulated trousers, water proof trousers, a harness, a thermal undershirt, a thermal long sleeve shirt, a thermal fleece, a North Face parka with hood, a balaclava, a skull cap, a heavy hat and goggles to protect my face- not only was I ready to take on this mountain, I was ready to go to war!
The six remaining Adventure Alternative wanabee summiteers were accompanied by three guides. We had Sasha at the front and we had Sasha number 2 and Yuri, (named after Gargarin of course) at the back. It was immediately hard work. It was freezing, my hands were numb as was my face. I tried to hunch in behind the person in front to protect my face. It would be a bit like a bike rider protecting himself in an echelon. Although it was minus 15 degrees centigrade with a wind from Siberia to boot, I was drenched with sweat as this was really hard work. It just seemed to go on forever, always up. We were surrounded by snow and I didn’t have the energy to look back at dawn breaking. If I felt like giving up once, I felt like giving up ten times, or even a hundred times. My breath was ragged, my heart rate was going through the roof. My rucksack seemed to weigh a tonne. There were no breaks or rests, we just kept ploughing on. Although I felt like giving up, I reminded myself once, ten times, a hundred times, that I don’t do failure, I don’t do giving up. I have learned to live in the moment. You don’t think about the anticipated pain 5 hours away or even an hour’s time. You think about what you can do to control the situation right here, right now. All it needed was one more step, then one further step, then another step etc. I reminded myself that I was young and fit and determined, okay, that I was fit and determined, okay, well at least I was determined!
“Don’t be afraid – fear will merely weaken your power”
Two hours of pure and utter torture later we were at the saddle at 5,300 metres and at least we had some neutral walking, i.e. no up or down. We were then confronted with a really steep path and at last we were on the edge of the West peak of Elbrus. Again, my heart rate was going like a hammer. This was the equivalent of sprinting – but for four hours! We were using our poles to dig into the snow. I deliberately did not look down to my right. Sasha the night before had said at the final briefing, “Don’t be afraid – fear will merely weaken your power”. It reminded me of FDR’s quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. It was equally persuasive and equally electrifying. We had to conquer not only the mountain, but our own inner doubt.
Eventually we made it over to the rocks. We had a two minute break, I was absolutely shattered. I asked if we could use a rope that was screwed into the side of the mountain through the snow. Sasha number 2 got me hooked up to it. At least now I wasn’t going to fall a thousand metres. Soon we hooked off the rope and onto the plateau. We were at 5,600 metres and at last we thought we were going to make it! The Summit of course was on the far end of the volcanic mound. How come the actual peak is never near the end of a mountain where I happen to get up? I literally saw the peak but nearly didn’t make it. It seemed so close, yet so far. At last we were at the bottom of a small snowy staircase and we banged out another fifty steps and there we were at the highest point in Europe. We all hugged. Gary shouted to me through the wind while laughing, “Why do we keep doing stuff like this?” I told him our next adventure would have to be somewhere warm!
A bloke got onto the mountain the same time as we did, and collapsed onto all fours, I could stand up, but barely. To take a photo, meant taking off two pairs of gloves from hands that were frozen. We only stayed ten minutes up there. That was a week’s hard work and a week’s planning for 600 seconds! I knew I was absolutely spent, but I had to concentrate on the way back down, where now I could actually see the icy slopes that could lead us to our doom!
We had in front of us a 3 ½ hour journey back down to 4,100 metres. We were going to have to use the ice axes again. We had made it up however and we summited at 8.50 a.m. Russian time i.e. 3 hours and 50 minutes of complete and utter effort. On the way down I was to meet Chris, my friend from the airport. He was sick, had to turn round, he couldn’t make it. His day was done, his race was run, his war was over.
On top of the mountain, I was like a zombie. Sasha had warned us the night before of a bloke who had tried to have a photograph with his flag and practically got blown off the side of the mountain. I got help to ensure that the Triangle triathlon Club flag made it out of my rucksack safely – and also made it safely back in. I can’t actually remember what the views were like from the top of Elbrus, because looking at views meant using energy and I didn’t have any left. Ahead of us lay one last night in the ice box. Ahead of us lay a sleep in the sunshine at merely 17,000 feet above sea level behind the window of the kitchen. Ahead of us lay some illegal Russian homemade brandy to warm us up that night. Ahead of also lay the delights of Moscow, but more importantly, a beer, a bed and a bathroom!
I looked at my watch and it was Father’s day. I am so proud of Hannah, Patrick and Mark and as I stood on the summit at the top of Europe on the 15th June 2014, I hoped that they would be equally proud of their father.
I wish to thank the following:-
- Adventure Alternative for their hypnotically attractive website.
- Sasha, our Guide for his patience and leadership.
- My six climbing colleagues for their good humour, hard work and their much appreciated friendship.
AUTHOR – PETER JACK
Peter is a very accomplished all round human being, he is someone who is infections with his smile and positive attitude. If you are lucky enough to be in his presence you will spend the entire time smiling from ear to ear. Along with this he is or has been to mention but a few….
- President of the Limavady Rotary Club 2010-2011
- President and head of selectors of Triathlon Ireland 2010-2011
- Founder member and current chair of Triangle Triathlon Club
- Commentator at European, home nations and Irish duathlon championships
- Commentator for BBC at commonwealth games 2002 and the world triathlon championships
- Trekked Kilimanjaro 2010
- Trekked to Everest base camp 2011
- Trekked Kinabalu Borneo 2012
- Trekked Atlas Mountains Morocco 2013
- Trekked Mt Elbrus Russia 2014
- 15 time Ironman finisher
- 40 marathons and counting
- Olympic torch bearer June 2012
- Indoor Ironman 2012
- MC at world Police and Fire Games 2013
- Future Kona Ironman competitor…………!
As you can see, Peter has accomplished an amazing amount and he is still going strong. We are honored to have Peter contribute.
Adventure Alternative is an independent travel company which was started in 1991 by adventurer and mountaineer Gavin Bate, and developed during many years of organising and running expeditions around the world. It is now an established company with an emphasis on responsible travel and a high level of knowledge and experience. They have run trips to the summit of Mount Everest to the middle of the Sahara Desert!
Check out their Elbrus page here to experience an amazingly well organised trip like what Peter has just described above.
If you want to know anything about the climb, Peter or Adventure Alternative please do give us a shout, we’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.