Mt. Elbrus – climbing in the death zone
Mt. Elbrus, 5,642m (18,510 ft) is the highest peak in Caucasus, close to the border between Russia and Georgia. It is the highest mountain in Europe (not Mount Blanc, being only 4,848m high) and it is part of the Seven Summits Challenge (7 highest peaks on each continent).
Although technically easier than Mt. Everest, on average 26 people die trying to climb Elbrus every year, which is a higher death toll than that of Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world.
How do they die?
First of all the ascend is very steep and can be extremely icy. You definitely need crampons. Nevertheless, one wrong step and you may slip. If you don’t manage to stop your slide in the very first moment with your ice axe, you are lost. You will slide thousands of meters down the mountain until you hit the rocks. Many people die this way.
Secondly, the weather is very unstable. You can have a comfortable -10 or -5 degrees celsius (14F) with sunshine and calm weather and in the next moment it can change to -30 degrees celsius (-22F) with storm or even snow storm and zero visibility, so the subjective temperature may reach as low as -50 degrees celsius (-58F). Then you are immediately in an extreme hostile environment and depending on your clothing, equipment and the duration of the bed weather you are in a big or even deadly trouble. Some people just freeze to death, some get lost in the whiteout and fall into a crevasse, some get swept out by the wind.
Thirdly, due to the high altitude, you can suffer from the altitude sickness, it means you will feel dizzy and fatigued, you will have a shortness of breath, rapid pulse, headache and nausea. You may vomit. Your body may swell. Some people may get fluid in their lungs and in extreme cases even their brain may swell. This results in loss of consciousness and if you don’t get transported to a lower height you simply die. The so-called HAPE (high altitude cerebral edema) is often fatal.
Thorough preparation and acclimatization is needed to climb Mt. Elbrus.
The main challenge of Elbrus is the high altitude. Above 5,000m you just can’t bring the performance you are accustomed to. Let’s say if you slowly walk on a flat surface, you normally have a low pulse and breathe every two steps. When you are at 5,000m or over, this speed seems way too fast, you walk with half the speed, every step you take two breathes and your pulse is raving. You feel like an 80 year old man who walks extremely slowly, with great effort and just can’t force himself to walk quicker. So excellent fitness is the key.
It is July 2009. I am heading for my first big challenge, my first crossing limits experience, the germ of the NoLimits project if you will.
I have been preparing for half a year for it, as far as fitness and organization is concerned. Numerous equipment and clothing pieces are necessary. I got in shape and have lost 8kg during the preparation, did several training climbs in the Alps, the Black Forest and the Vosges, many hikes. I feel good prepared. Finally I am on my way to this exciting adventure.
I travel on plane to Kiev, where I meet the friend I have convinced to join me. We spend some days there, he wants to complete his equipment. Then we take a train to Mineralnyje Vody, at the gate to Caucasus. We spend 2 days in the sleeping car on the way there. Sanitary conditions in the train are horrible, but what the heck, it is road trip!
In Mineralnyje Vody a driver fetches us and we go to the airport to pick up the rest of the expedition. We drive into Caucasus, higher and higher, into the Baksan Valley and we arrive to our first base in the village of Azau, 2100m. It is a touristic village, the valley station of a cable railway. We stay in a humble, but clean hotel with good food. They are small food boots and little restaurants in the village and even a little market to buy some memorabilia. The most space is taken by a huge parking lot. But it is summer, skiing is possible only on the glacier over 3,700m. But the cable car goes only to 3,700m, where the snow starts. If you want to go higher in order to ski down you either walk, which skiers do very reluctantly, or you rent a snowcat bus which naturally is quite pricy. Mainly hikers and Alpinist come here at that time of the year, so the parking lot is quite empty.
We spend several days in Azau doing some acclimatization climbs to 3,000m. This will later help us avoid the altitude sickness or at least mitigate its effect. We follow the rule “climb high, sleep low”. In the afternoons we walk with the friend to Terksol, a close-by village or Cheget, a ski resort with some higher level shashlik restaurants and a famous market. We also get some vitamins to replenish our mineral salts when we lose them eating meager, dry food which can be easier taken up to the mountains.
People say, in Russia generally half of the physical things, like machines or infrastructure, just does not work. I always thought it was a joke, but I have to learn it to my cost. I need to get some money from the ATM, just in case. There are two ATMs in Terskol. One is out of order. The other works, but doesn’t have cash inside.
Now it gets serious. We pack into the backpacks just what we will need in the mountains, and it is a lot of special equipment, clothing and food and we set out for the first stage of the climbing. We walk up with the full load to the old Krugozor hut, close to the middle cable car station at 3,000m. I am trying to keep the pace of the marathon man, who participates in our expedition and is considered the one with the best stamina. At the end he arrives 1st at the hut, I am second. It is pretty strenuous with the full load. On the way there we pass a destroyed tank, remains of the latest conflict between Russia and Georgia.
Elbrus has got a new, comfortable and modern cable car, made by the Swiss. There is the valley station at Azau, the middle station at Old Kurgozor and the top Mir station at 3,450m. The old cable car is still operating alternately with the new one between the middle station and the Mir station, but it is extremely unreliable.
We make an acclimatization excursion to 3,700m, descend to Mir and take a cable car there to come down to our hut at Krugozor, where we want to stay overnight. Unfortunately the new cable car is not in operation that day and we have to take the old one. The weather gets worse. The car is in a pitiable condition. Some windows are missing, there are holes in the walls and you have the impression it hardly stays together. You strengthen your grip, just in case the floor falls out. And it stops from time to time for half a second as if it had a hiccup. The wind gets stronger and stronger. The car swings more with every minute. It squeaks and moves. One of the glasses falls out. People start singing just to cherry up and not think of a possible nightmare. Then, 10 meters before the station, the car stops. One second, two, three, nothing happens, just the wind swings the car. One minute, two, five minutes. We are hanging over an abyss. There is a movement at the station. Some people from the staff come over to the edge of the chasm and claim the power is gone and they will try to organize a rescue team to get us out of there. Meanwhile it is really, really cold and inconvenient in the car. You can see they are preparing ropes in the hope to somehow attach them to the car and get us out from there. Ten, fifteen minutes pass. They tell us the reparation crew is on the way to get the power back. Half an hour, we are still there. After 45 minutes the car finally moves and we arrive happily to the middle station. Uff!
I am shocked by the amount of trash lying around here. But it is not only cans and papers, it is also some installations, cables, ropes… You could easily stumble over a bare electricity cable and get a shock or just fall into the chasm. Seeing that, I realize another reason for the numerous accidents here.
Next day we move to our final camp at the Prijut, 4,100m. We climb with the full load first from 3,000m up to 3,700m to the “barrels”, passing by the Mir station. At 3,700m the glacier starts. Up to now it was sand, stones, gravel and mud. From now on it is just snow and ice. The “barrels” take their name from
the huge barrels used earlier for kerosene which now serve as refuge for the Alpinists climbing Elbrus. They are heated, equipped with beds, lights and some other basic appliances. We don’t stop there. Instead, we put on the crampons and continue our today’s climb up to Prijut at 4,100m.
Funny thing you can observe at the “barrels” are the tourists, especially the russian women in high-heels walking ankle-deep in the snow. They come here with the chairlift coming from the Mir station and ending here. This is the last bridgehead of civilization if you will. There are also some skiers catching snowcats to take them to the Pastuchov Rocks at 4,700m.
In the early evening we rich our camp at Prijut. It used to be a real mountain hut, but a fire burned it down several years ago. Now we stay in containers turned into shelters. Our group (23 people) inhabits half of the container. Our shelter is 5mx5m meter and consists of two sleeping rooms 2.5mx2.5m each and the living/cooking/eating room 5mx2.5m. In summer, by good weather, the outside temperature is around 0c during the day and -20c at night. During storm it can drop by 10-15 degrees. There is no heating, our bodies are natural heating giving the inside a nice temperature of 5c-10c. There is electricity several hours during the day, provided by a diesel generator. There is also gas for the kitchen. Water is enough – you just melt it from the snow. The main room is equipped with a shelf and a stove and a long, solid table with two benches, enough for 20 people.
Sanitary equipment consists of a wooden shit-house, hanging over the chasm, attached with wooden construction to the rock. You need to watch out not to slip out into the chasm while entering the loo. There is no sitting there. In the old russian fashion there is just a hole in the wooden floor. Whatever falls in this hole, drops thousands of meters into the abyss.
The sleeping rooms are extremely simple. Each consists of two wooden plates 2.5m broad, 2m deep. One at the height of 40cm over the floor, one at 170cm. Each serves as a bed for 5 people. You use your sleeping bag and squeeze like sardines. The backpacks you store under the beds. If you do a quick calculation you will see there is enough sleeping space for 20 people. So how did the remaining 3 sleep? They actually had the most comfortable sleeping conditions. One slept on the table and the two on the benches. Barren wood is a really hard underground to sleep on, especially if you save on weight and don’t take your mat with you. After one or two hours every bone hurts. Especially the heels, the hips and the shoulders hurt pressed against the wood. I found a good work around. Just sleep on your back and wear two pair of thick socks. They take some pressure away from your heels. In general the uncomfortable sleeping helps to get up early.
The next day we do some safety exercises in order to effectively use the ice pick. And also we do an acclimatization climb to the traverse at 5,000m. It is the steepest part of the climb. During the summit attack we will climb this part before sunrise, in the darkness, equipped only with head lamps, so getting to know it will help us to quickly progress through it. I can see I am in much better shape than most of the people in our expedition group. I am assigned to the fastest, fittest group together with the marathon man my friend and the Alpinist who conquered Aconcagua this year and will be leading our group. Tomorrow the weakest group will leave at midnight, then the second group at 1am, and we at 2am. It means 2 hours more sleep than the first group. We are supposed to catch up the two groups in front of us.
The acclimatization is essential. The altitude of 5,645m, 800m higher than Mount Blanc, is not to joke with. The oxygen density in the air at 5,000m is half of that at level 0. There are many stories circulating of people who underestimated this and then suffered severe injuries or even died due to the altitude sickness.
Usually, if you leave at 1am you should be back at 4pm, at latest at 5pm. You need 15 hours, plus minus two for the ascend and descend. The sunset in mid July is at 8pm. There is a group of climbers from Poland in the nearby container. They left last night and we are expecting them back any time. They didn’t acclimatize at all. They claim to be using the alpine method, climbing quickly with no acclimatization. They are very fit. We are worried, since the sunset is approaching and they are still not there. Then they arrive way after sunset in a pitiful state. They are half dead. They were 20 hours on the way. What happened? It turns out each of them lost his consciousness during the trip. The others needed to wait and restore him every time which took an hour or more. Then the next one had a black-out and so on and so on. They needed even to carry one of them for some time to get him out of the death zone. Finally they arrived.
Will they keep some long-term damage from this adventure? I don’t know. But it makes the magnitude of the challenge visible for me and yes, it makes me fear it. It is like going into unknown. I will probably feel like I have never felt before. I will reach my limits. I will run into problems and who knows if and how I will be able to overcome them.
Finally the day of summit attack arrives. The second group is leaving and I am getting up. We have a quick but energy rich breakfast. We prepare hot tea for the trip. Our small backpacks for the summit attack we packed the day before. The temperature of -20 degrees celsius is ok for that time of the night. We leave at 2am and are supposed to stay all the time in the group, adjust the pace to the slowest member of the group. This is the first security rule in the mountains.
We are also going to take short breaks every hour. You need them to get your food and change the chemical heatpads which you need to warm your hands and feet to avoid loosing your fingers and toes. Then of course you need to get your flask from the backpack to drink regularly. Climbing at that altitude you lose a lot of water and you need to replenish it in order to avoid dangerous dehydration.
But our leader, the Alpinist is very ambitious. He wants to be the first on the summit and wants also to show everybody how tough he is. He ignores the rules and we march without breaks.
At the beginning it isn’t a problem. We are progressing quickly and we catch the first group around the Pastuchov Rocks at 4,800m. He doesn’t take a break there but uses his camelback system to drink and some energy bars stored in the front pockets to get the nutrition he needs without considering the fact, that I don’t have such a system and have to stop, take off my backpack and open it to get the food and the drink I need. One time I stop to get my gloves from the backpack and he doesn’t even turn around. Wasn’t he supposed to wait for me? I quickly take a nip, open and swallow an energy bar and have to put real effort to catch up again.
Then while reaching the traverse at 5,000m we catch the second group. Now it is going to be slightly flatter for some time. We are 4 hours on the way already. My friend stays with the second group. He has pain in his knee which he injured at the descend during one of our training trips and now he just can’t keep the pace. I think at latest now the Alpinist will let us take a short break to eat and drink something. But no, he continues. I plea him. He is stubborn to show me who the boss here is. Disrespecting any rules, he tells me, if I need a break, well then I can walk alone. I am getting weak. Walking becomes a torture. I can’t force myself to the performance I am accustomed to. I am getting slower and slower and with every step I need to breathe twice. But I notice he gets slower also. I guess this is the effect of the thin air or maybe even first symptoms of the altitude sickness? My condition is getting worse and worse.
I don’t know if this is caused by dehydration, lack of energy, lack of oxygen or just extreme fatigue, but before reaching the saddle I start to stagger, stumble again and again and my vision gets with every minute narrower and darker. A very strange, frightening feeling. I am losing contact slightly.
Then the saddle comes at 5,400m. The Alpinist finally takes a 20 minutes break. It is enough for me to eat and drink something and get a little bit of rest. My pulse stabilizes. Now we will see who is stronger…
After the saddle we start the final, steep 250m climb. The marathon man takes the lead, I overtake the Alpinist and follow him. The Alpinist can’t keep the pace. Apparently I am fitter than him. The very last part is flat but I am so wasted and my pace is so slow and heavy due to the oxygen shortage that it seems like eternity to get to the summit. The marathon man arrives first. I come several minutes after him, second in our expedition. It is around 9am.
Finally! I reached the peak! Half a year of preparation, countless trainings, hikes and climbs, and now I am here. I have overcome all the difficulties and reached the goal. I am happy and overwhelmed by the view here. You can see hundreds kilometers into the landscape around. You are aware there is no higher point on earth within a several thousands kilometer radius. It is chilly and windy. I am completely wasted. We are speechless, stunned with emotions, the marathon man and me. We don’t talk much. We take one another a picture and start with the descent. Just in this moment the Alpinist arrives.
The descent turns out to be much more difficult than expected. I am moving extremely slowly, watching out not to slip out, but also due to the thin air and the increasing fatigue. Several hours in the very high altitude take their toll and weaken me considerably. Also the sun melts the glacier making the snow softer with every hour, so I sink with every step deeper and deeper. It takes more and more energy to move. Additionally my thigh muscles start to burn and my legs just hurt out of exhaustion. I hardly can stand. I need to take some breaks to sit down and just rest, especially on the traverse, all the time savouring the magnificent view. When I sit down, I fight against the overwhelming urge to fall asleep. I was told it can be very dangerous. Half an hour at that temperature and you are dead. Then, below the traverse it gets steep again and my knees also start to hurt. I try to slide down bit by bit, now that ice turned into snow, but it was and stays very dangerous.
Finally at around 4pm, after 14 hours of endless hustle I arrive at the camp, absolutely depleted. I was really, really happy on the peak. But when I finally reach the camp at 4.100 again I am the happiest man in the world, completely wasted and happy it’s over.
After a 30min rest I catch a snowcat, coming here with skiers, to bring me down to the “barrels” at 3.700m, where I know is a shashlik boot. I have been missing meat for several days already and I feel fade and meagre, probably cause water has washed away the minerals from my body. After a rich meal I take a snowcat back and return to the camp.
Meanwhile, most of the people are back in the camp. I learn that one of the guys got so tired. He sat down at the traverse and fell asleep. Fortunately somebody found him after 15 minutes when passing that spot and was able to wake him up and rescue him by rubbing him with pure spirit, which warmed him up. He restored him and he continued. 15 minutes later it would have been too late.
But my friend still hasn’t arrived. Soon the sun will set and I am getting worried about him. I keep asking returning people if they saw him on the way back. Last time somebody saw him was at the traverse at 5,000m, so 900m over us. Apparently he got into trouble with his knee. My healthy knees hurt, his injured one probably did even more so. How is he able to descend with his injured knee? Then the sunset comes. He still isn’t there. We are setting up a rescue team together and getting prepared to leave to seek him. Then finally a lamp light in the dark. It’s him! Yes! He is there! His knee is bust. Tomorrow we will bring him to the “barrels” and he will take the lift from there. But today it is time to celebrate!
You could ask: Why did you did it? What did it give you?
It was my first big challenge. My first summit of the Seven Summits. Initially it was just an adventure, something cool to do, to dare something dangerous with not quite foreseeable outcome, something numerous people paid with their lives for. But then it took me to my limits. It let me experience and cross the limits of my body and my mind. I learned that a lot is possible if you prepare accordingly and if you join people who know how to do it.
Then I learned one big lesson: If you reach your limits, you can see further. There is a world beyond your limits. This world opens to you and becomes real for you. You widen the range of your possibilities. More things, new things become possible for you. And this is not just a question of a better self-confidence or bigger grit caused by previous success. No it is more real, more tangible. For example, prior to this expedition, climbing Mount Everest seemed something unreal to me. Yes, I could watch a documentary about people who are doing it or read a book about it. But it was a distant, fantastic world. These people were giants, black swans if you will. It wasn’t something I could realistically think of doing myself or even imagine myself doing it. I didn’t even have a clue how they do it. But during this expedition I met people who had climbed Mount Everest before. They are my friends. So it is just a question of asking them and joining their expedition to climb the highest mountain in the world. Of course there is a lot of training and preparation necessary, maybe 1-2 years, but after all: if I want it, I can realistically do it. It has become a real option for me. Something I just can do. The range of my possibilities has widened in this field.
About the long term psychological effects of this first challenge you can read in the others articles on this blog. Everything started with this first step.
What do you think about it? Did you have an experience in your life which triggered an avalanche of changes and made you want more and set yourself bigger and bigger challenges? Write me a comment about it!