Trip to Elbrus – highest mountain in Europe – July 2012
I sat in my comfortable room at the Premier Inn waiting to hear from Brian and began to wonder just what I’d let myself in for ! I only knew him vaguely and I knew much less about the trip we were embarking on to climb Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. Brian had organised the whole thing after I responded to a general email he had sent out just as I was returning from Cotopaxi and was on a mountaineering high. Sadly Ian, the other member of our party, had had to drop out so now just two of us would be travelling to Russia and meeting up with the rest of group, about whom we knew absolutely nothing. After a few texts from Brian as he endured delays on the tube, we finally met up and immediately all my worries were dispelled. He was as charming as ever and as we chatted over dinner I felt totally relaxed about the adventure which was to follow.
An early start the next day saw us on the hopper bus to Terminal 5 and then checking in our luggage. We were disappointed to find they would not transfer our luggage in Moscow as promised and realised the two hour gap might make things a little tight for the internal flight to Mineralnye Vody. Brian went through security first and as his hand luggage, containing his plastic ice boots, went through the scanner there was obvious concern from the security staff. More officials were called over and they stared at the screen pointing and muttering. They occasionally looked across at ‘the bald one with glasses’ and then back at the screen. Eventually they went over to him asking if it was his bag and then proceeded to thoroughly swab the ruck sack. Meanwhile I had passed through uneventfully. I watched as they unpacked Brian’s boots which were themselves packed with other items. The swabbing continued. Eventually the offending article was found, the Power Monkey, a solar powered charging device which apparently can look like a detonator. Brian suggested they must see them all the time but the first security guard said, “No, never,” as his mate replied “Yes, we do. You can buy them in Dixon‘s !“ Finally the boots were repacked and we were on our way.
It was an excellent flight to Moscow but at the airport there was a huge delay in the hold luggage arriving on the carousel. Valuable minutes ticked by but Brian was reassuring as he calculated “So long as it arrives in the next 10 minutes we’ll be OK.” Those ten minutes slowly passed but eventually his bag arrived. Brian’s calm attitude was beginning to change as finally we saw my bag, almost the last one to arrive. We grabbed the bags and ran. Thankfully Brian seemed to know where we were heading as we raced through the airport but then we hit a stationary queue of glum looking people. Brian ran round to the front shouting, “This way,” back to me and, ducking under the tapes to arrive at the front of the queue, offered a brief explanation in English to the startled people who surprisingly made no comment about our queue jumping. There were two booths each containing a stern looking immigration official who were staring down at their screens desperately avoiding any eye contact with their waiting customers and seemingly doing nothing. Time passed. Nothing happened. Eventually they looked up and gestured for us to come forward. They slowly took our passports and papers and stared at them and then at the screen and then back again repeatedly. Nothing was said, it was as though they had to let a set amount of time elapse before doing anything. Painfully slowly they picked up the stamp, stamped the documents and with out speaking gestured to us to go through. At last ! More running now to check in the luggage and finally it was all sorted just 25 minutes before take off !
The Arrivals Area of Mineralyne Vody airport is tiny and consisted of a bored official checking passports, two luggage carousels and a few stands for local taxi firms or maybe hotels. A friendly English speaking lady in the queue offered to help us book a taxi to the hotel and not very reassuringly told us to be careful as every time her husband visited Mineralyne Vody he got robbed. Our taxi journey to the hotel was our first introduction to the crazy driving which seemed to be endemic in this area. We passed over massive four way junctions with police cars stationed in the middle but it seemed to be a free for all and the police seemed to be oblivious to the chaos.
Booking into the hotel was interesting as the pleasant receptionist who spoke hardly any English was clearly confused by the fact she was expecting three of us. By a combination of Brian miming sleeping and opening doors into separate rooms, and the receptionist typing Russian into Google Translate and Brian responding in English on the computer, we eventually ended up with two rooms. Our passports and visas were copied and there was more forming filling. It seemed she needed multiple copies of Brian’s paper work and he even had to provide a further copy next day. A porter was called from outside to carry our bags and rather disconcertingly he was armed with a handgun. My room was pleasant and quiet and as it was very warm I was grateful for the air conditioning. Brian’s room was on the opposite side of the corridor with the noise from the road and as his air conditioning didn’t work was much less comfortable.
We went down to dinner through a locked door into an interesting, quirky room. The walls and windows were painted with murals which looked quite Turkish and material was festooned from the ceiling like the inside of a posh marquee. The light fittings were groups of metal lamps with coloured glass shades hung from wooden frames on the ceiling. With a combination of staring blankly at a Russian menu, sign language and speaking English words slowly and clearly, we managed to order omelette and chips which was excellent. Breakfast was easier as we were given an English menu and were able to point out one item from each category. It consisted of sweet, runny porridge with butter, fried egg and sausage, toast, which was really dry bread, with cheese and strong coffee.
Our taxi back to the airport to meet some of the rest of our group was booked by the hotel and was a third of the price of the one the previous evening but only slightly less scary. It was very hot as we were met by Luba, a representative of Pilgrim Tours, and some of our group. Lula lead us across the car park and ushered us into a waiting minibus for the journey to Cheget. It was difficult to talk much in the minibus but it already appeared everyone was much more experienced than me and superfit. The drive was interesting. We passed through a town where almost every premises was selling tyres and hub caps piled up on the forecourts, and then through villages where every property was walled with a solid but ornate gate, horses were tethered or even hobbled on the side of the road but cattle and a few donkeys roamed free and there were stalls selling flat traditional brooms or fruit. The large fields were mainly filled with sunflowers or maize and in much smaller fields, the size of gardens, cabbages were being grown. We also saw apple orchards where the branches were trained along horizontal wires. The flat countryside became more undulating and as we headed along the valleys there were fast flowing rivers of brownish water rushing beside the road and on every bridge cattle laid or just wandered aimlessly so the vehicles had to weave through them. In one valley we saw men on horseback rounding up the cattle but most seemed to be roaming free on the roads. On route we stopped in a village. Most of us visited the toilet which was up a track past an amazing jungle of wires which passed into a decrepit looking transformer from which sagging wires lead into the properties. It didn’t look like Health and Safety had any part to play in Russia. Brian bought bread and oranges and then we set off again on the hair raising drive. It seemed that in Russia you have to drive six foot behind the vehicle in front which is usually a truck belching out filthy fumes and then pull out indiscriminately and blindly whenever you want to pass and certainly without indicating. Along side the road ran a yellow pipe about four foot off the ground and it ran up to form an arch over entrances. This, we were to learn, was the gas supply. We passed through several check points where disinterested but armed police seemed to gesture vaguely as we stopped and then were allowed to continue without any checks being made.
Cheget is a ramshackle village of a few bars each with a strange barbecue outside, a wool market where old ladies stood knitting, a few stalls selling tacky commercially produced souvenirs and a chair lift station. Everywhere looked scruffy and unkempt, no grass was cut and weeds and litter took over all the green areas. Most buildings seemed to be in a poor state of repair or unfinished and the road was not made-up. However, if you raised your eyes from this unattractive view the sight of the mountains, including the East summit of Elbrus, was beautiful. Up a rough track, and through a derelict building which formed an arch over the road, we saw our hotel. It was an imposing 5 storey building which did not look finished as the rough breezeblock walls were not faced and in fact there was no access to the top two floors as the stairs ended with a locked door. In front of the hotel was a tatty looking caravan which did not look habitable although later we saw someone who clearly lived there going in and out, and hanging in the woods were lines of hotel laundry. Despite the shoddy brickwork the hotel boasted a beautiful set of stone finished steps leading up to the entrance. The entrance hall was spacious and modern with a wide stairway leading up to the rooms. Our room was very pleasant with a balcony looking out into the pine forest, and an amazing shower. The shower cubicle had a removable shower head as well as an overhead shower and side jets, there were speakers and maybe lights as well. There was an exciting looking control panel and I looked forward to my luxury shower. My excitement was short lived as the lights and speakers did not work, the water pressure was minuscule and so usually you could only get a dribble out of the shower head anyway and on only one occasion did I get any hot water !
That evening we wandered through the pine forest to the river admiring the views which similar to those in the Alps. Under the towering pines were many wild flowers familiar from home, rosebay willow herb, white scabious, yarrow, periwinkle, tansy, giant hogweed, huge red and white clover heads, impressive giant thistles and vipers bugloss. The pine forest was full of birds, mainly finches and pied wagtails. Following the roar of rushing water, we found a rickety bridge over the gushing river. Brian commented that it didn’t look very strong and a good sized boulder coming down could easily take it out. The very next day his prophecy was fulfilled as I found the bridge had disappeared ! On the way back we carefully avoided the large wood ants busily marching across our path in an orderly fashion.
The hotel dining room was in the cellar and very dark. We came to realise the Russians do not go for good lighting and even when the elaborate fixtures have several bulb sockets usually only a few bulbs are fitted. The table was laid and each place setting had a plate of tomato, cucumber and slaw and a drink of weak juice. I was not sure if this was a starter but the soup arrived quickly before I had eaten all the salad, and then the ‘main’ course before either were finished. The Russians do not seem to have courses as subsequently all meals were served in a similar fashion. You had to be careful to retain your cutlery as empty plates were collected, as only one set was ever provided. The soup was thin containing vegetables and a large piece of meat on the bone and the main course, a sort of meat filled turnover which was very tasty. There was never a dessert although for the first few meals we all waited expectantly for it to arrive. Tea bags were provided on the table and kettle shaped jugs of hot water to make tea throughout the meal although the water cooled quickly in the glass ‘kettles’.
During the evening meal the rest of our group arrived and it became clear we were going to be split between two tables which was a shame as for the next few days we largely became two distinct groups and never really bonded as a team. The new comers seemed to be even more experienced mountaineers including the ever smiling Sandhosh who had summited Everest. We met Sergey, our guide, who Brian had met last year on the North side. He seemed to be a man of few words and briefly outlined the itinerary for the next day which included a chairlift to 3100 metres and then climbing to 3450 metres on Mount Cheget. That night Brian gloated over his hot shower !
Our first acclimatisation hike started with a ride on a rickety chairlift from the village of Cheget. It was clearly assumed we were all old hands at this but luckily Brian explained to me how to hold my rucksack on my lap , how to get on and off the lift, at the last minute wriggling forward and holding your rucksack off to the side to avoid anything getting caught as you stepped away. Seemingly I was not the only inexperienced one as someone tried to pull his friend from the chair as he missed the getting off point. Sergey shouted angrily for him to stop adding, “Do you want to kill him ?” Once on the chair lift I was more relaxed and despite grimly clinging on, I was able to admire the stunning views and watch an eagle circling overhead. It was however too far away for me to photograph even if I had been brave enough to let go and get out my camera. Later I would get more confident and even took some photos from the lifts.
I struggled a bit trudging up Mount Cheget and was last to the top. As I sat on a rock resting I noticed one of our group, I think it was Tary, doing press ups on top of a mountain ! I phoned my dear friend Mick who, at this time, was virtually confined to his bed suffering with pulmonary fibrosis even though five short months ago he had been fit and active, climbing regularly at the wall. It was good to talk to Mick and we were able to joke that it was the ultimate dirty phone call with heavy breathing on both ends of the line. However I was also upset and hoped so much I would be able to take back the walking poles he had lent me at the end of the trip and tell him they had reached the top of Elbrus. I had a quiet cry and then rejoined the group to head down the mountain and then another chairlift trip from which we again saw the eagle.
We had a late lunch of grated carrot with garlic, coleslaw, chicken schnitzel and then something like pancakes containing meat which were lovely. Later that day, those of us without our own equipment hired crampons, plastic boots and ice axes from Pilgrim (our tour company) who had their own stores in the hotel. Brian helped me sort them out and then change them as the crampons they had given me did not fit my boots and the head of the ice axe was loose. This seemed to make Sergey very grumpy. Brian also put my yeti gaiters onto the boots as I could not do it myself, assuring me it was, ‘really easy’ as mine had more stretchy 505 rubber. I then practiced walking around in the boots although when I took them off discovered they had caused blistered heels. Great ! I then had my second nosebleed and was hoping this was not going to become a habit on this trip.
I slept badly for the second night and heard a sound like peacocks in the late evening and howling dogs in the night. Later I heard some very noisy guests returning after their post summit party ! For breakfast the usual porridge had been replaced by semolina but there were fried eggs as usual, bread and cheese. Then it was a trip in the minibus to another chair lift station to go up to the Barrels. This was via two gondolas and then a chair lift. One of the gondolas appeared to have a gunshot holes through it and the mechanism sounded very creaky. Tom, an engineer, helpfully pointed out the faults in the cables and numerous Health and Safety violations ! The landscape under the chairlift was made up of massive boulders and cracked pillars of rocks and soon even the tiny isolated patches of vegetation disappeared. It was quite desolate and matched the derelict appearance of rusting pylons and struts just left lying next to their replacements. As someone said, “Nothing says Russia like abandoned infrastructure.” It was bizarre that inappropriately dressed tourists constantly came up on the chair lifts, wandered through the base camp and onto Snowcats for an excursion up the mountain. They stared bemused at the barrels and the collection of climbers in ice boots and gaiters as they themselves tottered around in sandals and high heels. At this time of year, without the disguise of snow, the broken concrete, rusting metal and shabby portacabins was hardly a picturesque sight for tourists. Coupled with the smell of fuel from the Snowcats and roar of the occasional scramble bikes it was nothing like the tranquil mountain we had envisaged.
We rested at the Barrels and had a sneaky peek inside one to get an idea of our accommodation for the following few days. We then set off in our ice boots up the mountain for a short trek. I was quite slow going up but was feeling good and enjoying being on the actual mountain. On the way down the snow was deep and slushy but Brian assured me it would be so much better to run down so, linking arms with me, made me run with him. It was petrifying but also oddly quite fun and exhilarating. Without him I had no confidence to go at any speed and, when crossing the run off lower down, managed to fall over getting soaked. There was a lot of competition from tourists for the chair lift going down and Micah decided to walk while the rest of us queued and commented on the lack of Russian manners as everyone pushed in. We arrived back in the village for lunch at 4pm. Lunch seemed to get later each day but no allowance was made for this when setting a time for dinner which was often only 2 or 3 hours later. Lunch today included salad, an individual pot of delicious stew and another savoury pancake type thing which was very, very good. We were certainly never short of food.
Back at the hotel we attempted to pack for our stay at the Barrels, getting everything into our main sacks. Brian was extremely accomplished at economic packing and swiftly had everything sorted and in his pack leaving plenty of time for teasing me as I kept ‘rationalising’ my kit and reorganising my piles of things to fit in. We had been told that the prusik loops along with several other things on the kit list were not needed and Brian assured me my hard learned lessons on prusiking and crevasse rescue were totally unnecessary ! Finally I was organised and then, under Brian’s directions, lanced my blisters which were now bigger than ever. I vowed to be much more careful about doing up my inner boots better to stop them rubbing my feet.
The next day all our kit and all the provisions had to make the journey up the mountain, first in the gondolas and then on the chairs. Sergey was very insistent that the ‘ladies’ should not be involved in the lifting and carrying and anyway the guides had an efficient system of loading the boxes into the chairs and hanging rucksacks from the hooks which were welded onto some of them. Everything needed at the Barrels made the journey up on the chairlift and we watched as men loaded planks of wood onto the chairs and then sat on them and another carried a random plastic bag containing door handles. Barrels of water and even gas canisters get loaded onto the chairlifts for the perilous journey up the mountain. It was a relief that all our kit reached the top and did not fall into the glacial lake below.
We then divided into groups and Brian chose us Barrel 1. This was at the end so possibly quieter but given we would be living in a circular object perilously secured on a mountain side perhaps choosing the one nearest the edge could be considered rash. It also had seven steep crooked metal steps leading into it which were difficult to negotiate even when you were wide awake and in daylight. These crazy steps were even more risky than the slippery wooden ones leading onto the concrete block on which stood the two long drop toilets. I was already remembering my Kili training for using the long drops, get every thing ready for easy access, toilet paper, hand gel etc, roll up your trousers and tuck in your shoe laces so nothing except the soles of your shoes have to touch the floor ! In the barrel we organised the boys at the far end Alp, Hamit, Danny and Brian with Ellie and myself nearer the lobby which afforded us a nominal amount of privacy. The view from our window was of a an ugly pylon, far too close for comfort on a mountain renowned for electrical storms and a jumble of wires cut across the beautiful landscape of the mountains in the distance The beds did have mattresses and with a thermarest were surprisingly comfortable. In fact I slept infinitely better at the Barrels than I had in the hotel in Cheget.
Today’s acclimatisation hike was to the same height as yesterday for which I was fine and then beyond to 4350 metres when I struggled. Brian was great at showing me how to use the crampons and later Micah explained the ‘rest step’ where you are supposed to take your weight on the bone and not the muscle so, although slow, it is less tiring. Brian assured me that although I was last I was only about three minutes behind the others and at times was catching them up. As we turned back the weather was deteriorating and although I was really tired Brian tried to make me run with him again, keeping the toes of my crampons pointing up and running on my heels. I felt quite scared again which obviously showed as Sergey told Brian off for bullying me ! Soon it was hailing as we struggled down the wet snow and then an electrical storm started. Visibility was poor and Sergey, obviously worried, was trying to get us off the mountain quickly as possible so he too tried to speed me up, taking my arm and saying, “Hold me, Lady !” as he hurried me down in much the same way as he’d told Brian off for !
Meals at the Barrels were amazing and well prepared by Arbina in the cramped rickety cabin which served as a mess tent. It stood unevenly on the edge of the mountain and, where the ground had clearly eroded below it, was now supported under one corner by a randomly placed concrete pipe. We crammed in, sitting on long benches sloping down towards the door end, around the plastic covered table covered with a huge array of food and drinks. It was a late lunch again but worryingly I was feeling rubbish and had lost my appetite. I struggled to eat some soup and a bit of the salad and cheese and drank citrus tea which, to my amazement, I really liked. Back in our barrel a strict rule was instigated that all wet gear stayed in the lobby area to keep the sleeping area dry and we rested while the storm continued. By dinner time at 7.00pm it had cleared and I managed to eat a bit more food this time. There was always soup and a main course often accompanied by soured cream, loads of salad and cheese, salami, sweet and savoury biscuits, sweets and chocolates, bread, and fresh fruit, cut up apples, lemons, oranges and bananas. Arbina was also boiling all of our water and preparing delicious meals from fresh ingredients for 20 clients and several guides on the tiny stove. They had even bought up bunches of fresh herbs. Although it was very cramped to all eat together in the mess hut it meant we were integrating better as a group and the conversations at dinner time had become quite raucous. David and Elyse were sharing a barrel with an Austrian couple who were often canoodling in same bunk and so they entertained us with lewd descriptions of their antics. After dinner we went out to see an amazing sunset and we all stood around taking pictures and chatting.
At last we were getting to know each other better. Tom and his wife, Haldis, Joyce and Micah all worked for Boeing although Micah had previously worked for Nasa. As a group they had climbed several times together including self guiding up Dinali. David, who had unsuccessfully stood for election in Texas, was charming but possessed absolutely no tact. Earlier he and Brian had gone to the bar, a metal hut near the top of the chair lift, and met two ladies who Brian thought were of similar age. David had asked them if they were mother and daughter as Brian desperately tried to shut him up and cover for his faux pas saying he had meant sisters. Tary, from Connecticut, who was much more quietly charming, called him David ‘Can-I-kiss-your-baby’ Rosen. During the storm earlier Tary had been wearing a baseball cap and the metal button on the top had been struck which gave him a shock which he described as being like a very bad bee sting. The US contingent was completed by two girls, Kara, a pilot who was very fit and a keen sportswoman running in Iron Man races and Elyse who was in the US military and unbelievably strong and fast on the mountain. She had amazing experience for someone of only 22 years. The other lady of our group, Ellie, was Swedish although originally from Korea and was very friendly and good company in our barrel. Straight away after Elbrus she was heading off to climb Mount Blanc. Danny who also shared our barrel was Belgian and very quiet although at the celebration dinner and with the aid of quite a lot of vodka would become a dancing maniac. Our barrel was completed by two friendly Turkish people, Alp and Hamit, although their limited English meant they were slightly isolated. Also quite isolated, as they struggled with English, were the two Spaniards, Joan and Joaquim, known as ‘Kim’. Joan was especially fit but wore slightly too explicit red leggings. ‘Kim’ was responsible for Eddie’s nickname when he tried to explain him not turning up for breakfast with ‘ Hong Kong no breakfast’. Eddie was very friendly but sadly suffered from an unpleasant cold which made things very difficult for him although despite that and his injured foot, ably strapped up by Brian, still managed to summit. Marty, our gregarious Aussie was great fun and everyone’s friend. He, like Brian, was well equipped with a ‘med kit’ and having offered people ‘drugs’ to help them sleep became known as Dr House. Felix, a German who had lived in Ukraine, was a great asset to the group as he frequently translated for us and he was very good company. Sandosh from Singapore with his ever present smile was the last member of the group joining Brian and me on this adventure. Most people had extensive mountaineering experience and in truth I was completely out of my depth but they were all very friendly and particularly encouraging. Most were potential Seven Summiters although they did not all admit to it. Obviously most had invested a huge amount in their passion. I was also the least fit by a long way as many of the rest of the group had competed in Iron Man competitions and were all keen runners. Felix, when commenting on how fit Elyse was said, “At 22 I couldn’t even run a half marathon” as if that was what all 22 year olds could do.
Sergey, our guide, was an odd bloke of few words who made no attempt at team bonding. He imparted what information we needed to know about plans for the next day but rarely responded to any questions with more than monosyllabic answers. When Marty tried to strike up a conversation about how he felt about the day’s trek and asked if he was happy, he replied, ‘No‘ and walked out. One day he did contribute a little more, when asked what was wrong he replied he was depressed about women mainly, it seemed, because he had two girlfriends at the same time who were causing him a certain amount of grief. On one occasion he came into our barrel without knocking or speaking to us and marched through to the far end. When Brian asked, “Who are you looking for ?” He replied shortly, “Alp.” put something down and walked out without another word.
After the sun had set we retired to our barrels and before falling asleep, looking beyond the pylon and through the electricity wires, we watched an amazing storm in the distant mountains where sheet lightening lit the whole sky. I had been warned how cold Elbrus could be and was equipped with loads of layers and intended to sleep with my buff over my head and totally cocooned in my new warm sleeping bag. However, it was surprisingly warm and I ended up too hot and had to sleep with the bag unzipped. Despite this, I slept well and woke feeling better although my knee was sore and my calves stiff.
Monday’s acclimatisation hike was to be to 4700 metres. The first half was retracing yesterday’s steps and I was doing well at this stage and up with the leaders. Then as the snow got deeper and the slope steeper I found my crampons balled up and I was unable to knock it off with my walking poles and so I struggled more. I was slow but doing well. I was with Alex, an older guide, but he didn’t speak to me and kept getting ahead. I tried to ask him about getting the snow off the crampons but he just pointed to the rocks which were some way away and I was not sure if he meant me to head over there to knock the snow out. Either way I struggled on teetering on the balled up crampons which were like platform boots and offered no grip at all. The weather was bad with snow, hail and frequent white outs when I could not see anyone ahead or behind, but my head was in a good place as I slogged on counting my paces and telling myself, ‘make every step count.’ As the slope steepened I realised I couldn’t remember how I was supposed to use the crampons. I tried sticking my feet out and walking like a duck as Joyce had told me yesterday but I was still slipping back. I tried to ask Alex using hand actions but got no response. As my feet slipped back again I fell face down in the snow, I lay there for a moment catching my breath and then tried to struggle to my feet unable to use my crampons for purchase but my guide made no attempt to help me. Eventually I was on my feet again and, as the snow cleared for a moment, I could see the others at the rocks not far away. However I was exhausted and it was very difficult to make any progress as I kept falling which saps any energy you have left. I desperately struck out to reach the others but realised they had already started to come down. As there had been hail Sergey was expecting another storm and said we should descend quickly. I was totally exhausted but Brian said to try and reach the rocks assuring me it would only take five minutes. I looked to Sergey who gave a reluctant nod but turned away heading downhill. Brian showed me how to step crossing my legs over, ah, now I remember what I learnt at Plas Y Brenin. How much easier would the last two hours have been if someone could have reminded me of that earlier ? But I was too knackered now, I knew I couldn’t make it. Helpfully Brian suggested I traverse across to touch a rock poking through the snow. He understood I wanted to achieve something, it is so disheartening just to turn around without reaching any sort of land mark. Brian was great, he was so encouraging and understood my feelings so well. He truly is a brilliant leader and motivator. It was a huge struggle, I had absolutely nothing left, but falling and crawling I made it. It was like reaching a summit for me and I was so grateful Brian had helped me achieve something when I felt I could do no more. He now took charge, taking off my crampons which made the descent so much easier, and together we quickly caught up with the others.
Apparently it wasn’t only me Brian had helped that day. He clearly is a natural leader and finds it hard to distance himself when it’s not his responsibility. He had had to ask a guide to go down and help Felix who was struggling on his own and had then been going up and down encouraging others who were finding it difficult. Sergey had obviously realised this and even told Brian he needed to employ a guide like him. It’s a shame Sergey doesn’t lead by example. At the Barrels Brian had been helping and advising everyone, explaining how to lace up boots and put on crampons, reminding us about applying suncream first thing in the morning before you get dressed so areas are not missed and so it has chance to soak in, giving medical advice and dressing Eddie’s and my feet. Unfortunately on summit night Alp had not heeded his advice and was badly sunburnt returning home with his face still red and raw. Brian also had offered to make those of us with hired crampons without antiballing plates something from a rucksack liner to help with the snow.
By the time we reached camp I was so, so exhausted and struggled over the rocks to return to our Barrel. I rested for a while on my bed, feeling pretty rubbish probably from a combination of exhaustion and dehydration as I had not eaten much all day. It was unlike me to have lost my appetite and I could not even face the Dioralyte I had been religiously drinking each day. I did nibble at some of the ginger nuts which I thought may help with the nausea and at least provide some energy. I had thought about forgoing lunch but needed to try and eat something and also wanted to be sociable. However I could face very little food and spent the rest of the afternoon dozing in my sleeping bag and texting home and Mick. I had spoken to Mick a couple of times and texted a few times but he had seemed quite evasive about how he really was. I asked Paul and Rebecca to please tell me the truth as I was worried there was something I wasn’t being told. I knew the summit would be difficult but I was very determined to get Mick’s poles to the top as I had promised, and desperately wanted him to be there when I got home to tell him all about it. Dinner time came round quickly and I still wasn’t hungry and sadly we had now run out of citrus tea although boiling water with slices of lemon in it proved a good alternative.
After dinner Sergey briefly spoke to us explaining tomorrow was to be a rest day with hopefully a summit attempt starting in the early hours of the next morning. The short hike scheduled for tomorrow was to be abandoned and we were obviously not going to get the promised ice axe tuition. I had understood that it was Russian law for everyone to wear a harness with prusiks and karabiners on the mountain and now we were told roping up was not essential and we did not even have to wear our harnesses. However, I was determined to ask to be roped as the summit was supposed to be even steeper than what we had already done and I had found that very scary. We had been told Pilgrim Tours assume people have no experience but they clearly do not offer any support for less experienced members of the group.
At this stage I was feeling quite isolated in the group among such hard core mountaineers. It is very different to being with a charity group where you all start more as equals and for everyone it is a real personal challenge. For most of these people it seemed it was not really a challenge and the only likely thing to defeat them would be the weather. It seemed for some it was really just a question of ticking off another peak. I did not think many of them had any doubts about actually summiting so long as the weather was good enough. Where as I was not feeling very positive as I thought I may be too slow and it may be too hard. I did not feel the guides had any interest in their clients which was so, so different to my experience on Kilimanjaro. Brian reckoned I had been spoilt by experiencing African guides who along with the Nepalese have a completely different attitude to that of most guides elsewhere in the world. It was also a very different experience to both Kilimanjaro and Cotopaxi where trekking was a major part of the expedition and you spent much longer walking. It seemed our acclimatisation hikes were simply for that, to reach the allotted height in the shortest possible time, spend an adequate time there and then descend to do nothing. I much preferred my days to be filled with walking. It seemed the hikes on Elbrus were merely a means to an end and not an integral part of the experience. I was also slightly disappointed by the luxuries of staying hotels, using the chair lifts and having electricity at the Barrels for two hours each evening, not to mention being able to use the Snowcat for the start of the summit attempt. It all rather detracted from the mountain experience.
Our Rest Day dawned a beautiful day. I started to try to sort out my kit but it was difficult to imagine how cold it would be and how much I would need to take as today was really warm. We could look over at Elbrus and see most of the route we would hopefully be taking in the morning. High in the blue sky there was cirrus cloud which Brian suggested may mean a front would be coming in within the next 12-24 hours. It would be very hard to be stuck here for another or even a third rest day before the summit attempt. We all tried to keep busy while relaxing, I sat in the sun writing my diary, Brian made the promised anti balling plates from a red refuse bag and Danny walked down to the lower chair lift station and back. He was keen to be able to say he had climbed the whole height of the mountain by degrees. Having arrived in Cheget a day earlier than the rest of us, he had climbed to an observatory on a nearby hill at 3100 metres before we had arrived. At breakfast Sergey measured our partial pressures of oxygen and pulse rates. My stats were the worst of the group. My left heel looked awful but had dried out well overnight and was not painful. Brian had promised to pad it up that night before the summit attempt.
Preparing for the next day I remembered how hard yesterday had been and thought that it was equivalent to only half the summit ascent, added to which the snow cat would take us to 4300 metres meaning we would be starting with the steepest part of yesterday’s climb . Panic was setting in as wild calculations flooded through my mind and memories of my struggling against exhaustion. I was feeling very negative and knew I must sort my head out. Much later I was to realise that the summit ascent was not double that of the previous day at all.
I had been sleeping really well at The Barrels, only waking two or three times in the night and always quickly falling asleep again. However, I was having a weird dreams which seems common at altitude including one in which I was attempting to get to Mars rather than the summit of Elbrus ! Unusually for me I had not been eating well even though the food was good. Eddie who was suffering from a cold was feeling better today and had seemingly recovered his appetite as he devoured all the yogurts left on the table at breakfast after the packet of noodles he had provided himself. Unfortunately Kara now seemed to have caught the cold and was feeling ‘stuffed up’ and Alp was also getting ill. Later Tom was also to succumb to the bug which seemed to be going round. I had developed a taste for hot water with fresh lemon in it and for green tea. I was not sure I was really drinking enough and regretted not bringing the wide necked bottle I had purchased as I struggled pouring water from the big stock bottles into a normal water bottle for drinking. As I spilt it I felt guilty as Arbina, in addition to cooking for us, was having to boil all our drinking water.
I was finding it hard to relax and felt I needed to be doing something. I didn’t feel prepared either from a fitness point of view or for the altitude. I felt we were sleeping too low at The Barrels and wished we were at the higher huts even though they were not supposed to be so pleasant. My calves felt tight and my knee ached. Waiting around I was feeling very emotional and despite wanting to save my phone charge kept it switched on hoping for news of Mick. I clarified crampon use with Brian and continued to panic and scare myself. My head was in a bad place as I struggled to sort myself out. Every one had an expectation of summiting except me and I worried I would scupper other people’s chances too. I did derive some comfort from Eddie who admitted to not having trained much and basically being very lazy. He was now angry with himself for giving up the money, his vacation and his dream but not being motivated to train until now by which time it was too late.
We had a pre summit chat and six of our group had elected to start the summit attempt hiking while the rest of us would take advantage of the Snowcat which should save two hours of walking and lots of energy. It might seem like cheating but I knew I had no chance of success without it.
Later Sergey came and spoke to me on my own. He was very kind and for the first time I felt he had some compassion and interest in us as individuals. He told me to go slowly, “If you have to go 100 kilometres you don’t start running !” “There are at least 5 others only slightly faster than you,” he assured me. He promised to give me a good guide, Anna, who spoke good English and advised me I must sleep well, “Perhaps have beer or two, no joking, to help sleep.” I reminded myself why I was doing this. This was for me and also for Mick. I took myself off and sat on a high rock to phone Mick. Hearing him on the phone, struggling to breathe, made me realise how lucky I was and how I had a chance to follow my dream. I began to feel more positive. I also texted Jan who had endured so much in the last 14 months, and thought how this was only one day of struggle for me. Thinking about them both made me feel very humble and all the more determined to succeed. Back in the Barrel Brian spoke to me and the emotion spilled over as I cried about Mick and sobbing explained how much I wanted him to be here when I came home and how much it would mean to get his poles to the summit. Crying done, I felt better. Soon I joined the others outside for a wide ranging discussion which covered racism, religion, politics, brothels, wine and more besides. They were great company and I marveled again at how life on a mountain brings people together and a group of strangers can meld into a coherent group bound by a common aim. The comradeship is a wonderful part of this type of adventure and is very special.
As we sat in the sun and chatted, a group of Germans arrived back in camp from the summit. They looked completely wasted but elated by their success although they had taken twelve and a half hours and had run out of water. It made me reassess again how much I should take. I had been very good about taking in fluids this afternoon and as soon as I went to the Barrel to rest immediately needed to wee. I am sure I passed five times the volume I had drunk. All that drinking seemed to have been a waste of time ! However, production was of the champagne variety so all was good !
I went back to Barrel 1 to rest before dinner. I was feeling strangely happy and relaxed. I felt I had been here for ever. I had forgotten all the events of the last few days, the hotel, the chair lifts, even coming to the Barrels and most importantly, all the negativity. It was all past and no longer relevant. This was my life now. I felt I was living in the mountains. Every thing felt right. My bed and sleeping bag, my bottle and diary poked down the edge of the mattress, my phone and head torch in the hood of my sleeping bag, clothes hanging on nails to dry or to air, fresh clothes in my sleeping bag, every thing in its place. All my summit kit was ready at the head of my bed. It all felt right. I had heard from Jan and spoken with Mick. This was the life. I felt I belonged here. I was happy and positive. My head was in a good place now. I was ready for the summit tomorrow,
Having slept well I awoke feeling rested and confident. I felt sure if I set a slow pace which I could maintain I would make the summit. Feeling very positive I even had a good appetite for breakfast and by 4 am was ready to set off. It was a surprisingly warm night with an almost full moon but few stars. I marveled at the golden glow of the moon before remembering I was wearing my tinted snow goggles ! Anna checked my harness and we all set off down to the waiting Snowcat as it roared and belched out fumes so inappropriately on the mountain side.
Once we were dropped off I set off deliberately slowly but almost keeping up with the rest of the group until we reached a steeper section. Here I began to drop back but asked Anna if our pace was Ok. She nodded in reply and I plodded on. After a while another guide appeared and they spoke together in Russian behind me. Shortly afterwards I realised Anna had disappeared and I was left with a different guide who I assumed was Alex. The evening before Sergey had introduced the guides and except Anna most of the others were called Alex. Two days later I was to discover he was actually called Michail. He hardly spoke to me and anyway had virtually no English so we communicated by sign language when I wanted to stop to drink or eat or shed my jacket. Occasionally, by pointing with his poles, he would point out traversing routes rather than struggling straight up the steep face. I tried to ask him how to position my feet to move more efficiently in the crampons but I could not make him understand. “Yes” was his standard reply to any enquiry.
We had hardly needed our head torches from the start and after two hours there was a fabulous sunrise throwing streaks of pink across the open sky. We stopped briefly to rest and for me to take photos. Looking back and down over the mountain ranges to the south they looked so tiny now. All around there were amazing views. Michail took a photograph of me with Mick’s poles. We struck out again moving very slowly on the steep sections and zig zagging to reduce the slope but I was happy and relaxed. I knew I was losing ground on the others but it didn’t matter. I was not lonely at all and was perfectly happy in my own little world as I counted my paces between the marker flags and set myself targets before each short rest. At one point a lady and her guide caught up with us and, as I rested, Michail smoked a cigarette which he did at every rest stop. The two guides chatted in Russian and then encouraged us to set off again. This part was quite steep and we both set off slowly but deliberately in companionable silence. Behind us the guides’ voices became quieter and as I glanced back realised they were still sitting together in the snow. Chatting and smoking, yards behind their clients, they were certainly in no position to save us if we fell on the steep, slippery slope.
Despite the lack of support from my guide I felt I was doing well, I had done every thing right, I had drunk frequently and munched on handfuls of jelly babies and a couple of nut bars. More importantly, my head was in a good place which I knew was vital for reaching the summit. Each time I stopped Michail had another cigarette and I realised his breathing sounded worse than mine. All the Russians seemed to smoke heavily and back at the Barrels even leaned against the large red gas canisters while smoking.
The very steep area before the traverse into the col was hard but, reminding myself that every step counted, I continued making slow but steady progress and still felt quietly confident.
As we began descending into the saddle after the highest point of the traverse I suddenly felt very weak and asked if I could stop and eat. Getting into my rucksack proved difficult and I fumbled getting the sandwich out of the bag and even more to get it to my mouth. I told Michail I did not feel too good. My brain and hands seemed disconnected as I pushed the sandwich towards my closed mouth, then the ground swayed up to meet me as I sank onto the path. My eyes were closed and far, far away I heard a male voice, maybe Michail, but in my head all I could hear was an unknown but comforting voice saying “Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.” and weakly I gave in, dropping my head onto my rucksack. I felt Michail grabbing my face and rubbing cold snow into it, I heard his voice but no words, I tried to force my eyelids open but they were too heavy. I felt warm and happy and just wanted to sleep, total exhaustion swept over my body and my brain taunted me, encouraging me to sleep, reassuring me it was the right thing to do. Michail’s voice was louder now, more urgent “No sleep, no sleep.” He rubbed more snow in my face and tried to drag me to my feet. I swayed drunkenly and fell down again. Through half open lids I saw him panicking as he searched through my rucksack and found a carton of juice. He handed it to me but I didn’t have the coordination or strength to suck on the straw. Eventually, I managed to drink some of the cold juice and handed it back to him. He angrily tossed the carton to the ground and passed me a water bottle from which I obligingly drank although much of it dribbled from my mouth. I felt obedient, I had drank as he had demanded so now I could sleep and fell forward welcoming sleep’s comforting embrace. “No sleep, no sleep,” Michail was shouting now and rubbing more snow in my face. I mustered all my strength and forced my eyes open and saw ………… no mountain, no snow, no Michail, just black swirling shapes on a grey background. I struggled to focus, this was wrong, I knew this was wrong. Although every ounce of my body wanted to sleep I came to realise that despite the uncontrollable urge to sleep it was not right. I had to stay awake. But how did I know this was real ? Was I really asleep ? Was this a dream ? Each time I opened my eyes the black shapes swirled in the grey mist and every now and then the white landscape drifted into view and then retreated as if fading out in a film. It was a surreal world I was living in and I felt distanced from my body, watching myself. But the part of me seeing myself knew something was seriously wrong. I remembered Brian telling me of the woman he had found ‘sleeping’ on Kilimanjaro who without his intervention would almost certainly have died. Survival instinct took over, I knew now I must not sleep, I had to stay awake. I had to fight this urge. This was serious. I struggled to collect my thoughts as the black shapes swirled before my eyes and my heavy lids sagged. I was scared now but quite rational. I knew there was a very steep slope to my right where earlier I had seen snowballs, dislodged by higher climbers, hurtling downwards and I knew I was not roped to my guide. I knew I was staggering as my vision faded in and out of focus and then the icy realisation …… I could have cerebral oedema. That explained all my symptoms. Once that idea was planted in my head it grew and grew and panic set in. I was at altitude, in a dangerous position with potentially life threatening symptoms and in the care of a guide with whom I could not communicate and had no confidence. “Sergey, speak to Sergey. Radio. Radio Sergey.” I begged, “ Sergey. Brian, I must speak to Brian.” I pleaded again. I wanted to hear Brian’s voice, he would make them help me. He would get me treatment. I knew if I could speak to Brian I would be safe. My head was clearer now, though menacing black shapes continued to swirl before my eyes but I knew I had to get help and if I could just speak to Brian all would be Ok. Dexadreson, that was what I needed. I needed Brian and dexadreson. “Radio.” “Medicine, I need medicine.” “I need drugs.” Michail leant forward on his poles facing into the slope. “Look,’” he said and tried to get me to take up the same position. I think he was showing me how to position myself to vomit but I didn’t feel sick. “ Medicine. Drugs. Tablets. I need medicine.” “Speak to Brian.” “Radio Brian.” I think I kept repeating my demands, somehow I had to make Michail understand but nothing seemed to register. I needed him to let me explain to Brian how I was feeling. Brian would make sure I got the drugs I needed. But I didn’t know how long I would be able to keep my brain functioning and coherent and not just give in and succumb to the urge to sleep. Finally Michail got out his radio and he was shouting in Russian, long harsh sounding phrases with obvious tension in his voice, urgent sounding replies distorted further by the radio and more tense shouting from Michail. “Brian, let me speak to Brian. I need to speak to Brian.” and then ………… Brian’s voice “ Heather, it’s Brian. What’s up ?” Relief flooded over me, I think I was crying now as Michail held the radio out to me. “Brian, I need dex, I can’t see, I can’t stay awake. Make them give me something.” Michail was shouting at me and gesturing. I kept talking to Brian, explaining my symptoms. “ Heather it’s Brian” I heard again and then Sergey speaking Russian and Michail speaking while I was speaking to Brian and all the time Michail kept thrusting the radio towards me and gesturing something I couldn’t understand. I was confused as Brian made no response to my requests but then I heard Brian’s reassuring tones “ Heather I’ll catch up with you on the way down.” More shouting in Russian, and different voices now, one male, one female , then Michail put the radio away and rifled urgently through his rucksack, finally producing a brown tablet. “Take,” he said simply. “Dexadreson ?” I asked weakly. “Take,” was the reply and meekly I took the tablet. Much later I discovered Brian had been unable to hear me as I was not pressing the button on the radio which my guide was trying to point out. Brian had only been able to glean information from Sergey’s translation of what Michail had been saying.
I was on my feet again and starting to walk back up over the crest of the traverse in order to descend. I still could not focus and constantly battled with my eyelids but tried to stagger along the path. The glacial slope fell away to my right, though Michail was tapping my legs and poles from behind with his walking poles saying, “Right, right,” as he tried to force me to the left. I was still not roped as my knees buckled and I lurched along the path with Michail behind tapping my legs and repeating “No sleep. No sleep.” and “Right.” when he meant ‘Left’. After a short distance the reality of the danger I was in crept into my mind again and I demanded to be roped up. I pulled at my harness and karabiner, pointing to Michail’s harness and finally he attached me to a sling and we started off again. I felt more relaxed now. I was roped up and descending but most importantly of all Brian was on his way down to find me. I was going to be safe now.
Slowly we made progress and I managed to focus on the path more easily though the tapping of my legs and poles from behind continued and the refrain “No sleep, no sleep,” droned on. Slowly I realised I could see better now, the swirling black shapes had disappeared and with concentration I could bring the snowy landscape into focus. A bit further on my vision had cleared completely and everything was back in sharp focus. My legs were tired and weak but now I was back in control of them. I was better. I thought of Brian rushing down to help me, I did not know if he had even summited and knew he had spoken of attempting both peaks. How awful if he had forgone his opportunity to summit to help me especially now I had recovered anyway. I turned to Michail. “ I’m Ok,” I explained, “Better. I am better. Radio Brian. Tell Brian I am Ok.” No response. I tried several times to get him to radio Brian and tell him I had recovered but to no avail.
As we trudged downwards suddenly, from behind, I heard Brian’s voice. My words spilled out. “I couldn’t see, I was ataxic, I couldn’t stay awake. I needed someone to understand me. I thought I had cerebral oedema. I was scared. I couldn’t see.” I was so grateful to see him, to hear him, to hear English, to be able to speak to someone who understood me but then I thought about how he rushed down to my aid, “Did you summit ?” I gently enquired. “Yes, twice !” he replied. A sigh of relief emanated from me. I had not ruined his summit attempt. He had made it despite me and had also been an amazing support to me even when he was far, far ahead of me close to the summit. It transpired several others members of our group owed so much to Brian that day. Having summited himself, he had helped several of the others up the last gruelling slope in his gentle, reassuring way. He truly is an inspirational person who I am honoured to have travelled with.
We sat on the snow and Brian tried to ascertain what medication I had been given. He had apparently suggested ibuprofen but to each suggestion he made to my guide, the answer ‘Yes’ came back so we were none the wiser. In retrospect I think it was probably Diamox as it was not white as most Ibuprofen tablets seem to be. Brian gave me more Ibuprofen and then, as he took my rucksack, the three of us continued our descent. Now I had developed a cracking head ache but I was Ok and descending with Brian. I was safe now so nothing mattered.
At about 5000 metres Michail suggested I should sit and slide down on my bottom while attached to him by the sling. It was awful. I was too weak to lift my legs up and they, and my poles which I was holding, caught in the snow causing me to spin out of control, tipping first one way then the other, collecting piles of snow in front of me until they finally stopped my bumpy downward motion. Then, with great effort, I had to wriggle over the mounds to start again on the crazy veering descent. I had my ruck sack again now and it at least protected my back to a degree. As I slid down, my poles and feet catching in the snow, I imagined fractured long bones and the unbelievable explanations I would have to make of how it could have happened sliding down a glacier on my bottom. I had been offered the chance to go down on the Snowcat but had declined, partly because I had no more money at the Barrels and was already in debt to Ellie as the Snowcat had cost $72 not the $50 we had been told, and partly because I thought I was capable of walking down.
As it became less steep I got to my feet and walked, which was infinitely safer than sliding, but it was a very, very long way down and seemed so much further than on the ascent. Brian suggested we link arms and run down as we had done before but respected my simple reply of “No, not today.” A few of our group caught up with us as we continued downwards and towards the bottom of the slope we were joined by Edwardo, Sergey’s assistant guide, who asked if I was Ok now. Clearly there had been some communication between the guides. Perhaps his was the strange male voice I had heard on the radio. As we crossed the glacier nearer to the Barrels I fell awkwardly onto my right elbow ramming my humerus up into my shoulder joint causing pain to radiate down my arm. Surely I wasn’t going to go home having injured my good shoulder ! Later Michail, who I still thought was called Alex, tried to support me on that side as we stepped over an opening crevasse. I struggled to get him to change sides as Brian helpfully said “He won’t understand you.” He didn’t ! I was very, very tired again now and as the rain started I realised I was walking on ‘autopilot’. My mind was a blank as each step was almost an automatic series of reflex movements towards my waiting bunk.
Later I was to learn other people had suffered difficult descents especially as poor communications between Sergey and his guides had resulted in him not knowing where his guides were and which clients they were with. It seemed Pete’s reservations about Russian guides were not unfounded. Pete, a friend with vast climbing experience all over the world, had simply raised his eyes heavenward when he had asked about the nationality of our guides. Ellie, who had been told she could not summit when only fifteen minutes away until Brian had intervened, had then become isolated in the fog as she came down and had to resort to calling out until she was found by some of the rest of the group. Danny had felt extremely unwell but was not allowed to descend quickly as Sergey insisted he waited at some rocks as he tried to locate the rest of the group and several people ended up coming down on the Snowcat for which each seemed to be charged a different random amount.
Back in my barrel I was so exhausted but struggled to take off my wet clothes and, as I had virtually nothing dry to wear, folded up my sleeping bag and lay on just the thermarest to sleep. I just had the energy to text home with the bad news and then a deep and dreamless sleep enveloped me. I woke in time for tea and although not hungry, I decided to go along just to be sociable. I could not stomach soup or the peculiar orange caviar provided as a celebration but enjoyed an excellent Greek salad with feta and olives. As I rested I wrote up my diary trying to catch all the memories while they were still vivid in my mind but as I wrote I felt all the dreadful panic return as I relived it all again. I felt sad I had let people down, wonderful supportive people who had believed in me, especially Mick to whom I had made a promise to get his poles to the summit. I had really believed I would succeed but now as I thought about it I became much more philosophical. I hadn’t died on the mountainside. I was having a great time right up to the point of getting sick. I had met some lovely people who were so kind to me and Brian had been amazing. He was so supportive but disappointed I had not succeeded as he had expected me to. It transpired he had summited with Elyse and then helped Alp and Ellie to the summit before coming down to me, apparently galloping down the mountain shouting he was a doctor to get people out of his way. It’s very hard for him not to assume his natural role as leader.
I was now the only one awake in the hut. The weather outside was awful as the rain beat down and through the window I could not even see the pylon. I made notes in my diary, texted Mick and home and rested. Everything was wet and tomorrow we would have to pack it all up and take everything down on the chair lift. A cloud of sadness came over me. I would be sorry to leave this strange place which had been home for last few days. But the next morning dawned a decent day and after our last Barrels breakfast of eggs, sausage, cheese, biscuits and sweets, we set about packing up and heading down on the chair lift. Once we reached the gondola station we queued ahead of some normal passengers but, as we loaded all the left over provisions and rubbish, our large main packs with ice axes, walking poles and crampons, the other passengers in rude Russian fashion barged between us forcing their way into the gondola and tutted angrily as more and more kit was loaded in and ice axes secured on backpacks swung dangerously at eyelevel. I wondered vaguely if these old pods had ever been load tested and quickly decided it was probably best not to think about that.
Down in the village a delicious meal awaited us and a photographer gave out individual packs of photographs we could purchase. I had not even noticed him taking the pictures as we were climbing the previous day. Once back in the hotel in Cheget we hung all our kit out on the balcony to dry and I set off in search of the ATM which, unsurprisingly, was out of order although a lady did come out of the building which I had thought was a hotel but appeared to be some sort of municipal building and assured me, “1 hour, be OK.” I returned later to find David, Tary, Kara, Sandhosh and Elyse about to set off to Terskol, the next village, in search of money as the Cheget ATM was still not working. I walked with Elyse chatting away and not really concentrating and before long arrived in Terskol when it started to rain. This, of course, was our cue to head for a cafe and drink vodka ! We passed the time playing a game on Sandosh’s phone which included things like tapping the screen exactly 43 times in a certain time span. Even without vodka I was incapable of succeeding with most of the challenges. The rain had long since stopped when we emerged to set off back leaving David plenty of time to get to his date he had somehow managed to arrange with a girl from the market. As it looked like it would rain again Elyse suggested we get a lift back and, taking off her hood to reveal her blonde hair, she promptly started thumbing a lift. Almost immediately a blacked out van drew up and to my horror she jumped into the front seat with a total stranger. “Go with her,” I ordered Sandhosh as the others bundled him into the van next to her. As it drove off I thought of the potential awful consequences this could have and was very glad that at least she had Sandhosh with her. The rest of us then set off walking back along the straight main road. It seemed like a long way and after a while we started to voice our concerns but then felt sure we recognised some of the landmarks. David was definitely going to be late for his date now. We walked on and on, past a complex surrounded by high wire fences topped with barbed wire and lookout posts patrolled by armed guards. This, we learned the next day, was a border post as we were only five kilometres from the Georgia border. I had no memory of seeing this on our way to Terskol but finally I saw a car turning into a road on the right at the bottom of the hill. None of us remembered walking up the hill but decided this must be the road back into Cheget. It wasn’t. We had managed to walk 5 kilometres beyond our village crossing over the road to it without even noticing ! How could 4 of us get lost on a totally straight road ? David took control and started trying to ask if there was a taxi or if someone would drive us back for money. Soon a man nodded and went off to find someone and for the princely sum of two hundred roubles all four of us got a lift back to Cheget. It appears any vehicle in Russia is a taxi for a sum of money. Once back in the village we were relieved to find Sandhosh and Elyse had arrived safely and David set off for his date slightly more than ‘fashionably late.’
That evening our celebration meal consisted of Russian salad, followed by borsch and then chicken on massive skewers with chips. There were a few bottles of vodka on the tables and Sandhosh assumed the role of Master of Ceremonies which he did brilliantly clearly having put a lot of thought into it and made notes on his phone. He found a reason to toast each member of the group, most of them several times, and each time they had to down a shot of vodka. More vodka was purchased and more toasts which were getting increasingly random. They even included toasting the Austrian couple from David and Elyse’s barrel. By 9.30pm Marty was hugging 14 empty vodka bottles and the night was still young. Dancing started and, relaxed by the vodka, Danny who had seemed so quiet and reserved became the demon dancer flailing his arms about wildly as Hamit joined him and drank the vodka straight from the bottle. Brian, who dislikes vodka, had snuck out after 5 shots though Alp and I managed to avoid drinking any. Elyse bought water and was trying to get those worst for wear to drink it and David, looking completely hammered, leaned against the wall looking pale and lost. When I decided to call it a night the party was in full swing and both Alp and Tom kindly offered to walk me back. I think Tom was grateful for the fresh air and a legitimate rest from the drinking for a while. Once in bed I was unable to sleep and was still awake when the rest of the group got back and continued the party in the hotel until about 1 am.
On our last day we had the opportunity to go on a one hour hike to a nearby village with mineral springs where you could catch fish which they would cook for you. It sounded fun but as we turned right onto the main road it did occur to me some of us may have visited the village the day before and sure enough we ended up in the village we had mistakenly walked to the previous day. Although it was a tourist attraction no effort had been made to make it attractive. Everywhere was untidy and the grass unkempt. No where during our trip did we see tended gardens or cut grass. We were encouraged to taste the metallic brown water from each of the three mineral springs especially the last which promised ever lasting life if consumed every day. Although each tasted slightly different all were vile and although obviously still seemed almost effervescent which was most peculiar. We wandered around the stalls selling woolen items and others with tacky goods like cheap looking plates painted with Russian scenes and fridge magnets. Others sold what initially appeared to be homemade sweets, nougat and nut bars although some were packaged and some even had English labels on them obviously supposedly destined for the export market. One stall had a huge array of hunting knives which looked strangely out of place. There was a couple of barbecues over which were hung large flat pieces of chicken which looked like the whole carcase which had been boned out. Feeling hungry, we sought out the trout lake to catch our lunch. We were sorely disappointed by the small pond and dismayed by the cost of 800 Roubles/kg and this was compounded by Luba telling us that lunch was to be in Cheget. Again there seemed a complete lack of communication and organisation among the guides and as we protested that was not the plan and, whether or not we caught our own lunch, we would be eating here, Luba started phoning someone presumably to clarify the plan. She seemed unhappy we had made our own decision and intended to eat here. We chose an interesting wooden framed cafe where the beams were hung with artificial vines and we asked for a menu. A great debate ensued and a good deal of confusion but, with Felix’s help, we sorted out our order. As we drank beer and fruit juices we passed a pleasant hour relaxing and chatting but as we got hungrier and nothing seemed to be happening we became less happy and Felix especially got increasingly annoyed angrily repeating, “ Where’s the fookin’ fish ? “ After a two hour wait the food finally arrived. The grilled fish were tiny but delicious. By now we were all thoroughly disillusioned and set off back to Cheget for our prearranged lunch !
Saturday and we were on our way back to the airport in the minibus reversing our route from nine days before. The driving standards had not improved and we watched with interest an argument at the fuel station when our driver appeared to insist on paying what he thought was a fair price for fuel and not that demanded by the angry Russian proprietor.
And so, back to Mineralyne Vody, on to Moscow and then to Heathrow. Looking back it had been an interesting eleven days. I had met some amazing people and climbed on the highest mountain in Russia. The fact I had failed to reach the summit was disappointing but hardly detracted from the enjoyment of the trip.
Thank you to all our team and especially Brian, who was such a great travelling companion, for making it such an amazing trip.
The day after arriving back in England I went to visit Mick to take back his walking poles and tell him tales of my adventures. As always, he was wonderfully supportive and a true friend. He told me I was to keep his poles and take them with me up my next mountain where ever I chose that to be. On Friday 10th August Mick passed away. I lost a very dear and special friend that day but am eternally grateful to have been able to see him before he died. He had supported me through difficult times and inspired and encouraged me in all my endeavours. I dedicate this trip and my memories of it to Mick.