Wednesday 2 September 2015

Elbrus 2015

Mt. Elbrus is one of those places you probably most often hear about in a pub quiz. What's the highest point in Europe? Mt Blanc! Nope.

As a teenager, I consumed every book on mountaineering and climbing that I could. Over recent years, my running has taken to higher reaches. The Lake District, The Alps, The Rockies, and the cross over between run, hike and climb becomes blurry in those environs. It's an area of the sport that Killian has brought to the relative masses (in fact you can see Killian attempting Elbrus in the film Dejame Vivir). Moving fast in the mountains requires skills gained through experience in terms of navigation, gear, clothing, footwear and technique.

I've been keen for some time to make a transition in to the higher mountains. We are incredibly fortunate here in the UK. With the Lake District, Snowdonia, The Brecons, The Peaks, The Scottish Ranges, we have opportunities to experience 'real' mountain conditions almost year round. Being up on the tops in bad weather in the British mountains often brings a severity of circumstance, explained with a wry smile to someone with 4000m+ peaks on their doorstep who thinks you must be joking. For me, the Lakes have been somewhere to work on mountain conditioning, navigation, fitness and gear choices, always with the opportunity to retreat or amend a route to safety in a relatively short amount of time. Without a question of a doubt my best running experiences of the last two years have all been in the Lakes. Whether it be a winter day dealing with verglas on the rocks of Wetherlam, a spring round of the Buttermere fells in exceptional weather or the Bob Graham Round in late summer, I've learned a lot. 

When my good friend Hully rang me this Spring and asked me if I wanted to accompany him to Russia to climb Mt. Elbrus, I jumped at the chance. I shared a tent with Hully in 2007 at the Gobi March and we have since gone on to other adventures together including the 4Deserts Series, Comrades, Ironman and Leadville 100. It was a week after the 2011 Leadville 100 that Hully found himself caught in a bush fire during Racing The Planet's Kimberleys 100km Race. He suffered burns to over 30% of his body and together with Turia Pitt, Kate Sanderson and Martin Van Der Merwe, has had a long road back to recovery. His story is an incredible one.

Elbrus. West Peak and high point to the left. 5642m. East Peak - 20m lower - to the right.

The Mountain

Elbrus sits at the head of the Baksan Valley (2100m) in the Caucasus range which separates Russia from Georgia. Recent fighting in the South Ossetia Region and terrorist attacks related to the Russian mafia and the displaced Islamic & Russian populations make the region an interesting one to visit. The foreign office advises against all but essential travel. The reality however is that since severe issues in 2011 when the entire region was closed off, the Russian military presence has been dramatically increased. Passes between Russia and Georgia are closed and the area is tightly controlled. Elbrus is a valuable entity for the Russian government.

We arrived in Terskol, the village below Elbrus via a 4hr minibus transfer following flights from London to Moscow and on to Mineralyne Vody. The trip was an 11 day itinerary building in acclimitisation, before gradually ascending camps up the mountain, leaving three potential summit days to end. 

Our guide Sasha, part of the company Adventure Alternatives, turned out to be an incredible source of information and experience, as a published author, rafting champion and successful mountaineer. On summit day we were joined by his second in command Sasha 2. Between them they had over 230 Elbrus summits to their name. What we couldn't work out was why his two rucksacks were so heavy. However once we reached the high camps we found out he'd packed his books to sell to other climbers. And that he'd carried up six small bottles of vodka. He let us share one. We got no commission on book sales.

The first two days we hiked around the border military zone and up to a prominent observatory, both at 3000m altitude. The relief in the area is dramatic with 4500-5500m peaks dropping down 3000m+ to the valley floor. Views of iconic peaks like Ushba and Donguzorun sent the heart racing and imagination running wild. Elbrus is a very different mountain however. A volcano with two creaters acting as twin sentinels dwarfing everything around, with rough lava fields spilling down underneath the giant ice cap which covers the summit reaches from 4500m+ year round.

Donguzorun and the 7 Glacier

On Day Three we began our first forays up the mountain. Each day we would hike to a new high point, before returning to sleep at lower altitudes and then taking the lift up the following day to our previous high point. As easy as that sounds it also involved man handling 30 cardboard boxes of food and drink, plus 15 kit bags full of climbing gear. First we went up to 3000m, then the famous barrels camp at 3700m through the Lava Fields.

Hiking the Lava Fields at 3500

Next on to the National Park hut (shipping containers) at 3850m. Upon stepping off the chair lift at the highest point lifts travel up the mountain, we saw the rescue team bagging up a body which wasn't the ideal welcome on to the glacier. Sasha pointed out however, that it was as likely to be that of a WW2 soldier (the Germans fought the Russians all the way up here) as it was a climber or skier. The following day we finally arrived at camp s-hole at 4100m via a Snow Cat. 

The Train

The View from 4700m. Ushba is the highest/ twin peak just right of centre

Out on the glacier in the La Sportiva Batura 2.0

Each day I felt strong as we took our time hiking up, the others in the group Frederica, Tony and Hully also responded well to the altitude and we were forming a very strong group. Sasha seemed happy. 

Day 5 and 6 we hiked up to 4750m and spent some times on basic techniques including use of harnesses/ slings, ice axe arrests and getting a feel for the double skin plastic boots and crampons we would need for a very cold and wet summit day. One thing was clear, this mountain had been abused by generations. The toilets were long drops straight down on to the glacier. Human waste just sitting frozen on top. With such heavy melt due to the late season, we came across everything you can imagine as we hiked up the mountain not limited to plane fuselages, bones, frozen shit and WW2 Shrapnel. If you could admire the view and not look down it was a help.

The Toilet. Great view out. Just don't look down.

The weather all week had been exceptional but true to form, come our summit window, things looked very poor indeed. Because Elbrus sits so high above everything else, it creates it's own weather system. The summit was often shrouded in cloud blowing fast across it's upper reaches. 

In the end we decided to go for it at 0200 on the Monday morning, our earliest possible date. The previous night, Sasha had come to our container and told us that four climbers, three Polish and a Russian, hadn't returned from their summit bid that afternoon and were missing. Because the weather was windy with very low visibility and heavy snow there was no option to attempt a rescue. We could be the first to come across them (I think that was his point anyhow).

At 0200 we jumped in the snow cat up to our high point, designed to facilitate summit attempts when the weather window was small. Stepping out of the Snow Cat in to another world at 5100m was quite the experience. We were immediately buffeted by the strong winds and encassed in snow/ ice from the air. I had on all of my listed summit gear and more.

(La Sportiva Base Layer, Centurion Tee, La Sportiva Icon Pullover, La Sportiva Pegasus Lightweight Down, La Sportiva Cham Down Jacket and Storm Fighter Waterproof. Lightweight Tights, Ski Pants and Waterproof Overtrouser. Two layer balaclava and Julbo goggles. Lightweight fleece glove and enormous Down Over Glove. Footwear - La Sportiva Batura and Petzl Vasak Crampons, Drymax Cold Weather socks + Thick Fleece socks. Petzl Summit Evo Ice Axe. Exped Poles. Exped Dry Bags & WP Phone Cover. Petzl Aquila Harness, Two slings and Karabiners. Pack Wise I carried 25 litres with bottles inside my jacket. Petzl Nao 2 with spare batteries which functioned brilliantly in minus 16, 35km winds and heavy snow which was good to find out!)

We moved off in a train, and quickly it became apparent that the two Sasha's were having trouble picking the line due to the weather and darkness. GPS devices were referred to and we zig zagged up and down the flank of the east peak until we found the bottom of the rocks which gave us a line around to the saddle. Between the East and West Summit cones is a small but prominent saddle which offers the perfect resting post between the two stages of the climb. The saddle is quite the arena, with views down both the North and South sides of the mountain, destroyed tents and a disused refuge housed in amongst the rocks.

From the start of the day I had felt dreadful. Weak and sick with no drive. Partially the altitude but partially the level of clothing I had on. Instead of stopping to remove a layer I plugged away and built up a heavy sweat under my top half. Before we'd reached the saddle I had already started to drop back from the group by 10 - 15 yards (almost out of sight) and had torn my trousers with lazy crampon placement. What concerned me most is that I had quickly begun to lose concentration and developed apathy towards the climb. The weather made this incredibly risky where a stronger climber on the day would have felt realtively secure. 

Sasha shouted in to my ear on the saddle and asked if I was ok. I simply responded that I had no power, no drive. He told me to go down immediately. The weather was just starting to clear and after pushing a Mars Bar down I told him I knew when I was going to far and I hadn't reached that point as yet. The issue with the top of Elbrus is that there is no rescue. You and your team are solely responsible for making it back down safely. The next forty minutes we began the steepest part of the climb but I found myself asking Sasha to stop as I knelt down for a break. That was the final straw and I spun on my heel and began descending immediately. In real terms I was at 5425m. 200m vertical and 900m horizontal from the true summit. Roughly 90 mins of climbing as it was that day. It was a simple decision borne out of not putting either myself or the rest of the group at risk. As they say getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory and without being dramatic the risk was too great. 

I arrived back in camp a few hours later. The other three summited 2 hours later and made it back down for a circa 11 hour round trip. Elated to have been granted the window to complete the climb. There was still no sign of the 4 missing climbers, however Sasha had found poles and a backpack on the summit plateau which was an ominous sign.

Upon arriving back down the valley we learned from the rescue man that the three Polish climbers had perished, suffering from a navigational error leaving the summit plateau they descended in the bad weather and became stranded, eventually succumbing to hypothermia likely whilst we were commencing our climb. The Russian climber had fallen in to a crevasse. A very sad note to leave the mountain on.

Elbrus is a very simple climb. As long as you respect the mountain. I certainly learned as much by turning around as continuing on. Much as when a race doesn't go to plan. 

For me the disappointment of not reaching the summit wasn't particularly great initially. Whilst the others had harboured different ambitions, bagging another one of the 7 Summits in Hully's case, the purpose of the trip had been testing my body at higher altitudes, work on fundamental mountaineering techniques, gear choices and operating within an expedition framework. The summit would have been a nice bonus. Of course with the benefit of time, one naturally begins to feel the need to go back and reach the high point. For me it will be a very different trip the second time....

Here is a great little video that one of our party, Tony, made of the entire trip, 13 mins of footage encompassing all 10 days.


1:30 - Observatory Climb
2:13 - Ferrying Gear on to Elbrus 
3:00 - 3000m. Lava Fields 
3:54 - Snow Cat above 3800m 
4:23 - National Park Hut 
4:37 - 4000m. Glacier. 
5:13 - 4500m. 
5:29 - 4750m. 
6:15 - Ice Axe Arrest Work. 
6:31 - Camp Shit Hole 
7:32 - 5300m. The Saddle. 
7:55 - Western Peak 
8:17 - 5450m. Fixed Lines. 
10:30 - 5642m. The Guys on the Summit.


  1. that is just totally amazing James

  2. very well written account mate....hadn't realised it was only you who turned'll make it next time for sure