Irish Expedition to Mount Elbrus

(by Allister Gerrard, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2004)
IMC members attempt Europe’s highest peak, in poor weather.

On the 4th of August 2004, twelve of us Irish mountain enthusiasts set off on our summer holidays to the Caucasus mountain range in south-west Russia on an expedition or mountain journey to climb Mount Elbrus (5642m / 18,543 feet), the highest peak in the continent of Europe and one of the "Seven Summits".

Our team included three regulars from the Irish Mountain Running Association circuit (as a newcomer to it myself, this is one sure way to get fit) – Brendan Lawlor (our Irish Leader), Cormac Ó Ceallaigh, Marcus Geoghegan; Bren Whelan (MIC PADI AI EML Tiglin); four regular road racing enthusiasts – John Gorman, David Lohan, Deirdre Linnane, Mark Moran; Geoffrey O’Donoghue (Doctor and mountaineer); our very own IMC – Eileen Murphy, John Paton and myself.(Carl Raftery and Declan Cunningham, IMC, had been on the same expedition in June.)

Experience varied across the board, people having climbed on Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Alps, Pyrenees, Everest base camp and Himalaya, New Zealand, and Scotland. We all shared the excitement of the days that lied ahead. It was a strong team, we all got on famously together and had lots of laughs and fun along the way.

The challenges that lay ahead (for me my toughest), proved to be coping with the altitude, weather, and a test of our fitness, physical strength, winter mountaineering skills, mental resolve and of course our gear.

Day 1, Wednesday 4th August – Arrival in Moscow

Arriving late into Moscow we stayed in (ironically the largest hotel in Europe) Rossiya Hotel (3,500 rooms and miles of corridors). Already our navigation skills were being tested in finding our way around the hotel. My room-mate for most of the trip was John Patton. I spent many nights in awe listening to lots of John’s climbing exploits over the years, around Ireland, Scotland, the Alps and the Pyrenees etc.

Day 2, Thursday 5th August – Caucasus

The next morning we flew to Mineralnye Vody and met up with Yuri, our Russian guide, who looked after us for the duration of our mountain journey. From the airport we had a four-hour bus journey to our mountain lodge in the Azau valley near the foothills of Mt. Elbrus. This our first real experience of the remote parts of Russia. We arrived in the Azau valley (1900m), where we based ourselves for the next four nights. The views of the surrounding landscape were terrific and we got our first taste of local food in the hostel (It was then I realised I was going to be shedding a few pounds).

Day 3, Friday 6th August – Summit of Mt. Cheget (3600m)

We set off early from our base in the Azau valley and walked to Cheget village. From here we caught the chair lift up to 2750m on the mountain. Here we started our first acclimatisation hike, the ascent of Mt. Cheget. The climb I found tough due a heavy pack (packed more than I needed), our first day at altitude and from wearing insulated plastic boots on dry ground in up to 30 degree Celsius sun. My feet were uncomfortable and I had to remove my boots three times on the way up due to excess heat on my feet. Eventually, we reached the summit. From the summit we had stunning views of Mt. Elbrus and Mt. Donguzorun, a spectacular mountain and some would say our view of it resembling the north face of the Eiger. We descended the same way and on reaching the bottom tucked into some local barbecue food which was most welcome (our first of many).

Day 4, Sat’ 7th August – Mt. Elbrus Observatory

From base in Itkol Hotel we headed up to Terskol (2000m) at the base of Mt. Elbrus. Here we visited the local store and stocked up with supplies and a few treats for the day. En route we assisted the local butcher with some cattle herding – it seems a steer was reluctant to be processed into steak etc. The lower slopes of the mountain, mountain tracks and forest were quite pleasant and we took in a spectacular waterfall and observed local Russians in local hiking costume. The upper stages were in full sun and reaching the observatory (3000m) was a relief. Here we had stunning views of the surrounding Caucasus snow-capped mountains, glaciers and mountain features. The weather was good, approx. 30 degrees Celsius, with a cool breeze and clear skies. Having a lighter pack and trekking shoes today, I felt good and Eileen, Bren, Yuri and myself decided to climb on further up to 3300m. We descended quickly and met up with the rest of our crew for more local barbecue food

Day 5, Sunday 8th August – Barrel Huts to Memorial (4200m)

We left our base early and headed further back up to Terskol (2180m). Our intention was to catch a cable car from here to bring us high on Mt. Elbrus for an acclimatisation hike. However, due to a two-hour Sunday queue we decided to hike to the first cable station, in our plastic boots on dry ground; only 800m on a ski slope in the baking heat – cruel! From here we got the cable plus chair lift to the Barrel Huts at 3800m. Finally from the barrels, the plastic boots got to cool down in the snow. From here a 500m further acclimatisation hike – up past the ruined Priut hut and the new Diesel Hut to a memorial structure – about 4300m. On the way down we learned some new queuing skills, sorry scrummaging. The highlight of the day was undoubtedly waiting for the cable car and being amused by a Russian woman lashing out at a foreign climber who managed to get the point of his ice axe caught on the her daughter’s behind.

The Barrel Huts

Day 6, Monday 9th August – Arrival at Mt. Elbrus high camp and ascent to Pastukhova Rocks (4800m)

In the morning we packed up our essentials and left our excess baggage behind in Azau and headed up to our high camp on Mt. Elbrus, the Barrel Huts (3800m). This would be home for the next few nights. On arrival, my feelings changed; with the summit day looming, it was a change in the environment, sleeping at 3800m, surrounded by snow; reality set in of the tough days ahead. We settled into our huts (six people per barrel), which were dry and provided us with a place to throw down our sleeping bags. Toilets were reduced to a hole in a barna shed and blocking your nose before entering was advisable. We caught a bite to eat in our new kitchen (a mobile home on blocks) before setting off on an acclimatisation hike. We left from the Barrel Huts into the snow, walking in single file, and step for step taking in the breathtaking views on the way. The weather was good, clear and bright. On the ascent, Eileen Murphy and Brendan Lawlor kept us all entertained with fine renditions of Dicey Riley, the Blue Danube, the Four Seasons, Wild Rover, and Father Murphy, to name a few. Arriving at the Pastukhova Rocks (4700m), there was ice in patches and it was time to put the crampons on. At this point, Bren Whelan gave a quick instruction class for those wishing to brush up on their winter mountaineering skills before heading further up the mountain to 4800m. At this altitude I could feel the effects, feeling some lightheadedness (a drunken feeling, without any drink?). We descended quickly and later tucked into our sleeping bags for the night, listening to the wind outside. After critical analysis of our summit chances with Bren Whelan (or so I’m told) I drifted off to sleep for a few hours.

Day 7, Tuesday 10th August – Short acclimatisation hike and rest day

Today was a rest day and despite waking up with a dose of the ‘big D’ (which was to last a week), a few of us decided to go on a short acclimatisation hike in the snow to the Diesel hut at 4200m. The weather was good, clear and sunny, and we returned on time for lunch. It was certainly a good day for anyone attempting to summit and we hoped we would have the same weather the next day. At lunch we discussed the weather for the next day, our summit day, and the forecast was not good. A three-day deterioration was forecast with storm arriving the afternoon of our summit day. Cold winds, further snow and white-out conditions were expected; however, we were hopeful. The rest of the afternoon we spent sorting out gear in the hut and preparing for the summit day and trying to control our digestive systems. Eileen, who was sleeping near the door of the hut, would not enter into the deeper bowels of the barrel hut, where Bren, John and I resided. Our conversations inevitably turned to one topic – “the inner workings” of our digestive systems. We were settled into sleeping bags by 8pm. Although tired, it was difficult to sleep and I caught 1-2 hours sleep. Eileen had a deep sleep.

Day 8, Wednesday 11th August – Summit attempt day

Reluctantly we rose at 1.30am, our bodies and minds screaming at us to stay in the sleeping bag. Breakfast was at 2am and we got to fill our flasks and so on. Finally, with all our gear on, thermals, jackets, head torch, crampons and ice-axe in hand, we step into the snow. There were two groups, myself and the main gang caught the snow cat up to the Pastukhova Rocks, to just below the last high point on the mountain where we had previously climbed to. A smaller group of three brave souls started from the Barrel Huts – only 1800m ascent! At 3.50am, we started our ascent in single file, each person following in the steps of the other in front. Our head torches gave us the only light for the first two hours. It snowed continually (hail-like at times), the wind was cold, at 40-50 km/hr and as low as -20 degrees Celsius. Visibility was down to approx. 20 feet. Before long we were covered in snow and ice. Yuri warned us of the possibility of frostbite on our noses and I was grateful to him for pinching my nose a couple of times on the way up to clear it of ice. All water containers (other than flasks) quickly froze. After three hours of climbing, we began to traverse around the steep side slopes of Mt. Elbrus’s east peak. An hour later we reached the saddle, passing an Asian group on the way (who soon after returned back down to base camp due to the bad weather conditions). At the saddle now and with some shelter from the wind, dehydrated and tired, we stopped for a quick drink. From the saddle we set off up the steep section to the ridge of Mt. Elbrus’s west peak. Although, feeling quite drained at this point, I felt I had enough left in the tank to make it. The ascent was slow from here, stopping every few steps for a quick few seconds of rest before carrying on. Eventually we reached the top of the ridge and pushed on against the cold wind and snow. After six long hours, totally knackered, we reached the summit plateau.

The summit

There were hugs, hand shakes and congratulations all round, a quick photo and 10 minutes later we were on our way down (there was no hanging around in this weather). Drained from our exploits we trampled down the ridge; it was good to be going down now. From the ridge we had to watch our every step. We used ropes a number of times as handrails on the steep sections down to the saddle. Even with crampons it was difficult at times to find good solid steps in the loose powdery snow. Safely down at the saddle, we had the traverse of the east peak to negotiate. Concentrating on every step, to avoid a rapid slide down the side on the mountain. Eventually we reached the safe ground of the Pastukhova Rocks, where we had our first break from the relenting bad weather and we stopped for a drink. Finally after the ascent and descending almost 2000m, 12 hours later, dehydrated and exhausted, we reached our base camp at the Barrel Huts. That night I had the deepest of sleeps.

John Patton recounted as follows: “I turned back at 5200m feeling unwell from altitude but probably suffering more from effects of the big D the day before. Overall I wasn’t too disappointed – a new high record and the satisfaction that I could probably reach Mont Blanc again! Eileen, Marcus and Cormac who had started at the Barrels all reached the saddle – about 5400m. Cormac – not to be deterred – joined an American group and got to the final slopes when their GPS died and they decided to descend. Wisely he descended too – Elbrus with its 50 or so square miles of glaciers is not the sort of place to wander around on your own. A Russian who had been with the Asian group decided to continue – got lost – fell into a crevasse – was out overnight and got frostbitten. Cormac decided to have a second solo attempt next day using snow cat but heavy snow (see below) at the Pastukhova Rocks made it folly to continue.”

Eileen’s group had another experience which she recounts here: “When our small group of 4, including our guide Roman, arrived at the saddle (5416m), a difficult but almost inevitable decision had to be made. Because of deteriorating weather (blizzard conditions, 40 to 50km per hour winds and temperatures of –20 degrees Celsius), Roman had been recommending descent since the 5000m mark. It appeared that everyone on the mountain was descending except the Irish. He wasn’t a happy camper, understandable enough considering all he carried in his rather limp rucksack was a spare rain coat. No rope, ice axe, compass, GPS, and nothing which would provide shelter from the elements if an unplanned bivvy became necessary. The weather was dreadful but no worse than I’ve experienced on a challenging day in the Scottish Cairngorms. However, the altitude factor is substantial above 5000m and physical activity certainly takes its toll. We were all feeling sluggish as a result of decreased oxygen concentrations in the blood but were nonetheless fit and strong and eager to continue. We had ascended 1600m in seven hours having left the Barrels, our luxury accommodation at 3800m, at 3am. The group of nine, including three guides, who had taken the snow cat machine as far as the Pastukhova Rocks at 4700m, were well ahead of us. Roman was adamant. We would have to descend. Reluctantly, we agreed. We were in an unsafe situation without a rope and adequate safety gear. There was only one way to go. Of course we were disappointed, but would live unlike the two Canadians and a Swede who had slipped without rope protection on the very steep ascent from the summit earlier in the summer. There would be no second attempt as the weather continued to deteriorate dumping two feet of snow at 3800m that night and effectively closing the mountain for the next two days. We took comfort from such well-worn clichés like ‘the journey is often more rewarding than the destination’, not to mention the vodka we shared with our successful summiteers. As the only group to reach the summit that day, they were obviously delighted. Yuri, their guide, was equally ecstatic. Thirty-nine times on the ‘roof of Europe’ but never a trip in such difficult and challenging conditions. Elbrus is going nowhere. The journey has only started”.

Eileen, Allister and John

Day 9, Thursday 12th to Monday 16th August – Descent and homeward bound

The next day we woke to find a heavy snowfall overnight and that the mountain would not be climbable for the next few days. We packed up and made our descent down to the valley, where we tucked into the all-too-familiar barbecued local food and beer. It never tasted so good. The party that night went on until the ‘wee hours’, with lots of singing, party tricks and continued salutes and speeches (excuses for shots of the local vodka) to our great Russian leaders and Irish leader Brendan Lawlor.

On the Saturday morning we packed up to travel back to Moscow and when our Russian guide Yuri said his goodbyes to us tears welled in his eyes. He had become a great friend with us over the days past and we all had the height of respect for him. Looking back, it was a great experience of life, friendship, and an added privilege to reach the summit in the poorest of days.

See also Declan Cunningham’s report of his Elbrus trip