The REAL Irish Elbrus Expedition of 2004

(by Declan Cunningham, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2004)
An attempt on Europe’s highest mountain.

Getting to Russia is relatively easy … if you have a plane. The hard part is all the paperwork before you go. Our schedule changed, our visas changed, our price changed, group members changed, our insurance got revoked and our airline was grounded. All that without so much as a toothbrush packed … this was going to be an interesting trip but we were all hungry for a bit of adventure.

This trip was the first of many for the trip leader, Brendan Lawlor, and me to carefully uncover the pitfalls involved in getting a dirty dozen of Irish punters over to Russia up a hill and back with the much-appreciated help of the excellent guides from Pilgrim Tours. Not quite a Lord of the Rings epic but we had our work cut out for us considering that our ‘hill’ was Mount Elbrus. It’s in the Caucasus and at 5642m, is the highest mountain Europe has to offer.

The group gathered at an inhumanely early hour at Dublin airport where some learned that it’s a less expensive experience to weigh your bags before you get to the check-in desk. A short hop in Budapest and we were in Moscow on the remarkably roomy Malev airlines. We had plenty of forms to fill in but I bet there’s more red tape at Ann Summers than Moscow’s airport. Our bus drivers were there to meet us and we were all whisked through the busy traffic packed streets that was Moscow’s rush hour, trying in vain to take everything in.

Our hotel was the Russiya and like everything else in Russia it was enormous. In fact, with 3400 rooms it would quite happily accommodate the population of…Mallow with a few heads on the floor! Some of us lost track of time in its depths that night but we all made it to the domestic airport the next morning and before you could say ‘I’d rather go to the Canaries’ we were in Mineralnye Vody just a few hours from our objective.

It became obvious that Russians don’t smile (in public anyway). I was never quite sure if that was because they knew something we didn’t or because they had gold teeth. Either way they made us feel welcome when we arrived in Cheget which is a small mountain town in the Baksan valley in the heart of the Caucasus.

Our first objective was the 3600m Cheget to start the acclimatisation process. Our plan was just to do the top half of the mountain to really benefit from the thinner air. This was accomplished by our silver-tongued guides Marina and Oxana who managed to persuade the chairlift operator to provide the obvious shortcut.

It was great to be finally getting down to the business of climbing after all the preparation. It was a fairly straightforward snow plod except for the cornice which was obliterated by a no-nonsense Oxana with a few well-placed axe blows. On top we were afforded our first glorious view of the twin summits of Elbrus. Whatever reasons each of us had to go on this trip we were now united in that single goal.

Elbrus – 5642m

The following day we had our first real taste of Russian breakfast when suspicious-looking meatballs were served. Some people just don’t want to see that sort of thing that early. Luckily it wasn’t enough to put anyone off our first steps on Elbrus.

The bus dropped us off at the market area at the foot of the mountain. Even in summer it was busy with stalls of smoking mysterious food, hats, wigs and other woollies to relieve the tourists of their money. The place must really be teeming when the ski season is in full swing.

Of course being a ski area there is a cable car. Now purists may want to climb the mountain from the valley floor but I didn’t hear anyone complain even if the car looked like it spent its early years as a target for tank practice.

It got us up to about 3400m and we plodded our way from there to the Barrels and onto the Diesel Hut (3900m) which are the two huts on the mountain. Unfortunately, the Diesel Hut burnt down in 1998 so it’s out of commission until the rebuild is complete. The Barrels are literally that, big tanker-sized barrels which sleep 4-6 and are basic but comfortable.

So far the weather had been perfect and everyone enjoyed the first day on Elbrus although some people were finding the going tough enough. Now we could finally see the features we’d only been able to point out on maps up to this. We were well aware that it was going to be hard but as one of the guides said it wasn’t so much ability as mental attitude that would get you to the top.

It was back to the lodge for our last night down in the valley for a while. Some people went to bed after dinner, others got their gear organised and needless to say several went Nakar drinking with the local mafia but that’s another story.

The cook pulled another fast one on us at breakfast by producing burgers. When one person declined she offered chicken as an alternative! It was certainly a case of getting the dinner out of the way to give us a clear run of the day. Probably just as well because today was going to test our mettle. We’d be heading to an obvious rock band within a 1000m of the summit called the Pastukhova Rocks.

It has to be said that Elbrus is about as technical as climbing the stairs but such a big mountain should not be underestimated. Over 20 people are killed each year and 2004 was no exception. The previous night a Swiss climber had fallen on the way down and was killed bringing the death toll to 23 already with the season only starting. It’s easy to get lost in the excitement of a climb but that terrible news was a real slap in the face and made us realise that no matter how desirable Elbrus was it was still just a mountain.

It’s difficult to get an idea of perspective on such a big mountain as there are very few features but once we gained a bit of height all we had to do was turn around and feast our eyes on 550 miles of Caucasus. The only place I could compare it to was Nepal. Fabulous peaks like Mt. Donguzorun which pose a serious challenge even by their easier routes.

The pace had picked up slightly on the previous days and the group became more spread out but everyone soldiered away. Those that reached the top of the rocks (4700m) first had the opportunity for a practice with their crampons before turning tail and heading back down for our first night in the Barrels.

The barrel huts

A few people had found the day pretty difficult but even those that didn’t were looking forward to our next day which was a rest day. We still got up early but then left people to their own devices. After all they were half way up a mountain so it wasn’t like they were going to run off. We organised a training session in the afternoon to get people more used to walking in crampons and arresting a fall with the ice axe. Up till now ski poles were the order of the day but after the saddle it gets much steeper and an axe could come in handy.

There was another, obviously lesser, Irish expedition on the mountain at the same time as us but we tolerated their presence since their schedule was one day ahead of ours. This meant that while we were recharging they were battling their way to the summit. We came out to greet them when they got back down happy but knackered after a safe but successful summit attempt. It was hard not to envy them having it over with. Their tales certainly didn’t make it sound easy.

Up to this point we had been blessed with the weather but now there was a fair bit of cloud gathering which had us on edge a bit. Our guides seemed unperturbed though and our worries proved unfounded as later that evening the skies were clear again. The next day was summit day so with one last glance to the twin summits we headed for bed. Not forgetting one last pit-stop in those awful toilets. As my climbing friend Peter says – ‘Whatever you do, don’t look down!’

I hadn’t slept much and was awake for some time when the 3am wake-up call finally came but getting up seemed a horrible prospect. Normal people go to bed at 3am on their holidays not the other way round. Breakfast was a quiet affair. I suppose people had other things on their mind with last minute decisions of what to bring and wear.

We gathered outside in the freezing cold and donned our crampons before getting onto the waiting snowcats. People were nervous and excited at the same time (sort of like stealing a Luas). At 4am the machines lurched forward belching black smoke into an already brightening sky. It wasn’t the most comfortable spin in the world but it would save us two to three hours. (Top Tip: don’t sit at the back.)

The noise of the engine meant conversation was impossible so each of us were lost in our own thoughts getting colder by the minute. When we stopped just below the Pastukhova Rocks people were eager to get going just to warm up. It was an absolutely beautiful morning but people hardly noticed once the slog of step after step got underway and the focus shifted to your feet.

Hi ho, hi ho, ’tis off to work we go!

We inched our way up between the ice fields and started the long traverse to the saddle. The bitter cold made it hard going and even with the extra guides the group became spread out. My platypus was insulated but the water still froze making dehydration hard to avoid. We regrouped at the saddle to allow people to catch up before the final push to the summit. At this stage the cold was less of a problem but the sun and the altitude started to take their toll. I’ve never reapplied sun block so many times but still managed to get burnt.

Unfortunately, the altitude and effort proved too much for some who made the difficult but wise decision to head back down. For the stubborn ones the time had come for the final push to the top. The gradient increased dramatically and we got our axes out. I was exhausted but just kept going. It seemed we would never reach the crest of the ridge but when we did I knew we could make it. It’s easier going right at the end and we all just strolled up the final rise to the summit. The effort had paid off and there we stood with the whole of Europe at our feet. The tri-colour was brandished with pride while we congratulated each other and took the obligatory posed photos. The weather had been kind, the views were amazing and there wasn’t a Chechen in sight.

Europe’s highpoint: Declan and Brendan celebrate reaching the summit of Elbrus(5642m) with their group.

An 18,000ft summit is no place to hang around so we turned tail for what would be the long arduous slog of getting back down. Everyone was happy and wrecked but it wasn’t until we were back at the barrels that we could shed those extra layers, kick off our boots and relax. When I removed my balaclava for the first time in 12 hours of toil I immediately became the laughing stock. Panda eyes I could handle but a circular tan…..

By the time we got down to the valley the beer had started to flow. I seem to remember that our celebratory dinner with the other Irish, the guides and lots of Russian vodka had been a success but I’ve yet to see the video. I’m not sure if it’ll be on TG4 but Bravo might be interested!

After all that you’d expect a sleep-in at least, but a few of us decided to go skiing on Elbrus. The hangover made speech difficult so you can imagine what it was like for someone who’d never even put skis on before to stand up let alone get down a red run. Marina, my guide turned ski instructor, would encourage me gently with a stick if I lay down too long. It was great fun but, man, was I tired when I finally got down.

The next day it was back to Moscow for some well-deserved chill time. We toured the city’s sights by day and savoured its delights by night. The Kremlin’s churches, the incredible Metro system and St Basil’s were fabulous but seeing a horse do Riverdance and actually storming Red Square in a sea of red after infiltrating a Communist rally was truly unforgettable. Russia is a fantastic, mysterious place and the trip was unforgettable. Get your buns over there!

See also Allister Gerrard’s report of the "other" expedition