An unguided climb of Mt. Elbrus – Routhier Style (Part 2)
Updated: Mar 20, 2020
If you haven’t read part 1, I encourage you to go back to get the all details leading into this post.
It was time to head up the mountain for good. No more casual gondola rides. This one was for real, and so was the weather. Thunder and lightning on the mountain can be catastrophic, not only for climbers but for sitting ducks (like us) in a gondola cab.
Our ride to the first gondola station was uneventful. It was Frank and me at that point, scurrying to the next loading point each with our 50lb packs of gear and food; everything we would need for the next few days had to be hauled to our hut at 12,100ish ft of elevation once we reached the final gondola drop off point at 12,380 ft. Yes, we actually had to haul our stuff down the mountain to get to our camp, meaning we would then need to haul it back UP when we were ready to leave.
We managed to get all of our gear to the next point and were told the gondola had been stopped due to the weather. I once again, similar to when we were told our hut didn’t exist (detailed in my previous post) had a micro panic attack thinking our shot of climbing this mountain might be over.
Since it was thunder-sleeting, the attendant let us sit inside a gondola cab to get out of the weather. We piled in our stuff and motioned to another climber to join us…he obliged, then two more followed suit and we had our merry little band of international mountaineers.
There were 5 of us, now. A Russian, a Ukrainian turned Canadian, a Mexican and of course Frank and me, the rare Americans. Our cab was filled to the brim with our mountaineering gear. Everything we’d need to attempt to climb Europe’s highest mountain in a few days.
A break in the weather allowed the gondola to start up again. At first there was silence in the cab since we were all probably a bit self-conscious about our foreign language skills…while it was quiet, I started thinking about our the first night on the mountain and how we would sleep, not only because one’s heart rate stays higher at advanced elevations making it more difficult to sleep, but because it would be the first time using my new mountaineering sleeping gear and really doing anything more than a girls' glamping weekend and long day hikes.
As I was daydreaming about sleeping, our gondola suddenly came to a stop and there was an even more awkward silence between the 5 of us. I looked up and smiled at the Russian guy across from me and said the formal Russian word for hello, “здравствуйте” (zdravstvuyte). He smiled, replied "здравствуйте." The group must have detected an American accent because the Ukrainian mountain guide began to strike up a conversation in English and then his client from Mexico joined in!
Four out of the five of us were now in deep conversation about what adventures we’ve been on and giving each other recommendations for new ones. Our new Russian friend sat there with a smile on his face and listened. Occasionally, I’d try to say something in Russian and he would repeat it for me the way I was supposed to say it and we would all laugh. Despite the terrible weather, we were all enjoying the conversation as the time passed.
Finally(!), the gondola started moving again and we made it to the drop off point. We bid adieu to our new friends as they loaded their gear in a snowcat and headed up the mountain to stay at a different camp 300m or so above ours.
I threw on my microspikes so I would have some traction as I skated down the mountain. We each grabbed our 50lbs of “stuff” and began the decent to our hut. The weather started to turn bad again. It was sleeting, thundering and lightening.
I raced down the mountain like a snow fairy only to get disoriented and go too far. I had gone past where we were staying which meant I had to go back UP to our camp…damnit! On top of that, I was starting to freak out a little from all the thunder and lightning.
Frank was taking it slow on the way down (like he usually does) so was decently far behind me. I raced up to the point where he could see me so he knew where the path was since it was hard to see in the sleet. After stopping for a second to catch my breath, I realized I felt like I was going to puke(!). I took a few deep breaths and made my way up to Frank to discover he also needed a break.
As we were gathering our composure on the mountainside in the snow thunderstorm, a lady in a red jacked motioned for us to come her way. Thank God she did or we would have ended up in the wrong place (again).
We obeyed her command and once we reached her, she helped us get our gear over a large hump of rocks and dirt and directed us to our cabin.
Like we always seem to do, we rallied quickly, dropped off our gear and headed back out to explore and gather information. Into the kitchen cabin we went to make sure there wasn't anything else we needed to do to check in.
There, we met a nice guy who we thought was Russian (later we found out he is originally from Moldova) and now lives in Canada. He was super friendly and invited us to hang out with him once we were settled.
We didn’t need to do anything more to check in so returned to our hut to get settled. After looking around, we noticed other gear so assumed more were staying with us. We were careful not to take up too much space. The cabin had sleeping space for 7 so it was logical others would be in there, too.
To confirm, we went back to the kitchen hut. Thank goodness our new Maldivian friend was still there. In Russian, he asked the lady in the red jacket if anyone else was in our cabin.
We could discern she said something about Americans and we joked, "Oh yeah. No one wants to stay with Americans" she claimed not to speak English, but somehow she got the joke, cracked a smile and let out a giggle.
Turns out another group of Americans who we had met the previous day, had been staying in the cabin before us, and after summiting earlier in the day were headed back down, which really is probably what she was explaining.
We were super relieved we had the place all to ourselves and spread our stuff out once we returned.
I was wet and freezing from the sleet so decided to try out my new Western Mountaineering 5°F 800 Down Filled Mummy Sleeping Bag. The down in this bag is so amazing and soft. It just makes you feel all cuddly and relaxed when you touch it. I laid down in it for a while and finally felt like I was back to a normal body temperature.
Since we rented our hut ala carte, we had to bring our own food which consisted of bars, meat sticks and freeze-dried meals which actually were pretty good. Frank went with Mountain House brand and since I’m always trying to be conscious of what I eat I decided to try Wild Zora paleo freeze dried meals which were pretty good for being the “healthier meals.” There was a decent ratio of protein to carbs to fat and zero grains, which I really appreciated.
We ate dinner in our hut and decided to try to be social with the other climbers despite the language barrier. We headed over to the kitchen hut and found everyone sitting around the dinner table listening to a guy play a gorgeous guitar and singing. He was simply amazing. He was singing in Russian but it didn’t matter. Listening to him was so cool, especially because he was another climber, maybe even one of the mountain guides(?).
We enjoyed the music for about 45 minutes and decided to return to our hut to get some sleep. We had a big day ahead of us. Our 1st major acclimatization hike and our goal was to make it up to 15,000 ft!
As we were on our way out of the building, Frank accidentally bumped the light switches and made the place completely dark! It was actually really funny. No one panicked. He quickly found the switches and turned them on without an altercation. Ha! We got ourselves settled into our sleeping bags and called it a night.
I slept great…in fact, I couldn’t believe how well I slept for my 1st night on the mountain. I was ready to tackle our acclimatization hike and get a good, early start.
Poor Frank, on the other hand, didn’t catch a single wink of sleep. He was up the entire night and felt like complete crap. Not in any condition to go climbing. Reflecting back, it was probably the high elevation and inability for his heart rate to calm down coupled with excitement and nerves.
At this point, we only had one shot to make this work. We NEEDED to get close to 15,000 ft today, otherwise we wouldn’t be acclimated enough to attempt to summit.
We discussed our options…Frank felt like his was going to puke so decided to try to sleep again, reassess in 3 hours and rally if possible.
Let me tell you, he’s a trooper. I’m not sure if he actually got any sleep, but when we got up again, he said he could do it. We gathered our gear and set out around 11am to enjoy the gorgeous weather and climb.
It was a gorgeous sunny day at the end of June and people were enjoying the mountain left and right. We saw other climbers, crazy superhuman men running through the snow in tennis shoes and shorts at 14,000 ft and talked to a girl from Moscow who was in summer snowboard school.
Everyone was basking in the sun and playing in the snow.
Speaking of sun…at higher elevations and with snow, one MUST be extra protective of their skin. Not only are the UV rays more intense at altitude, the snow reflects them off the ground back up at you.
I completely forgot this…SMH…Of course I had sunscreen on my face, sunglasses and a hat, but I completely forgot about the reflection off the snow and to reapply.
Hence…I received the worst sunburn OF MY LIFE!! Including inside my nose…oh it was so bad…my face blistered in certain spots, but more on that later…let’s get back to the climb…
So, as I was saying, it was a BEAUTIFUL, sunny, warm day on the mountain and we were making great progress trying to get up to an area called Pastukhov Rocks at 4700m (15,420 ft) until…a thunderstorm decided to roll in. We could see the ominous dark clouds slowly creeping around the mountains and we caught an occasional rumble of thunder.
One major thing mountaineers always need to be aware of, is the fact the weather on the mountain can change at any moment, and it can particularly get bad in the afternoon.
GPS told us we were at approx. 14,700 feet and that was going to have to be good enough for our major acclimatization hike. We needed to turn around and head down the mountain so we didn’t get caught up in any nasty weather.
We hauled ass down and the dark clouds got closer and the thunder louder…in fact, we weren’t the only ones scurrying back down. Pretty much everyone turned around except for a few who were probably planning to camp up higher in their own tents rather than stay in a hut camp down below.
As we were running down it dawned on me…we still had our hotel room in Terskol, and when trying to acclimatize you are supposed to climb high and sleep low. What if we could make it back to the gondola and go back to town tonight instead of back to camp?
I ran the idea past Frank and we decided to go for it…we picked up the pace…we had less than an hour now before the gondola closed for the day (plus the impending storm was getting closer so it made sense to go as fast as we could anyway).
Poor Frank…his foot was killing him from rubbing in his new La Sportiva G2 SM Mountaineering Boots since they weren’t broken in yet and he wasn’t sure if he was able to go fast enough to make the gondola in time (once broken in, they turned out to be phenomenial boots. I have the same pair and my feet didn't get cold once!).
He pushed on ignoring the pain and we made it with 10 minutes to spare!
We ran up to the turn gate only to realize Frank didn’t have his lift card with him. Thank goodness the guard told us (in Russian) we could buy a one way down for him out of the ATM looking machine. We scurried, figured out how to do it, inhaled a huge sigh of relief and made our way back down to the quaint little Moon Hotel for the night with only the things we had in our 30L Black Diamond packs.
The following evening would be when we began our summit attempt and I can only imagine the relief Frank felt knowing he was going to be able to sleep in a bed the night before it. I was excited to use a regular flushing western style toilet one last time. The toilets in camp well…just watch the video…
Ok, back to non toiled things...
Remember I said I forgot about the effects of snow reflection and the intensity of UV at elevation? Well, the waitress at the hotel reminded me. My face was beet red by the time we headed down for dinner. She felt so bad for me, she instantly brought me a little cup of yogurt and told me to put it on my face to help calm it down. I was too embarrassed to take any pics at the time…wish I would have because it would be fun to laugh about it now.
We ate dinner and as soon as we got to the room, I did a yogurt mask. It felt soooo good on my face. I think I did about 3 of them that night.
Morning came and yep, my face had blistered around and inside my nose. It was extremely painful and it probably looked it was well.
I wasn’t about to hole up in the hotel room though, so we headed back down for breakfast.
I tell you, the people at this hotel are some of the most thoughtful I’ve ever met…it was so cute…the same waitress as the night before was working and she had a bottle of sunscreen she and the hotel owner encouraged me to use on my face next time I was outside.
I was so moved. It felt like they genuinely cared about me. I graciously took the bottle, enjoyed my breakfast and did yet another yogurt mask on my face.
It was nice to be back in our comfortable hotel room and not in the cabin on the mountainside. We lounged around the room for a good portion of the early day, then gathered our things and headed back up to our hut to prepare for our summit attempt later that night.
Aside: When “storming” which is the Russian translation for attempting to summit, most people leave their camps between midnight and 4 am depending on where they are starting from.
Our goal was to go to bed around 6pm that night, sleep until 10pm, get up, catch the ratzrak (aka snowcat) at 1am to Patshukov rocks at 4700m and then walk the rest of the way to the top of the mountain.
We rode the gondola back up and trekked back down to camp. Earlier that day I had received a message from our cabin contact that someone from camp needed to talk to us. Well, that someone was waiting outside our door when we arrived and turns out he was there to collect. Honestly, it was no big deal. He just wanted to get our payment for the stay and to let us know two more people would be joining us in that hut.
We settled up and rushed to pick up all of our “shit” that was strewn about the place, then headed off to get some water from a glacial lake near our camp. When we got back to the hut two more residents had moved in and turned out to be pretty cool, a Russian Military Mountaineering Trainer and his son. The 4 of us casually chatted back in forth in my broken Russian and their broken English and established we had the same goal…beginning our ascent of Mt. Elburs later that evening.
Speaking of that, it deserves and entire post on its own, so check back to read about our summit attempt, a microcrush I developed on a snowcat driver and more!