An Unguided Climb of Mt. Elbrus - Routhier Style (Part 3)
Updated: Mar 21, 2020
It was 10 pm local time and the alarm clock was buzzing. Time to wake up and prepare to climb Europe’s highest mountain. I had managed to squeeze in about 3 hours of sleep; Frank, none. That didn’t matter though, wheels up at 1am. That’s when the snowcat was leaving camp, destined for Pastukhov Rocks at 4700m (15,400ft), our drop off to begin our trek to the summit.
We had our “morning coffee” and split a freeze-dried meal for breakfast. Our summit packs were ready to go, having readied them before trying to sleep.
It was now 12:45 am and we were proud to be ready early. This is Russia of course, so everyone else riding the snow cat was ready, too. This included our cabin mate, the Russian Military Mountaineering Trainer and an entire Russian climbing team.
We turned on our headlamps, raced down to the staging area, crampons in hand, not realizing we should have put them on beforehand. We had no clue what the procedure was and it became a mad dash to get our packs placed on the front rungs of the snow machine’s giant plow and grab a reasonable seat in back.
With all of the other’s quickly filling up the limited seating in the rear of the snowcat, and us not speaking enough Russian to negotiate any special seating requests (as we surely would have tried to do if they spoke English) we had a split second choice to make: strap the crampons to our backpacks, which would be located on the front of the snowcat, exposed to all of the elements and in close contact to other’s bags where they would surely cause damage or fall off; or to carry them onto the snowcat and risk stabbing someone, or ourselves and causing serious injury. We of course chose the latter, because you CANNOT climb without crampons, but with a flesh wound, it could still be game on!
It was a beautiful night. Not too windy and no snow. Fifteen minutes into the ride, that all changed.
Snow started falling as we got higher up the mountain so I pulled my goggles down to keep my face warm. There were now gusts of wind pounding against us as we crawled along at roughly 10 miles an hour. Neither of us were phased. “It’s a mountain for Pete’s sake…it windy on mountains. Besides, the weather was supposed to clear up, so let’s just make it to the drop off point and see what happens,” I thought to myself.
As we continued to climb to 15,400 ft, we saw groups of climbers making their way up the hill. Some asked if they could hitch a ride, but we were full to the brim with people and gear.
Visibility continued to decrease as we ascended and the wind became much stronger.
Jerking to a sudden halt, the snowcat stopped. The driver raised his arms, crossing them to create an “X” and said, “Pastukhov Rocks!” in English.
Thinking we had reached our destination, Frank and I stumbled to the exit, (crampons still in hand and no injuries!) grabbed our summit packs from the front of the machine and got ready to storm the mountain.
Surprisingly, the only other person who disembarked was our cabinmate. At the time, it didn’t really phase us that no one else was getting off and we figured they paid the extra amount to be taken up to 5100m (16,732 ft).
Frank and I looked at each other and agreed we would be fine and proceeded getting our gear in order. The forecast said the wind was supposed to die down and the snow to cease.
A minute later, the snowcat driver came over. In Russian he said, “We need to go!”
“Go where,” I asked?”
“Домой! (Domoy!)”, he replied, which means “to home” in Russian.
I was a bit confused, and as I was trying to process the implications of what he was saying, a deafening crack of thunder filled our ears and I realized exactly what needed to happen. I turned to Frank and over the blustering wind yelled,
“We need to go!”
Grabbing our gear we raced back to the snowcat (at least now I had my crampons on, so didn’t have to hold them! Frank managed to get one on and ended up having to hold onto the other one.) The Russian Military Mountaineer took a little more convincing than we did but finally agreed to head back down with the rest of the group.
We piled in, and rode the cat back down to camp. It was now 2:30 in the morning.
What just happened? Had our dreams of summiting the highest mountain in Europe come crashing down with the thunder we heard 30 minutes ago? As we tried to process what had just occurred, we decided to go back to sleep and ultimately concluded that the weather was so bad the other climbing team decided not to risk it. We were partially correct.
Our hike out of camp after our failed summit attempt
We didn’t know it at the time, but we never actually reached our drop off point that night. The weather was too bad and the “X” the driver made was to say we couldn’t get there. He decided it wasn’t safe to drive any further and didn’t realize people would actually be getting off to try to climb the mountain. The guided group on the snowcat who rode up with us had made the decision to abandon their summit attempt before we even stopped.
Not only did we get turned around, every other group attempting to summit did as well. There were no summits for the next 3 days, and those who got turned around, like us, were lucky.
Sadly, an Irish climbing team trying to traverse Mt. Elbrus from the North to South got caught in the saddle between the two peaks. Their GPS failed and they were stranded at extremely high elevation for 2 days. One of their members, an Irishman from Dublin, succumbed to the effects of being at such a high altitude for so long and died on his way down.
Once we heard that news, we were so grateful for the persistence of the guide and snowcat driver who didn’t even know us yet were determined to keep us safe.
Our 1st attempt had been thwarted by the weather and since the bad weather stayed for so long, we missed any window of trying again in the days we were going to be in the area.
Originally, we had our time planned out like this:
Summit attempt Friday night/Saturday morning
Head down the mountain, spend Sunday night in Terskol
Return to Moscow Monday to do some touristy stuff for a few days
o see a performance at the famous Bolshoi Theater
Back to the States on Thursday morning
In theory, it was a good plan, but it didn’t leave us an additional summit attempt and I wasn’t ready to leave the North Caucasus until we had tried again to climb Mt. Elbrus. The next weather window was set for Tuesday, July 2nd and we decided we were going to go for it.
It’s funny how things work out…when I started researching the logistics of staying in the mountains a few extra days, I found us better flights than we had before, on an airline that gave us credit for our status in the One World Alliance (S7 airlines) and got us into the airport we were leaving out of (DME) for the US. Our original flights had us flying into one Moscow airport and out of another (of Moscow’s two major airports, SVO and DME, I thought DME was way better). And not to mention we ended up getting upgraded to 1st class on our domestic flight from Mineralnye Vody back to Moscow!
After finishing our new travel arrangements, we had a couple of days to relax in Terskol. We were already acclimated, so took a few days to rest, hang out with our new American friend, the polar kayaking guide, enjoy the culture and of course do a little souvenir and gift shopping.
Slideshow of the time we spent in Cheget while we were waiting our next summit attempt
Our downtime passed quickly and it was time to head back up the mountain. This time we would be staying in huts a little higher than the previous camp. During our acclimatization hike a few days ago, we ran into our friends from the gondola ride (see part 2 of this 3 part series if you don’t know who they are) and began talking about our summit attempt plans. They were staying at a higher camp and gave us the number of the manager in case we wanted to join them.
We didn’t take them up on it the 1st time, but the 2nd time we did. In Russian, I introduced myself to the manager via WhatsApp (it really is a wonderful communication tool) and asked if we could book one of their huts. We figured, in case we couldn’t secure a snowcat for the 2nd summit attempt, at least we could start a little bit higher. The camp had room, so we booked a cabin and stayed at 3880m.
Our 1st set of accommodations on the mountain were modest and adequate and I would totally recommend staying there, especially if you are on a budget. The 2nd set of cabins were newer and nicer. They were also twice the price!
We arrived at the camp and met with the manager. What a stud! He was tall, built, good looking and rolled up on a snowmobile like he owned the place (who knows, maybe he did?) Regardless, he was definitely the man in charge.
We spoke with him (in Russian, he didn’t speak English, or didn’t want to) about getting a snow cat for that night’s summit attempt. After securing our spot, we went and settled into our place to rest and prepare.
Once again, we went to bed at 6pm and set our alarms for 10pm. I awoke to a message from stud boy saying it was too windy and that our snow cat ride was getting pushed back. We weren’t leaving at 1am anymore; we had a choice of either 3am or 4am and the only drop off point would be 5100m. We decided to push back until 4 am. We didn’t want to prepare for 3 am to find out it was pushed back to 4 am anyway. We took advantage of the extra rest time and went back to sleep for a few more hours.
The alarm went off once more, we got ready and put on our crampons ahead of time (we weren’t going to make that mistake again). Check out the video below to get a glimpse of what was going through my head as we prepared.
Riding up with us were far less mountaineers than before. Only 7 of us instead of 20 like there were the 1st time. Everyone settled in, paid up, and we took off. The ride was much more enjoyable. The wind had died down, it wasn’t snowing and dawn was breaking.
Reaching the drop off point, we unloaded and the adrenaline surged. This was the highest in elevation either of us had ever been and we were about to climb even higher. It was cold, but I was pumped and ready to go.
The terrain was very steep and our crampons gave us amazing traction as we began our ascent up to the trail that wrapped around the eastern summit and led to the saddle between the two peaks. When we reached about 17,000 ft, we were able to walk along a fairly flat ridge on our way to the saddle. Like I said it was cold. In fact, it was very cold. I was freezing and short of breath, but there was no way I was going to stop.
By now, the sun had risen and was high enough to illuminate the space between Elbrus’s two peaks. I couldn’t wait to take a break and bask in the false warmth in an attempt to thaw out a bit. It would be our 1st major rest in almost 2 hours of high altitude climbing! Even though I wasn’t the least bit hungry, I forced myself to eat a snack in hopes the digestion would generate some internal heat for me. Here's a video of us while there!
The sun felt good, but movement was going to keep us warmer and it was time to finish the ascent. Our climbing harnesses would now come into play and I was so glad I had worn mine the entire time and didn’t need to try to put it on at this point in the trek. I was too tired and getting it on over my crampons would be almost impossible
This area of the mountain was even steeper than when we first started and of course very high in elevation, so it was comforting to know that if you are going to pass out or fall over, at least you’re strapped in!
We clipped in and began the last major vertical of the journey. Our adrenaline was surging and it was frustrating to be stuck behind a guided group that kept stopping in front of us to rest. There wasn't much risk, so we eventually unclopped and passed them.
After completing the roped section, there was a nice little plateau to rest and rest is what we did. We baked in the intense sun and once again had a bite to eat.
I was freezing and felt like I was going to puke. In reality, we had been pushing ourselves at a stupidly fast and way too demanding pace, but here we were now, just a short distance from standing on top of Europe.
It was time to finish this. Only 500 more vertical feet to go and after climbing a decently sized snow drift, we were greeted by a slow, gradual, almost paved path to the summit. It was gorgeous and I wish I had pictures of it, but it was too damn cold to take any more.
Aside: We tried to get GoPro footage, and that’s a sore spot in the story…
I double checked the damn battery to make sure it was fully charged before I packed it. It’s a pain in the ass to get the stupid GoPro to actually turn off and so by the time we got up the mountain and tried to get footage the battery was dead! I was so pissed and totally forgot I had packed an extra battery. I would have been too freaking cold to change it anyway. Alas, we have no live footage of the trek other than a few short videos…but, I’m hoping to bring some friends back and do it again, so there’s hope to one day get some!! Anyone interested??
Ok, back to the beautiful scene at the top of the mountain:
We walked along the white velvet carpet until we reached a narrow ramp leading up to the summit platform. We took our final steps upward and suddenly were in awe of 360° of breathtaking views.
We made it! At 9:10 am, July 2nd, 2019, we were standing on the highest point in all of Europe, 18,510 feet (5,642 meters) above sea level!
I was overwhelmed with joy and an incredible sense of accomplishment. This was one of the biggest achievements of my life! Not only did we make it to the top of one of the 7 summits, we did it unguided in a foreign country in which we did not speak the native language. At one point, I was on the verge of shedding a few tears, but managed to hold them back for fear they would instantly freeze to my face.
Forgetting the cold, we celebrated with other climbers who were also at the summit, taking photos for each other and cheering and dancing. After the excitement and adrenaline wore off, we both realized we felt like crap and needed to get to a lower elevation.
We began our descent which went much quicker than the way up, not only because of gravity, but because we didn’t need to use the ropes on the way down. We could basically just skate down in the deep snow, using our crampons for traction.
I think part of the reason we were so cold was because we weren’t eating enough. Being at high altitude can really decrease your appetite. Our bodies produce heat during the digestion process which is why eating while climbing is so important and since we weren't eating much, we weren't producing much internal heat.
We crossed the saddle, traversed the horizontal path and reached our starting point. To our surprise we saw a snowcat parked waiting to pick up climbers. The driver called to us (I have no idea how he recognized us) and as we got closer, we realized it was the manager from our camp, Superstud! He had a huge smile on his face. Once I realized it was him, I asked if he ever slept,
“Тоже, ты когда нибудь спишь?” He gave me a smirky shrug and said,
“Часик два.” Which translates to “an hour or two.”
I have to admit, my microcrush grew a little bit. Just a little…Frank, Honey, you have nothing to worry about.
We had some extra Russian burning a hole in our pockets, so we decided to take him up on his offer for the ride down. Not only would it give us the ability to make it to the Gondola before it closed, it also would save our bodies from the wear and tear of descending (which always seems harder than the ascent) and my poor right ankle and arch (which had mysteriously started painfully swelling the week before we left for the trip!)
Aside: I later found out I was suffering from Posterior Tibial Tendonitis. I ended up having to get X-rays, an MRI and go through 2 months of physical therapy. The orthopedic surgeon and I traced the cause back to the switch from my normal Under Armour Gemini 2 Athletic Shoes to a pair of Altra Escalante 1.5 shoes with a zero-drop design. I didn’t give my feet enough time to adjust to the new shoes and the right foot completely freaked out on me. I also think I lost a lot of strength in my arches when I stopped wearing high heels on a regular basis….Maybe they are good for something other than just making legs look sexy and women taller?
OK, back to the story…
We made our way down to Terskol and spent our last night at the Moon Hotel. I can’t say enough about how sweet the owner of the hotel was. She and her daughter were so kind. They packed a delicious homemade lunch for our 3 hour ride to the airport and gifted us with hand-knitted socks to keep our feet warm for when we return to Russia.
They even invited us to come back for their New Year’s celebration and told us because we were such good guests to book directly with them for a special rate.
We were overwhelmed with the appreciation they had for us and it really was one of the highlights of the trip.
While doing our initial travel research, the US Department of State warned Americans not to travel to Russia and specifically this region and Mt. Elbrus. Here’s a blurb from their site:
"Terrorist attacks and risk of civil unrest continue throughout the North Caucasus region including in Chechnya, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Stavropol, Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, and Kabardino-Balkariya. Local gangs have kidnapped U.S. citizens and other foreigners for ransom. There have been credible reports of arrest, torture, and extrajudicial killing of LGBTI persons in Chechnya allegedly conducted by Chechen regional authorities.
Do not attempt to climb Mount Elbrus, as travelers must pass close to volatile and insecure areas of the North Caucasus region.
The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens traveling in the North Caucasus region, including Mount Elbrus, as U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling to the region.”
We neither saw nor experienced any of this and urge the US State Department to update their information so others aren’t influenced not to travel to this remarkable area of the world.
After the incredible experience we had, I’m so glad we had guidance from Beyond Red Square who put us in touch with Let’s Russia to get 3 year visas. I can’t wait to return to Mt. Elbrus in hopes we can share the amazing time we had with others.