Peak 48 | Elbrus, Russia | 5642m | 23rd September 2019
Updated: Nov 14, 2019
My last peak in the project, and I had saved the biggest one for last as my grand finale! But ascending Europe's highest peak would prove to be my toughest challenge yet. Bad weather, high winds and altitude sickness meant I ended up reaching the summit alone.
• Starting point - Azau, Russia
• Route taken - South Route
• Total ascent - 1800 m
• Total length - 17 km round trip
• Total time for climb - 13¼ hours
• Accommodation - Otel' Priyut
• Expense category - #VeryHigh
• Equipment - #FullAlpine Gear
• Difficulty - #Level5 of 5
• Enjoyment - #5star of 5*
Reaching the highest point of Europe
My Russian journey had started with a sneaky flight in from Belarus to Moscow. I wasn't even supposed to be allowed to do that as a foreign visitor, but, shhh, that's a whole other story. From Moscow, I needed a further two-hour flight to the Russian city of Mineral Vody towards the South of the country. Here's where I met with my tour operator and the rest of the group. I was happy to see two familiar faces in the pack, Kim and Santa. I'd already done a lot of mountains with them by this point throughout the project, and it was great to catch up with each other on all the high points we had climbed since doing Switzerland together back in July.
Our group was a full mix of different nationalities. British, French, Norwegian, Latvian, Russian, and Japanese were all in there. We hopped onto a transfer bus that would take us another three hours South to Teskol, a village in the Baksan valley near the foothills of Mt. Elbrus and close to the Georgian border.
After we had unloaded our gear into our rooms at our village 'base camp', we went for a short acclimatisation hike to nearby Mount Cheget. We ascended up to an altitude of 3000m.
On our return, we then prepared all our gear that we needed to take up to Elbrus and went through it with our guide, Andre. We hired anything that we didn't have. Even items I had brought with me I thought would be okay were apparently not sufficient enough. It was late in the season and was going to be very cold near the top, so no chances were taken.
To take up for warmth, I had three layers for my lower body, five layers for my upper, three pairs of gloves in different thicknesses, double insulated alpine boots, buff neck gaiters, and a wool hat.
On the second day, we made our first steps on the big lump of snow and rock that we had all come here for, Mount Elbrus. It had been raining in the valley and as we took the cable car up this transitioned into the snow. The skies became thick and visibility was reduced.
We would be taken to our 'high camp' at the Otel' Priyut "Serdtse El'brusa" hut. To be honest, we were quite surprised when we arrived here. It definitely exceeded expectations. I would even consider it quite luxurious considering we were at an elevation of around 3800m.
The rest of the day's program was to do a smaller hike around the camp. We had sat around until 15:00 hoping that the weather would improve a little but. It didn't. the weather and visibility was bad that we didn't even make it out of grounds before turning back.
Day three. The plan was to reach an altitude of 4600m, a kilometer below the summit height. This day was when we got our first real taste of the infamously high winds that are common Mount Elbrus. The higher we went, the worse the winds were. As we approached our goal for the day, the wind speed was enough to make me lose my balance on a few occasions.
We had met several other groups coming down. We had been curious about how far up they had been getting. We had heard people getting to 5100m but no higher.
There was a storm coming in, and unfortunately, it was going to be at the worst bang on our proposed summit days. We had been watching it coming in on the forecast. But our guide Andre, and all of us had initially hoped that we would be able to push through the program a little faster and be able to get up before the worst of it came in.
It was the evening of the third night, and our guide filled us in with some straight-talking facts. It had become apparent that it was now getting increasingly unlikely that we would be able to safely make an attempt on the summit in the strong winds. We had been offered a chance to go up in a snow-cat that night and that would take us up to 5100m before we would start walking. It's not something that I would have done but there didn't seem to much desire for that in our group anyway.
So with our hopes of a summit fading for the week, we reluctantly opted to go back down, where we would be able to enjoy other walks around the area with the comfort of the of a proper bed and toilet. Although it was so demoralising coming back down again. Everybody was silent and disappointed.
Unfortunately, only myself and one other in our group could stay the extra few days to make another attempt when the storm had passed over. I felt sad because everyone had else invested so much with their time and money into this. But that's just the way in the mountains. Nothing is guaranteed, especially this late in the season.
If I may fast forward a few days, you won't be missing much worth reading about. Just a few hikes around the valley. So it was now day six. The others in our group had left us in the morning to go back to the airport But it was time for me and Andre to start preparing again to get back on Elbrus. We didn't want anything too strenuous but we wanted to get a bit of altitude. We decided to walk from or hotel in Teskol to where the chairlift starts for Elbrus.
This was originally going to be the end date of the tour. But our plan was to have one final breakfast in the valley and we would then head up Elbrus once more.
We were the only ones there at first.
We had our dinner at 18:00 with a briefing from our new guide and our itinerary ahead. We were told to get some sleep and set our alarms just a few hours later as we would have our 'breakfast' at midnight. The plan was to be setting off from the refuge at 01:00.
I tried my best but I couldn't sleep for a second. My mind was buzzing around a hundred miles per hour in some restless state. It was a mixture of excitement, nervousness and reflecting on events throughout my entire trip that had led me to this point. Before I knew it, my phone was alarm was buzzing off next to me, and It was finally time...
We got up, went down, and had our usual high-camp breakfast of fried eggs, porridge, and some virality of berry-flavored hot water. The table was strangely quiet. We finished up and got all our gear on, again in nearly complete silence. We were all focused.
The first four hours of the hike were in the pitch-black, and all I could hear were the freezing winds blasting me. I don't recall ever looking forward to a sunrise more than I did this night. It seemed to be a long four hours.
But when the sun finally rose it revealed the surroundings. It was utterly stunning, and I would not have chosen to be anywhere else at that moment.
We stopped at this half-submerged snow-cat for our third break of the climb. I had felt great since the sun came out. It was still cold, but being able to see the surroundings made it all worth it. We could see our entire progress, all the way back to the hut that was about 1100m below us at this point.
We continued the climb with my spot this time happened to be at the back of the group as we went up in a single file. I felt like we were going at quite a good pace, but I was beginning to notice that Andre was starting to wobble around a little, and he didn't seem right. I suspected that it was the altitude starting to get to him. Both me and Alex noticed it as the misplaced steps became more frequent.
On our next rest, Alex said quietly to me, "we can not continue with him like this; we must turn back." So I asked if we could try going a slower pace as we had still been passing several groups since walking from the snow-cat. I felt like this was only fair to try to give Andre the best chance he could. I knew how much he wanted to get to the summit, and we still had many hours in the day ahead of us. Alex agreed but stated that his situation would not improve. I took Andre's backpack from him and put it over my arm to carry as additional help before we continued for a further 15 mins or so, I can't quite remember exactly. My memory of time feels a little skewed on Elbrus.
But Alex had been right, there were no improvements, and if anything, there seemed to be faster deterioration. Andre then needed to stop and sit down to catch his breath, so we stopped. At this point, Alex then made his final decision to turn around.
This felt like an all or nothing situation for me. I'd been working on these peaks for almost six months, and I was now just a few hours away from my finish line. If I went back down, I felt like I ran a real risk of not being able to finish it at all. My visa was running out, my cash was drying up and my flight back to Moscow was already booked. Additionally, the weather was going to start deteriorating again after today with wind speeds picking up once more. I didn't want to have the same scenario two weeks running. This was my best, and possibly my only shot at completion, and I knew it.
I wanted to stand my ground as I still felt pretty good. So I told Alex that I knew he was making the right decision by going back with Andre, but I would not be following him.
Instead, I decided to discharge him of any responsibilities he had for me and continue with the climb alone.
It was not an easy thing to do as I knew I would be putting Alex in a bad situation that goes against his training and morals as a guide. But he was aware of my project and some of the experiences I've had in the mountains this year. He looked a little concerned at first, but I insisted that I would be okay and we recorded a short video on his phone of me stating my position; that continuing was my completely own choose and was not being advised to do so. Just encase anything did happen to me I didn't want him to suffer any repercussions.
The last part of the climb was tough and sluggish. With every step higher, it was getting harder and harder with the thinner air. I was amazed by how often I needed to stop and catch my breath. Even on the repetitive flat sections, I was finding myself that I need to stop.
There's plateau just below the summit that is named 'the zombie path.' As the name suggests, it describes the final movements of people in the last few hundred meters before the summit and their resemblance to moving like zombies after hours of climbing in low oxygen and extreme temperatures.
When I caught sight of the summit, I was all emotional. This was my final destination in a 6-month long project. It had been almost 10 hours of straight inclining. I had no sleep, only a handful of snacks for food, and nowhere near as much water as I should have drunk. I now had a headache and could feel that my face was burnt in the sun. Yet I felt so good at the same time. It was so surreal that I was actually there.
Reaching the summit just before me were three Russian speakers that I had been using as a benchmark for my pace on the final parts. There was already another guy who sat up there that also turned out to be a Russian speaker, said he was from Crimea. He spoke no English. I spoke no Russian. But we both got our thermos bottles out and poured a hot drink each before cheering and congratulating each other.
The time now was 11:10 and I had been on the summit for 10 mins, by this point the cold had really started to get to me. I had taken off my gloves to take some photos and my hand turned numb in just a minute or so.
My focus then shifted on getting back. I knew if I could return to our high camp around 14:30 it would give me enough time to get my belongings and I would be able to catch the last cable car down to the valley that was at 15:00. It seemed unlikely when I was on the summit as it took me so long to get up there. But it was a much easier task coming back. The soft fresh snow of the previous day meant that I was able to almost bounce down parts of the mountain.
Ten hours up, then and just over three to come back down! I arrived back at the hut on time and insanely exhausted. But it was done. My European high point adventure was completed.
Climbing up Elbrus has been the toughest single thing that I've put myself through. In many ways, that's exactly what I wanted this mountain to be for me. I didn't want to finish on an easy peak. I wanted this project to push me, to motivate me, and to excite me right up until the bitter end.
It had been 174 days since I hit my first country high point in Ireland as a hiking novice. 48 peaks and 50 countries later, I have now just returned home from standing on the highest mountain in every European country, setting a new world record by doing so. It's a project that didn't even exist in my head just ten months before. I have learned so much from it, but if anything this has just taught me that I still have so much more to learn. I am so glad I did this.
Thank you, Iain Salter, for initially putting forward this crazy idea to me and inviting me to join you on it. You'll get there! Also a huge thank you to anyone who followed or supported my adventure along the way. It's been a truly unforgettable travel experience.
I hope by sharing this journey in my blogs, it will also inspire one of you to do something crazy like this! Happy hiking.