This noble quest has started at home with packing my stuff. At the beginning I took a ‘blue sky option’ which is preparing all the items I need to have with me. I brought all the gadgets that I bought in the last 10 years, all of them were necessary in the mountains and significantly important to survive when camping. Altogether it was 4 tons of equipment. I had a quick glance and decided that I have to make my list a little bit shorter. So I took ‘red sky option’ which basically means reduction to what I would need to survive in these extreme conditions. Then I removed even more items and I ended up with not so many items.
When I finished I decided to change myself into my climbing gear (like a child, I couldn’t wait) and I asked Anna to make me a picture. You know, just for fun. When she saw me standing in crampons on the carpet I received a bollocking with strength of the Catharina hurricane. Then I nicely packed my stuff and went to the bed.
When I woke up Anna took to me to the bus station in fareham then after the traditional waterfall of tears and best wishes session I happily jumped on board. The journey was ok and we soon got to Heathrow Airport it was ok and I sat in the best airliner ever It was brilliant! I had fun playing with the screen attached to the seat in front of me. Yeah, I know I should not write this and treat this as a normal thing but it was really great fun. First time I enjoyed the flight. Well done Aeroflot!
Moscow was having a heatwave. Sheremetievo airport looks pretty much like Heathrow. I was wondering around looking for Ed Snowden but I couldn’t find him. I’m wondering why? Then I decided to buy some food. To do this I had to exchange some of the dollars I had in my wallet. Not a very nice lady robbed me legally first time during this trip.
The Internal flight from Moscow to Mineralne Vody looked slightly different from the first one. When we sat in the aeroplane the air con was not on. About hundred people were melting inside. Me and another passenger’s foreheads were covered with sweat. Do you know this feeling when you are in the sauna and it is stretching to the end? Finely we flew to the south.
When we landed it was just before midnight. It was still well over 20 degrees Celsius! I went through the necessary procedures and sat down quietly amongst the crowd waiting for my luggage.The crowd turned into a group, then into individuals and then I was there alone.
No Luggage. Cool.
I explained my situation to one of the border guards. He was not surprised. he took me to the office. We sat down and I had an occasion to test my Russian language skills. When they realized that I spoke understandable Russian we quickly turned into friends. The handshakes exchanged experience between the border guards etc. I would have had good fun if I would have had my luggage. ‘Easy,’ they said ’These things are happening all the time here’. In their kindness they called me a taxi. It cost me 5 times more than normal taxi. Were I was legally robbed the second time during this trip.
Hotel Korona was the first place where I felt safe and normal. Receptionist spoke in English, air conditioning everywhere, high standard of the rooms and very comfortable bed. What made me really gob smacked was the digital shower. It had a proper seat water everywhere, many buttons, radio, screen and god knows what else. It looked like one those teleporting capsules from Star Trek. This time instead of playing games I decided to take just a normal shower. Still wet I sat down and ate sandwiches which I bought from Asda. Then I was watched some TV until I fell asleep.
When I woke up I read my book for a while, looked through the window and then went to eat breakfast. It was a very tasty breakfast. The bar was empty already and I could enjoy myself, yes watching more Russian TV. Soon it would be a luxury I will miss a lot.
After breakfast I went to the reception and asked for help in finding my luggage. Armed with paperwork I received last night from the border guards we tried to call all the numbers there. Nobody could help the receptionist did what she could, but everyone were against her. Then I decided to move on to Terskol anyway, she declared that she will send the luggage there if it would arrive. She was brilliant!
With my hand luggage only I took a taxi again. The driver was very kind because he opened the window when he lit his cigarette. The trip to the bus station took a few moments. When we arrived I knew which bus would be mine. It was a typical red torpedo of the roads I remember from my childhood. I bought a ticket and sat on one of the seats. All of them were decorated with seat belts and as all decorations these seatbelts were absolutely useless. I tried to fasten them for a while but it was a challenge equal to a rubik cube and after a few moments I gave up. My quest has started.
I changed buses three times. All the drivers were smokers. Together with drinking it seems to be a national sport in Caucasus. A bit of advice I just would like to mention is that you should remember what station you jumped on the deck. In Russia you pay for the trip when you are leaving the bus. If you do not remember what city or town you joined your happy trip you might be asked to pay for all the way.
On our way we passed through a few control posts. They all looked like something from the war movies. Men with machine guns, armoured trucks, concrete blocks on the road and sandbags everywhere. Many of them looked like a little fortress. Not a very welcoming sight.
Finely I got to Terskol. It’s not exactly like Chamonix. Village probably could have made a better impression on me if it didn’t rain. I was walking up and down for a moment just to understand that there is no logic in the streets system and without help I will not find my address.
I visited the first house which looked like it had been adapted to be a hotel. I received a very warm welcome. People inside found my B&B for me and also gave a lift. I saw them a few times later and we always had a quick and friendly chat of what’s new.
When I reported to my B&B and I introduced myself I met Alec and his wife. They welcomed me and when they heard about my problems with my luggage Alec just asked for all the paperwork. He took it out of my hand and just disappeared. Well, if that is the way of doing things here… One hour later he came back with a taxi driver and my Bergen. Brilliant! I didn’t ask too many questions and he wasn’t saying a lot either. You can’t imagine how happy I was. For the simple fact that the stove had disappeared from inside my luggage this didn’t spoil my happiness. I was ready for the action again.
At his point I decided that this is a good moment to go for my shopping. I have this stupid habit of touching everything and reading all the labels before I buy anything. Not in a Russian shop! Everything is well away from buyers and you can touch nothing. Some of the shop owners are rushing you and it is really hard to find anything familiar to what I know. I decided that my diet in the mountains will be based on Snickers and dried fish meat. For the evening I took a well known eastern tourist survival set.
Rest of the evening I spend watching TV with my left eye and reading a book with my right one. I also put myself under a demanding testing session. With dedication of the highest cause I did a few tests in my room and I can subjectively claim that Terek is the best beer available in the Caucasus. Then I fall asleep.
I slept long that night. I woke up and took a shower then I went down to eat breakfast. Which was scrambled egg that is what I needed to start my day. Because yesterday morning I started my trip from something like 10 metres above the sea level, my plan was to spend the whole day in Terskol doing nothing and adapt to more than 2000 Metres above sea level within next 24 hours.
First part of my plan for the day was to read a book for a few hours. I spent a few hours executing this point with extreme dedication. I was lying on the sofa in front of the window and outside I could see incredibly beautiful mountains.
Roughly at noon all sides of my body were burning from lying on the sofa so I decided to move my old bones and walk to the village and make reconnaissance. The air was nicely cool and very fresh but I still was sweating. At this altitude the air is already thin and has noticeably less oxygen. I was walking with no destination and investigating different places. One of them was a monument dedicated to 38 soldiers of the Red Army who lost their lives fighting with Germans in the local mountains to liberate Terskol.
I was taking photos of different places for my private collection and I sat down just for a few seconds on the stone not noticing the threat a few seconds was enough to be invaded by the biggest ants I ever saw. They were everywhere on my back, this part of my back which has no dignity and all my legs. For another fifteen minutes they were slashing my ass with no mercy. Bloody things!
Mountains around me looked spectacular. I had not enough of this sight. But every time I looked closer something was reminding me that I am in an area which by many is considered still as a war zone.
I ate a lunch in a restaurant (meat rolls, delicious) and went to find an internet. The only place in all Terskol with internet available was the post office. Wi Fi is widely available but I had no laptop or any other device able to use it. First shock was the keyboard with Russian letters only. I have to say that their set up is completely different than English? Somehow I managed to enter the google web site and type in my gmail password. For next 15 minutes nothing had changed on the screen. I mentioned this so many times before so I just remind you I am in deep conflict with any technology newer than a hammer I couldn’t understand what was going on and the ladies in the office looked very uninterested. They charged me though. I was robbed legally for the third time. Sorry Anna, no emails what so ever!
I decided then to look for a map of the area in the local shops. Yes, I had a GPS but in my case technology is more a threat than help. I really wanted to have a navigational backup in case of any problems. The only reason why people from all over the world visit Terskol is Elbrus. It would be so logical to have all maps in the shops so Russians decided to sell none. I guess they must be hyper secret or something. I was looking everywhere. The only thing I could find was a post card below. Well, it had to be enough. I must say it is copied with violation of all existing copy rights in the world.
Finely I came back to my room and started preparations to my climbing. I prepared everything, I packed my Bergen and focused on reading my books. Then I fall asleep.
This morning I got up early, went down to eat my scrambled eggs and did final preparations to go up high to the mountains. Artur kindly offered to drive me to the chair lift , cool, that sorted out problem with getting taxi.
There are two ways choose from to get there to, Old Russian and new French. Knowing that I will be climbing Mont Blanc in September and I will have an occasion to test French product on my next trip I decided to test old soviet technology. I would describe the comfort offered by this service as very basic. It is simply metal box with windows and sliding door. These doors don’t even have any lock and one of the guys simply tied them with piece of string.
When enough passengers filled in wagon completely we started our journey. Whilst moving up the wagon was swinging in all possible directions. I was ok but few people had grey faces and one little girl saw her breakfast again. Last stage of the journey I had to do on the chair lift. It was all rusty, had no leg rest and the ass piece on mine wasn’t attached to the rest but, hey, I had plenty of fresh air! My Bergen followed me having the same kind of a ride.
Elbrus is an old volcano. I couldn’t see too much of a life there and everything was black or dark brown. When something is broken Russians just simply dump it where it is. Elbrus is the same. Everywhere are skeletons of the cars, plastic bags and other scrap. If you would ask me to describe it briefly I would say it is pretty much like a post apocalyptic Mad Max scene.
At the height of 3700m I got to the Barrels. Legend says that they are barrels for transporting rocket fuel. Is it true or not ? I don’t know. All I know is that they look cool. The site itself is not very sophisticated. All you can count on is very basic comfort but in these conditions it that is enough. At any time of the day there is small crowd of the climbers and they make interesting contrast in their colourful gear. People come mainly from Europe but when I was there was also quite a lot of Americans. Everybody was friendly and if you speak either Russian or English you will find many people to talk too.
I started to look for somebody in charge. Soon I was introduced to George. He said that there will be no problem with me having a bed for few nights but I must wait until one of the groups had left their hut. Doing this I was watching others and listening to their conversations. When I finally got my bed I made myself at home. My hut was split in half and I had my room just for myself, the rest of the afternoon I spent reading a book and talking to people outside.
When I describe Barrles I can not mention House of Pain. This place normally is associated in our minds as a place of peace, contemplation, good lecture, where life time projects come from… Not in Barrels. Triangular holes is much too small and make simple process a sniping competition. As we all knows not everybody can be a sniper. Once a day the floor is cleaned with a simple bucket of water but all that is achieved this way is just wetter consistency. Even the walls are all brown. This place will leave traumatic memories in my mind and from now on I can only experience better.
During many of the conversations that evening I had really interesting conversation with George. Unfortunately he was too busy to talk with me too long so we agreed that he will bring some fresh brewed coffee late evening and we will continue our chat. What a man! For few hours I received lesson of naval history. History of battle of Trafalgar and Nelson is piece of cake. George was telling me many stories giving dates, places ships etc. Details he had in his memory is incredible! After what I heard I bet he would be successful on applying for the job in Portsmouth historic docks as a tourist guide.
During our conversation I could watch something that I never saw before: a thunder storm but… beneath me. George showed me clouds below and I could watch the lightining flashing everywhere. When I looked up I could see crystal clear sky. At that height there is so many stars visible. This was very interesting contrast and unbelievable sight.
During my climb uphill I was surprised how hot it was. I was sweating and soon all my clothes were soaking wet. From my different winter survival trainings I remembered simple rule: If you are sweat -you are dead. I was taking clothes off one after another but it wasn’t helping too much.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that I was very short of breath, the air was getting thinner and thinner and I had to take my breaks more often.
That’s how I spent about 6 hours. Between 11 and 12am I got to the 5200m. Success! I should sit there for half an hour or maybe little bit longer, enjoy the view, make some photos and start to descend to the barrels. I was analyzing situation for few minutes. It is only another 400 metres to the summit. If I would reach it today I could come back tomorrow to Terskol and spend more time traveling around. Not mentioning the fame of reaching the Elbrus within few hours! Yeah, I’ll try.
I carried on my way up. At this point it was already heavy work but I strongly believed that I will do it. I was making 20-30 steps and then stop to catch the breath. Work was hard but from previous endurance challenges I know that the most important thing is to keep thinking positive and make constant progress. No matter how little but keep moving forward.
During my way few guys going down stopped to ask me if am I ok. ‘Sure, yeah, why are you asking?’ Than it happened again and again. When the next person asked me the same question I almost couldn’t walk. I was doing few weak steps and stop for longer while. Another few steps and break again. It was 3pm and I climbed only… another 200 meters (up to 5400metres). Then I had a moment of logical thinking. I sat down and started analyzing situation. Despite of high spirit I will not reach summit very quickly, I barely can walk, I have less and less food not mentioning water. Things were not looking as good as I thought. This last 200 metres seemed to be endless in my situation. I could make only one decision: I’m going down.
I felt defeated. My high spirits disapeared. I realized that the couple I saw some time ago were watching me from beneath. Probably they were terrified that a man in that condition and so late in the afternoon is still trying to reach the summit. When they noticed that I decided to come back they shoot off and soon disappeared.
When I was descending I thought that I will be stronger with having more and more oxygen in the air. Nothing like that happened. Last bits of energy was gone and I barely could walk. Quite honestly I was falling down all the time and my legs were too weak to keep the weight. And then he appeared. Mysterious man came to me and asked in English am I ok. I was not. I noticed that his jacket was made by one of Polish manufacturers and I started to talk to him in Polish. He quickly assessed my condition and gave me a sugar tablet. We had a chat and he offered that he will go down to his tent and prepare some warm tea and I just have to keep going down. I didn’t feel better at all but at least I started to walk again without falling down all the time.
Wojtek (that was his name) went down and soon disappeared. I carried on my plod. It took an hour to descent something like 300 metres. That’s veeeery slow. Wojtek was waiting for me as he promised with flask full of hot and sweat tea. We sat down and started chat. I remember he was talking about altitude sickness and what should I do in the future. I’m sorry Wojtek, I don’t remember anything else.
When I emptied the flask I carried on my walk to the Barrels. It wasn’t easier or more comfortable but I had a little bit more energy to walk. When I finally got there it was dark already. I went to my hut and, what a surprise, the hut was full. People were everywhere and man on every bed. They introduce themselves: 2 Polish, Italian, American and German. As I mentioned I was in a really bad state. I couldn’t understand much of an English language and even in Polish sometimes they had to repeat two, three times before I could understand. I did very basic maintenance of my equipment and collapsed to my bed.
I woke up at 9am. At that time rest of the hut was already doing their normal stuff. My head was pulsing and all in pain and when I tried to go for wee I was walking like a drunk man. A seriously drunk man.
George introduced me to Zula – cook. I payed her money and she offered me three meals during the day. Guys, she is Paganini of an outdoor cooking. Trust me. All meals were delicious and I had more food than I could eat.
I haven’t had much choice what to do this day. All I could do was eat, recover and prepare for next day to attack summit once again.
I had many conversations that day but I learned the most about dealing with height sickness from Chris (Amercian) and (Italian). I wasn’t investigating subject deep enough I must admit. They both explained me basics like
- You have to drink so many litres of water a day as high you are eg 5 litres a day if you are at 5000 metres, 6 litres at 6000 metres etc.
- Height sick people ALWAYS overestimate what they can do
…and few more. I was listening to them and I started to understand why I was so positive thinking even if I couldn’t walk.
Wojtek, Chris, I can’t say how much I gained from you.
That evening I went to bed early because I knew I will have to start my climb at 2am. This time I wanted to do this properly.
Becouse of my stupidity I was one day behind with the schedule and I felt time pressure. It was my last day and tomorrow I have a flight back to London. Did I mention I had no transport organised to the Mineralne Vody? It is just 200 km but I already knew that journey there will not be smooth.
That made me think yesterday thinking usually means problems. I had one day to Climb Elbrus, descent to Terskol and organise my trip for the next day to the airport. Some small shopping to do for wife would be nice too, especially that at this point I had very little food. This is why I made a decision to rent a snow cat. After ashort conversation we agreed a price and I knew I was yes legally robbed again. These guys are making a fortune simply giving a lift to western tourists who are lazy enough to climb the whole way up. I would do this with pleasure but I had no time for comfort.
There I was: 2am sitting at the back of little snowcat. I was taking a lift 500 metres up. The journey took maybe 10 minutes and my driver left me on the track alone. The night was quiet, very dark and the sky was full of stars. I had this short romantic moment just enjoying the thought that I am the highest standing person in Europe now. Nobody was higher.
I started my slow plod towards the top. The first thing which was different than any other morning was thetemperature. Other mornings were warm or even hot. This time it was seriously cold. I put all my layers on and I still felt cold. The biggest problem I had was my fingers and toes. I couldn’t feel them and there was not much more I could do. I was squeezing my walking pools to rush some blood but it did help only very little. I was suffering but still moving forward. I was hoping that when sun will rise temperature will pick up and it will be bearable.
One hour after I started my climb a huge ratrack passed me just by metres. It was full and I recognised my American friends from the Barrels. I was angry that they were higher than me. The good thing was that I will have to follow their tracks to get to the top. That’s a lot when you so high up in complete darkness and sometimes little flags marking the path were visible and sometimes not. In next few hours the sun showed up and warmed me up. It was such a nice feeling to feel blood rushing in my fingers and toes again. What was more important I caught up with my American friends. They were definitely not racing they were climbing slowly they took long rests on the saddle (space between two Elbrus peaks). Soon I left them behind.
I reached the peak at 9:09 am 9th of July 2013. Moment of joy that didn’t last very long. It was more like relief. When I started my adventure a few days ago I was confident that I will reach my goal. The lesson I took on my first attempt showed me that I might not get to the peak. I don’t deal with failures very well and I think it would be huge problem for me not mentioning my challenge. I took a few quick photos and I started my walk down. This time I was moving faster and faster. I discovered benefits of acclimatisation. I still couldn’t breath but I was walking and I was walking straight.
On my way back I met my buddies from barrel. They were all in a good shape and in good moods. I received plenty of congratulations and high fives. This was the first moment I could share my joy with somebody else. This was also the moment when I felt really happy and that I accomplished something important for me. As I started to move faster and faster and on the slope exposed to the sun I felt so hot. All these layers I put on before, I was now taking them off and packing in my rucksack. When I reached Pastuchova rocks I was wearing only… longjohns and a long sleeve shirt. Jesus how good it is that I couldn’t see myself. When I reached the Barrells I absolutely didn’t care what i looked like. A few people congratulated me on my achievement, they shook my hand and those more shy clapped their hands. I did this to a few others yesterday and the day before and now I feel like master of the world. One of the old guides working here approached me and presented me with a little badge ‘Tourist of the USSR’. It is only a joke and badges meant nothing really but a hand shake and few good words from that guys meant a lot to me. He probably saw hundreds of people starting their way up to the peak and he knows better that anyone how hard it is for us, people who live on the sea shore. Later George told me that not everyone is decorated by him with this badge. For me this cheap communistic souvenir will be a very important memento forever..
It is a nice feeling but I don’t have too much time. I packed myself up quickly and went down to the chair lift. Thetrip down was slow and monotonous it took all the adrenaline away. I was sleepy and physicly exhausted but I still had a mission to do to organise my transport to the Mineralne Vody.
From the station I took taxi to the Hotel. When I went to the room I thought I’m going to give a hug to the toilet. It looked so beautiful, like a porcelain dream. Then I took a shower. It was more like three showers one after another. At this point I was ready to go to the village and see normal people again and not be taken as a Yeti.
First place I visited was a local club called 7 Peaks. As you can guess it is dedicated to climb highest peaks on each continent. I had a chat there with a few people and Anna, the owner, promised to send me an appropriate certificate by the end of the year. I bought a t-shirt as a souvenir and went further.
Walking through the village I met Zula, the cook from Barrells. We had a quick chat and laughed a little bit. I thanked her for the brilliant food. Next place I visited was a local mountain rescue post. Guys there congratulated me and told me that I should drink now for a few days celebrating. When I mentioned that I slept only a few hours, i am knackered, I haven’t ate for few hours and tomorrow I have a flight back they just shouted ‘It’s even better!’.
Next was a restaurant and again I had the same chat. I ate two portions of rolled meat, wheel barrel of chips and pushed this deeper with four pancakes and jam. All that was flushed with Terek beer. When I finished I felt nice and safe. Just two things left to do.
From the restaurant I went to the shop with local products. Shop was little and there was not a lot inside but thelady said that most of the products are made by herself or by local people. I chose a big amount of white cheese, bread and two jars of honey mixed with nuts and little fresh pine cones. These supposed to give you extra energy and help to cure any throat problems. We shall see.
I was walking around and asking for transport to the Minerlane Vody airport. It took me a long time to find out that there is no easy option and I have to improvise again. What is beautiful in Terskol is that everything is open till the late evening hours until 10pm. When I came back to my room it was getting dark. I was exhausted but clean and I ate. My morale was not the highest but still good enough. I shared my fears with owners in the hotel. They were trying to explain to me something but I couldn’t understand everything. I was seriously tired and it was too much for one day. I simply wasn’t strong enough to care anymore. The most important part of the message was ‘don’t worry’ and ‘be ready for your breakfast 07:30 am tomorrow’. I went upstairs to the room and started to eat local made cheese with bread and beer. How was it? Well, I would classified it as for connoisseurs. Then I fell asleep.
After swallowing my scrambled eggs I was taken to the bus which simply stopped on the side of the road. The driver received an instruction to take me to the next bus when we get where ever we were going to. For the next few hours I was watching disappearing Caucasian mountains and local villages. Every now and then we were stopping on one of the control post or by the cows which were all over the place but mostly on the roads and bridges.
When we got to the bus station a very friendly bus driver showed me which bus I should I take to get to Mineralne Vody and then left me alone wishing me a happy journey. I bought a ticket and I was standing and waiting for my bus. I was quickly spotted by two taxi drivers who were offering me a trip to the airport. Kindly I told them I was not interested a few times. They were still there talking and changing their voices from friendly to not so friendly. Cool, I don’t care. When one of them grabbed my shoulder and it started to look more like a hijack than an invitation I decided to give him my favourite best of Polish language just a few centimetres from his face. I don’t mind verbal aggression but when it became physical I always want to be the dominant one. I don’t think they were prepared for that. I was upset as it always takes me a while to calm down after something similar. This just reminded me that for many of these people I am just a money bag, that’s all. This time I wasn’t robbed, even legally. Rest of the trip went OK. It was the same like on day 1, just reversed. When I landed in London I had to put my softshell on. No more 30+ Celsius degrees heat but well known 15 or less. Outside the wind was strong and I enjoyed the simple fact that this time my rucksack arrived with me. Trip in National Express wasn’t that long and soon I landed in my wife’s arms. Again all usual stuff like hugs, kisses, tears and ‘promise me you wont do this again’. Oh no, Honey, never, ever again!
PS When we came back I gave Anna perfumes from tax free zone and two jars of honey specially for her. She was happy for two minutes and I received part two of the bollocking for walking in crampons on the carpet before I went (remember day 0?). Now I knew I’m really back home.