Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Mount Elbrus - Part Eight

How far to the Rocks? or Big Boots on!

The storm continued over night with a pretty spectacular thunder storm. We watch it flash in the sky to the West.

Question A: Is it a good idea to be high up on a mountain side in an electrical storm in a big tin hut?


B: If you need the loo in the middle of an electrical storm high on a mountain ridge would you make the toilet out of square tube steel and set it on the high point at the end of said ridge?

Because of the weather over night we decide on a later start. It’s just as well because Team France are up and once again don’t give a toss about how much noise they make in spite of us still being in our pit. When we emerge from the hut the day is bright and fresh, perhaps even cold, with the views of the mountain spectacular. The little bench outside the hut is stacked high with the French kit, it’s almost impossible to get in or out of the hut as they yo-yo back and forth. We go down to eat breakfast and give them time pack and leave. We decide to dress cold today as the sun is out and the slope we’re ascending is ferociously steep, we know we’ll be sweating in no time. The French look as if they’re dressed for the summit assault, surely their guide will advise them to take a layer or two off, but no off they stomp. We meanwhile have some tea and ready ourselves. We trudge down through the broken rocks to the glacial lake trying to avoid the licks of frozen water which when stepped on creak, crack and sounds uncomfortably hollow beneath, bloody slippery too! We weave our way out of the bowl and up on to the glacier. We walk 20 metres across ice and snow before we put our crampons on, the French are moving off about 50 metres away. We pull our ice axes out and set off over the glacier, the sun glinting from the surface heating the small specks of rock which melt into the surface leaving a gruyere surface with tubes of melt water with the stone at the bottom. The crampons make a satisfying crunch as they cut through the melting crust. It’s a wonderful feeling to be out on the mountain in big boots. Before long we stop and rope up, we’re entering the crevasse area, taking no chances.

The surface changes between fresh snow, glass hard ice and combinations of both. WHOA! I break through the soft snow, a sudden stop thankfully only the depth of my boot. It certainly makes me wake up and take more notice of what I’m doing than just enjoying the sight of this huge white cone. To either side there are some pretty significant cravasses, we follow the wands, an odd collection of sticks and plastic tubes each marked with tape and reflective Russian sleeves marking the safest route through. Moving slickly as a 3 we’re making good ground on the French, Heading up on to the steeper ground we climb straight up the slope using side steps, splayed feet and just kick steps into the softer snow as they zig-zag back and forth. It’s not long until we’re hauling them in, we figure that Sergei doesn’t like to do second, although the pace is quick neither BJ and I are finding it difficult. We cut past the back of the second French rope, one of them calls out “ Ere comz ze eenglish team, weer iz ur flag, ur Union flag?” without a thought I call back “We don’t need a flag, we carry it in our heart!”, BJ says that it sounded a bit too American, I have to agree and wish I’d said something about Agincourt. We don’t break our stride and continue to stomp upwards. We’re gaining on the first French rope. We stop for a few minutes a quick drink, a nut bar and a look around, that slope seems so much steeper looking back down. Sergei is impatient for the other French rope, a lung burning speed which is quickly settled into and the two ropes come side by side, reminiscent of the boat race gradually moving past each member. Sergei calls it natural selection and I call it the Darwinian process, he calls across to the French, they all seem to have their rope clipped into gear loops. One slip and a gear loop (it’s exactly what it says it is, a loop for carrying climbing gear) will, under the weight of the wearer, rip off of the harness sending them back down the slope. This wouldn’t be such an issue if it weren’t for the cravasses criss crossing below them, not an issue when you ice axe arrest as you plummet, unfortunately the French are climbing with two trekking poles and not an ice axe between them. I pull level with the 2nd on the rope, he’s really not happy about having to fiddle about with his rope, I see that he has dropped his heavy gloves at his feet, rookie mistake, it wouldn’t take much for them to be sent cascading away from him leaving his fingers exposed to frostbite, not an issue today in the sun but on summit night it could be a whole lot different. The guide just leans on his pole and looks back with complete indifference. We romp on to the first little outcrop of rocks to the right of our path. A small group already inhabit the semi-circular wall, funny how it looks more substantial from the huts, We unclip and look up to the Lenz Rocks. Sergei asks if my heels is ok, “Yes it’s fine” I can feel it throbbing like a bitch, “Ok to go on?” “Jeez yes, I’m not here not to climb!” The rocks look only 50 metres away, after ten minutes of kicking steps I know it’s much further but every time I look up they seem no closer. Without warning the cloud blows in and brings visibility down to just a few metres obscuring the rocks above us, then we get the occasional glimpse of our goal, bollocks! They’re still no closer. Walking with pole and axe I’m in a good rhythm behind Sergei, it’s tough going, I flick a glance over my shoulder BJ is nearly 6 metres below me and blowing. How far away are these rocks? Pole left kick ouch, right kick axe, my head nods as I go, I must look odd but it’s keeping my pace up then suddenly it’s all gone flat. Where the wind has hit against the base of the rocks it’s caused the snow to bowl back creating a low wall of protection from the prevailing wind. I go to walk back to the shelter of the overhanging rock and Sergei says that it’s not stable enough to shelter below, ok then that’s nice to know. BJ comes puffing over the ledge. “We have enough time to take drink and eat a snack bar” Just then a guy with Nordic poles in running kit and trainers reaches the rocks at a lolloping trot!! Sergei speaks briefly with him “He took 43mins to get here” we did it in around two and a half hours, he barely waits long enough to tell Sergei his training routine and his off back down the slope, splayed feet in gore-tex trainers, sod that! The ankle is at white noise pitch as we set off back down the rapidly softening snow, easy now to back heel into relieving some of the impact. Scurrying back to the horse shoe rocks takes no time, we rope up and we’re off again. The mix of softening snow and ice is playing havoc with the crampons, desperately trying to twist off the bottom of the boots. We cross the cravasses and we’re going to be down, changed and relaxed drinking tea before the French are anywhere near this spot. Suddenly the rope tightens from infront so I increase my pace this in turn tensions the line back to BJ. This drags him one legged into a cravasse, I keep walking unable to hear his protestations. Later he tells me he was up to his balls in the hole, “That’s not so bad, it couldn’t be that deep you’ve only got little legs” “No I’ve got really big balls!” was his retort.

The heat is racking us, glad to have underdressed but questioning the Paramo Cascadas and long johns, boy I’m hot! Astron jacket undone, Marmot shirt unzipped, Cascadas unzipped and I’m still melting. It would be nice to take the gloves off but for the ice we’re crossing, one slip and my hands would be trashed. Without warning we were back onto the strange green ice, the only sign of plant life albeit algae up here. Crampons off and the weight loss is huge but still have to negotiate the loose rocks of the ridge in big boots. I’m reminded that crampons do two things, 1 they stop you from dying on the ice, 2 they try to kill you by tripping you on everything nearby. The ice tongues have become very slippery, slowing progress but we’re just 100 metres from the hut unfortunately the final 15 metres is practically vertical soft scree. BJ and I crest the bowl and we’re home. Handshakes and congratulations all round, a successful 4700 metres attained, at a good pace too!! Up and down in about 4 hours, both feeling absolutely great, apart from the ankle which objects to being put through this abuse. We change into lighter less sweat soaked clothing, we sit chatting around the bench outside the hut as the French finally return looking completely ragged. As they throw their kit everywhere we go down to the kitchen to eat, as we settle down we’re promptly moved aside to accommodate the French. We cross to the other table and sit with the Russian “Extreme Planet” team, who we’ve spoken to before. We eat our fill and drink enough tea to float a tanker. The Adventure Consultants team comprising several on their way to completing the 7 Summits with Everest and Denali already bagged are looking more ragged. Even though they are with one of the most respected groups they don’t really know what their plans are. They’ve been up to high camp above Lenz Rocks and there they cached crampons, ice axes, down jackets and even sleeping bags. They were then prevented from returning to their kit by the storm. They had also run out of protein! They’ve spent 3 days without meat or cheese in their diet, not good when the body is being driven this hard. We make a quick decision on the status of our stores and as we’re in pretty good shape decide to donate or huge block of cheese. Sergei reminds us that they paid around $4500 for this trip. A little later we hand them the last of our salami too. It’s not as though we are that removed from base camp where surely they have stocks, we’re just a little team with a much lower budget and the supplies we had at base were ridiculous, it’s about a 6 hour round trip for a local/acclimatised guide. We are surprised by the unrest between the team members and their guides, failing unity not a good thing up here.  It’s bizarre that such wealthy and powerful people are reduced to accepting charity. The mountains are great levellers. We walk back up to the red hut and meet some friends we’ve found on the way, laughing and joking, then one of the Frenchmen asks us to keep the noise down as some of his colleagues are inside trying to sleep. We look at each other and fall about laughing, he’s got to be kidding us after their antics with disturbing others sleep. So now it’s time to chill, get properly fed and watered. I walk into the hut and find a Frenchman sitting on the edge of my pallet repairing one of his clients crampons. I wiggle into my bag behind him and he grunts disapprovingly. Ok that’s not that bad, it’s when he invites the crampons owner over for a fitting and she rocks back to pull her boot on leaning against my leg casting a look of distain toward me and tutts! “Oh I’m sorry for being in my bag, on my shelf and in your way!” just sums up their complete disregard for any other occupant of the hut. It’s hard work resting and eating for 24hours.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Mount Elbrus - Part Seven


We’re awoken to a stampede through our enclave. Sergei is threatening the cows and their owner with all sorts of violence. The cows have exacted their revenge for our occupation of their meadow by goring the black plastic sheeting sides of the toilet. Now even more flies can enter the foul smelling enclosure, if that’s even possible. We break camp, pack our sleeping bags and mats, load our altitude kit, climbing irons, wishing we’d carried a little more yesterday. BJ and I leave loaded down and feeling fairly optimistic about the day ahead. By the time we reach our first the first gorge we’re dripping with sweat. We dodge the “danger zone” by peeling off and taking the alternate route which turns out to be a steep climb through another gulley. We may be dodging the loose path but this is very hard work in this heat. The Achilles is starting to flare up as we get up onto the moraine basin. BJ reclines on a sun lounger shaped rock and starts to chill but this growing pain is driving me on. I dare not stop as the thought of having to start again is too foreboding. BJ catches up with me by the wadi and gives me a verbal pasting for walking on “We’re supposed to be walking as a team, aren’t we?” I explain that if I don’t just keep going I’d be turning round and going back down. He talks me round into him strapping my heel and fills me with painkillers/anti-inflammatories as Sergei catches up, he is hanging out and sweating like a mule. He says he needs to rest for ten minutes and says that he’ll meet us at the base of the final rise across the moraine to help me in with my pack. I’m having a real sense of humour failure and that dark voice in my head is suggesting that I’ll break before the summit. We slow our pace slightly and push on, the pain can be pushed back into the depths of my mind. We reach the top of the escarpment, sitting down resting and eating our “mountain mix”, when the 3 soldiers who have been trailing us catch up, looking wasted too. This is a psychological boost to us, they’re hanging out. Sitting here we realise just how exposed we are; the sun has lost its heat with the fresh breeze blowing in from the east across the glacier. We exchange welcomes and talk of the heat and the effort but we don’t speak each other’s languages. One of them decides he wants a photo of us, the photographer says “синица”(sinista) the guy with us replies, the photographer translates “Breast!” this causes everybody to laugh like schoolboys. We bid farewell and carry on. The pain is searing behind my eyes, it doesn’t let up, but BJ realises that if he continues to talk (incessantly) it’ll keep me from that dark place where missions are lost. The wind picks up and very quickly chills to the bone missing out the enjoyable cooling phase. We start across “the beach”, a rubble version of Dungeness beach at altitude. Glistening atop of the rocks like a crashed spaceship is the goal!

We pass resting groups spattered the landscape. We climb on to the moraine ridge and both voice our dislike of this the hardest section. Crossing the moraine and up on to the glacial fingers, scrambling back through the rocks Sergei is there to meet us. BJ pushes on as I sling my pack over to Sergei there, it fails to ease the climbing, my breathing doesn’t ease either just the pressure on my Achilles is lifted. We finally cross the flat area just beneath the huts and make the last 5 metres of the ascent. The relief isn’t as instant as I would have wished, I’m now just left daunted by the prospect of what lays ahead.

 The Rest Day

Our first night is treated to a huge storm. We’re tucked in the corner of the hut on the bottom level of the racks, taking up the space of three on our ledge, our kit laid out between us. As the wind builds it’s lifting our tin hut. The rain, hail and sleet rattling against the red arched structure, some leaking in through the roof where the chimney/cowl is missing, making sleep a challenge. We’re sharing this crazy place with a couple from Germany and another from South Africa, Renée and husband Mike a Scotsman. The Germans summited in beautiful weather earlier yesterday but Renée and Mike are leaving at 2am. This we think is madness. The wind continues to howl late into the morning. The weather is foul and we decide to postpone our aclimatisation walk to Lenz Rocks. The door pops open around 9:30 Renée and Mike stagger in, soaked and frozen. As they peel off layer after layer they describe their summit push. After having crossed the glacial lake just below the huts, climbed over the moraine wall opposite and out onto the glacier proper they battled with the winds. They battled on against the wind and snow for four hours finally reaching Lenz Rocks, where the guide has them sit, despite there being little shelter, for an hour in case the weather broke!!! The Lenz Rocks are a sheer rock face outcrop of about 15metres with a cross on top. They both look shattered but are surprisingly high spirits allowing for that being their summit window. They don’t have long back in the sanctuary of the hut as they have to pack and head down. Renée played a kind of chess with her kit, moving it between their ledge, the spare one and her pack, a process we couldn’t pass up taking a pop at her about. They waited for a calm in the weather before the four of them left. We lay back in our bags happy with the idea that we’ll have the hut to ourselves tonight. As we relax passing the time napping, writing and organising future adventures the door bursts open and in drip 14 Frenchmen and women. They have no sense of courtesy, swing wet kit about without care of soaking ours. The noise is off the scale, they have no concept of closing the door and with the storm raging outside what little warmth there was in the hut is quickly gone.

Down in the kitchen hut BJ starts chatting to one of the Adventure Consultants clients who speaks of his charitable treks and tells of his North Pole crossing which turns out to have raised funds for the Cancer care centre where BJ’s wife works. A small world-ism. BJ would have been at the lecture he gave if it hadn’t fallen on the same day that BJ was running a L2P charity bike ride.

BJ and I eat and head back to our bags to settle down for an early night as we’re heading out on our acclimatisation walk tomorrow and we’re going to be up and away early for once. When the French come back after their meal they show no care for the fact that we’re in our bags and trying to sleep. Every time someone enters the hut they bang the door relentlessly trying to close it. They don’t attempt to keep their voices down and dazzle the interior with the light from headtorches. Despite our vociferous complaints their actions change little.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Mount Elbrus - Part Six

Let’s start about 10am

The sun comes up about 5:30am and so does the heat, it’s instantly boil in the bag until we crawl out around 8am. We struggle to believe we’re starting out so late in the morning, we’re going to hit the full heat of the day. But breakfast is good, hot muesli and gallons of hot tea all made with condensed milk.

We pack our big bags lightly with kit to cache at the 3600m hut and a little food, As we leave camp it’s around 26°C and we’re sweating before leaving the tents. A steady path along the side of the river quickly becomes a serious traverse across a soft sandy washed-out cliff. "This is the only dangerous part” Sergei informs us, well that’s ok then ehh! Our path returns to mountain meadow rocky path up, an extreme path comparible to Ben’s lower slopes. The heat is ripping every gram of moisture from every pore. Although steep neither of us is panting with the altitude, quite unusual really. Our speed is quite surprising and we rest for very short periods. One last ramp and we enter a wide basin with Elbrus’ twin peaks looking magnificent but menacingly down on us. We race across the flat fine moraine and reach an idyllic camp site at the foot of the next steep slope. We slowly zig-zag up the soft dusty sand incline, gaining height at a speed and ease we don’t expect. At the top we cross a steep field of stones heading upwards and towards an intimidating escarpment. The path gathers height quickly up through the rocks but we’re moving well and easily, most surprisingly.

We emerge onto another flat moraine basin that seems to melt in to the distance and to the foot of a particularly nasty looking ascent. Each of these rocky ascents reminds us of the upper slopes of the Ben and Scarfell Pike. We break out over the edge and follow the moraine ridge up along the side of the glacial tongue to our right. Glinting high above us is the metal huts we’re heading for. The terrain is loose damp moraine gravel and large loose boulders but is constantly steep. This is very hard work in this heat even if we’re close to several trillion tonnes of glacial ice flow. We work our way round to the right scampering across ice runners which are surprisingly hard even in this heat. This gradient is relentless and underfoot the loose and crumbling surface making upward progress very arduous. BJ is slightly ahead and out to the right with Sergei next then me. I see BJ nip defly across some rocks and disappear out on to the ice/snow, I call over to Sergei “is it out onto the ice now, do we have to traverse the glacier?” “Yes, but not so far” comes the info I didn’t want “Ok, I’m going to climb directly, I don’t fancy these little boots on the ice”, “So you must continue straight and you will see the path at the top”. With that Sergei disappears around a boulder to my right. The Foz Directisimo. What an ‘effin’ stupid place to be under a big sack, in this heat, scrabbling on loose friable rock, alone! I have no idea of my position in regards to the others or the hut above me, with that everything under my right foot just falls away, my left knee is now just below my chin! The fingers of my right hand are just grating the rock, is nothing here solid??? The tiny nub that my left hand is wrapped around seems to be holding, which is more than can be said for the rock my left foot is on. Beneath my foot hold is a near vertical 2metre drop and loose stones are washing out from below it! An almighty lunge and I’m up, but have caused some damage to the left Achilles. I struggle on and then spot BJ atop a large rock, no pack on, so another 20metres and I’ll be there.

I’m completely soaked with sweat when I catch up with the others, but at least we’re here, Advanced Base Camp.

We stash our load in the red hut and head back down.

First we slide down through the rocks following BJ’s path until we hit the flat moraine. Instead of following the path straight across and the way we came we wander towards the right, Sergei convincing us that this is a more beautiful route. We cross this flat volcanic gravel field that is polka-dotted with little stands of daisies, then as we roll down the slope we’re treated to a spectacular rock formation. As we leave the gravel and step on to the grassy meadow and follow the path round to the right, the end of a steep sided ravine and on to a wide softly rolling ridge. There before us are the wind eroded “Mushroom Rock” formations. We wend our way between them and over to the far side of the ridge and down on to one of the finest well sloped scree runs ever. We take off! This is some of the best fun until I stop and the large stone I’m standing on promptly spitting me off and dumping me on to my ankle and butt. ARSE! We continue down through a beautiful and serene gorge, dropping height quite quickly and we’re back into the basin. We’re moving well, the heat is impressive but we know when we enter the river gorge we’ll enjoy the meadow shade. BJ’s knees and my Achilles are slowing us slightly but we’re getting close to the path’s end. The river runs along the side of us, it seems somehow much louder and more furious than this morning. With only the occasional glimpses of the tops of the flumes crashing over the rocks, showing the massive power of the water, making the descent along this path even more intimidating. There is a sign, in Russian, that probably says that the path is dangerous or stop you’re going to die! We ignore it, we don’t find out until later what it actually says. We get to the washed out section it’s really quite different to this morning now that we can see what would become of us if we slip. BJ actually looks quite uncomfortable crossing the 5 metre gap, which makes me feel much better, HaHa. There would be no way to make this slope safe at all. Thankfully we’re across and on the home stretch, but as we turn the corner we see the alternate route coming down from our right, a little late!

We get down to base camp, happy, tired and looking forward to a dip in the pool in the river below us. We dump our bags as two trucks take our noisy neighbours away and look forward to a quiet night before our big carry in the morning. We grab clean skids, towel, wash gel and kick off our little boots and socks and head for the pool. There is a guy there who has just got out and has a stunned look about him. We strip to boxers and get in. OH JEEEEZ!! How fucking cold??? It’s freezing my toes, nothing prepared us for this temperature, or lack of it, we stagger out rub the liquid soap all over and judder our way back in to rinse off. MUZA FUKA!!! How can it be colder the second time? As I dry off the sun, even in this little valley, warms me. By the time I’ve clothed and walked back up to camp I’m glowing warm. The only down side to this is that once we’ve eaten and rested is the tomorrow we have to do it all again, with (BJ says f*****g) heavier packs.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Mount Elbrus - Part Five

The adventure proper begins here

So it’s 40kms ‘til our first stop and a chance to get water, oh the heat. Once out onto the highway and with the windows open it’s not too bad. BJ and I are in the back and drift off to sleep, this travelling stuff is tiring. We pull into a service station, the loo is beckoning as is the cold drinks cabinet. The drinks are warm and the door on the loo doesn’t close properly, which the flirty shop assistant finds most amusing, I don’t as I really need a dump. We pay for our drinks and wander out of this AC Eden back into the heat only to see Andre push the jeep off of the pump and to the side of the building. When we arrive we see the bonnet up and Andre up to his elbows in engine. Not good. Sergei tells us that the starter motor/alternator has melted in the heat, that’s definitely not good. So back into the cool and more drinks and search the freezer cabinet for some lunch.

Note for future Russian trips – Russians don’t do vegetarian.

BJ chooses a suspicious looking beef pizza and I end up with potato and mushroom pancake wraps. We’ve been here over an hour now and the solution is, after changing both components, a new jeep. Although not as tough as the ex-military jeep we arrived in it is 100% more comfortable.

We wend our way through a series of towns and then the road starts to deteriorate. Firstly it becomes broken, then cratered and more and more rutted. Before you realise it we’re driving along a rutted compacted mud track. The track climbs quite steeply; the scenery is spectacular, deep green valleys with rock outcrops. As we weave through the hills we catch up with a violent rain storm, over as soon as it starts. As the road climbs higher the surface becomes more and more rutted. The concrete road edge barriers protect the precipitous drops have fallen away where the road has eroded, it always seems that they’re the ones on the bends! I remark that there no dead cars on these slopes, so either accidents don’t happen here or when/if they do the carcass is quickly and cleanly salvaged/scavenged. You know a route is tough when you pass a bulldozer and it’s thrown a track. There is plenty of evidence that surface improvements are underway with dozers and graders but as is often the case in the UK no sign of the workers. Our driver isn’t holding back on the accelerator, we bundle along faster than the road surface should allow, hanging on to the roof straps is the only way to prevent ourselves from being displaced or bouncing of the roof.

Then without warning we veer off to the right? There is no discernible track/route but we’re bouncing crazily, laughing manically and we’re glad of the little extra padding afforded by our replacement vehicle. Off to our left there is a gypsyesque family in their family saloon stranded on a 2ft high rut and in front of us a pantechnicon truck well and truly beached. Our driver drops a gear or two, picks a new line and guns the engine and rips past the truck and family, the women look aghast as our little jeep spews dust and gravel as we careen off. Further along on a single track, on a steep hillside we meet another little jeep, face-to-face! Thankfully our driver knows the opposite number. We have to get out so that if anything goes wrong as they wriggle past each other we don’t become part of the scenery. Our driver taking the high side climbing a 45° slope, with the other vehicle driving perilously close to the crumbling edge, with an enormous drop below. A little further along the track we turn a shallow right hand bend and there before us is a deep river gorge with a huge brown cascade of water churning out and falling impressively into the ravine below.

Above it is a green meadow with what seems to be a large white “Romanian style” hotel with the backdrop of the two huge snow covered summits of Mt Elbrus. While the vista is magnificent the scale of the mountain is staggering. Following around the hillside we can see on the other side of the river our base camp. The first obstacle is the torrent of the fast moving brown glacial river we have to cross. Because we’re now in the “luxury” vehicle and not the original jeep we can’t drive across and are faced with hand hauling our kit and supplies across. A little down river is a small wire bridge that would be considered derelict in Nepal. Just upstream of the bridge, which tilts precariously to the left and to a savage drop, is a massive rock that causes the water to be sprayed intermittently over the slightly green moss covered planks, just what you need a wobbly slippery bridge over a lethal river. Sergei goes over to the camp to bring back help to convey our kit to base camp. Meanwhile we transfer some of our kit over, BJ courageously carries not only the group (both of our) First Aid Kit but also my spare kit on his head, well it was balanced on the top of his pack. Sergei returns with some military friends and the hardest looking camper van ever. They carry the supplies over and we clamber in to the van, a short wheel based off-road tyred raised body military VW style camper/minibus, with Russian Punk Rock playing, random. We bounce easily across the field, getting caught “off-gear” as we crest a steep ridge.

We arrive in the evening heat at our “enclosure” right in front of the Elbrus Military encampment, who have been here for two years retrieving a crashed helicopter from over 4500metres on the mountain. Our enclave has been trashed by the cows, Sergei goes crazy about “zous moza fugkin kowz!”, oh and the other climbers using our area as a cut through. As we pitch our hapless little plastic poled “Husky 3P”, Sergei fixes the perimeter fence line and some much needed tea.

The army camp and the team behind us have generators which kick-in at 8pm and run until 2am, much to BJ’s annoyance, and a couple in a tent over the fence behind us have a loud verbal fight, not the best first night. I discover that BJ should not be allowed near sugary food as he quickly metabolises this into gas and quite a fug can be produced in a relatively short time. BJ said he couldn’t decide which was louder the generator or my snoring, My snoring is worse, he says, because it continued intermittently throughout the night.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Mount Elbrus - Part Four

Russians don’t do aircon.

The aircon in the room is pointless, we open the windows, shower and go down for dinner. We walk into the dining room and have no idea of the layout, some tables seem to be set for a buffet, possibly for the wedding party, others laid slightly better so we sit there. It turns out to be the A la Carte section and this instantly adds the debt of a small third world country to our bill. There is a wedding reception in a room out the back, the women are stunning but peculiarly their men all look like they’re low budget porn star throwbacks. The loud music from the party comes in 10 minute bursts, despite the door being open and is a strange mixture of western pop/dance and modern/traditional Russian. Random.

Although having decided at our last meal in London that we wouldn’t drink until we had returned from the summit BJ ordered wine, just a couple of reds each. The heat, even in this vast marble clad room is intense, the Russians really don’t do AC. BJ orders a jug of water in his best Englishman abroad mixture of gesticulation and careful annunciation. The waitress looks confused, I start to laugh as she seems to vaguely comprehend. As she walks away I suggest that maybe she thinks we want a jug of vodka, moments later she reappears with a menu and points to vodka. We crack up, BJ points to Perrier and she laughs too, she must have thought we were either hard or stupid, I’d go with stupid. Once we’ve eaten we return to our room expecting to find a thin layer of frost on the walls, wrong! There is little difference in temperature between corridor and room.

We settle down for the night, still melting, the lights in this room are discoesque, there are 2 smoke detectors each with a flashing red LED and the bright blue LED on the AC control unit is illuminating the entire room. I use a couple of pieces of zinc oxide tape to cover it - it just helps to dull it a little. THE HEAT!!!

On to the Mountains

Down to breakfast and over to the buffet, this time. Then out to the minibus shuttle back to the airport, the heat and the craziness. Because of our concern of being overweight with our bags we’re wearing our big boots, not so good for being incognito but at least we’re under 20kgs. There is a great game that can be played in this airport, hunt the check-in desk and gate but we need a challenge so we add the change currency variation.

I eventually find a bank to change my dollars to rubles where the guy behind the glass very curtly tells me “closed!”, but where can I change currency “Closed!” Arse.

At the other side of the bank is a cash point, great. Double arse!! All in Russian, ok 5000Rubles, push the button, Cock! One note appears a 5000Ruble bill. Luckily I manage to find a concession that is willing to break it down. We meander through the departures area to a desk where they take our ticket and point us over to a full body scanner, on a domestic flight? Into the trays go the big boots, day bag and mobile, I step in and alarms sound “Watch!” oops sorry! Down to the VIP lounge, perfect AC, water and food, unfortunately the stern looking stereotypical female Russian official thrusts a laminate toward BJ telling us that the VIP card we’ve got isn’t valid here. We wander sweatily down to our gate, buy some water and drop down on to the floor in the corner. Better turn the mobile off for the flight. ARSE! Must have left it at security. Dash back up two flights and try to explain that I’d left my phone behind. Another stern look from the official and I’m reunited.

Our bus drives us over to the furthest edge of the airport where our 15th Century plane awaits. I figure it’s all the way out here so that as they refuel if it explodes, which it looks very likely to, it’ll cause minimal damage to life or structure. I’m reconsidering the window seat being the best place to sit. This ancient Tupolev looks as if the windows have been hammered into place by a cross-eyed blacksmith. The oxygen being pumped around the plane is visible between the wall and window as a vapour. Or it could be the fuel vapour as they refuel. OH JEEEEZ! No, it’s oxygen, please let it be oxygen.

As we taxi across Moscow to the runway the blind rattles down, great. I push it back firmly. We continue to taxi and down it comes again, the thin blonde Russian girl next to me giggles. I push it back more forcibly this time. I smile at her, this time it’ll stay up. 20metres further on and down it comes again, she cracks up. Surprisingly we’re fed and watered on this rattley, heavily stained, overly repaired plane and it’s pretty good too. The flight is uneventful but the landscape is eye-opening, didn’t expect it to be so heavily arable. We circle left and straighten up for the approach, as we touch down the passengers clap loudly, I’ve never understood this before, this time I understand their relief. As we step off the plane the 35°C heat hits us, this I wasn’t expecting. Into the airport, I use this term loosely. More waiting in increasing temperatures, the bags take forever, after losing 95% of our bodily fluids through sweat, our bags finally appear. To exit this oven we have to have the baggage tags checked against ticket stubs, the heat!

We’re here, out in to the waiting throng, it’s a crazy scene again, and the heat. We meet our guide Sergei and make our way over to our little jeep and its driver Andre. We load our kit and we’re off. The first question is who’s been where and who’s done what. Me, I’ve done a bit in the UK, Ireland, Europe and I’ve had some fun in Nepal too. Sergei and BJ have a lot more on their CV’s so there is a degree of posturing, understandably. BJ opens with 15 Kili’s, Sergei defends with a Denali, BJ raises with South America and Sergei sees him with Ecuador, BJ comes back with 162 Alpine Peaks which Sergei trumps decisively with K2. No one will get the high ground (sic) with Sergei, a confident headstrong young Thundercat.

Mount Elbrus - Part Three

When is hot too hot?

After the crazy wet weekend we have just had, it seems strange to be thinking about heat but before the Jubilee weekend, it was extremely hot for a while – summer gone??

As Brits, we love to complain about the weather whatever it provides us with and we are no exception to this, complaining that cold is too cold, wet is too wet and hot can be too hot.

At Expedition Wise, we are always excited when the weather appears to be stable and hot on our cycle and trekking challenges but over the past two weeks, we have been wondering whether we should be hoping for overcast skies.
We have recently run 3 charity challenges over the past 2 weeks; the London to Amsterdam Cycle Challenge, the 24 hours 3 Peaks Challenge and the Summit to Sea Cycle Challenge.  With the great weather that we have been having, we were looking forward to actually seeing the summits of the mountains and having our usual good weather on the cycle challenges.  However, with the heat wave that we have had, 35 degrees in Spain, 32 degrees in London and 33 degrees on Ben Nevis (I know – we couldn’t believe it either!), I can safely say that hot can be too hot with regards challenges.

The phrase “Only mad dogs and Englishmen” came to mind more than a few times when we were out cycling in the Sierra Nevada, cycling west to Amsterdam against the very strange easterly winds and unforgiving sun, and climbing the 3 Peaks carrying all the necessary safety and support kit in our rucksacks.   When most of us would be happy sitting in the back garden with a glass of something cold in the shade, we had groups of dedicated people cycling or trekking in the mid day sun!

We used more rehydration sachets (dioralyte) than ever before and water bottles were regularly refilled.  There is however only so much fluid you can take on board or rehydration sachets that you can stomach as you cycle or trek so the groups still suffered. 

Congratulations therefore must go out to all those who participated in the challenges over the last 2 weeks and struggled through the intense heat.
Hot can be too hot!