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.

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