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.

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