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.

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