Time to Summit
We’ve syncronised our watches; up by 1am, fed by 2am and on our way by 2:30am. ARSE! The French once again screw with our plans. Despite the fact that they’ve walked to over 4600metres on the last two days they’re summiting at the same time as us. DOUBLE ARSE!! They’re leaving an hour before us, so that means that they will be crashing about with headtorches scanning about the hut like the Eddison Lighthouse. So BJ and I feast and drink tea until we can physically get no more in before heading to our bags around 5pm. We settled down for as much rest as possible, eye masks and earplugs in, that’ll keep their intrusive ways at bay. NAAAH! They come in and out, talking loudly, dropping as much as possible on to the wooded floor. One Frenchman, whose shelf was at the end of ours began snoring like something from a 1930’s French farce. They manage to slam the outer door more times than I care to count, which in itself was amazing due to it having never been closed in all the time we’d been there. I got up a little after 8pm most of the French were laying quietly others fiddled about with their headtorches on and the snoring man was still making a racket. I woke again as BJ wriggled back into his bag, I foolishly took my mask off and earplugs out, I managed to sleep on in short spells. Then as I laid quietly the alarm went off, the French erupt into activity with complete disregard to the impact on the huts other occupants, they just don’t give a toss. We wait until they leave to dress as we walk outside we find them crammed around the doorway taking up every inch of space, kit strewn everywhere. We saunter down to eat.
As we shoulder our packs, hook ice axes and clip crampons to our harnesses we look at each other, this is it, the wind is picking up but we know we’re strong enough to crack this. Down across the glacial bowl, funny how by the light of headtorch this moraine so much longer to cross. As we set about locking our boots into the crampons BJ and I question our choice of lightweight gear “Once we’re going it won’t seem half so cold”. We crack off walking in our 3metre pool of light, the wind building all the time washing away any communication between us. When we stop to rope up and look up the lights of the other teams are converging from both camps sparkling their way up the slope. Thankfully we’re soon walking again as the cold is biting. Grateful for the speed as the effort is starting to warm me again. The weather is worsening by the minute, ice crystals being lifted from the glacier sting the face and the wind strips heat and energy from the body. Our speed is as good as the acclimatisation day and we’re fighting against worsening weather and the heavy easterly wind. We’re starting to pass groups of to our left, who had started from the other camp, using our straight up strategy before long we’re passing the French teams, very easily too. Man we’ve got this in the bag! BJ pulls on the rope and needs to ease the speed a little, not a bad thing in these conditions, no point ragging it and burning out before halfway. Even at this slower speed we pass other teams hanging on their poles, blowing hard. BJ and I had formulated a plan of walking for 60mins and rest for 5mins, this wasn’t happening, it was just too raw out here. My fingers were starting to get chilled curled around the head of my axe, my mind wandered about to find something to focus on in order to hide from this discomfort. I got into a strange wiggle which seemed to help my momentum. We coursed onwards gaining height and ground on yet more groups. How can the weather be getting worse? Bigger mountains have been climbed in worse weather than this. I don’t remember quite what happened but there it was, that familiar searing pain in my Achilles again, maybe it was because of the wind, the cold, the speed, BOLLOCKS! We’re going well and I’m not stopping. A tug on the rope and BJ comes up, his hands are done (there were always fears from previous frostbite, no heroism in loosing fingers). A heavier jacket, big gloves, heatpacks and he’s feeling better. A drink, a bite of a chocolate bar and we’re moving solidly again. Sergei asks about my heel regularly which is good, but I don’t need that darkness to be let out of its box. It’s hard work but I’m weirdly enjoying this experience. I have to put on my heavier jacket and big gloves as the cold is sapping my energy, but a few minutes of slogging builds both temperature and resolve. I’ve had enough of my bloody heel feeling as though it’s tearing itself apart, nothing I do lessens the pain. BJ suggests I go to the end of the rope as for the last 45mins it’s felt as if I’ve been hauling up the hill. The weight is too much for me to pull against, so every ten steps I have to wait for the tension to come off the rope so I can continue, I’m happy enough in the middle chasing Sergei so stubbornly stay put. It’s not much further and the toys are definitely being scattered all over this snow slope, I’m hanging on to my poles. F**K IT!! I’m done I can’t bring myself to say it out loud, but that’s it, ENOUGH! I go to the end of the rope and will reassess at the Lenz Rocks, it’s just 10mins away. We keep climbing and now everything is grating, this f***ing weather, this f***ing slope and worse than everything together this f***ing agony. As I crest up onto the flat lip under Lenz Rocks I’m just a few steps behind BJ, conversations are happening around me in the howling gale, it’s quite an out of body experience. I’ve tears in my eyes and I know it’ll be all over for BJ if I go down, that hurts more than my ankle. To take the summit away from him now, especially as he is feeling stronger now that he’s warm and he’s found his pace. We huddle up in the biting wind and drink some hot water from BJ’s flask. I have to tell them that I have to turn around, if I go on I know that I’m open to bigger problems on the way down. I give a thumbs down to Sergei in response to his “Are you ok? Is the heel ok? What you want to do?” I point down, I can’t bring myself to speak, how stupid? But I feel broken, BOLLOCKS!! Sergei pulls the rope out to go down, BJ is confused as to what direction we’re taking. I tell him it’s over, that I’m done, that is such a hard thing to do, I’ve just managed to trash his trip too. I pull my goggles on to help protect my eyes from the sting of the ice carried on the wind and the sting of the tears of failure don’t sit well with me. I’m glad I never brought Mums ashes after all. BJ asks if we can sit up here to wait for the dawn, as the weather starts to clear the horizon becomes a line of soft orange. Sergei says that it’s too cold and we’d have to wait too long, another blow to BJ. Meanwhile I just want to attack this mountain with my axe, it’s not the mountains fault it’s my foot’s. It now hurts from the big toe to my butt cheek with an explosive white noise, around my heel and spreading to my calf, so I start thumping my boot with the axe instead. We quickly drop down out of the weather band, the wind is lessening, heading towards the dawn sky. The valleys below us are filled with soft clouds, the sky up here is crystal clear now, the wind still blowing but more gently now. We’ve dropped down about 500metres vertical when we stop to watch the sun burst over the horizon. BJ is taking photos and videos of the stunning vista spread out before us. Sergei points out the second highest peak in the Caucasus, Dykh-Tau “Very technical”. We continue down, the last thing I really want to do is record today, it is incredibly beautiful and makes being here worthwhile but I’d prefer to have all of this to my back as I work my way to the summit. My mind isn’t here anymore, though spiraling, leaving BJ on a loose end and standing in the middle of a snow bridge and should be better focused on getting down safely. We cross the ends of some gapping cravasses bring home the fact that we’re still in the danger zone. It’s not much longer and we’re at the moraine end, unclipping from the rope, removing crampons and dropping over the edge of the glacial bowl, nearly back! BJ and I are talking of what to do, I’ve already spoken to Sergei and suggested that he take him back up tomorrow. BJ’s not so sure that he has the energy to try again so soon, still we have 2days and I’m prepared to sit tight and wait. We sling our kit onto the bench, stripping off the thermal layers, releasing the heat to the fresh air and sunshine. We keep looking towards the summit, judging whereabouts we would be had we continued on. Eventually it’s decided we’ll go down but we’d get the hell outa Dodge before the French to return/gloat. While we are packing Sergei arranges for two soldiers to come up from base camp to carry our big bags down for us. At 2000RUB each it’s not cheap but it does mean that we’re not being put under any more pressure, as BJ has kept saying “We’re on holiday!”. Vladimir, the refuge keeper, brings us a pot of a traditional herbal tea and a couple of Snickers bars, most unexpected and very welcome. Small acts of kindness like this have continuously amazed us, our acceptance by the people we’ve only just met has been moving. With our little ledge stripped bare, our big bags packed, our day bags containing the absolute minimum, it just leaves BJ to take a ceremonial photo and the handing over of his big boots to Vladimir. Despite their sentimental value and their great condition in order for a comfortable fit on this trip BJ had to remove the insoles, not good in freezing conditions. The end of another era.
We sling our packs on our backs and set off down, a daunting prospect for the damaged ankle but slow and steady and all that. There is no easing a descent, it’s always hard on the joints. BJ has been constantly ragging me about my ability to fall over on any surface, but karma plays its hand as the scree he’s standing on washes out from under him causing him to do the splits. We gently descend, it’s a warm day and when we get down to the “beach” its little daisy posies are alive with butterflies. We sit for a while enjoying the tranquility, nothing can be heard save for my camera shutter whirl. We wander down to the “Mushroom Rocks”, people lay about on the flat stone tops enjoying the sunshine and cool breeze. We slide our way down the scree, just over to the side is a small Swiss encampment, a great place to camp. All the way we’re discussing possible trek/adventure ideas both privately and commercially. We ultimately agree that Elbrus must be bagged sooner than later so we start to hatch the planned return for June ’12 from the south side, BJ “Why make it more difficult?”, I on the other hand need to summit from the North, to finish the job I had started. We cross the bowl and continue into the meadow gorge, above us spiral three huge birds of prey, because of their colouring BJ suggests laughingly that they maybe vultures waiting for us to take a tumble on the “Path of Doom”. The dry river bed to the left looks landscaped with its almost evenly placed steps. When we reach the “Death Path” sign we cut off on to the alternate route, we’re suddenly reminded that “you’re still at altitude matey” as the first big rise leaves us both puffing. By the time we have crossed this little set of hills we’re blowing out of both ends but at least didn’t die horribly in the torrent below. HaHa.
We stand atop the last rise looking down on to the Base Camp working out the differences in the tent configurations from the last time we were down there, seemingly so long ago. we slip and curse our way down the final slope, remembering the burning hot ascent. We meander along with the river looking at possible kayaking lines in the killer river, BJ figures that he’d pretty much die if he were to enter the river at any point. We arrive back at our enclosure, the mess tent is open and a couple of the little Husky tents are up too?? We weren’t expecting there to be any signs of inhabitation for our return. We look for snacks and a lighter so we can get the stove on to make tea, neither can be found. We grab a spare Husky tent and walk over to the perimeter fence and pitch it amid scathing commentary on its worth as a mountain tent. A jeep pulls up and empties three rucksacks and some gear over the fence. The owners arrive shortly after, three Italians who plan to climb unguided. Later we discover that they’re pretty clueless as to where they need to go! We flake out for a while until we hear other voices which belong to three Norwegians and another Vladimir their guide that we met at the hut. We vaguely remember the Norwegians, they tell us that the fittest member of their team (the youngest and fittest) failed to summit from the saddle due to D&V so they had a couple of days to recuperate down in Pyatigorsk and were going to send him back up.
BJ and I are wasted, we drink tea and eat Vladimir’s freshly prepared Borscht, something I’ve wanted since we arrived in Russia. Our bags arrive along with Sergei, the soldiers are paid and we rip them apart in search of our sleep mats which we hit, hard.