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Conquering Mount Elbrus
Despite Mont Blanc's fame, Mount Elbrus, at 5,642 meters above sea level is in fact Europe's highest mountain. Set in the Caucasus range of mountains sandwiched between Russia and Georgia it lies on the European continent and extends significantly higher than Mont Blanc's 4,810 meters.
Although considered by serious mountaineers to be nothing more than a "snow plod", the mountain is a challenging undertaking and claims a number of lives every year. In the month prior to our trip at least five people were reported lost or dead on the mountain.
The acclimatization hikes had done their job and none of us were suffering any effects of altitude sickness. A greater risk was lurking just outside the hut however. The toilets outside the hut at base camp are infamous. Two wooden shacks side by side with drop holes that, defying gravity, allow matter to fall up as well as down.
Having been forced to spend three days at the Diesel Hut due to the weather we were keen to get going and have a crack at the summit. The return of the French group, an apparently strong group of experienced climbers, was therefore all the more disconcerting. The following night was our last chance to attempt the summit, and their defeat at the hands of the mountain did not bode well for our ascent.
For the sake of esprit de corps I had to swallow my pride earlier that day. A vote had been called on whether we should hire the "SnowCat", a Caterpillar vehicle, to take us to the Pastukhov Rocks (4,700m), thus saving us an hour's hike, or start the ascent from the Hut. The Purist in me rejected the SnowCat as cheating, but the others concluded that as we had already done that part of the mountain the previous day, we should simply take this shortcut. Outvoted seven to one, I was forced to relent.
At 2am the SnowCat arrived, people and rucksacks piled on and soon the Diesel hut was lost in the darkness. After a painful 15 minutes being carted uphill at a 45 degree angle, the deafening noise of the engine dropped signifying our arrival at the Pastukhov rocks and we could all winch our way free of the contraption. Ice axes were unlooped from bags, crampons were booted and with a silent air of concentration the ascent proper had begun.
The first two hours of the climb are quite steep and strenuous. The scrape of Kelly crampons from ahead gives advance warning to "kick in" harder to avoid a slip. A reassuring "crunch" of crampon and ice-axe confirms that you kicked in hard enough and at the right angle, so you're safe for the next three seconds at least. Recovering from slips and stumbles is exhausting at this altitude, and is to be avoided at all costs.
After three hours climbing through the black and white moonlit landscape, we reach 5,000 meters and the route levels off. As we reach the Saddle the sun bursts over the mountains behind us and we are treated to a mesmerizing sunrise over the pristine white landscape.
Although the climbing is now easier, the first hardships of operating at this altitude begin to impact on our little group. John's stomach upset has reduced his energy to the point where he can no longer continue. Even with the sun now up and wearing plastic boots, Stuart gets frozen feet and can no longer feel his toes.
But soon the Holy Grail is within view. The summit is just over an hours climb from here and nothing can stop us now. Time seems to pass more quickly and before we know it we have reached the bottom of a small hillock. Less than a minute's climb and…
It is a perfectly clear morning at 9am local time. We are standing on the top of Europe and can see for miles. We embrace and congratulate each other to the sound of our camera clicks, and for a short time savour what must surely be one of the most impressive views in all of Europe.
Text: Michael J Kelly
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