Today was our first day on Father Elbrus. Early in the morning we ascended in the cable cars to 3500m. I can honestly say that I was much more scared of the cable cars and chairlifts than anything else at this stage. On the way up in one of the cars I noticed that a couple of the electric cables were just taped together. Not encouraging at all.
From Mir Station at 3500m, we took a chairlift to 3800m and the Barrels. The Barrels are literally gigantic metal barrels where we would be staying after Thursday till we finish the climb. Today though we climbed up the slopes to Diesel Hut at 4050m. The views were absolutely stunning and the day started incredibly clear. I was feeling great, with a little bit of a pressure headache but nothing serious. Keli and Ahsan were impressive in almost running up the hill. I persevered at a contented zen-like pace. Tomorrow though I intend to take the MP3 player.
Diesel Hut is also called Priyut 11 or the Refuge of Eleven. This used to be a climbers hut named in honour of eleven climbers who camped there often. Now the original hut is burned down but the former diesel storage hut for Priyut 11 has become a basic roofed hut. The first thing I noticed in topping the hill was that I was downwind from a very familiar smell. The area had the whiff of Barafu at Mt. Kilimanjaro ñ a distinct smell of pit or long-drop toilets. In using them Keli and I rated them about a 7 or 8 on the ìBarafu scaleî (1 being clean and amazing, 10 being Barafu or shit hell). Keli reported that the Barrels ranked about 6 on this scale. I have yet to confirm this.
At Diesel we met some folks from Colorado, Seattle and some other parts of the States. They were going to climb Elbrus as well, with their first summit attempt being with us on Sunday. Then they intended to ski down. I should note that this area is a summer skiing area and there are a ton of skiers and snowboarders. In fact we passed Ilya on his snowboard. We descended back to the valley by mid-afternoon for lunch. By around 4pm I was getting quite the headache. A sign of things to come I wonder?
The afternoon was spent packing. I decided to take only my small day pack and load it up as much as possible. Keli on the other hand decided to take her big pack and stuff her small pack inside. She could barely lift it up and was concerned how she would carry it up if the chairlift after Mir Station was not working. Meanwhile my headache was getting worse. By early evening I decided that I had had enough of my headache and would try a cure from the ìAlcoholics Book of Home Remediesî — drink a beer with an aspirin and shortly after supper climb into the sanctuary of my bed.
The group which had just summitted had come down and joined us in the restaurant for supper. A couple were French and were quite delighted to find a fellow French speaker in Keli. They finally had someone to talk to outside of themselves! It struck me as very odd that after eleven or more days together they seemed like they were only just getting to know each other. How different from our group.
We received a piece of chilling news: eleven climbers had lost their lives on Elbrus at the end of May, just a couple of weeks prior to our arrival. Apparently someone in the descending group had seen some signs of their remains on the saddle (between the two peaks). According to Sergei though, almost all the bodies had been recovered. The group which was lost was Russian/Ukrainian and had been climbing without a guide. They had been caught in severely bad weather for three days and could not be rescued. It’s chilling to think of the danger we are putting ourselves in but then these are the risks we take. We place ourselves in the hands of mother nature, challenge our bodies and take all the precautions we can. I just saw a sticker on the walls of the Barrels kitchen that describes it perfectly:
“Adventure is the only alternative!”
Another piece of news was that one of the previous group of climbers had decided to ascend on her own after everyone else had descended. She had climbed with the others earlier but her feet had become frozen. Oksana, their guide, had apparently warned her about her shoes but she had not heeded the advice. She had come down, changed into warmer boots and was apparently trying to solo it tonight.
To close this part as I am writing this the next day, she did survive, but only made it to 5000m. I don’t have any more news right now.