It was another night of thunderstorms. We got up at 2am to try for the summit, but Sergei came in and told us to go to sleep. At that point I was sure that our summit attempt would be on Tuesday ñ our last reserve day. This would suck as we would be leaving the Caucasus on Wednesday ñ hardly any time for washing, cleaning and packing, let alone resting. Obviously I crawled into bed again and went out like a light. At 5am, Sergei woke us up ñ we were going to make a summit attempt anyway. I looked outside at the heavy clouds and I had my doubts, but never mind. The snowcat is ordered and we were on board with all our gear by 7am. By half-seven, or thereabouts, we were at the Pastukhova Rocks at 4500m.
The wind was driving and the snow was blowing blindingly from the west. We were bundled in heavy clothes as we carefully started climbing the ice sheet. Ilya had decided to join us up to at least 5000m and there was also a photographer from a local company taking photos of us. It was truly insane as the clouds came swirling and we gingerly put one foot in front of the other. By the time we reached 5000m it was a complete whiteout. All that was on our faces was freezing wind and blowing snow. A couple of times Sergei thought he could hear thunder, and it actually turned out in the end that that was exactly what it was. Ilya later reported that he was fifteen minutes behind us and got caught in an electrical storm. Had it been just a little earlier, or we a little slower, our wonderfully metallic axes and ski poles would have been quite illuminating. By 11:30am we had reached about 5230m or the beginning of the Saddle.
Sergei pointed out some chilling remains of the recently lost eleven climbers. All this while we could see nothing but white. Sergei was also marking the route with sticks. This wasnít for our benefit, as he apparently knew the area without the need for a GPS; but rather for others that might follow and get caught like the eleven unfortunate climbers. I was helping him as was his assistant guide (Yvgeny — ìJohnnyî). Through all of this we were all feeling the signs of high altitude. All of us had a slight headache. By the time we reached the middle of the Saddle, Keli was severely dehydrated and went into a small hysteria about not having water. I had never seen her like this and I was quite concerned. I also needed to make a pee break and Sergei said in ìfifteen minutesî. I didn’t want to just break away, so I waited fifteen minutes which turned into forty-five. When Sergei stopped us at a cave formation in the side of the volcanic peak, I had a moment I am not at all proud of. I was in quite the state and irrationally told Sergei that I expected better accounting of time from the guide (in actuality he was an excellent guide). This was mostly exhaustion talking. Yes, I did have a pee break at this point. Believe me, on these kinds of adventures, bodily functions can mean death or life.
Keli, suffering from dehydration, extreme cold and more besides, had a complete breakdown in the cave. Up to this point I had never seen Keli cry, and I consider her one of the strongest people I know. For me, this was quite shocking. Eventually we helped calm her down, although I suspect she did that all by herself. I also calmed down and apologized to Sergei. At that point in the cave, I honestly did not believe we would summit. For one thing, we were all wrecks. Anders was feeling the altitude and Ahsan was severely fatigued. I think it was Ahsan and Anders who really revived our spirits and with a time limit of 3:30pm to turn back, we went for the summit. Stupidly I didn’t eat enough; usually I bring sandwiches and cheese, not bars and my stomach was now rebelling against the many fruit bars it had so far received (I have an extreme dislike of fruit bars now). I also did not have enough water. Oops.
Due to a problem with my harness, I was a fair distance back from the others when I started climbing. Fortunately, at this point I was not suffering from severe altitude headaches as the others were. Instead I was suffering from extreme fatigue. The western and highest of the two peaks started to suddenly appear from the white fog which we had been subjected to up until this point. The wind was driving down the mountainside with blowing snow. I was putting one foot in front of the other. Anders was suffering and lagging behind and I eventually passed him. As I did so, I lost even more energy and now was incredibly slow. Finally I reached the summit plateau. Everyone but me set out for the summit, however I stayed for an extra rest and started again extremely slowly and I was truly feeling completely wrecked at this point. Johnny, the assistant guide, kept talking to me and that kept me going.
The summit plateau was incredible. The winds were gale force and the clouds were ripping through every crevice. The sun had come out by now and all was dazzling white and I could see huge storm systems far far away. Suddenly the summit appeared – a small peak in the middle of all this flat white. Anders, Keli (who had recovered remarkably well from her hysterical outburst) and Sergei had already summitted. Ahsan was having trouble, as was I; however he summited next and then finally I broke the top. It truly felt like a Herculean effort. Summit was gained at about 4pm and after the obligatory photos were taken we left at 4:17pm.
With the weather improving immensely, within three hours we were back at the Barrels (it took us nine hours to climb up). We were so tired that we all chose to pay a whopping amount to have a snow cat pick us up at our starting point below Pastukhova Rocks. As the snow cat drove into the Barrels, it was almost like a hero’s welcome. The American team was outside and were preparing for their attempt tonight. We were hugged by Vera and official congratulations were received from Sergei and Johnny. As it turned out I had forgotten sunscreen and now had a raccoon-like sunburn around my goggles, which of course was of great amusement to the locals.
I cannot believe that I have now completed the second of the Seven Summits. It feels almost like a dream. I need to get some sleep now and I cannot believe that my Caucasus adventure is coming to an end. We leave the Barrels tomorrow ñ finally clean clothes and good riddance to the hell holes they call toilets here!
Incidentally, Mike was there to see us off in the morning. After last week it truly felt like someone was missing. We get to party with him tomorrow.