The dead heron was a bizarre sight. I thought of Hemingway’s leopard carcass at the beginning of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. Dried and frozen, the leopard lies close to Kilimanjaro’s Western summit. No one can explain to Hemingway what it was seeking at that altitude.
After the barren terrain of the Irik pass, where we hadn’t seen a bird for days, stumbling across our own frozen carcass was a shock. Our Russian guides said the bird would have become disorientated in a storm, and crash-landed onto the glacier. Trapped in the terrible snows that can be unleashed at any time in the region, it had frozen to death.
At least we had an answer but death - in any shape or form - wasn’t something I wanted to be reminded of on this, a gruelling acclimatisation trek before our assault on Russia’s Mount Elbrus. My only prior experience of ‘proper’ mountains was an unsuccessful attempt to climb Mont Blanc. Suffering from acute altitude sickness, I’d had ample time to reflect on how easily one can slide off a mountain and die as I vomited, staggered and nearly fell down the slopes of Mont Blanc a year before going to Russia to climb Elbrus. Chastened by the experience but intoxicated by the mountains, it seemed perversely logical to try and climb something higher – and yet easier - than Mont Blanc, before returning to Chamonix for another go.
At 5642m, Elbrus is the highest mountain in Europe, and though not a technical climb its altitude is more than enough to send shivers down the spine of the average British hill walker. At that height, storms can roll in at a moment’s notice, and before you know it a beautiful day in the mountains has become a nightmare, the jagged peaks in the distance are lost in a complete white-out, and men and beasts alike can perish with ease…
As it turned out, the weather on Elbrus wasn’t the problem – it was the bombs. In 1942, the mountain hosted battles between the Russians and Germans, and if the swastika placed on the summit by the Germans has long since vanished, there are plenty of other reminders of human rather than meteorological violence. The lower slopes are full of the debris of war, with the winter snowfields and crevasses yielding up bullets, twisted wire and broken transistor radios as the snow and ice melt in the summer.
Nowhere is the mountain’s strange collection of unsavoury summer fruits more in evidence than at the Priut hut. At 4160m the hut at Priut isn’t too far off the height of Mont Blanc. After acclimatising with two long treks through passes and over glaciers in nearby valleys for the previous nine days, we had taken the Azau cable car up to the Mir Bar (3500m), then a chair lift to just beyond the snowline at 3800m. The walk up to Priut in well-trodden snow was a doddle after the thorough acclimatisation, but how would we fare when we got really high? Would we be able to hack getting up at 2.00 in the morning, donning crampons and stepping out into temperatures well below freezing and slogging to the summit of Elbrus?
Some of the group kept any anxious thoughts to themselves, others were more vociferous. We were a motley crew, teachers from England thrown together with a stonemason from Colorado, an engineer from Ireland and two businessmen from Brazil. There was also a TV presenter, and even the postman from my aunt’s hometown in Devon. One or two had vanquished mountains like Aconcagua and the Matterhorn, and two army officers, Mark and Bridget, were clearly more than capable of looking after themselves. All of us, though - regardless of ability - would have been lying if we said we weren’t apprehensive about whether we could really make it to the top of Mount Elbrus.
Situated at the Western end of the stunning Baxan valley in the Central Caucasus, Elbrus is a volcanic cone with two peaks, which dwarfs everything else in the region. The Caucasus itself forms a chain of dramatic mountains separating Georgia from Russia to the north, somewhere in scale between the Alps and the Himalayas. Crisp, clear glacier water – exhilarating to drink – cascades from steep slopes into alpine meadows and valleys below. In the local Balkar dialect, Elbrus is known as Mingi-Tau – Thousands (i.e. ‘very big’) Mountain. In the days of the Soviet regime, groups of up to 400 climbers would reach its summit in one co-ordinated assault, and other peaks in the region bear witness in nomenclature to Soviet propaganda – there aren’t many places in the world where you can boast you’ve climbed ‘25th Party Day of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Peak.’
Today the Elbrus area remains well visited by Russians, this time holidaying under their own steam rather in collectivised one-week trips. The local police have an unfortunate habit of taking any number of bribes from bus drivers ferrying arrivals from the airport at the spa town of Mineralnye Vody to Terskol (the principal village in the Elbrus area), which makes one wonder how much has changed. But the Russians we met were remarkable – a hardy, rough and ready people, and yet courteous and charming.
In between acclimatisation treks, it was impossible to go to a bar and simply drink water – our hosts insisted on vodka, and on paying for every glass. Few of them spoke English, an invigorating contrast to many European countries where however good one’s command of the language, the locals prefer to converse in English. The lack of a shared language and round after round of vodka proved a potent combination when, on behalf of my mate ‘Alpine Dave’, I tried to establish the Russian for ‘you are a beautiful woman’ (there were some Russian models staying in our hotel, and Dave had hopes of making their acquaintance). This I asked of Izzy, a dancer who spoke a little English, who interpreted my “how do you say ‘you are a beautiful woman’?” not as a question but as a declaration of my own intent. A lot of enforced dancing and vodka later, I was saved by my wedding ring. Sadly Alpine Dave was no nearer to the models in the hotel, and the next day we both rued the vodka, sure that it probably wasn’t the best way of preparing for climbing a 5,000m mountain.
A word of warning, though – some may have it that Terskol is ‘the Chamonix of the Caucasus’, but, in truth, it is to Chamonix what Ilfracombe is to the French Riviera. Anyone expecting the comforts – and nightlife - of Alpine ski resorts should not venture to the Caucasus.
We spent two days at the Priut hut making sorties up the slopes, gradually getting used to the thin air. Cognac proved to be one aid to combating the effect of high altitude which the text books fail to mention: we found out when Gia, our chief guide, produced a bottle in celebration of his birthday the day before our summit bid, assuring us that it thinned the blood. Whether this was true or not, it certainly numbed some frayed nerves which had been stretched when an enterprising member of our party returned from a gentle afternoon stroll around the hut proudly cradling an unexploded WW2 shell. ‘Get that thing out of here!’ screamed assorted would-be summiteers, fearing that their dreams were about to go up in smoke. Russian bomb disposal on the slopes of Elbrus consisted of simply taking the fearsome device from its temporary owner and returning it to a nearby snowfield.
After a stormy couple of nights the weather for the climb was perfect. It was freezing, and a little reminiscent of the traffic on Mont Blanc in summer as the climbers’ headlamps zigzagged up the mountain in the moonlight, but beautiful. Elbrus may not be technically demanding but there is no question that climbing at 5,000 metres is shattering. Even with the acclimatisation it seems impossible to get a lungful of air, slam one’s ice axe into the snow and haul oneself up another ridge. What springs to mind is the feeling of hitting ‘the wall’ in a marathon, when just to move your feet one step in front of the other becomes agony. But it’s more than worth it - anyone who climbs over the final spur and onto the summit of the highest, Western peak, cannot fail to be moved by the jagged peaks of the Caucasus to the one side, the endless Russian steppe to the other.
To climb Mount Elbrus is to be able to say you’ve climbed one of the ‘Seven Summits’ – one of the seven highest mountains on each of the world’s continents. Anyone reasonably fit and with a little imagination could make the journey to Terskol, acclimatise, meet the wonderful local people, and come back with this achievement. So long, that is, that they don’t run into a stray, unexploded incendiary device – and maybe take it easy on the vodka.