The first surprise came in the morning. As I opened the curtains of the window I looked into a magical forest. Pinetrees surrounded by a flowery meadow. My first impression apart from the car-ride at night is that Russia is beautiful. Not like my preconceptions and what other people had told me.
I really enjoy jumping into commercial expeditions. It’s a very fun way to meet interesting people who don’t know each other. We were 8 persons in the team and started the acclimatization right away on the first day. The body needs time to get used to altitude. We had different hikes in the sourroundings up to 3100 meters, where I also got happily surprised at how beautiful the area was. After two days of summer and acclimatization we were ready for more altitude, snow and ice.
Half the fun of the expedition was having a local guide, Oxana. She is hard as ice and funny as few – in a very Russian way. She was also the gateway into another cultural understanding of Russia. Especially interesting was Oxanas explanation of the russian sense of safety and security on the mountain, as it is next to nothing. In the smaller parts of Russia no one is interested in improvement, said Oxana. If money is coming in, no one cares about raising the standard. So there is a small mountain rescue, but they never do rescues. They only carry dead bodies down – usually 3 days after the accident. There is no rescue-oxygen in the basecamp. Too difficult to get it from Moscow. There is no ambulance ready to help at the bottom. If you call them they will ask if you can’t get your own car.
We had another few days of acclimatization to the higher altitudes before getting ready for the summit attack. It’s a long way up. We started at 3750m and will do 1900 altitude meters up in one single push to the summit at 5642m.
The summit attack, as I have explained before, isn’t really an attack. It’s a slow grind upwards. It’s about saving energy to reach the summit, and get down again.
We woke simultaniesly by the alarm at 00:45. Without a word we got our gear ready in the light of the headlamp. A cup of tea and a flapjack later I was ready for my favourite part of the climb.
The night was black and soft as velvet. Some stars glittered between dark clouds. Underneath the black sky was me and four men slowly walking upwards. Alone on the mountain. This is one of my favourite things to do. Starting to climb a mountain in the middle of the night. We’re all wearing headlights and walking in a line. Slowly. Solemnly.
The whole world is reduced to taking another step. All that is seen is in the light of the headlamp. Around the beam of light is only soft blackness. All we can hear is the sound of crampons against snow and ice, and the sound of breathing. I’m not thinking, just walking, smiling. It’s an outerworldly and beautiful experience.
Just as much as I enjoy the night, I enjoy the sunrise. The view is breathtaking. The soft light is finally revealing clouds and mountaintops underneath us, far below, and the summit that is still far above us. The pace was slow, sometimes too slow, but when you’re in a team you have to adapt. And there’s no need to run up a mountain when you can enjoy the view instead.
Just as much as I like standing on the top, I like to share the experience with others. I know how much they have dreamt and fought for this. I’ve seen their hardships on the way, and to see happiness and tears in the others eyes is larger than my personal challenge.
During the 14 hours of climbing, Elbrus put on a show of different weather. We climbed through fog, a small storm, underneath a blue sky, and then a heatwave in combination with a whiteout just to finish with rain. I loved it. And I didn’t even feel tired. For some moments I lost all my humbleness. It felt too easy. I was ridiculously strong and barely felt the altitude. I remember thinking I’m made for climbing mountains. So I’m looking forward to climbing more! This was only no. 4 of the 7 summits.
Climbing mount Elbrus was a suprising and fun cultural experience. I can highly recommend it to anyone who is adventurous, have a little experience from altitude – and good sense of safety to make up for the russian one.