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A few hours later the skies have cleared again and we arrive at the Cheget Sport Hotel: half finished and totally abandoned except for a few cooks. Fortunately they were expecting us and have prepared a nice meal. In the meantime we have met the two mountain guides Gleb and Natascha: Nikolai will accompany us during our summit day on Elbrus and Natascha will guide the 4 Americans during the entire week. I booked just the trip, transfers and a guide for summit day and we will spend the rest of the week on our own, exploring the area. But tonight we are still together and while the first bottle of Vodka is already empty we enjoy the cozy atmosphere.

After dinner we take a little walk to a nearby spring where the mineral water is carbonated when it's exiting. While the sun sets and the temperature quickly follows we hike on to Terskol, a little village popular in winter by skiers and boarders. Now everything seems deserted, but the newly built bar is open and serves us some nightcaps.

Cheget, 29th June

We get up early (6.30), try one of our homemade cereal-with-milkpowder-&-sugar-breakfasts and leave for a day hike to the summit of mount Cheget, 3430m high and situated next to the hotel. Nice farm roads take us up but after a while it seems that they are taking us the wrong way and we decide to continue through the grassy slopes in the direction of the chairlift. We take a little break at the remains of its predecessor and enter a game with a local sheep: let's stare at each other until one of us moves… sheep loses!
We continue in a steady pace and just before we reach the abandoned chairlift station at 3000m we decide to eat some lunch.
"Here's the soup, can you hand me the stove?"
When his head emerges from his daypack he looks at us apologetically:
"Ehhm, I got the stoves and some pots, but I think I left the fuel at the hotel…"
There we are, the grand world travelers and mountaineers with our little packet of instant soup… So we decide to skip the entrée and get right to the tasty knäckebröd with tuna.

What was left of the track now has disappeared totally and we scramble our way to the summit. Most is scree, some larger rocks and a snowfield every now and then, but the weather is holding out nicely, the silence is overwhelming and the views are great.
The last few hundred meters require some hands and feet scrambling, but is it worth it. Saskia decides to rest on a large buttress; Niall and I continue though the snow to the summit. Just when we arrive we are suddenly being hugged by a bearded Russian who appeared from nowhere. He tries to convince us to join him over the narrow ridge to the next summit, but the weather is deteriorating quickly and after I point at my watch and the clouds, he nods and joins us down.
We take another route down, and pass a beautiful glacier lake where we spend some time relaxing in the grass, enjoying some majestic fourthousanders, who are just being pretty, undisturbed by lifts, villages or trails.
Back in the hotel we test our second stove and produce a large portion of Hutspot with hamburgers for an amazed Niall. The receptionist points us to the basement where the Deep Purple bar has attracted a few locals, but they only communicate to their beers and Vodka and after one Elbrus beer we call it a night.

Azau, Wednesday 30th June

50 Rubles take us and our luggage to Azau, the end of the road and the beginning of the cable car at the foot of Elbrus. We are told that later that afternoon the second stage of the cable car will be stopped for the next few days for maintenance and we doubt: if everything goes as planned we will be able to take the cable car in the weekend. But this is Russia and rumor has it that not everything that is being planned here actually happens…
The Americans don't take the risk and ascend with the cable car right away to acclimatize and do a first carry, but we decide to make a 2day trip to the Azau glacier first.

There are quite a lot (unmarked) trails in the Caucasus, but few of them can be done without axe and rope, especially in the beginning of the season. The path we take through the Azau gorge to the glacier is eroded and huge parts are just completely gone and many times we just scramble along the river over large boulders and screefields. But the weather is beautiful, the steep walls of the gorge amazing and we feel like kings…
After a few hours we reach the glacier that even since our recent map was made has receded quite a bit, and the wild and cold glacial river now cuts off the track we are supposed to follow. We climb the glacier from the side but decide that it will be too dangerous to traverse it and the screefield on the other side, so instead of camping on the 'campsite' that is supposed to be at 3000m, we put up our tents on a nice field close to the glacier. At 2500m it is not the altitude we had in mind for acclimatization purposes, but the view is magnificent and as there are no other human beings around, we enjoy the greatness and peace of the mountains.

Azau Valley, Thursday 1st July

After a nice sleep we wake up in another day of blue skies and the frost of the night is chased away quickly by the first comfortable sunrays. We pack our stuff and slowly head back through the valley towards Azau village. Niall trips twice on the rocks but the damage is limited to a bloody hand and a bruised knee.
When we arrive at the cable car station we meet the Americans again. They made an acclimatization hike to 3800m which went well. Just Phil, the oldest and most experienced of the lot seemingly forgot his sunglasses and now suffers from snow blindness. We are told that also the first part of the cable car will be stopped for maintenance; it covers the first boring, hot and dusty part of the trail and as we don't feel like hauling up our full packs over the hot scree we readjust our plans and join the group up., leaving excess gear in the small hotel at the station.

At the first station at 2970m our ways separate; the Americans are only carrying light daypacks and they continue quickly to the "Barrels" a set of huge oil drums that houses 4 persons each, located at 3800m.
We take some time to dress up for the next part next to some Russian mountaineers who happily celebrate their summiting with a bottle of champagne.

Slowly we continue up the slopes toward the second cable station, "Mir". Our packs are heavy and the track steepens, especially the last snow slope before Mir where we zigzag up scares Saskia. Guided by a trail of empty Vodka bottles dropped from the cablecar onto the snow we arrive around two o'clock at Mir. As the gondola is our of service for the next few days, we decide to erect our tent inside the station.
To acclimatize some more ('Go High, Sleep low') we hike up toward the Barrels and pay the Americans a visit. Natascha serves us some tea and just before dusk enters we run down the empty ski slope (20minutes!) between the Barrels and Mir.

After a large portion of Bami Goreng with Falafel we feel the temperature dropping fast and we shiver ourselves into our tents. In the last light of day I had seen a lonely climber below Mir; it appears to be a Russian who joins our little camping spot making a lot of noise before he finally goes to sleep. But the Mir itself is the real annoying one here as some generator is making a constant noise at an irritating frequency and I don't sleep much all night.

Mir Station- Priut 11, Friday 2nd July

I'm not sure if it is the bad night or the altitude, but this morning I don't feel too well. We warm up our socks and shoes in the first rays that penetrate Mir's dirty windows and enter a completely incomprehensible conversation with our Russian colleague. He doesn't carry a stove and is clearly happy with the mug of hot tea we offer him.

Fully packed we step up to the Barrels where we are welcomed by the stereotypical signs of snowboarders: Loud grunge & house music! And yes, a large group of Russian youngsters totally satisfy the conditions for being a non-conformist snow lover: tiny beards, shorts and volume at 10. The sun has improved the weather so much that the girls are tanning in their bikinis while we enter the camp in our full gore-tex!
We are pointed toward a well that is dug out in the snow where we can refill our bottles with water. We continue over the immense Gabarashi glacier while every now and then a snowboarder comes down via improvised ramps and jumps.
After about an hour we reach the sad remains of Priut 11. This huge hut, once built for scientific research even survived the German invasion, but in the summer of 1998 it burned down completely. A climber tried to put out a small fire in the crowded kitchen area with the first liquid that was around. Unfortunately it was not water but fuel, a substance not known for its extinguishing features, and soon all that was left of Priut 11 was a smoking steel frame and a few brick walls. According to some climbers this was actually a blessing for the mountain as it was no fun place to be due to the enormous smell rising from toilets and trash dump in the back…

We lunch in the ruins but soon discover that there are no nice camping spots and walk across the snowfield to the parallel rock ridge. There are two little emergency shelters and a few good spots where our tents will be happy.
We can feel the altitude now, especially Niall and I have no appetite and we just take some soup to hydrate; my headache returns and while the tents start to flap in the upcoming wind I can't wait to go to sleep.

Priut 11- Azau, Saturday 3 July

According to plan the cable cars are running again and as we are in no hurry we decide to spend a night in the small hostel near the Azau cable station in the valley. We stuff everything in Niall's tent and walk down the glacier towards the Barrels where the Americans tell us that they will try to summit this night. Even the chairlift between Barrels and Mir is working and we hop on. When we arrive at Mir we cannot believe our eyes: we see a few beautiful Russian women suffering half naked in the cold snow for a bathing suit report! Anyway, at least this mountain is not boring…
After arguing with a few lift attendants about the validity of our lift ticket we arrive in Azau where we decide to free some of the local outdoor shopkeepers from some food: "4 schaslicks, 2 cola, a Fanta and 2 pancakes please!" Totaling to 152 Rubles it's quite a feast for a few bucks and after taking a shower and crawling into a soft bed mountaineering in Russia doesn't seem to be that hard anymore…

Azau - Priut 11, Sunday 4th of July

At 8 we enjoy a Russian breakfast: a kind of meatball with cabbage, bread, cheese, butter, tea and lemonade, very good! After a refill of all of our bottles we buckle up and enter the cable car that is now completely filled with Russians that come to see the mountain for the weekend, in their training suits and armed with big old cameras. It's only 10 when we jump out of the chairlift at Barrels where we use the despicable excuse of ' we already did this part, with full packs!' to charter a snowcat that will take us close to Priut 11 for just 50 Rubles. 15 Russians take their chance and hop aboard without chipping in as it is going anyway.
So before it is even 11 o'clock we are back on our camping spot where 5 Russian men with large bottles of beer tell us that they are rescue rangers and that we are not allowed to sleep in their cabins ("except the woman"). We don't care as we have our tents, but a few minutes later it is clear that for $5 each we can sleep there if we want, but we prefer our own material. We are not the only one as soon every campable spot is covered with Russian tents from people who want to conquer Elbrus in the weekend; this also explains the sudden presence of the rangers, it seems that many people have to be taken down as they underestimate this giant.

We take it easy but around 15.00 we head out for an acclimatization hike to the Pastukhov rocks at 4800m. On the way we encounter Gleb and the Americans who are returning from the summit, totally beat. Everybody made the summit on their independence day but they admit to have taken a snowcat in the morning all the way from the Barrels to the base of the rocks at 4600m; the last 1000 vertical kilometers took them another 9 hours. We continue toward the rocks, each in our own pace and an hour and a half later arrive at 4800m, just as high as the Mont Blanc, the highest point of the European Alps. We feel quite ok and descend satisfied. A sudden incoming cloud treats us to one of Elbrus' famous whiteouts, but we manage to find our tent back. In the evening it starts to snow and hail: back to bed.

 (continued) ----»

Niall & Saskia on mt Cheget, 3200m

Niall & Harry on the summit of Cheget, 3400m

Azau valley

Niall & Saskia in Azau valley, behind is the Azau glacier

Niall on Elbrus, 3000m

Harry & Niall at 3200m, before Mir

Niall & Saskia below the Barrels, 3800m

View to the 2 summits of Elbrus from Mir. The left summit is the highest.

View west from below the Barrels, 3700m

Ruins of the burned Priut 11 hut and the Elbrus summits

Niall below Priut 11

Beautiful and dangerous Mt Ushba as seen from Elbrus

Camping at 4200m

Saskia, below Pastukhov rocks, 4800m

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