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Priut 11, Monday 5th July

The morning brings blue skies again, although our tent is covered with a little layer of snow from the night before. It's ideal for our last acclimatization- and rest day: just hanging out, doing nothing but reading, melting snow and see how the last of the weekend mountaineers pack their tents after their mostly unsuccessful summit bids. Late afternoon we are alone again when we see Nikolai approaching our tent, just as arranged. When we show our amazement about his 'Lhotse sweater', Cho Oyu head band and 'Everest daypack' and many other things he brings he tells us that he has been coach of the national Russian climbing team for years. Natascha was one of his pupils and he has been climbing on 5 '8000-ers' together with famous climbers like Boukreev. Only when back in the Netherlands I will find out why he does not like to talk about the high mountains: in 1997 the trip leader and a good friend of his had died on Lhotse during a storm on the summit ridge, during an attempt to do the first total traverse of it.
Nikolai is not alone; he brought another Russian climber named Oleg. They appear to be old friends, but soon we find out that they only encountered each other two days before; it seems that in Russia friendship can be formed less complicated but might be more durable than in our Western world…

"Nikolai, you are just in time for our traditional pre-summit pasta meal!"
"No pasta, I bring summit food!"
Nikolai opens up his daypack in one of the shelters and a few bags of mashed potatoes, a can of peas, milk powder, butter and a canned meatball appear. Everything disappears in his old and dented pot together with a big splash of water and soon we are being served, accompanied with some bread he brought up as well.
"Summit food", Nikolai explains and points to the mixture.

We eat the fat and tasty food inside the second cabin and Nikolai tells us that the locals refer to it as the 'corncob' as it is the old body of an airplane that that was used to spray the cornfields in Russia. It snows and hails outside and we decide to hit the sack early, although Nikolai makes clear that that is not necessarily at all, but he joins Niall in his tent, leaving Oleg in the Corncob.

Summit night: 4200-5642m-4200m, Tuesday 6th July

At 01.30am the nerves are getting to Saskia and she goes out to pee.
"It's all cloudy out there", she shivers while reentering the tent. Gleb and Nikolai told us last night that any summit bid would be dependent on the weather: if it's clear than we will go, if it's too cloudy or windy than we won't.
If another 30 minutes my watch starts beeping I nervously stare outside the tent to check the skies: pitch dark skies filled with stars!
After getting dressed we eat our breakfast in the corncob: tea and porridge, but as always this does not really enter well in the middle of the night and I don't take much. At 03.00 we leave without turning on our headlamps: the reflection of the half moon and the many stars on the glacier is light enough and even in the middle of the night we already enjoy a tremendous view over the West Caucasus.
Just before the Pastukhov rocks we attach our crampons; although the track will never be steeper than 30° the snow is frozen solid and we have to be careful. While we slowly and quietly continue the colors on the horizon change slightly and when we emerge above the rock at 4900m the first sunrays warm the mountains. The view over the endless chain of mountains is framed with a color play of the sun chasing the cold night away and the shadow of mighty Elbrus can clearly be seen over the western part of the Caucasus.

Although the world is getting more beautiful, the pace is going down. The track that could already be seen from Mir and looked quite simple is tougher when you get close. The 'turn left' appears to be a many kilometers long stretch, and while traversing over the steep foot of the east summit, the 'flat part to the saddle' is going up after all…
Once on the saddle, the pass between the two summits of Elbrus, we see the remains of a small hut. Nikolai tells us that the Germans destroyed the hut, climbed the mountain and reported to their HQ that 'the Caucasus was conquered'. I guess the following winter proved them quite wrong.

After a short rest on the saddle we continue our way onto the steep side of the west summit. It's a simple but long traverse north but the now warm sun is teaming up with the altitude to make it harder for us and every 10-20 steps we have to take a breather. After passing a few rocks we turn west and head up the last part of the slope directly. Here a strange mountain phenomenon takes place that I head seen on Kilimanjaro before and what I called the 'casino-horses': in the casino there often is a table where mechanical horses race one round, and mostly just a few move at one time and only the last seconds it is clear who gets to the finish first. On mountains like Elbrus everybody has their own pace, number of steps before they take a breather and their own line of ascent. This results in the group moving in jerks, which if it weren't so hard at the time would be a very funny sight I am sure.
When we reach the top of the slope we see for the first time today two other climbers, they are on their way down. We congratulate them, and look in the direction they are pointing us towards. We are on a large summit plateau with 3sub-summits. One to the south, one to the southwest and one straight ahead, to the west. Together we take the last few hundred steps toward this last one, as it is the highest and therefore the true summit of Elbrus. Nikolai and Oleg gracefully step aside and give us the honor to walk up the last 10 vertical meters: 10.30 and we are on the summit of Europe!
Saskia and I discharge with a loud outcry of joy; suddenly our legs are firm again. The temperature is exactly right and the altitude has no effect on us. Look mom, I am on top of the world!
Most of the valleys surrounding the mountain are filled with clouds by now but the beautiful Caucasus peaks are poking through proudly. This is one of the things that make it all worthwhile: independent of the beauty of the trip itself, the feeling you get on these high spots where you can only go down cannot be matched by anything else.
The weather is still nice and we take a bunch of pictures in changing compositions, standing around the summit marker: a metal triangle with a metal axe and gun. In the old days Lenin used to guard the summit, but it is feared that he took an involuntarily nosedive off the north side of the mountain when the wall came down…Daniel, one of the two young Americans left his picture on the summit and is smiling from the marker.
Niall gets out his satellite phone and family and colleagues are being called from the summit of Europe with incredible clarity. Nikolai is really amazed:
"I have seen many strange things on this mountain, including a Landrover that was dropped by a helicopter and crashed on the way down, but you are the first people I see calling from the summit!"

After spending half an hour on the summit we decide to go down again; the snow has become quite soft due to the strong sun and stick under our crampons. As it is safer without them we take them off and carefully begin our descent. The exhaustion is taking over Saskia and on the steep part towards the saddle she suddenly gets scared. But Nikolai already noticed it; he takes out a short rope and guides her securely down. I am glad I did bring my axe and use it to go down the soft snow on long traverse safely.
When we arrive at the saddle the sun has reached it as well and the temperature feels tropical. All the water is finished; again I brought too much chocolate and not enough water!

Niall and Oleg continue down immediately, I follow a few moments later with Nikolai and Saskia. Even when going down the length of the trail is very tough and Saskia softly starts crying from exhaustion. Even though the normal route on Elbrus is technically not difficult, the length and the altitude combined with the ever-changing weather make it a dangerous mountain.
We encounter one little cloud on our way, but the view is mostly good and around 14.00 we reach camp again. Nikolai and Oleg continue down right away, but we feel too tired to pack up everything and decide to stay on the mountain for one more night. In the afternoon the wind s suddenly increase in strength en we have to crawl inside to finish the cooking of our pasta with spicy tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. While we enjoy our meal the wind turns into a storm and we have to get out again to fortify our tents. Normally the winds are predominantly coming from the west, hence the U-shaped form of the rock walls surrounding our site. But now it coming from the opposite side and the rocks don't offer much protection anymore and I have to crawl out of my warm sleeping bag during the evening to fix some extra rope between the tent and some large boulders. The storm shakes the tent all night long, but it stays in place and doesn't damage during the restless night.

Priut 11- Azau, Wednesday 7th July

After the stormy night the skies are clear again, but the wind has only dropped in temperature and hardly in strength. We have to wear full gear and take much care while packing one tent at a time so nothing blows away. With our full packs we quickly step down the Gabarashi glacier toward the Barrels. The chairlift is not moving and no attendant is visible. We don't feel like waiting and continue down the ski slopes to Mir.
There we take the cable car down; inside we get much attention form the local friendly day tourists. At first they give these weird foreigners with their whitened noses and full gore-tex gear some suspicious looks, but soon they understand where we were coming from and we get lots of friendly thumbs up. A quick change in the lower station and a few minutes later we arrive in Azau where we check in the little hotel. It's lunchtime: more pancakes, schaslicks, Fanta & cola, hurray!
After a nice shower we use the afternoon to make a really nice hike trough the beautiful green forests along the river and end up in Terskol. We just enter the little round café for a drink when Oleg enters:
"Hi Oleg, how are you doing?"
"Good, but as I am returning home, I wanted to say goodbye to you."
"? But how did you know we would be here, in this bar in this village?"
"Oh, I already searched in Azau and thought you might be here."
No use arguing there as we were here indeed.
When Oleg leaves we are approached by an American who sits behind us and overheard our conversation; he heard us mentioning a mountain and wondered if we climbed Elbrus, as he had the same plan for this week. His Russian girlfriend clearly was less interested and looked quite sad after our stories…

When we step outside into the warm air we notice the son of Anatoli, the owner of the Azau hotel. He just parked in front of the post office and offers us a ride back to Azau in his old Lada with a ski pole instead of a gear shift…

We get another tasty meal in the small hotel and just when we want to call it a night Nikolai and Natascha invite us for a drink. They brought two friends of which one, another Oleg, isn't just a Nuclear Physicist, but also a 9-fold Russian climbing champion and 40fold all-round mountaineering champion. When I ask on which mountain he has lost his finger he tells me he already lost when he was a kid, by playing with an old grenade. So he has become a climbing champion with 9 fingers…wow.
Natascha refills the glasses and raises hers; then she starts a long sentence in Russian that is greeted with approving nods from the other guys. Then we empty the glasses in one sip. When they are being refilled (immediately) I ask Natascha what the toast meant:
" Hey Natascha, what did we toast to?"
"It's an old local toast that translated will be something like: may you have as much happiness as there is snow on the summit of Mt Elbrus and may you have as less trouble as there are drops left in your glass!"
Of course the repeating of this sentence means that we have to empty the glasses again…
Saskia and I get another bonus toast from the other friend who doesn't speak any English, Natascha translates:
"He says he wants to toast again for you as you are from the Netherlands and for you it is a lot harder to get from sea-level to the Elbrus summit!"
It makes us blush, and quickly we empty our glasses.

When the second bottle is finished as well we are invited to their hotel room where we are served some tea and a lot of great stories about mountains and the Russian climbing team. As in the communist area it was forbidden to travel abroad unless you were a top athlete, many women wanted to get into the national climbing team. So they though up a few exams, one of which was the Elbrus run: everybody assembled at the Priut 11 and when given the signal, they had to run to the summit. As Natascha finished second in two and a half hours (!) she made the team.
After many beautiful stories about Russia, Nepal and Kamchatka we head off to our room across the hall and sleep like logs.

Baksan Valley, Thursday 8th July

After a great sleep we wake up fresh and after breakfast we hike through the woods to the Cheget sporthotel where we going to meet Nikolai at the local wool market. Besides wool it's also a little bit a fruit market as a little really old lady sells cherries and watermelons.
We buy a few woolen sweaters and socks, but trying them on for size while it is 30 degrees outside has made us thirsty and we buy 2 kilos of cherries and a large melon. We eat it immediately together with Nikolai and Oleg and enjoy life: a warm sun, a sweet watermelon and high snowy peaks all around… hmm!!!

We continue our hike towards another mineral spring where the healthy (?) water emerges carbonated and leaves a red trail of iron on the riverbanks. But the promised restaurant is totally abandoned, the only activity around here is a family that is refilling old plastic bottles with the mineral water. They almost have the trunk of their car completely filled and will sell it on one of the markets down the road.
We walk back along the hole-filled road while the sun mercilessly burns our shoulders. Along the way we see many half-built hotels and other large buildings that were started during the communist plan-economy, but now there is no money to finish them. This entire area is perfect for tourism, but both the investors and the tourists are scared away by de nearby Chechnya war and stories about local mafia, so I guess that the valley will keep this sad ghost-town look for quite a while.
We find a little restaurant next to the road; they are out of schaslicks, but we are surprised by some fried meaty things and a big salad!
In front of the restaurant two elderly ladies sit selling drinks; they have about 15 bottles sorted on size. Further investigation reveals that there is nothing without alcohol and we slowly continue to Terskol, where we again get a ride from Anatoli's son back to Azau.

During dinner that same son comes in and enters a videotape into the large player and turns up the volume. It is an illegal copy of Schwarzeneggers Eraser, clearly filmed inside a theatre and all the voices are translated on the spot and spoken by a low-voiced Russian, doing both the male as well as the female voices. We think that we better spend our time on something else like a warm shower and a needed shave and finish our dinner quickly. Just when we crawl under our sheets Nikolai knock on the door and invites us for a special bottle of wine and more stories and of course this cannot be resisted…

Baksan Valley - Moscow, Friday 9th of July

We sadly say goodbye to all of our new friends and get in the old van that will take us to the airport. During the trip to Mineralnye Vody we are stopped and checked many times; at the unofficial border post of Kabardino-Balkaria (disguised as a 'weighing station', only there are no scales…) we are stopped again but the magical word 'tourists' gets us on the road again. But I am glad that I dropped my original plan: driving all the way from Amsterdam by car; the lack of good fuel, roads, spare parts and mechanics probably would have resulted in either getting stuck somewhere halfway or getting robbed without ever seeing these magnificent mountains.
The two-lane road to Mineralnye is being used as a three-lane one and even sometimes as a 4 lane, but we arrive at the airport in one piece where large posters of Cindy Crawford and loud music from Tarkan illustrate some of the many cultural influences in this region. Nikolai has to save us at the luggage check as our axes, crampons, stove and iron plates in our boot soles freak out the guards, but when they are being told that we are mountaineers they relax again. It's still over 30 degrees and we are forced to wait in a hot steel building before we can board our plane where again all of our tickets are being checked.

When after the lunch (a tasty salami sandwich) the stewardess with the drinks approaches I learned my lesson; when she asks me want I want to drink I answer friendly:

"A cola please!"
She looks at me angrily and asks cross:
"Fanta or mineral water?"

I take a Fanta and smile.


Summit night! Nikolai, Oleg, Niall & Saskia

The shadow of mighty Elbrus over the West Caucasus

Harry on the summit, 5642m asl, the highest point in Europe!

Calling home from the summit using Iridium!

View west from the summit of Elbrus

Mt Cheget as seen from the Baksan Valley near Terskol


Nikolai Cherni, our famous Russian guide, over 60 years old, has climbed 5 8000+ peaks!



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