Most people climb to the summit of Mount Elbrus in about eight hours. It took me 14 years.
As students in southern Russia in the early 1990s, my friend Simon and I would stare through my kitchen window and marvel at its rounded twin peaks and icing sugar-smooth slopes, 60km away in the Caucasus. At 5,642m Elbrus is the highest mountain in Europe, one of the seven summits coveted by mountaineers who want to reach the highest point of each continent. My mountaineering experience amounted to a few hill climbs in the English Lake District and Wales’ Snowdonia but I promised myself I would return one day.
Only a few hundred western Europeans complete the climb each year, yet it is much less technically challenging than its lower Alpine rival, Mont Blanc: its cone shape and smooth sides make it accessible even for inexperienced peak baggers like me.
Simon chose a Russian outdoor activity specialist because “they have a 75 percent success rate” and were cheaper than UK-based operators. They also allowed us to travel as a small group — just me and five male mountaineering mates and marathon runners — rather than join a larger team.
Pasha, our guide, greeted us with traditional Caucasian warmth, and a traditional Caucasian smile with a shining gold tooth, at Mineral Waters airport, a two-hour flight from Moscow and four hours by minibus from Azau, the main ski resort at the foot of Elbrus. But Courchevel this is not. Azau is, after all, in Kabardino-Balkaria, a semi-autonomous region of the Russian Federation, which grants it the freedom to be completely ignored, financially at least, by the government in Moscow.
First, we needed to acclimatize. Pasha led us on a gentle three-hour walk up Mount Cheget to around 3,000m from where we got our first view of Elbrus — brilliant white and forbidding. On the second day, we reached 3,600m on the romantically named All Communist Union Party mountain.
On the third day, we took the cable car to base camp. Priut-11 refuge, in the shadow of Elbrus’ twin peaks, is basic but adequate. It was once a diesel hut that supplied a state-of-the-art three-story hotel built in 1939. Campers now use the carcass of the ruined hotel as a windbreak.
Mountain views and our brilliant cook Nadya, a brass-blonde Ukrainian and nine-time summiteer, more than compensated for a bunkroom the size of a London cab. At 4,160m my first night sleeping at high altitude was fitful, but acclimatization is only one factor in summit success. In the Caucasus, the brightest day can be transformed by a cloak of cloud within minutes. The summit window is therefore narrow, between June and August. The sunny day before our planned ascent looked promising as we practiced walking on glass-blue ice in crampons and ice axe arrests.
At our last supper, Nadya revived our flagging appetites with chicken and apricot stew, but warned: “Just remember, it’s not hard, it’s just long, very long.” I decided to take the snowmobile the first 300m from base camp to the start of the summit climb with Zhenya, our second guide, and Simon, who didn’t want to let me “cheat alone.”
The Milky Way shone brightly as we set off at 5am. Zhenya stamped out a cigarette under his crampon and advised: “Relax your legs and think lazy steps.” We moved at a moonwalk pace. My heart was trying to beat an escape through my rib cage, my lungs struggled to catch the freezing air. Nobody had the energy to waste on talking. The only sound was the rhythmic hack of axes and the dull crunch of crampons on ice.