Well, I’m back to reality after my expedition to Mount Elbrus in Russia – Europe’s highest peak at 5642 metres. I’d been planning this since January 2018 and the last couple of months before the trip flew by.
On the evening of 3 July, I met the rest of my team along with our mountain leader and doctor at Heathrow Airport and we flew overnight to Moscow and then on to Mineralnye Vody close to the Caucasus mountains. An hour bus ride took us to our hotel in the town of Kislodovsk where we were booked in for one night. During the afternoon we visited a kit hire shop to collect a few items each of us were missing, then had a briefing in the hotel about what would happen the following day.
Day 1 – Friday 5 July
After breakfast four off-road vehicles collected us from the hotel and took us on the 3-hour ride into the heart of the Caucasus mountains, along rough tracks clinging to the sides of the mountains, fording a river, and eventually arriving at Base Camp where we would spend the next few days. According to our leader, this Base Camp is one of the best in the world and I had to agree when I discovered I’d be staying in a hut with bunks with two other ladies, there was a bar, games room, showers (although mostly they weren’t hot), and even wifi!
In the afternoon we spent a few hours taking a gentle hike to visit some waterfalls, before spending the rest of the day playing cards and dominos in the bar, followed by a darts competition.
Day 2 – Saturday 6 July
After a breakfast of porridge, cheese, salami, bread, and savoury donuts that tasted like Yorkshire puddings(!) we set off on a 5-hour acclimatisation hike to a spot known as Mushroom Rocks. We were somewhat breathless due to the increasing altitude, but felt great on returning to Base Camp. The sun blazed down and the temperature was well into the 20s. After a late lunch we had a briefing on what to expect tomorrow and packed our kit ready to carry a good portion of it up to High Camp. Dinner that evening was chicken curry and mashed potatoes with salad.
Day 3 – Sunday 7 July
We had a bright sunny start as we set off for High Camp, a trek that would take about 4.5 hours carrying heavy packs. My equipment weighed approximately 10 kilos including my water supply, which rapidly lessened as we ascended. This journey was very tough and we were glad to find a lunch ready for us at High Camp. We had our first encounter with snow as High Camp is situated just below the snowline and the glacier.
Following this, we unloaded our kit and returned to Base Camp with much lighter loads. The altitude began to affect me on the way down with some chest tightness and queasiness but the good doctor of the expedition kept an eye on me and back at Base Camp, I had my heart and lung functions checked, and oxygen saturation levels, which were all excellent. I was soon feeling as good as new and the short trip to higher altitude (3650 metres) helped me and everyone else acclimatise.
Day 4 – Monday 8 July
We left Base Camp for the final time with the remainder of our kit. Porters were available to help carry this if you wanted to hire them and I took advantage of this to ensure I wouldn’t struggle so much, following my issues with the altitude the previous day. However, having acclimatised well previously, I had no problems. Our accommodation at High Camp (for me and my two “room mates” anyway) was a small wooden hut perched in a boulder field. Another similar hut housed three of the other trekkers, and the remainder had camp beds within the main building which included a kitchen and dining room. Our area of High Camp was for us only, with other groups of trekkers a couple of hundred metres away. No such thing as showers or wifi up here, but the main hut was warm and we had plenty of games to keep us occupied in the evenings.
Day 5 – Tuesday 9 July
After breakfast we kitted ourselves up with several layers of clothing, gaiters, crampons, climbing harnesses and ice axes. Our mission was to practise walking on the glacier and trek up to an area known as Lenz Rocks at 4700 metres. We were roped together in three teams and learned how to use the ice axes to help us on steep icy ground, before pushing on up the mountainside to our destination. This was a very tough climb, not helped by poor visibility and a hail storm at one point. We reached our destination after about 4 hours and took a rest stop in the snow. I had found this much tougher than expected and began to realise that I had a slim chance of making the summit. Due to weather conditions, our window for summitting would be narrow meaning speed of ascent would be important and I was concerned I couldn’t go fast enough to achieve this, especially when we were advised that summit night would involve 2000 metres of ascent at once – returning to Lenz Rocks first (4 hours), then a continuation of the climb up the mountain’s saddle (6 hours), before the final push for the summit (another 2 hours). I discussed with the leader and doctor and decided it would not be in my best interests, or the interests of the team, to attempt this as I would invariably not make it and need to take one of the guides away from the team to return me to High Camp. A second member of the group would be staying behind as well due to a leg injury.
Day 6 – Wednesday 10 July
During the morning, we went out onto the glacier in crampons and with ice axes, to practise ice axe arrest techniques, used if you slip and fall and begin to slide down the mountain. This proved to be great fun, sliding around on an icy slope and after we’d finished our “class” ending with a snowball fight like a bunch of kids. The rest of the day was spent eating and sleeping in preparation for a summit attempt during the night. I lent some of my equipment to the others (gaiters, water bottles, hand warmers, lip suncream) to ensure everyone had enough supplies when I wouldn’t be using them myself. At midnight, we all got up and went for breakfast – eggy bread and porridge!
The team spent the next half hour preparing for the summit attempt, checking kit, putting on layers of clothing, and ensuring their backpacks were filled with food and water and more layers of clothes!
Day 7 – Thursday 11 July
At 1.15am I stood outside, warmly wrapped, in strong winds whipping up snow and hurling it sideways, while the team put on crampons and harnesses, switched on their head torches, and walked off into the night towards Lenz Rocks. Then I went back to bed! A few hours later, around dawn, I heard voices and assumed one or two of the summitters had decided to return early, as I would no doubt have done. A few hours later, when I got up, I discovered the whole team had returned without even reaching Lenz Rocks, due to dangerous weather conditions, with winds of over 60 kmph whipping up snow to almost zero visibility, and windchill factor of -30 degrees. Everyone was exhausted, with soaked equipment, and the mountain weather report showed the conditions would only worsen over the next couple of days. Our summit window was gone. Although disappointed, everyone remained in high spirits. The experience so far had been incredible and we’d enjoyed every minute of it. The rest of the day involved relaxing, playing games, and eating, then getting an early night.
Day 8 – Friday 12 July
After breakfast, we set off back to Base Camp with all our equipment. The start of the journey was cold, windy, and snowing, but as we descended out of the clouds, the snow turned to light rain, then stopped altogether, although the temperature at Base Camp was much lower than it had been when we left. We arrived at lunch time and my two “room mates” and I were allocated our original hut again. I dived into the showers and was lucky enough to manage a very quick cold scrub before the water supply failed due to the pipe pumping water in from the river being damaged by the rising water levels.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing and playing games, then got an early night before our return to town on Saturday.
Day 9 – Saturday 13 July
The off-road vehicles collected us in the morning and our perilous journey back to town was even more exciting that the original trip to Base Camp, due to the weather having caused the river level to rise and the rough tracks to be turned into a sea of mud in places. The expert drivers guided the vehicles safely through the mountains and we arrived back at the hotel in one piece, absolutely delighted to have the use of toilets and baths once again! We had a few hours free to relax and scrub ourselves from head to foot, before an evening meal out on the town to celebrate. Despite not having reached the summit, we were given certificates for having reached 4700 metres on Mount Elbrus and medals for taking part in the challenge, which was a wonderful surprise.
Later that evening, we were collected by the airport transport and returned to Mineralnye Vody airport for our overnight flight home.
On Sunday 14 July, we landed at Heathrow late morning, said our goodbyes, and scattered to the four winds. My final leg of the journey involved an hour on the underground across London, then an hour on a train to my nearest town where my partner picked me up in the car. This was an incredible adventure, I made some wonderful new friends, and gained valuable skills negotiating tough terrain. Heres to the next adventure!