In 2008 I climbed Kilimanjaro with a group of close friends, I had no problems with altitude and felt strong. I was excited and inspired, I considered myself a mountaineer.
But in 2009 that idea was about to be tested when I embarked on mountain number two, Mount Elbrus in the Northern Caucasus region of Russia, known to be one of the most deadly mountains due to the numbers of deaths each year. One of the major differences between Kilimanjaro and Elbrus, is Elbrus is ice capped with 22 glaciers crawling from it's slopes, Kilimanjaro is rapidly losing its beautiful snowy top due to various conflicting theories.
It was one year to the day that Russia and Georgia had been at war and we were climbing a mountain that was slap bang in the middle of the warzone. Amongst others, I was with my good friends, Iestyn Keyes and Take a Challenge founder, Chris Brisley and my little sis, Joanna.
We started off with a few acclimatisation hikes in and around the Baksan valley, this was already unfamiliar to me as we had just set off towards the summit on Kilimanjaro, I was already asking myself “am I really a mountaineer?”
After a few days of acclimatising, we set off on the mountain proper, we could see way above us the military look out post we had walked to the day before and I was looking forward to a good slog back there, our minibus pulled up outside a building, or more accurately the entrance to a ski lift. Not quite what I was expecting as an accomplished mountaineer but I guess we had already walked 1000m higher so it wasn’t technically cheating. So we began to unload our gear, there was a fair amount but not unmanageable, in the lift we got.
Elbrus has a number of mountain huts available and we were going to be using these, but I wasn’t expecting our first one to have hot running water, proper beds and to sell beer. We were at 2900m. We dumped our gear and went for a good hike up to a glacier. It was an amazing site, everyone was in good spirits but we were beginning to notice the cold and a few people were showing symptoms caused by the altitude, mainly headaches, but no sign of what was to come. I was feeling exhilarated, I was totally in my element and constantly being reminded of why I enjoy the outdoors so much, as far as the eye could see was peak after peak, glacier after glacier, it was beautiful. One of our guides, Sasha, said to me “last year I was here, there were bombs going off everywhere, bang bang bang, it was beautiful”, I guess his idea of beauty differed slightly from mine.
After a good night’s sleep, our first at altitude, we set off for our next hut named ‘the Barrels’, this was rumoured to be giant oil drums converted into bunk houses, so was going to be interesting. They were at 3900m. We had to transport all our gear up too, being a ski mountain there were lifts going up as far as the Barrels but thankfully we only used them for our gear and hiked up. Our pace was noticeably slower than previously but there were no great problems. We started to pile on the layers though, as the temperature was permanently below freezing. The Barrels didn’t disappoint, they were literally huge oil drums with doors cut into the end, each containing 4 bunks, all shorter than me. If this was what being a mountaineer was like, I was sure I must be one.
At 3900m we are above the snow line and have a further 1700m to go before the summit. We could also clearly see a trodden path up onto the saddle at 5400m, everything above us was ice and would require crampons all the way. We spent the next two days going back and forth to our final hut, known as ‘Priot 11’, this was only 200m above the Barrels at 4100m, but finding our feet on ice coupled with bad weather coming in we took our time.
Once based up in Priut 11, we were expecting a long wait before our summit attempt. A group of Americans had been in there for 3 nights and hadn’t gone anywhere, their window of opportunity had finished, and ours didn’t look promising. Despite a dozen warm bodies lying side by side, inside the stone built hut it was -11 Celsius, outside was bitter. Our plan was to wake around 3am to assess our chances and get going by 4.
To our surprise, it was a beautiful clear night when we awoke, and knocking on -30 Celsius. In full down gear, plastic boots with crampons and axes at the ready we set off on the final slog. After an hour or so we had started to warm up, drinking as often as we had the chance but basically trudging our way upwards in a traversed zigzag until we hit the base of the western summit, here we watched the sun rise over the valley far below us, it was incredible.
The next section looked straight forward enough until we got started, there wasn’t any room to zigzag as we had a crevasse field to our left and our right was straight up to the western summit making the angle we were climbing very tough indeed. People were really beginning to struggle, the altitude was very evident and one member of the team decided he had gone far enough, exhaustion had taken him. A few people were irritable, including Chris, but nothing out of character considering what we were half way through. We continued over a rise and then dropped slightly down onto the saddle between the 2 summits of Elbrus.
After taking on water and food and having a little breather we continued, we had a very steep rise ahead, in about 300m distance we climbed a further 200m. The group had split into sub-groups by this stage, myself and Matt Caldwell were leading the way, with a group of about 3 directly behind, and the remaining 6 bringing up the rear. Matt and I reached the plateau and very gingerly, stopping every 10m because of the altitude, walked our way to the summit proper. We had reached a height of 5643m.
Describing how I felt can only be partially appreciated, you will only know the feeling once you’ve done it for yourself. One of the greatest senses of achievement I’ve experienced. Matt and I took a lot of photos, did a lot of man hugging and basked in the now reasonably strong sun. We sat there for nearly 45 minutes, increasingly wondering where everyone else was. To our relief, just as we were about to head down to investigate, the rest of our team started to emerge. It was a bit like Noah’s ark, two by two. First my sister and Iestyn, more hugging and photos. A short time after that we saw a large Union flag flying in the distance, it was attached to Chris who was accompanied by Graham Burgess. When Chris arrived he didn’t look totally with it, but we were all so exhilarated we hardly noticed, besides it was all downhill from here. What took us 9 hours to get up would take around 2 to get back down.
Off we paced, I was in the front group, we would get back onto the saddle and regroup before the heading back all together to Priut 11 and a cup of tea. We reached the saddle in no more than 15 minutes where we sat down and took on some fluids and food. The sun was feeling good and we were even able to remove our down jackets. After comparing notes chatting and telling each other how tired we were, we realised we had been waiting for quite some time. We were missing 3 people, Sasha (one of our guides), Matt and Chris. Our expedition leader, Gavin Bate, went off to investigate, we were to remain there until he returns. An hour later and still nothing, what had taken us 15 minutes was now nearly 2 hours, something had surely gone wrong as we couldn’t even see them coming off the plateau. What could we do? We were beginning to formalise a plan of action, when from a completely different direction, we saw the remaining members of our team coming towards us with Chris slumped over shoulders of Matt and Sasha.
Chris had collapsed on the summit plateau just before it dropped off towards the saddle, to make matters worse, he was unable to walk on the lead foot needed to get down the very difficult 200m steep and, Matt and Sasha the only two remaining on the summit, had created an alternative route, checking the snow and ice wasn't going to give way during the descent and using ropes to to bring him down, he and they looked exhausted, that was the first few hundred metres what about the next few kilomters.
They lay him down, he looked in a bad way and was barely conscious, he was rambling incoherently and couldn’t stand up unaided. This was serious. There were some very tired people in our team who could barely carry their own gear, let alone a 90kg man.
Joanna and I, knowing Chris well and both feeling reasonably strong stepped forward. We dispersed our gear amongst those you could handle it, Iestyn and Graham took the load despite being on their last legs. Gavin roped himself to Chris in case the two of us dropped him, we picked him up and off we went, literally dragging his feet behind us. I thought going up was tough, carrying Chris on a sheet of ice down from 5400m to 3900m was the toughest challenge I had had to date. There were multiple stops lots of swearing by us and gurgling by Chris, we ran out of water as we hadn’t anticipated this level of exhaustion, but salvation came eventually in the form of mountain rescue...less than 50 metres from our destination.
We were exhausted, thankful, exhilarated and thirsty, it could have been very different. In normal conditions for that time of year, the weather comes in dropping the temperature like a stone at around 2pm, we had planned our summit to be back in our hut by then, we got back at around 7pm. For some reason the weather remained good all day, our guide Sasha said bluntly, “if the weather had been normal, Chris would still be up there”. It really brought it home. Chris was taken down to lower altitudes and the rest of us stayed the night at Priut 11. I was convinced now; I love the mountains but was some way off being a mountaineer.
Nick Merry was a founding partner in Take a Challenge, he has participated in numerous Triathlon, Running and Cycling events over the years. He has been on the teams of high altitude mountain expeditions including Kilimanjaro (19,341ft), Elbrus (18,842ft) and Muztagh Ata (24,757ft) as well as much smaller peaks around the UK and the Alps. Click here to read more about Nick's story.