Mount Elbrus is an extinct volcano in the Caucasus mountains in southern Russia, close to the border with Georgia. At 18,510ft / 5,642m high, it’s imposing bulk dominates its surroundings.In July 2010 I attempted to become the first person with Cerebral Palsy to stand on the summit of Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. If successful I would also be the first to climb the north face, and the first to complete a full north to south traverse of the mountain. While we were not able to summit on that occasion, having to retreat just 500m below the summit, I resolved to return and apply the lessons learned for another attempt in 2012. And so we did.
Below is my full report, but first here is a short film from my video diary from the trip.
I returned to Russia in August 2012 thanks to a combination of generous grants, sponsorship, donations and contributions from all manner of people and organisations including the British Mountaineering Council whose grant gave the expedition a real sense of significance and legitimacy, and sponsorship from the Coaching Academy and Royal Sun Alliance group. Without this support I would not have had this opportunity.
For this expedition I would join a group of mountaineers from the UK and USA in a commercial trip operated by the excellent Adventure Alternative. This adventure travel company is simply different to any other company I’ve dealt with before, with a different and very much ‘people centred’ model. Headed by the frankly extraordinary Gavin Bate, I genuinely couldn’t hope to be in safer, more capable hands. He would join the trip and would climb with me, along with the equally impressive figure of Nigel Vardy – ‘Mr Frostbite‘, the first British climber to summit the 7 highest mountains on the 7 largest islands in the world. With a team like that around me, and with the learning from 2010, we would be in a stronger position on the mountain.
Part of the preparation involved sourcing some oxygen cylinders from the Russian company ‘Poisk‘. They have been providing cylinders for mountaineering expeditions for a very long time and are generally regarded as the best around. However, oxygen is very rarely used on Elbrus, and so sourcing and then shipping to the mountain gave Sasha (who runs the Adventure Alternative operations in Russia) considerable challenges, and the seemingly simple issue of sending 2 cylinders from St Petersburg to Pyatagorsk by train involved about 14 people, all of whom wanted payment. So the cost increased, by thanks to the saintly patience and persistence of Sasha, I had my oxygen.
I should also say at this point a big thank you to Ted Atkins at Top Out Oxygeneering who supplied me with the best mask and regulator on the market. Ted has been continually developing and improving this system and for me it’s the only system I would use. It worked perfectly, and was a major part of achieving what we achieved on this trip.
Nigel and I flew out together, and were met at Mineralnye Vody by Gavin and Sasha and the rest of the team. On my previous attempt in 2010, I was guided by the guides from Alpindustria including Sergey Isaev. Imagine my delight as I walked out from the airport building and heard “Dave?” called behind me, and when I turned, there was the warm and beaming face of my friend Sergey waiting for more clients. It completely made my day to bump into him again, and we managed to speak again later at the hotel in Pyatagorsk.
Day One: We would leave the hotel and the vestages of civilisation for the 4 hour drive to base camp. It was a quicker and easier journey than I remember from last time, this time in the classic Russian 4×4 mini-buses. They are amazing machines, though ours did struggle with the slippery muddy track onto the base camp plateau. I did offer to pop home and bring ‘Kermit’, my Land Rover, to help tow, but it may have taken a bit too long to get back…
After arriving and airing / drying tents and sorting out who would share with whom, we all spend the afternoon on a first acclimatisation trek from base camp to Mushroom Rocks. It takes a few hours to reach the rocks whose curious shapes were formed by glaciation and the related flow of water, crossing two volcanic plateau’s in the process. It was damp and cloudy, and the weather continued to hide the summit from our gaze for couple of days.
Climbing from the first to the second volcanic plateau is a short but steep section of gravelly and rocky zig-zagging path. While getting to the Rocks (another 40 minutes or so beyond the second plateau) would be good for my acclimatisation, I felt it would be better to conserve energy as the next day would be long and very hard, carrying equipment from basecamp (2,570m) to the high huts (3,570m), before returning to basecamp in the evening. So from the 2nd plateau, Gavin and I began the descent to basecamp while the rest of the group went on to the rocks.
Day Two began early and ended late. Weather conditions were difficult as it was cold and wet, and we were helping with the carry of kit. I was struggling and having to work harder than I had anticipated, but the whole of the rest of the group were a huge help and support to me through the day. They helped coach me through the difficult boulder-strewn terrain and crucially kept me moving when I needed it.
I became very emotional when we reached the huts as there were times when I really wasn’t sure I would get there, and then still have the descent to come. It all took far longer than anyone expected, and it was late afternoon when we set off back to base camp, arriving, after I’d had a couple of fairly impressive tumbles, soaking wet, cold and very tired at about 11pm, 14 hours after we’d started. Fortunately, though it may be a little cocky to say, I had the forethought to pack my headtorch…
Day Three: The morning dawned bright and sunny – the weather had turned for the very much better. We were all very tired, and so this would be a light day. While the rest of the group went for an amble down the valley to the hot springs, I stayed in basecamp, resting up and looking after the kit we were all desperate to dry out. Today was the first day we saw the rest of the mountain, and what a sight she is…
Day Four: An important day as we would be leaving basecamp and would not return until after summit day. We would therefore need to take any remaining equipment we would need up to the huts, but mercifully we would be staying there and not be returning in the evening this time.
I found the day and the long drag to the huts hard work though we all were benefitting massively from the acclimatisation 2 days earlier and the rest on day 3. The holding good weather was a huge added bonus but again the last hour of ascent took it’s toll on me and again on reaching the huts I became very emotional. I was wrestling with doubting demons, questioning my personal capacity to complete this challenge. But again, the team of people on the trip we magnificent and kept me going, buoyed me up and welcomed me into camp. It was here that Gavin unveiled his plan for the group and for me.
Day 5 we would all go to Lens rocks (about 4,700m, where we had put a camp in 2010) with some equipment to leave, return to the huts. Day 6, we would all go back to Lens Rocks and camp. This is the clever bit. On day 7 the rest of the group would go from Lens Rocks to the Summit and return to the Huts, while Gavin and I, along with an extra guide Gavin had drafted in for the day, would go to the Saddle between the East and West Peak. It seems that in June a group of people had built a very small hut on the saddle at about 5,400m. Gavin and I would stay there for the night and go to the summit on day 8, and would descend to the south completing the traverse. Excited? I was ecstatic…
Fast forward to Day Six. The carry to Lens Rocks the previous day had gone well though I had found it all very hard work in the snow which we were now permanently working in. While others thrive in the white stuff, for me, the relentless stepping up, placing the foot, adjusting balance, sinking in, losing balance, re-adjusting, stumbling over, picking myself up again and lifting for the next step, is a battle with the mountain and with myself and my inner demons in every single stride. But if it were easy, would I be doing it? No, probably not.
I arrived into camp on Day Six some time behind the rest of the group in the mid-afternoon. Tents were already in place and all I had to do was to take off my crampons, boots and shell layer and crawl into my sleeping bag. Which was handy because that was just about all I was capable of doing. Once in the tent, Nigel and Paul set to melting snow for tea and getting some food together. Among other things, we had been given some tins (but no tin opener) and a huge salami without a knife. We did have our ice axes though so Nigel and Paul hacked away at that with impressive zeal and accuracy. Sleep came soon and swiftly, necessary as we would be up at 4am to start the next stage at 5.30am.
Day 7: One of the problems with gas stoves in cold and snowy conditions at altitude is they lose efficiency. Snow melts very slowly, and you get surprisingly little water at the end of an hour melting heaps of the stuff. The result for us that morning was no fresh tea, but we had made flasks the previous evening.
As we left camp, I felt the full benefit of using the first oxygen cylinder, and went off at a rate. Too high a rate as I’d made the classic schoolboy error of not reducing the flow rate on the Top Out mask and regulator, so within a couple of hours I was out of gas and boy did I know it… The last 300m of ascent to the hut took an age, and I was moving so slowly it was agonising. But Gavin remained patient and kept me going forward, encouraging me with each step.
We reached the hut about lunchtime. We were delighted when we heard the voices of the rest of the group as they came off the summit and passed the hut, stopping for a chat with us as they did. Elated and full of encouragement for me to do the same. Unfortunately Gavin and I had a problem. The stove we had was broken, so we could not melt snow for fresh water and tea, or heat any food. We only had a few snacks and the flasks and the water we’d made yesterday at Lens Rocks, and that would have to last us through summiting and descending to the Barrells on the south side. Not a perfect situation but one we would simply have to deal with.
Day 8: We learned from the oxygen error and set my flow rate to 1ltr as we left the hut in darkness at about 5am, aiming to be the first on the summit that day. The reduced flow was noticeable as my progress was somewhat circumspect. The route from the saddle leaves only a couple of hundred metres of ascent to go, but it’s quite a steep rising traverse, with a fair drop back to the saddle. We had reached a point just below where the route levels off a little with about 100m of ascent to the summit, but with the altitude, fatigue and reduced food intake over the last 2 days in particular, I had simply found my limit and could go no further. Unable to kick a step to secure myself, my balance was shot and I was unable to cut a step with my axe or dig the shaft in properly, and then the red hot poker of cramp burning through my arms and legs left Gavin unable to move to help me as he was holding me onto the mountain.
Miraculously, salvation came in the form of two guides leading an early ascent party from the south. They helped Gavin first to secure me and then to turn me and descend to the saddle and relative safety. A little rest and a little fluid, and then the descent continues, feeling stronger with each step, each inch of altitude lost.
Russian people are stoic. They have a strong identification with struggle, very much understandable through the history of the people and the nation, and to say you have earned the respect of a Russian as a westerner is a serious claim to make. But descending the narrow snow path on their highest mountain, every single group of climbers stepped off the path to let me by. I like to think they did so out of respect for what I had attempted, though it’s equally possible they just didn’t want to be the one that gets clattered by me as I stumble into them…
By the time we reached Pashtukov Rocks (about 4,400m) the sun was beating down and we were in need of a break. We could see the Priut hut and the Barrells, only a few more hours to go so we stopped for chocolate and some fluids. A young couple who had been working as guides on the mountain through the summer saw us and came across. They had been sitting nearby admiring the view, and were heading down to their tent near Priut hut, and insisted on taking my pack for me. I could collect it as we passed a little later and we readily agreed.
As we dropped through Pashtukov Rocks we had the privilege of meeting one of the foremost mountaineers and mountain guides in the world, Vern Tejas ( http://7summits.com/statistics/Tejas), who was leading a group of Emerati climbers, for some of whom this was their first experience of snow.
Then one of the highlights of the whole trip. As we approached Priut Hut, the couple who took my bag re-appeared. In a gesture of unforgettable generosity they were carrying a plate of bread and salami, and a flask of hot tea. We were almost out of fluids and it was now getting hot so this was enormously welcome, completely unexpected and one of the nicest kindest moments I’ve experienced in the mountains.
The descent to the Barrels is one which gives the most magnificent spectacular panoramic views across the Caucasus range, though the inevitable mess and debris associated with a Russian ski resort makes arrival something of an anti-climax. From there the descent to Terksol is via two connected cable cars after a rather hairy chair-lift. There was a queue of probably 80 people waiting to board the rattling chairs, and the first thing that struck us was the challenge of explaining to the bored and surly looking Russian running the chair lift that we would need to have our rucksacks loaded onto the chairs after we did – each chair can take one person or one rucksack. Oh yeah, and that health and safety was an after-thought. Oh, and the concept of queueing has limited resonance in Russia.
So we stood and queued while some others by-passed the queue and went straight for the chairs. After 15 mins or so, the queue stretched 2/3rds of the way round the edge of the square mechanism. Out of the blue and with 80+ people looking on, the bored surly Russian grabbed me by the arm and sat me on a chair in the middle of the space under the mechanism. “You sit here.” Erm… gee… okay… thanks… Gavin was mortified, I thought it was funny. Well, a bit anyway.
We eventually got down to the hotel in Terksol, a nice small town in the beautiful Baksan valley. Gavin treated us to the most delicious Lamb Shashlik and I reflected on the adventure and what we had achieved. Thanks to the team, the guides and to Gavin in particular, I had got higher on Mt Elbrus than anyone with Cerebral Palsy had got before. In 2010 we had gone to the East Peak, fractionally lower of the two summits, getting to 500m below the summit. This time we had reached 100m below the summit of the higher West Peak. And together we had completed a North to South traverse of Mt Elbrus, making me the first disabled person ever to do so.
People sometimes tell me they think I am amazing. I disagree. I’ve met some amazing people who have given me some amazing opportunities to do some amazing things.