Elbrus Update 1 of 2: Acclimatisation

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Can They Make It Any More Difficult?

Given the complexities of the Russian visa application process, you could be forgiven for thinking they don’t want any visitors…

Ok, so I can hear you saying, “Why weren’t you more organized and apply the visa before you started the trip, rather than leaving it till the last minute?” Well that again comes down to their regulations. You see, for Australians you can’t apply for a Russian visa until you are within 3 months of your arrival date. For the visa application you also need to submit your passport and they take 2 weeks to process. For the past 3 months I needed my passport to travel on so couldn’t leave it behind just for the Russian visa application process. So my only real option was to file for an express application while I was back in Sydney last week.

The first step of the application process is an online form:

  • How am I meant to remember the surname of every employer I’ve had over my entire working life?
  • How am I meant to remember every country I have visited and the arrival date for the past 10 years?
  • How many different ways do you want to phrase the same question regarding whether I have ever done military service or been in a conflict zone?
  • How is half of this even relevant to my 2 week visit?

Labouring through the form the first time took me about 3hrs and just as I was nearing completion, the internet at my parents placed crashed. You can imagine my joy when I had to start over. At least it was quicker the second time round. Upon completion I then had to book my application appointment at the Russian Consultant in Sydney. Tuesday 27th February at 12:18pm! Do you think they want you to be on time? I wonder what would happen if I turned up at 12:17pm or 12:19pm? Anyway, I got my printed online application form, 2 passport sized photos, passport and a letter of invitation local company all submitted on time, paid the express processing fee and was told to come back in 3 business days.

Monday 5th April I went back into the Russian Consultant half expecting to be interrogated as to my motives for wanting to visit their welcoming country, but upon presenting myself to reception they simply handed my passport back and that was it. I asked them if my application was approved and the stern faced gentleman just nodded and indicated towards the exit. Flicking through my passport I then noticed the fresh new visa plastered to one of the inside pages. All rather seamless in the end. With my visa approved I was good to fly on Wednesday. Hopefully the climb is easier than the visa application process.

Half Time Break Over

After arriving back in Sydney on Sunday 25th February, it was wonderful to spend a week and a half at my parents place indulging in Mum’s home cooking. After almost 2 months on the road it felt so good to just sleep in the same bed for consecutive nights and to have some time at home with Mum and Dad.

Being back home friends were commenting that it must feel great being over halfway (i.e. 4 out of 7 complete). While statistically we may have been over half way, we had really only done the easy half. From here we were heading to the northern hemisphere winter and still had the toughest climbs ahead of us. First stop was Russia for a late winter ascent of Elbrus. That should be a nice warm up for the biggest test of them all, an out-of-season, early spring ascent of Denali. Then if both of those are successful, we just have the simple matter of Everest to contend with.

With our half time break over, on Wednesday 7th March Jon and I were back at the airport checking in for yet another hideous sequence of international flights. Our route this time was Sydney-Doha-Moscow-Mineralyne Vody followed by a 3hr drive to Terskol. All up another 2 days of travel to look forward to. This time it was nice however to have Mum, Dad and my sister, Tanya, there to see us off.

Arriving in Russia

Touching down in Moscow last Thursday 8th March outside the airport was covered in snow and about  8degC. Thankfully we were only transiting and didn’t have to go outside as I was still dressed in shorts and t-shirt having come straight from Australia. Another layover and another flight and we made it through to Mineralyne Vody. Being further south it was slightly warmer and not snow covered but not exactly shorts and t-shirt weather.

In Mineralyne Vody a driver met Jon and I and drove us a further 3hrs south to Cheget, a small village in the Caucasus Mountains. Jumping in the car, Jon pointed out the cracked wind screen, and I’m not talking a small chip, there were 3 large cracks extending the full width of the wind screen. This was Jon’s 11th time in Russia and from his experience, it must be mandatory for cars to have cracked windscreens. It became a running joke for us throughout the coming days. Every time we’d get in a car, “cracked windscreen – check!”

It was late evening by the time we arrived at the hotel in Cheget and we both just crashed.

Elbrus Day 1 – 9th March 2018

Friday morning we had a leisurely start then sticking my head outside everything was coated in a couple of inches of fresh snow. Driving in the night before I slept most of the way and hadn’t paid any attention to our surroundings but we were back in the hills at about 2200m.

We went downstairs for a late breakfast. The hotel we were in had a small breakfast buffet breakfast with mainly local cuisine. It was quite busy, full primarily with local Russians here for a skiing holiday. After standing around for a couple of minutes and continually getting pushed out of the way, I quickly realized the local etiquette was to literally fight your way through for food. There was no such thing as queuing politely or waiting your turn.

Looking around at the options there was one table that stood out, it was full of various pastries all heavily coated in icing sugar. It looked disgustingly delicious. I was going to have to sample a few.

After breakfast we threw together a day pack and got a lift to the base of the main ski lift on Elbrus. Cracked windscreen – Check! Being winter the ski season was in full swing. We were definitely the odd ones out catching the ski lift up in all our mountaineering gear while everyone else was carrying skies or snowboards. Jon, being a keen skier, found this challenging to deal with. The main ski lift went from the bottom of the hill at about 2200m up to about 3800m with two intermediate stops along the way. Jon was silent for the entire ride, dreaming of skiing the 1800m back down. At the top all the skiers headed down the groomed trails while I had to drag Jon the other way and head up the mountain.

Having been down at sea level for a few weeks and coming straight off a long haul flight, our objective for the day was just to stretch the legs and spend some time reacclimatising. It was reasonably cold, overcast and moderately windy, or as Jon kept pointing out, an average day out in Scotland. With patches of deep soft snow underfoot it was a bit of a slog and took a while to get going again, particularly after such a nice break back in the Australian summer. We quickly made it up to about 4300m before turning back and heading down for a nice warm lunch.

That night we went out for dinner in Cheget and I tried ordering a Vodka. When in Rome and all that… But they didn’t have any. This was the second place we’d been in Russia that didn’t serve vodka. I was always lead to believe that the Russians drink vodka like we drink water and yet it’s so hard to find. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places.

Elbrus Day 2 – 10th March 2018

Today we were moving to stay up the hill. After fighting my way through the dining hall to secure my morning dose of icing sugar we packed up and headed outside where a driver was waiting to take us to the base of Elbrus. Cracked windscreen – Check!

While Jon and I were climbing independently just as the two of us, Jon had arranged the trip through a local agent who took care of logistics for us which made it very easy. As part of their package they also arrange food for on the hill and a local lady, Olga, to cook for us. All quite basic but really was luxury. We picked up Olga on the way to the Elbrus ski lift. Catching the ski lift up amongst the crowd of skiers with a large duffle each plus a large barrel of food and drums of water was interesting. At the top we jumped off then dragged all our gear a couple hundred meters through the snow to a small, basic cabin and made ourselves at home.

The cabin would be our home for the next few nights. It was constructed with a large cylindrical outer shell about 4m diameter and about 10m long. Inside was divided into 3 areas, middle area for cooking and eating and two end areas for sleeping. It had a mattress (BYO sleeping bag), gas stove, table and chairs and a heater. What more could you ask for? Well, you could ask for a toilet, which there was one, but it was a separate long drop outhouse. The first time I went I had to break trail through the snow to get there, clear the large mound of snow away from the door to open it, carefully try to kick all the snow out from inside to locate the hole in the floor without actually stepping in the hole, then clear more snow to create a couple of foot pads for squatting and then proceed as normal. With the amount of snow build up inside, the toilet obviously hadn’t been used for a while. It kept me entertained for the afternoon at least.

Back inside Olga was cooking up a storm. She couldn’t speak a word of English and we couldn’t speak Russian so we communicated via google translate on our phones. We were able to have a good laugh at the way some things got translated but it generally worked ok. Two things that are common amongst all languages are smiles and laughs.

 Elbrus Day 3 – 11th March 2018

Today was just another acclimatisation day. We set off from our hut (elevation ~3800m) in the morning, climbed up to about 4700m then came back down. It was just a straight walk up and with strong winds overnight it blew away most of the softer powder which made the going easier underfoot. But the strong winds did continue throughout the day which made it interesting. Or as Jon called it, proper Scottish weather.

Having been back down at sea level for a few weeks prior to Elbrus neither of us were sure how much of our acclimatisation we would retain from our initial climbs. But going straight back up to 4700m we both felt great with no altitude effects so I guess we did retain a reasonable amount.

Elbrus Day 4 – 12th March 2018

Today was yet again another acclimatisation day. We’ve been monitoring the weather and tomorrow looks best for a summit attempt so we are just taking our time to get in some extra acclimatisation instead of rushing it. To get up a bit higher today we caught a skidoo from the top of the ski lift up to about 4500m and then started walking from there. Maybe slightly cheating but we have walked that section number of times now, plus the skidoo was good fun.

We got up to about 5000m where there is a broken down ski cat now half buried and iced into the side of the mountain. It has been there for a number of years now and has become a bit of a land mark. We used that as our day’s objective, tagged it, got a bunch of photos then descend back to our hut at the top of the ski lift. It makes it so much more comfortable having a heated hut to return to at the end of each day compared to camping in the snow.

So that is all our acclimatisation done now. Tomorrow looks perfect for a summit attempt, cold but light winds. Hopefully it stays that way.

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“Go with the decision that will make for a great story”.

Steve Plain

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