In school I was taught that Europe’s highest mountain is Mont Blanc at 4,810 metres. But the fact is that mount Elbrus, in the Russian part of the Caucasus, is the highest at 5,642 metres above sea level.
Elbrus is very easy to get to. On 7 August, after some four hours on scenic, winding roads through the Baksan valley from Mineralny Vody, I arrived at Tereskol, a village at the foot of the mountain, and the starting point of my expedition. The air was fresh and crispy, almost as in the Alps, and the village is surrounded by green hills and rolling mountains. And as in the Alps, I was far from alone in my adventure.
Elbrus is a very popular tourist destination and people come here for training and recreation. There are walkers and climbers in the summer and skiers in the winter. On the southern slopes there are ski resorts and lifts going up to 3,800 metres. These are very much used and perfect for day trips. Since I was planning to climb the mountain, the lift was not an alternative, and I walked up to Barrels Hut at just above 3,800 metres, a good warm-up exercise!
Barrels is a strange place with all the large containers or ”barrels” which are used as a kind of hostel. I still felt acclimatized after my previous journey to McKinley and decided to attack the summit the next night. I and my Russian guide Roma started around 1am on 9 August. However, near Pastukov Rocks we had to turn back because of very strong winds. This is a tough decision to make, and you always regret having to go back, but at the same time I knew that this time it was the right decision. In situations like this, I try to find a positive element, and now I had time to adjust to the fact that I was overtaken! Throughout the night, the piste machines were taking ”climbers” up to almost 5,000 metres so they could attack the summit from there. I was certainly not prepared for this kind of traffic. I have never seen anything like this on any mountain, and I hope I never will.
The mountain weather conditions change quickly. There was good news as the wind subsided and a new attempt to reach the top would be possible the next night. At 1am we were back on the mountain, trudging one step ahead at a time for the next nine hours… After a whole night of plodding through loose and partly very deep snow, I reached the summit and the highest point of Europe at 10am on 10 August. I am sorry to say that the sky was overcast and the view from the top was not very good. Going back downhill was much faster, it took me three hours, and at 1pm I was back at the Barrels. The next day I walked the whole way back down to Azau again, very happy to have accomplished my goal, but at the same time relieved to be on my way back home, and leave the mountain behind me. Climbing the mountain was quite a good experience, but all the “paraphernalia”, i.e. the lifts, piste machines and loads of people, somewhat spoiled the nature experience.
Thank you, Elbrus for allowing me up to the top, but we will never meet again, I think.