On January 27, 2008, I climbed the highest peak in Europe: Mount Elbrus (18,480 feet). This was really a fun and fast climb! It was quite special for me because I made a new climbing friend along the way, Yuri Pavlof. And we climbed Elbrus in winter! I didn't know it at the time but Yuri enlightened me that although Elbrus is climbed often in summer, it is rarely attempted in winter, due to the VERY HARSH climbing conditions, that I would soon experience! Read below the short story of our climb and summit of Mount Elbrus.
Although I have searched the climbing archives and the internet, to my knowledge, I think I am the first Quebecker if not Canadian to have climbed Elbrus in winter! I am proud of this climb; it reminded me a lot of Everest; the night I attempted my summit bid!Enjoy!
We all flew up from Tanzania to Amsterdam for our connecting flights. My Kilimanjaro climbing team headed west towards Canada. I said my goodbyes because I would instead be heading east towards Moscow a little later. So I had a few hours to visit this beautiful city as well as it’s Van Gogh museum.
I landed in Moscow and had one evening to visit before my next flight. I went to the city center and got to see the Red Square. People where ice skating often without hats and gloves. It was minus -10 Celsius!
Seeing this picture, I regret not bringing my good camera. Those “throw away” cameras that I like to use for expeditions are good for day shots, but terrible for night shots. This is me in front of the Kremlin, really! No kidding!
We flew out from Moscow and headed south to the little town of Mineralny Vody. From there, we drove 3 hours to a smaller village called Terskol. It is at the foot of Elbrus, in the Caucasus mountain range, very close to Georgia. At times, as we drove, I would think we were in Seberia!
The Russians know the real meaning of endurance. Our driver was proud to show off his car to me, and rightly so: It has over 800,000 km on it and it still purrs!
This is the standard route for Mount Elbrus. We start from the refuge called the Barrels at 12,000 feet, and head for the higher west peak, some 6,500 feet higher.
Elbrus is actually a ski resort at the bottom, just like Mont Blanc. We normally make our way to the Barrels at 12,000 feet, by taking 2 cable cars lower on the mountain and then hiking about an hour to our camp at the Barrels.
From the top of this second cable car, we would normally have access to a one seat chairlift that could bring us right to the Barrels, nearly 1,000 feet higher. But the lift was broken this day, so we started our climb from here.
This is my Russian climbing friend Yuri Pavlof. He normally guides on Elbrus during the summer for a company called Pilgrim Tours. This is the first time in his eight year career that he climbed Elbrus in winter. He is 38 yrs and he also has 2 kids: an 8 year old girl and a 3 month year old boy.
So we finally made it to the Barrels hut at 12,000 feet on Elbrus, This, on the same day that I actually departed from Moscow some 13 hours earlier. I absolutely wanted to make it to the Barrels this day, thus giving us 4 days instead of 3 to attempt the summit of Elbrus in winter. I knew the weather and climbing conditions this time of year would be really harsh, so I wanted to put as many summit days in front of me as possible during my short stay in Russia. I would soon find out just how harsh the climbing conditions are here!
This is part of our 4 day stash of food for the mountain: rock hard bread, meats, yogurt, crackers, cheese, fruits and lots of tea. This may not look like much, but to me, this is a 4 star feast when I compared it to the traditional freeze dried foods we have in our cold and dark tents!
This is the only photo I took of our 1st summit attempt, starting from 12,000 feet to the summit (18,500) . So our goal was to climb over 6,500 feet in winter, in one day and back. We woke up at 4 am, ate some food and started out. It was about -20 C with a full moon. We climbed for about 4 hours and gained 3,000 feet, until we got to a place called Pashtukof Rocks. That's when things changed; the wind picked up! 30 to 40 km/h. We could no longer see the mountain. It also meant that if the winds were 40 km here, well then they would be well over 100 km/h at our next stop : The Saddle, between the 2 peaks (17,400 feet). I don't even want to guess to where the temperature dropped! So we turned around and went back down. We'll try again tomorrow; 1 hour earlier, 3 am! It was bitterly Cooooooold!
I was disappointed about the day, having gotten only half way up. But I was still in a great mood, especially after a good meal. And I knew we still had 3 days left to try. It was time to recharge our batteries from the 7 hours climb we just returned from, and prepare for a much bigger day tomorrow!
We woke up at 2 am on the 27th and it was blowing real hard, 30km/h at The Barrels .Yuri got a call from his friend who was watching the weather forecast for us. It went from bad to worse! Today would be the same as yesterday; very high winds up the mountain, and then increasing in the afternoon! Then, to top things off; a bad weather system would be coming in tomorrow, bringing a storm to the mountain and lots of snow. Basically what it meant is that I would not have another opportunity to climb Elbrus in the next 3 days before I had to leave Russia. I had prepared for this possibility and somewhat accepted it. But really, I didn’t want to leave Elbrus without a fight so to speak, so I told Yuri: let's try today anyway, It is our only opportunity, however small, and we'll see how far we go. It is now or never! So off we went: 3am, 30km/h winds, -25 Celcius . This would turn out to be the mild weather of the climb!!!
We would climb for the first 4-5 hours in the dark and to summarize, It was reeeaaalllllly cold and reeeaaallly windy!!! The higher we would climb, the worse it would get. The average temperature was about -30 C we estimated. But the winds would drop it to -50 C. The wind gusts reached speeds of 60 to 80 km/h at times throughout the whole climb, so we had virtually no relief. Thank god they were scattered gusts; had it been a constant wind, we would not have made it! Even with the sunrise, the wind and cold didn’t let up. But what a view!
We made it to this same spot as the night before. We had climbed for 5 hours. Did I mention that it was bitterly cold! I remember taking off my mitt for about 1 minute during the night. And I also remember it taking about 1 hour to warm up my hand again inside my mitten. You can see in this photo Yuri on the left having a cup of tea. This was the last tea he would drink because his thermos froze soon after and he could no longer open the lid.
We made it to the Saddle (between both peaks) in about 8 hours. The view was magnificent but the wind and cold were horrendous. Twice, an 80km/h gust of wind caught us off guard here and nearly knocked us both off our footing. It would have been a pretty big slide down.
When Yuri's water bottle froze, I obviously shared mine. But then we ran out of water early. This made the remainder of our climb to the summit that much harder, not to mention the descent afterwards. We estimated that we would be without water for at least 5 hours in the best of circumstances, that is if all went well and as planned. But we were both feeling good, despite the fatigue. So we continued. Does it look cold in this picture? It is!
Over the next couple of hours, we climbed ever so slowly from the Saddle, and finally reached the summit of Mount Elbrus some 10 hours after we started. This photo was actually taken 15 minutes later, some 50 feet below the actual summit, on the plateau of Elbrus’ west peak. The wind was showing us its best, so we waited to get a little lower out of the wind to remove our mitts and take a picture. Despite the wind and cold, it was an absolutely beautiful moment at the summit! As far as the eye can see, for a short while anyway.
It took us 13 hours round trip; 10 hours to the summit and 3 hours back. It was a tough climb but very rewarding. A climb that would remind me a lot of my summit bid on Everest. In Yuri's 7 year carreer here, this is also his first winter ascent of Elbrus and consequent summit. He says we climbed very fast none the less; in summer, the round trip is about 16 hours, vs. our 13 hours in winter.
Yuri had asked me if “I climb as profession or as hobby” He found I was a strong climber. Well I found him a very strong climber. We had a lot of fun and both complemented each other well on the mountain, So I had to ask him: “how many people actually summited in winter”, and he said casually: now I know of 2 climbers… so far!
By the way, this is the last I would see of Mount Elbrus before the bad weather hit.
We could see and feel the real bad weather chasing us off the mountain. Thanks mother nature for giving us this small window. Anyway, the only real casualty was the tip of my nose that I didn't cover up properly. It froze. Thankfully, my frostbitten nose did not turn from white to black. That would have been bad. It was however quite swollen and red like a clown's nose. Apparently it will be like this for a week, Yeh!
We slowly made our way back down the mountain the next morning, to the ski resort below at 6,000 feet. Since I had summited Elbrus on my second day, I still had 2 days left in the region. I wasn’t going to attempt to change my itinerary, with all the Russian paperwork that it entails. So I decided I would rent some skis and Yuri would join me for a day of skiing.
This is the view I had from my room in Terskol village: The Caucasus Mountain range at my footsteps!
We took the cable cars back up to 12,000 feet, but this time, with our skis to go down, not a packsack to keep going up.
I skied one run and my nose hurt too much being exposed again to the cold. So I skied looking like a bandit for the remainder of the day.
Yuri drove with me the next day, back to Minelralny Vody, for my flight back to Moscow. I gave him my Leatherman tool as a parting gift. We will keep in touch. He does not know how to use a computer yet, but wants to learn and open a hotmail account. So I gave him my e-mail address. I’ll wait for his first message.
This now completes 5 of the 7 highest continental summits. 2 to go!