Wednesday, April 25, 2007

(revised Apr07)

“Eleven (11) recorded deaths this season alone.” This was the news that surprised me when I asked the guide about the current risk. We are aware of the danger of climbing this mountain – but 11 deaths?! – That’s a high number for such a seemingly easy peak.
Elbrus has been quite under-rated and its disaster stories toned down, luring people that it’s a simple walk in an iced park. I myself considered it to be a mountain tour more than a real expedition knowing that the altitude is a thousand feet less than Kilimanjaro. Sure, most experienced climbers and newbie have climbed the top, but when the weather turns foul, even the die-hards will find this ice paradise, a storm-ravaged Antarctica.

Phase1: Pre-Climb
Mt Elbrus, at 18400ft/5642m -- is the highest mountain in Europe, and hence – one of the popular 7 Summits. It sits in the western range of the Caucasus Mountains, west of Caspian Sea, southeast of Black Sea, northeast of Georgia, and nestles comfortably in the southwest tip of the Russian Federation. So as to clarify facts - Mont Blanc is the highest in Western Europe, but not the highest in the entire European continent.

From Philippines, it was a long flight to Frankfurt, and a shorter connecting flight to Moscow, a total of ~15hours of actual flying time. Most Muscovites do not speak English, so an English-speaking guide on arrival and a pre-arranged car transfer is the best bet, that’s what we all did.
Moscow (or ‘Moskva’) is surprisingly a ‘typical’ modern European city, at least the central district. Roads have an array of expensive western and Japanese cars (punctuated by sightings of old European Lada cars), folks walking in the park with bottles of beer, young couples in nooks and corners kissing passionately (painful that I didn’t come with a date), families picnicking in the manicured grassed parks, and generally displaying a very happy and contented atmosphere. There were of course city-strugglers eyeing for the empty bottles and sale-able garbage for an exchange of a few pennies of Rubles, probably the ones who were not quick enough to adjust to post-Soviet structure.
Outside Moscow, everything is quite different. It didn’t even look the Russia that was once a superpower, since most structures have deteriorated by age. The general look and feel made the places seem like another poor eastern European country. Reliability and efficiency of public services are low-class, and the police corruption is far worse than third-world Asian countries. Interestingly, one Irish teammate suggests that a big chunk of the economy is black market, you rarely see tickets and invoices and receipts in any transaction. Most payments go straight to the operators’ pockets, and the ‘tax’ is later paid to the Mafia. I find it hard to believe, at least at first - but my co-climbers never doubted it. Still, somehow, I felt that Russia has its awe and romance behind the daily humdrum and struggle of life.

The way to the Caucasus (where Mt Elbrus is located) is via Mineralyne Vody (translation: “Mineral Water”). It’s a 2-hour flight from Moscow, assuming your plane didn’t have a Black Widow Chechnyan terrorist on board because flight time might be a bit shorter. Why you asked? Oh, 2 planes crashed down a few days before our Moscow arrival, reports concluded that those were the works of the Black Widows. Mineralyne Vody gets its name from the fact that abundant natural mineralized water is found here, it flows from the glacier streams, down to the pipes, into the plastic bottles, and down to the throat of the thirsty traveler. I’m not really sure about its mineral water potential, but it’s a good story to tell anyway. :)
The encounters with the local cops were unpleasant ones (as we heard, and later on as we experienced first-hand) and so we tried to avoid them as much as possible - as in if I got myself a “Ninja magic smoke blaster” I’ll use that to make myself disappear, every time I bump into those fat smirking chaps approaching me hehe, or at least we made sure that a local outfitter agent was with us all the time (except that we didn’t have one in Vody). Cops and airport personnel in Vody are known to be corrupt, as they always try to extort money from tourists. A British teammate of mine lost 60$ because of some stamp issue with his passport (-In Russia, you have to have a passport stamp on every place or hotel you visited), the other 4 chaps get a simpler ‘fine’ of 800 rubles for some made-up baggage handling issue. Not easy to get around as nobody speaks English except your co-tourists. You can argue all you want, but in the end, you’ll pay up to move on with your life.

It’s another 4-hour road ride from Vody to Terskol – the jump-off town somewhere in Baksan. Baksan Valley is predominantly a Muslim territory, so expect no pork in your menu. Lamb kebab is a good try anyway and could help in reducing your cholesterol intake. Resident folks here are Balkarians (not Russians). Terskol is a quiet town, few Mafiosos in their darkened-window Beemers lurk about but that’s business with the locals so no worries for us. Locals normally bring their goodies in the market to sell to European tourists who find the local products very cheap. Wool socks, hats, sweaters and even sheep-wool rugs. My teammate brought items here and there more to help out the folks than really buy something for their girlfriends. Terskol is frequented by Russian tourists presumably to have a simple glimpse of the mountain range or for a ski tour during winter season.

Phase2: The Climb
Climbing Elbrus can be generally split into 2 sub-phases, days and days of acclimatization, then a summit attempt. I’m being lazy-writing here but yes, that’s what we generally do in any high-altitude climbing, stage-1 is acclimatization, then next stage is summit push. Most climbers who can afford to spend a good deal of time and money will probably arrange for a 15-day trip. Very good progressive acclimatization program can be integrated in this long itinerary. I prefer this approach learning from Kilimanjaro that I acclimatize very slowly compared to others.

But our group chose a more aggressive 9-day schedule, including fly-in and out of Moscow and extra days in Terskol, reducing the actual climb experience to a meager window of 4-5 days. This is only an option for people who can acclimatize well and fast, or has recently been in a significant altitude. Half of us in the group were not that fast in acclimatizing, but were bound by work schedule and limited funds, so, we took the risk. I was half-expecting an easy climb, and half-worried about my next scheduled expedition in December (Mt Aconcagua), so I somehow convinced myself that a shorter trip would do, and will allow me more time for a much higher, record-breaking climb in Aconcagua -Argentina.

Day1 of acclimatization is a fast climb up the Cheget Peak. Terskol is around 2,100m, and Cheget is ~3800m. This is a fast hike, and I believe the guide was testing our physical endurance as well, hence the pace. Took us around 5 hours to reach the objective, one young lad with us (17 years old) felt sick on the way up, forcing him to head down. I on the other hand, was struggling a bit just to keep up. Half of the team are well-oiled and seem to find the climb easy.

Generally, our team is of a good mix, 5 of us have climbed Kilimanjaro and the other 2 being active in Chamonix Alps activities, or wanderers of Scottish hills. We kept arguing if Elbrus is more difficult to climb than Kilimanjaro given that Elbrus is an alpine climb, but Kili on the other hand is 1000ft higher. We’ll find out the hard way 3 days after.

Early next day, we passed by the rental store for last minute acquisition of gear. I rented ice axe and crampons as these are bulky and heavy to carry along from back home. Besides, I didn’t have extra money to buy one for myself. The store is almost complete providing a wide array of cold weather equipment and gears. Unfortunately, the crampons for hire are not the “clamp-types”. My boots can accommodate either back or front clamps. I would really prefer something easier and more reliable, but the limited stocks only offered all-strap type models. I have to feel sorry for myself though, as later my left crampons detached itself 4 or 5 times during the grueling climb.

Day2, we moved to our base-camp at the Barrel Huts (3800m). We did a quick acclimatization walk (climb-high, sleep-low), then head down for a good Ukrainian dinner. Most team members are feeling ok, but two (2) of us are feeling a bit sick. AMS was catching up fast on me, as usual.

Day3 is our long acclimatization walk towards Pastukov Rocks. I gained an altitude of 4400m before calling it a day. The rest continued to 4600m altitude, I went down alone.
I had a fever that night, fast heart-rate, but no head-ache. 2 other teammates have hammering headaches, but even with these ‘normal’ sore conditions, the team is generally ok for the next day’s attempt. Or so we thought…

The forecast for the next 3 days was not so good, but not entirely bad. Not having much choice - we decided to make the first attempt the next day, wake up call at 3am.

Day4 - The Summit Attempt
Elbrus has 2 peaks, West and East. West peak is higher by a few 10s of meters and is the normal target of the climber – and the official highest point in Europe. To hit the West peak, we have to climb the vast mountain body towards the East peak, then turn left (west) towards the saddle (in-between peaks), then climb on the steep part towards the West peak. Reaching the saddle would almost mean getting to the peak as the vertical difference is a little more than 200m, and time needed is 2-3 hours.

We started hiking at quarter before 5am with full gear on. I was wearing thermals and Down and Shell, fleece trousers and trouser shell, balaclava, mittens and over-mitts, hard plastic double-boots, gaiters, crampons - All gear set for fighting a frozen world of hell.

We started with headlamps on, with rucksacks containing unappetizing lunch, back-up fleece or extra Down jacket, extra bottle of water, harness & karabiner, ice axe for the steep approach, and camera. I started with a fever, and kept throwing up the morning before the trip. Too sick to eat breakfast, and too sick to mind the sickness, the show must go on. Apart from the faster heart rate (by +50%), all seemed ok, probably it was a simple mix of adrenalin, anxiety fever and high-altitude sickness. I am used to that…

Since we were a big group, we have 3 guides with us on the ascent day. Team “A” zoomed fast before the break of dawn. Well-acclimatized people can hike as if in low-altitude. I struggled slowly behind, a few minutes ticked by and I was the very last man inching upwards towards the frozen mountain. At first light, the wind got stronger with snow granules hitting our almost-covered faces like small white bullets. The lingering heat of the sun stalled whatever warm hope we have as the eastern clouds would hide the beam and spark of the sun. In the moment of early creeping of light, one could see the white dust being blown constantly by the strong winds from the West giving that dramatic effect of an Arctic expedition. This is beyond what I’ve expected - a beauty of an icy world with an overture of death.

After an hour’s walk, I’ve decided to sip some Pomelo-flavored drink. All our bottles were inside our packs to prevent freezing, nobody carried a Thermos flask. I normally put a lanyard in all my gear, but I brought along this Nalgene bottle without a string (string is normally attached to my pack-karabiner). After a good sweet sip, I put down the bottle, slamming the bottom in thin snow. But the bottle met ice and in a second, it tilted and rolled. I wasn’t too fast. The bottle rolled and gained speed and hurtled down the mountain, in just under 10 seconds, it went down to below 500ft and on to eternity. I suddenly realized the significance of that, I checked and rechecked my crampons not wanting to have the same fate as my bottle, and almost pulled out my ice axe for a ready self-arresting tool. “Relax” said my voice from within; “You can ski, the bottle can’t…” ;)

Towards late-morning, one of my teammate turned back alone. He said he couldn’t keep his breathing steady and felt that he won’t make it to the summit. Around noon-time, while I was still struggling to keep consciousness (as the trail and the slow walk was hypnotizing me to fall asleep), my other teammate also turned back. One assistant guide walked with him while holding his arm. The guy slumped down several times and had a hard time keeping his leg muscle working. Seeing him in that condition gave me a sudden urge to ‘feel’ my toes. I wiggled my toes enough to convince myself that circulation was ok, and that I would not have frostbite. I have to resign and trust that the magic of wicking technology embedded in my pair of socks would work perfectly and that no sweat or moisture in my feet would freeze to ice. An hour later, a Russian guide running down the slopes met me and my guide and was encouraging me to turn back as well due to bad weather and possible over-fatigue. “The weather is not good, and later you will feel groggy groggy” (complete with Russian accent of course). I still felt very much alive, so I declined the offer.

We got to the saddle past noon-time, and the weather has really turned sour. I began to wonder if reaching the saddle really meant “summit”, recognizing my exhausted state, and the quick whiting out. I stopped for a quick reload, my treat of a carbo-fuel gooey. I have been eating snow for the past several hours as my mouth has turned dry, and my thirst unquenchable. It was too much an effort to get the bottle out of my rucksack so eating snow became my lazy remedy. (Later, I have to blame snow for my diarrhea).
The crampons gave me a problem from time to time. With over-mitts on (more like a hot pot holder or Mr Snowman’s gloves) it would be from difficult to impossible, to re-loop and re-adjust the straps of the crampons. Pulling out the over-mitt and mittens may do the trick, but it’s not uncommon to lose mitts and gloves especially in semi-hypoxic and exhausted condition. Other climbers in other climbs got finger frostbites because of lost mittens.

While donning my harness for a rope-up towards the summit, another Russian guide who was now on the way down with his client, has started airing his concern on my safety. He started with a short talk, and then kept looking around as if feeling the weather.
At one moment, while I was chewing a crunchy, he put a pill in my mouth forcing me to swallow it. It was Diamox, a “high-altitude drug”. Although I’ve always carried 10tabs of it, I’ve never actually taken a pill, until then. He said I might need its curing affect for my trek down. He has witnessed people dying in the mountain because of a mis-step for feeling groggy - a normal symptom of high-altitude problem. It’s easy to fall and die in the slopes of Elbrus, especially when going down. I reluctantly swallowed it, and hoped it would do miracle. Before we left, he approached me, put his arm around my shoulder, his eyes 6 inches from mine and whispered with a serious tone (and perfect English), “Look man, you see that the weather is changing. And you are exhausted. You have to think about your life, and your guide’s life. I’m not your guide but you have to think for yourself, and the decision whether it’s wise to turn back. The mountain is always here, you can always go back to climb if you turn back.” Words echoed in my head bouncing like a restless fly trapped in a small jar. I didn’t quite feel the danger of what they were seeing, but these guys should know more than I do. I wish I had the strength and courage to simply quit. I told my friends that overtime, you’ll find that it’s more difficult to quit than turn back. I tried to listen, I tried to feel, but the whole of me was just saying “Tara Let’s!, Tara tara tara lets…” :) (I added this one after that recent local song of course).

Few ticks later, we’re off for the summit. Just the assistant guide, and what’s left of team B – moi. We were roped up from the saddle onwards, so I was occasionally being snap-pulled as my guide was faster than my baby steps. The rope-up is deemed necessary by operators in Elbrus so that the guide may be able to self-arrest in case of fall. Just after 10 minutes, the whole place was blanketed by thick clouds, and we were getting somehow lost as the guide was using his GPS every 10 meters – we couldn’t see anything but white! It was like being inside a white ping pong ball. With the steepness of the walk on the unknown and invisible trail, with white nothingness around you – I felt the words of the Russian guide, ringing in my head, asking me when I would make that critical decision. It was weird that I felt that I could just go on and on, slow but moving, and without the slightest urge to turn back. That’s my deficiency, the discipline to fear, the thought of quitting to fight another day. “Patay kung patay” has always been the engrained motto. Yes I’ve turned back on some simpler mountains, but those were the exceptions more than the rule.
The angels were probably listening, and not wanting to add to the eleven who already perished this year, somebody made the decision for us to turn back to live a more fruitful life. The lead expedition leader, who was on his way down, asked us to turn around and kiss the mountain good bye. This is his 51st summit climb of the mountain, and with years of experience, he must know what is right and wrong. For several minutes - I tried to argue, I tried to plead, but in the end, I have to recognize that he was more objective than my already poor hypoxic judgment.

I stood there silently for what seemed like an eternity, looking at the invisible peak 200m above me. Eventually, the words found its way to my brain, hitting me like a snowball smacking my face – “Time to go down dude! That’s it!!!” With much mumbling and self-cursing, I reluctantly turned around, and started the agonizing walk down the mountain. Alas I gave up, and tried hard to convince myself that mountaineering is not just about reaching peaks, it’s the whole experience of traveling, walking, seeing the mountain, surviving storms, mingling with people, and sometimes -or oftentimes if you are lucky, includes good pictures up the summit.

I looked back to where I think the West peak of Elbrus was, I still couldn’t see anything but white, so I just silently whispered… “ May araw ka rin!”. ;)

Post-climb, the team was still in Baksan Valley during the highlight of the Beslan school hostage crisis. More than 350 people (mostly school kids) were reportedly killed in the assault including Chechnyan terrorists. No tourist or traveler was reportedly harmed in the incident.

Climber Garduch reached an altitude of ~5400m (out of 5641m) past the saddle, at around 2pm September 1, 2004 and turned back towards the Barrel huts due to white-out weather condition and exhaustion.
The Irish climber who turned back with a guide, made another attempt the next day and reached the summit.

According to one guide - a Filipina named Daisy Visperaz(?), successfully reached the West peak of Elbrus last July 2004. She was a resident of Hong Kong and is not a member of any outdoor club in the Philippines – and hence her Elbrus climb was not recorded in any local climb list. She could be the first Filipino(/a) to have reached the peak of Mt. Elbrus without even realizing it.