Climbing Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak in Russia, can be a bruising, tearful affair. But it’s possible to cheat in the climb thanks to something called a snowcat.
I WAS slipping and falling off the ridge and down... the sheer cliff. The slope was too steep and my crampons couldn’t take hold on the ice.
I then awoke with a start. It was just a nightmare. One of many that I have had since I made the decision to climb Mt Elbrus (altitude 5,642m) in Russia, which is Europe’s highest mountain.
Ten months after my first nightmare on Elbrus, a dormant volcano, I found myself on its steep slopes, feeling miserable and cold. I was sobbing and then the tears froze, pulling my face taut. I was feeling very sorry for myself, but I had nobody to blame except myself for making the trip to Russia.
Today was only an “acclimitisation hike” from Base Camp at 3,800m to (and back from) a point 4,700m high, a return journey of 12km. The wind was so strong that it was graupeling – which is like hail – horizontally! It did occur to me for the millionth time that I should choose a different hobby to de-stress from my job as a maid, a gardener and a mum to two squabbling tweens.
Just two days ago, I was warm and cheerful when my Russian guide Johnny, picked me from the nearest airport in Mineralnye Vody, over hours away from the mountains in the Russian Caucasus. There were only two of us who signed up for that particular eight-day Elbrus South Route with Pilgrim Tours in June.
The other trekker, Scott, is a rapping and hip hop dancing Deputy Sheriff from Florida. He was worried about how the Russians would regard him because his President had been very vocal against Russia on the Ukrainian crisis – he felt very naked without his Rambo knife and gun on him.
At Elbrus Base Camp, we met a group of three German girls and two Norwegian guys who had signed up for the 10-day trek and had arrived a day earlier.
Base Camp offers a stunning view of Elbrus’s East and West Summit. The summits look near, but the West Summit which is further and higher, is approximately 11km away. The area around Base Camp is perpetually covered with snow with no vegetation in sight. Mt Elbrus is covered by an ice cap and is surrounded by 22 glaciers, thus necessitating the need to use crampons from Base Camp onwards.
Scott and I stayed for four days in one of the seven containers at Base Camp which has four sets of bunk beds with a comfortable mattress and pillow on each bed.
The dining container was able to accommodate us seven trekkers and five guides comfortably. Meal times were usually noisy affairs where four languages were spoken at once: English, Norwegian, German and Russian.
The evening before Summit Day, all seven of us had a discussion with our guides about the climb. The two burly Norwegians were advised by their guide to take the snowcat up to the Pastuhova Rocks (4,700m). The snowcat is a truck which is designed to move on snow and very steep slopes. It has two rows of metal benches at the back and can convey up to 10 people.
From their guide’s experience, men of their stature would not be able to make it to the summit if they were to start the trek from Base Camp. They are too muscular by half and too much oxygen would have been used to work those muscles, leaving an insufficient amount to circulate to the rest of the body. Since Scott is only slightly smaller in size than the Norwegians, he thought he would have a better chance of reaching the summit if he were to take the snowcat, too.
The other group’s guide assured the two Norwegians not to worry about the summit attempt as she will look after them, while I looked on wistfully. I then looked at my guide, who is one tough nut with not a soft bone in him. Unknown to me then, this tough nut would later save me from turning my nightmare into a reality.
Another German girl, Anna, had rented plastic boots which were too big and thought it best to take the snowcat up to 5,000m.
I declared to the group that I will take the snowcat up to 5,000m, too, because “I have no shame, no pride and knowing that I’m not strong enough, I will use whatever means possible to get to the summit!”
But the cost for the snowcat to 4,700m was 500 euros (RM2,200) for the six of us. And the additional journey up to 5,000m would be another 500 euros! I nearly fell off the bench I was sitting on when the guide told us the cost.
I then told the group I would only take the snowcat up to 4,700m as it was too expensive to continue up to 5,000m. Without even hesitating, Anna turned to me and invited me to ride up to 5,000m with her and to pay her whatever I can afford. I was so touched by her generosity that I wanted to kiss her!
The following morning at 1am, the strong German girl left Base Camp with a guide. The rest of us were served breakfast at 3.30 am. With my safety harness, heavy plastic boots and crampons on and a belly full of oats, I was ready when the snowcat came at 4.30am. We had five guides to look after seven of us for the summit attempt.
Thirty minutes later, at 4,700m, the snowcat dropped off four trekkers and two guides. I got off 10 minutes later at 5,000m with Johnny, Anna and another guide. Anna then went on ahead with her guide while Johnny communicated with the other guides below via walkie talkie to make sure they were alright before we began, giving me a few minutes to soak in the harsh beauty of the Russian Caucasus which was dotted by jagged mountains. Much of the mountains were still in shadows as the sun was just rising then.
Having gained an altitude of 1,200m in 40 minutes, I was feeling nauseous and dizzy. Once Johnny has established communication with the others, we started our journey and I managed to maintain a distance of three steps behind him, taking one small step at a time after a very, very deep breath.
At such a high altitude, the temperature was at subzero and my fingers felt frozen even though I was wearing gloves and a pair of rented mittens over the gloves. An image of Johnny’s mutilated foot came to mind as he has lost a toe to frost bite and I was gripped with a fear that chilled my heart that my fingers would suffer the same fate. I was prepared to abandon the trek once my fingers became stiff. Thankfully, I warmed up a little with the exertion of the trek.
Shortly after we started, Johnny secured me to him via a rope. He must have remembered how clumsy I was during an earlier acclimitisation hike as I kept falling on the slippery slopes. Well, I didn’t disappoint him. Somewhere along the trek, I slipped twice and Johnny was so strong that he didn’t even lose his footing when my whole weight was put on the rope. If not for the rope, I would have ended at the hidden crevasses below. I was thankful then to have a tough nut for a guide.
At certain areas, the trail was only wide enough for one foot and a glance down had me quickly glancing straight ahead again. It was very scary indeed! Certain areas had no footpath at all because the glacier was too hard for anybody to make tracks on them. If the weather had been clear, red flags marking the route could be seen clearly.
Somewhere after the Saddle (which is the valley between the East and West Summit) at the steepest point of the trek, we had to attach our safety harness onto fixed ropes on the slopes. The gradient was about 40 to 45 degrees and this was felt by my exhausted limbs and overworked heart.
Finally, at 11am, six hours after we started, we reached the peak. The temperature, inclusive of wind chill, was minus 22 Celsius with a wind speed of 30km/hr. The view of the mountain range below was partially obstructed by clouds so I didn’t stay long to take in the scenery.
Tears were streaming down my face as I was walking down the mountain because I had survived the toughest climb in my life thus far.
Chooi Lan is a full-time mother of two tweens. She goes on yearly expeditions to mountains far and wide, while her husband lives in fear.
1. Bring along Rubles or Euro equal to about RM2,000 in cash to pay for rental of equipment and rides on the snowcat.
2. Make sure your travel insurance covers trekking accidents. Some may exclude coverage unless safety ropes are used. Read the fine print!
3. Print the addresses and places that you want to go to in Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet), as well as English.
4. Inform the Malaysian Embassy of your travelling dates to the Elbrus Region. Some governments may issue advisories against travelling to the Elbrus region for security reasons.
5. The trekking season is from May to September.