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Footsteps on the Mountain travel diaries

Elbrus By Any Means

Elbrus By Any Means

An unconventional ascent of Europe's highest mountain.
July/August 2012.

By Mark Horrell

The wild side of Elbrus

Friday 3 August, 2012 - Kislovodsk, Russia

We only have a short descent today, a little over 1000m, but my companions are keen to move quickly because they would like to drive all the way to Kislovodsk rather than stay a night at the trailhead.

"It is civilisation, and we can buy beer and go dancing," says Sergei.

The twin summits of Elbrus from a high plateau on the north side

The twin summits of Elbrus from a high plateau on the north side

They ask me which I would prefer, but I really have no idea what either will be like. If we get to Kislovodsk a day early then it means we will have to spend an extra night there. I have visions of spending a full day in a featureless Soviet industrial city of grey concrete tower blocks, but my new friends know best and I'm happy to go with the flow. We have a seven o'clock breakfast and leave shortly after 7.30, making our way down a boulder field of jumbled dark volcanic rock immediately below camp. It's difficult terrain, and my trekking poles are by turns a help and a hindrance. Andrei sets a very fast pace and concentration is required as I leap from boulder to boulder, often balancing on nothing more than my toe ends. Most of the time my poles swing uselessly in my hands, clicking against rocks, and I have to be careful not to jam them down a crack. Every so often they keep me from falling when I feel myself losing balance and thrust one of them down quickly to provide a third point of contact with the ground. It's remarkable that no one takes a tumble at the speed we're going, but we all make it through this section safely. Below this a strange plateau extends down the mountain. Completely flat and sloping gently downwards it is covered with a thin layer of tiny pebbles and clumps of small white and yellow flowers. Beneath us we can see rolling green hills, contrasting sharply with the jagged rock peaks and hanging glaciers of the Caucasus Mountains that we could see from the south side. We're soon to discover the north side of Elbrus is altogether more remote and pleasant than the south, and is the route to climb if you want a true mountaineering experience.

I expect the easy terrain of the plateau to provide some respite after all the boulder hopping, but in fact it just causes Andrei to go even faster. It's such a brisk walk that I almost feel like I'm running, and at times I have to do just that to keep up. But then I look round and see the twin peaks of Elbrus almost clear of cloud for the first time since we crossed over to the north. Luda is walking behind me at the back of the group and she calls out to Andrei to halt so that we can take photos. It's a relief to stop for a break. The sun is now blasting through and we need to take off layers. It's a timely moment to take pictures, as a few minutes later the clouds make their home on the twin summits and remain there for the rest of the day in spite of the warm sunshine elsewhere.

Gryby: mushroom rocks on the northern route of Elbrus

Gryby: mushroom rocks on the northern route of Elbrus

We reach the bottom of the plateau and cross an area of curious mushroom-shaped rocks. A small corner of grass provides a pleasant camping spot, and a few people have taken advantage of it by pitching tents here. We glissade down loose scree to an even more attractive camping spot in a grassy hollow with a fresh stream bubbling through. Just one man is camping here and he is standing outside his tent in just his underpants. When he sees us appear above him he is quick to put on the rest of his clothes so that he's fully clad by the time we reach him. This is just as well, as he's another guide known to Andrei and Luda, and a few minutes later he finds himself shaking hands with them, which might have been slightly awkward for Luda had he just been wearing a pair of skimpy briefs. We drop to another plateau through a grassy gully and down another scree slope. At the bottom I'm allowed to take a swig of water, but then Andrei pushes on again. We skirt a hillside and descend steeply another 200m on a zigzag path. Below this there's another huge plateau which Luda tells me used to be an airstrip. Andrei crosses it at breakneck speed, and I really struggle to keep in contact with the rest of the team, but somehow manage. I glance at my altimeter and see that we now have just 200m to descend, but how many more of these long plateaus do we have to cross? The flat sections should provide some relief, but Andrei's accelerated pace turn them into a running track and I look forward to the knee-jarring steep descents instead, when at least he slows down, if only a little.

The plateau funnels into a narrow gully and we pass lots of people coming the other way. The path rises up the side of it with a stream flowing ten metres beneath us. We stop for a welcome rest and a few gulps of water, the last from my bottle. Vitali offers me some tea which I gratefully accept.

"Just fifteen minutes to go now," says Sergei.

Green and pleasant landscape north of Elbrus

Green and pleasant landscape north of Elbrus

Sure enough the gully curls around to the right and back to the left, and below us we can see a broad grassy plain between hillsides. Some tents are pitched on the edge of it, and it marks the end of the trail. We reach the bottom at 10.15. To our right the hillside has shielded a large tented village from view. We walk into a fenced compound and sit down at some tables and benches outside a dining tent. Vitali buys a huge watermelon the size of two human heads for just 100 roubles (about £2 GBP) and cuts it into foot long segments to share. I bury my face into one of the slices and I don't think I've eaten so much watermelon in my life, but it quenches my thirst nicely after two very tiring days.

This camp site is known as Emmanuel Glade, after the Russian general who led the Russian Army expedition which is believed to have put a man on top of the East Peak for the very first time. It's here in this valley that Douglas Freshfield's disputed summit claim of 1829 originated when, according to Freshfield, General Emmanuel sat somewhere on this very plain and spied a man reaching the summit through a telescope. Although he could not identify who it was, he ordered the news to be proclaimed around camp and offered a 400 rouble reward to the successful summiteer.

"Few of my readers will be surprised to hear in the course of the evening a Tcherkess [ethnic Russian] named Killar presented himself and received the money," muttered Freshfield in the account of his own climb of the East Peak, Travels in the Central Caucasus and Bashan. Whether he is justified in his cynicism I couldn't possibly say, but nobody in Russia will tell you that anyone other than a Russian climbed Elbrus first in 1829.

Emmanuel Glade, Elbrus's northern trailhead

Emmanuel Glade, Elbrus's northern trailhead

The four hour bus ride to Kislovodsk is an interesting one, in a battered old Volkswagen camper van which has been converted into a four wheel drive vehicle with reinforced wheels. Everything inside has been tied down with cord and we soon find out why. For the first part of the journey the track is deeply rutted, but our driver doesn't seem to care. He drives along as though the road were flat, and we're tossed around wildly. Several times I find myself thrown off my seat and twice my head hits the ceiling. Sergei borrows my video camera to film the scene, and we're all roaring with laughter. Then the road seems to end at a pebbled beach beside a swollen river. Suddenly our driver swerves into the torrent and tries to drive up a bank on the far side. The vehicle becomes stuck, and half a dozen times he reverses a couple of metres to try and force his way up again. I don't believe we will ever make it, but at the sixth attempt we are flung over the bank with an almighty jolt. This camper van must have taken a hell of a beating in its time, but somehow it's still in working order. After this game of river dice the road is more straightforward, though at no point tarmacked until we reach Kislovodsk. We drive across ridges, over passes and down into valleys in a landscape of green wooded hills. The area seems very remote and we can see for miles across rolling grassy hillsides. We stop for a beer and pancakes at a dusty old café by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The café stands among a small patch of birch forest in a deep valley, and the three friends ask me to take a photograph of them beside its sign. They are laughing, and I ask Sergei why.

"Its name means Hotel Far-from-wife ," he says.

My fears about Kislovodsk are mercifully unfounded. It turns out to be a very attractive city wedged between fertile hills with miles and miles of pleasant parkland. Sergei explains that the quality of the mineral water in this region is known throughout Russia, and for many generations Kislovodsk has been a major tourist city where people come for health treatment and spas in a peaceful environment. In the Soviet era, when people were not allowed to travel abroad for fear they might defect to the West, it was a very popular tourist destination. It remains so to this day for Russians, but it doesn't seem to be a destination for foreign travellers yet. The four star Grand Hotel that we check into on the main square is one of the few places in the city where staff speak a smattering of English. More of a problem for me is that none of the menus are in English, and although I can manage to read the Cyrillic alphabet I don't know what any of the words mean unless they bear a close resemblance to English. Without the ability to read the alphabet it would be impossible, and eating in restaurants would be very difficult if you don't know any Russian. Fortunately for the time being I have my friends with me, and Luda and Sergei are able to translate.

Andrei, who comes from the nearby city of Pyatigorsk, is our guide for the evening. He takes us through a pleasant wooded park beside the river, and we climb hundreds of steps through a forest. It feels like we're walking out into the countryside, but at the top of the steps there is a smart restaurant perched on a hillside, where we have a meal of kebabs washed down with plenty of alcohol. Once again the conversation is all in Russian and I'm forced to stare into space for most of the meal. As we sit on a balcony looking out into the forest some figures nearby provide entertainment by throwing sticks into a plum tree and shaking it violently in an attempt to dislodge some of the fruit. Eventually one of the staff from the restaurant goes out to ask them to stop.

"They are not Russians, they are English!" jokes Sergei.

I ask Luda about Alex's Land Rover journey up Elbrus, as it's something that's been puzzling me ever since our summit day. As I researched Elbrus before I came out here I kept reading about how a Russian mountaineer called Alex Abramov drove a Land Rover to the summit in 1997. I believed the story at the time, but now it seems implausible. If a tracked snow-cat could only get as high as 5100m, how on earth had Alex managed to drive a wheeled Land Rover all the way to the summit? The traverse we took up to the West Peak was way too steep to drive up, and would have turned any form of vehicle on its side. Maybe Luda his wife was there and would be able to shed light on the story.

"The project took 45 days," she explains. "They drove all of the way to Barrels [at 3800m], but above that 90% of the time they had to use a pulley system to raise the vehicle. They ascended the East Peak not the West one. On the traverse to the saddle there is a route you can take to the right up a gully. On the way down the East Peak one of Alex's drivers lost control of the vehicle, and although he was able to dive out of it and save himself, the vehicle crashed into rocks and is still there. Now it is covered in snow and ice, but Alex showed me where it was one time."

So that explains it! All the literature which says Alex Abramov drove a Land Rover to the summit of Elbrus is terribly misleading and suggests the mountain is more gentle to climb than it really is. They didn't so much "drive" up there as carry a Land Rover up by hook or by crook.

We return to the Grand Hotel and have a few drinks in the hotel bar. Nobody will let me drink beer as they say that it's not the done thing for Russians at this time of the evening. I sit in silence drinking some strange cocktail in a stalked fruit bowl through a straw. The drink has an umbrella and cherry on a cocktail stick, and my friends from the north would laugh if they saw me now. I don't allow anyone to take photos. Sergei is determined to go dancing and we spend about an hour on a wild goose chase through the city, driving from bar to bar by taxi. Nobody seems to like the look of us, and in one place we are even asked to produce passports. I feel like I'm passing through airport security or worse, being interrogated by the KGB. I wonder how long it will be before someone produces a probe and asks us to drop our trousers. Luckily none of my companions want to go inside after such treatment, and I'm not at all disappointed when we return to our hotel danceless.

This was an extract from my diary Elbrus By Any Means.

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