This expedition starts with an overnight flight to Moscow and then a further flight followed by a 4 hour drive. The plan is to get to Heathrow early and have an excellent steak and wine supper to help us sleep. Unfortunately it turns our that everything in Heathrow terminal 4 closes at 21:30 so not only is this not possible but nor can we get anything to eat or drink except at the low quality and high price coffee outlet there.
The only good thing is that we have managed to meet the rest of the group and so we can get to know them a bit. The flight is only 4 hours and so without the planned preparation it is no surprise that we do not get my sleep on the plane - but are pleasantly surprised by the quality of Aeroflot.
We get to Moscow airport at about 5am with our next flight not until about 08:30 or so. Luckily, this gives us time to complete the various transit and customs procedures and even have a discussion on the identifying characteristics of an alcoholic - the only one we can identify that none of us displays (usually) is needing a drink in the morning. This leads onto a discussion on what is meant by the morning and whether the fact that you have not been to sleep impacts. Before we can come to a conclusion on this, we discover a cafe selling beer next to our departure gate and decide to do some research. Quite conveniently, this is when our guide Dave turns up and he is more than happy to lend a hand.
As we are much better 'prepared' and a lot more tired for this flight we sleep most of the couple of hours down to Mineral Vody airport. There we meet the local agent and board the bus for our transfer to Cheget which is on the Georgian border (our base for Elbrus). A bit more sleep and then a break to try some local food which is very similar to Georgian food and reminds me of what I used to eat at times in Kazakhstan - deep fried light pastry with melted cheese inside.
We get to Cheget in the early afternoon to find a small, decaying village for what was once a popular skiing area with health spas and other outdoor activities. People only really come here for Elbrus now so much of the infrastructure that is away from the mountain itself is falling apart.
Our hotel seems good enough although its Soviet origins come through when we meet in the evening. There is no common room so we meet in the dining room. I try to order a beer but am flatly told no, without the useful extra information that alcohol must be bought from reception where there is a well stocked fridge. Secondly, the hotel provides a set dinner and I ask if they can delay bringing it out until we have had our 20 minute meeting - we had not booked the table so it is not as if they can have been expecting us then - but am again told no and dinner is brought out and dumped on the table. The food is actually pretty poor Soviet stodge which only adds to the overall experience. A friend who has been here before told me of the great cafes and shashlik so I resolve not to waste my time and appetite here again.
After that, at about 9pm it is off to bed to try and catch up on all the missed sleep and early rise for tomorrow's acclimatisation trek.
Today we are hiking up to Cheget peak which is about 3,400mtrs from the valley floor of 2,000mtrs to blow the cobwebs away and to start our acclimatisation for Elbrus. It is a nice walk in green meadows that open into rocky higher ground with decent views but not great weather - very different environment to previous expeditions:
A couple of hundred metres short of the summit we break for lunch - not really worth it in my view as it consists of two small pieces of stale bread with a piece of sausage in between - there is a banana which is quite nice though. Dave and Vladimir (the local guide) have a quick chat and decide that this is as far as we are going to go today - there is bad weather on the way and the group is moving pretty slowly. The weather arrives shortly and we have fun making our way back down in the rain and wind.
The descent is not technical at all but reasonably steep and so I descend at quite a pace. However, I slow down after a bit as I am having some problems with my knees. They feel rather strange, almost a bit loose, and my right knee especially is starting to swell up. This is rather worrying and something I am going to have to watch a bit more carefully.
At the bottom we come across the main square of the village which has a number of cafes / restaurants selling shashlik and beer so the whole group popped in for a bit - good to recoup after the walk and get to know the group a bit better. This is the biggest group so far - there are 10 of us and a good bunch of fun people.
In the evening, Gus and I head back to the square for some good food and to see what nightlife we can find - we are pretty hopeful as it is Friday and this is the main square for the surrounding area and villages. We go into each of the places to see what is happening - unfortunately the answer is nothing and so we have some more beer and shashlik and then head back for another early night - we have an early start in the morning.
Today we are acclimatising again and, this time, doing a carry up to a nearby peak where we will overnight tomorrow. We head off early as we need to pass through a checkpoint as well as get up and down before the really bad weather in the afternoon comes in and will be carrying quite a bit of gear and water today so it will be tough going.
We drive from our village to the trail head and have a few interesting encounters. Firstly the checkpoint which is there to stop Georgian 'terrorists' from coming over the border into Russia - we all need to get out of the van and present ourselves individually with our passports at the small hut whilst the guards and their dogs inspected our vehicle which seemed a little strange as this was on the way to the border. Obviously, when we head back through the checkpoint in the evening (which is when we could have undesirables in the van) we are simply waved through!
Later on we see some of the artillery that is pointed at Georgia - not only does it appear too small to clear the mountains but I am not sure what the soldiers would do with the cows who seem to have laid claim to it?
After that, we get out at what looks like an old Soviet military camp and from there walk along a river to some tourist camps and then up the steep but beautiful side of the valley. The lower section is very green but still very hot indeed - neither of which helps some of the group who aren't in quite the shape that they would have hoped to be for the trip.
We make pretty slow progress and towards the top I decide to kick on a bit to help my acclimatisation and so got to the top for lunch by myself. Lovely view but again miserable food and I end up throwing most of it away looking forward to another supper of shashlik but hopefully with a bit more nightlife as it is Saturday today.
We put up a tent and leave most of our gear there (sleeping and climbing gear for tomorrow as well as water for the next couple of days) before heading back down. I ask the guide about nightlife in the area but he doesn't think that there is much but if there is any it will be in the square where we were last night.
It turns out that there isn't any as we walk from café to bar to restaurant without coming across anything lively at all that evening, but at last the shashlik is good.
Today we are walking up to the campsite and spending the night there - sleeping at altitude is very important for acclimatisation and we are trying to get as much done as possible before we get to the mountain itself. The plan was to have slightly lighter packs today but somehow the food, tents and other bits and pieces manage to replace the space created by the equipment we left behind yesterday.
We have a much smoother passage through the checkpoint today - apparently it is pretty random here despite the fact that our guide Vladimir comes through most weeks.
Our approach today is to walk in two groups given the varying speeds that people are comfortable walking at which makes the ascent more comfortable and enjoyable for most people. When we get to the top we set up the camp and then set out lunch when the other group nears the summit - Vladimir rather than the hotel is providing food for the next couple of days so we have fresh bread, cheese and local sausage; a real treat!
The tents can't really be considered in the same light. They are very small and when I lie down I can touch all four sides of the tent without even straightening my arms. There are going to be three large chaps in here tonight which will be enjoyable! The afternoon is a leisurely one - a little bit of pottering about and relaxing in the afternoon sun before the inevitable arrival of bad weather.
After a hurried supper of bread, cheese, sausage and instant noodles we prepare for an early bed with Vladimir casually mentioning that we shouldn't have anything metal (poles, ice axes etc) near the tent or even get up during the night as this exposed area is prone to lightning storms! We are in the process of laughing this off when I come across an umbrella skeleton which has clearly been fried in a previous storm!
Shortly after, the storm hits and for most of the night we are bombarded with rain, thunder and lightning. This combined with the cramped conditions in the tent mean that we get little sleep but at least I get chance to catch up on my blog. I am keeping notes in my iPhone but for some reason they keep getting deleted which is very frustrating!
Today we are heading up to summit of Cumrichi, the highest trekking peak in the vicinity and a frequent pre-Elbrus climb. As usual is it up early and after quick breakfast we head off to summit. Breakfast is instant noodles which are really good on mountains - even when you have them for most meals! The ascent itself is really enjoyable with a mixture of trekking, scrambling and some easy climbing.
There is a lot of loose rock and scree which is pretty dangerous when climbing as a group and especially when the route often goes up gullies! On a few occasions we stop whilst the people at the front kick all the loose rock down the slope before the rest of the group come underneath - we manage to cause a couple of impressive rock slides like this! The weather a bit of a mix, but mainly low cloud with a strong sun behind it - which is a worry as it is very easy to get burnt through it.
As we get to the summit we hit the snow line which is great as it makes the peak feel like a real summit. Once there we congratulate each other, admire the view and take photos whilst trying to avoid tumbling down the steep crumbly sides of the summit ridge.
We have a good lunch of (and you've probably guessed it) bread, cheese and sausage on the way back down having stashed our supplies at a sheltered spot on the way up. We pull into camp to pack up where we get some clear(ish) skies for about the first time up here and a chance to appreciate the view including our first sighting of Elbrus itself before we start our descent.
The weather remains clear and the descent is really hot given the strong sun, absence of cloud cover and shelter from the wind. A few of us decide to press on as there is a river at the bottom of the valley and that should give us enough time for a quick dip before the others arrive and we head back to Cheget. I am managing my knees through this a can maintain a reasonable pace without any apparent repercussions.
The first part of the plan works well as we get to the river in plenty of time and in real need of cooling down. However we have not appreciated that the water is freezing. I manage to get in up to my knees for a minute or so by which time they are turning blue and really rather painful so we decide just to wait under some trees in the shade instead. Shortly after this some Russians turn up to wash in the river and merrily strip down to their swimming costumes and bikinis before plunging in - quite luckily for my self-esteem they are all laughing about how cold it is and don't stay in for that long but it was still very impressive.
We decide that what we really need now is a beer and that there is a bar about 10 minutes walk back towards where we are meeting the van which is probably too far for anyone to be keen to head there and bring us all back drinks so we decide to head off leaving a helpful sign for the rest of the group when they reach the valley floor:
The beer is excellent and cold and we also meet a group of Russians who are holidaying there for a bit of chat and some rather poor jokes. After a bit the rest of the group arrive and not having seen our sign (we are still not quite sure how they could miss it - the above photo is not that great) aren't too pleased with us having headed off to the bar but this rapidly turns into appreciation with our forward thinking when we hand over the cold beers that we have got for them!
We finally tear ourselves away from the bar and head back to the hotel - the others have been giving us good reports on the hotel food recently so we decide to give it another go. Unfortunately, the good run has come to an end and it is back to the unappetising Soviet stodge but we are too tired to head out instead. After that we repack for Elbrus and off to bed to try and recover from last night before we hit the mountain.
The real issue that has arisen is the considerable range of abilities, fitness and strength in the group. This is likely to cause problems for the summit bid in two main ways. Firstly some people will be walking far too slowly and therefore people may well get too cold, leading to a risk of not making the summit. Others may need to turn round at some point and each time this happens one of the guides needs to accompany them. Therefore a second turn around will mean that the whole group will need to head back as we only have two guides. There is a bit of a discussion between a few of us and the guides and we conclude to do the acclimatisation walk from the Barrels in a couple of days and see how things go.
The morning is meant to be easy - we have agreed that we can keep our rooms and so leave everything that we are not taking onto Elbrus in them and so all we need to do is shower and breakfast. However, just as we are about to leave the hotel, they decide that in fact we can't keep our rooms and need to clear them which leads to a rush to sort that out and still leave the hotel on time. We need to meet the logistics chaps to pick up our food and some gear for the mountain so timing is important!
The bottom of Elbrus is a ski resort and, when the snow clears in the Summer, you are just left with moraine which makes for pretty boring walking. As a result (and combined with the food you need to take up which is not the standard light weight climbing fare) everyone uses the ski lifts to get up to base camp which is (affectionately) known as the Barrels. The weather is pretty miserable but we do get a bit of a view in a brief break in the clouds.
There are a number of locals as well as climbers using the cable car and a rather nice moment when a young girl, who is too embarrassed to ask, takes surreptitious photos of me and Gus with her iPhone whilst giggling with her friends about it.
The ski lifts combine a fairy modern cable car with an ‘interesting’ final stretch on a chairlift. It turns out that the chairlift is a decrepit, single-seater which is a bit of a worry, as is the fact the weather worsens and it is now windy and raining. The metal creeks whenever the chair moves, which is pretty frequent given the wind and the number of pylons, and without much of a view to take your mind off that or the weather it is a pretty hair-raising ride!
Unfortunately, and perhaps not to surprisingly, this is not to be the end of our travails. There is some sort of mix up when we arrive in that, although the organisers knew we were coming, our barrel is not available. It is not clear quite why, but we end up being distributed amongst the other barrels. The ladies end up sharing with the cooks who make little effort to hide their own displeasure at the arrangements and a few of us chaps get what appears to be the guides' overflow cabin. The ceiling is pretty warped and when the rain starts a good few leaks are triggered and the whole thing is on a tilt so there are concerns about falling out of bed! Luckily we all manage to take this with a good sense of humour and no one is that upset and in fact our cabin isn't that bad - especially when compared to the tent of a couple of nights ago.
The rest of the day is pretty easy - basically resting, eating, getting ready for our acclimatisation walk tomorrow and watching the world go by. The weather also clears so we get some good pictures of the camp and its surroundings including our first glimpses of the summit up close.
As mentioned above, there are a number of cooks up here and we hand over all the boxes of food to them. What they produce is pretty good with soup, pasta and meat with sausage and cheese for most meals.
Accounts and photos of completing the Explorers Grand Slam - 2 Poles and 7 Summits. By Sebastian Merriman. Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, McKinley, Elbrus, Everest, Kosciusko, Kilimanjaro, North Pole, Arctic, South Pole, Antarctic, Antarctica, Vinson, vertigo, climbing, mountaineering, skiing to the pole, skiing to the poles, seb2poles7summits, seb27, Seb Merriman, seb2poles, mountains, poles