Today's plan is to walk up to 4,700 mtrs and stay there for a while to really move our acclimatisation on in preparation for the summit at about 5,700. You really want to start early as then the snow and ice are hard and it is so much easier to walk on hard ground than when the snow gets soft and you sink in as well as risking getting your feet wet in the puddles. The sun as always is very strong at altitude and when the wind is not blowing it can get pretty hot which causes the snow to melt or soften quickly.
We get a reasonable start - only about an hour late by the time everyone is up and has their gear and crampons on. But again the group moves really slowly and in the end we stop only briefly at about 4.500 before heading back down.
This performance will lead to an interesting discussion on how we head to the summit. In addition is the issue of the snow cats. Most, if not all climbers, take a ride on one of the snow cats from the Barrels (at about 3,800) up to 4,700 or even 5,000 on summit day. I am very keen to avoid this as you can't really claim to have summited a mountain when you have been carried for at least half of your summit day. However, to walk you are asked to start at midnight which combined with waiting for the group on the snowcats to reach the meeting point and combined with waiting for them continually higher up will lead to a real risk of cold issues - especially if the weather is bad.
We meet in the afternoon to discuss the arrangements. The forecast is for poor weather over the next few days but not so bad as to prevent summiting. One of the rules of mountains which do not tend to have stable weather is that when you can go you do go as even a slight deterioration in the weather can prevent a summit attempt and you don't want to have wasted your one reasonable day waiting at Base Camp. However most of the group are not in a state to go tomorrow.
This provides the opportunity for Gus and me to go for the summit and avoid all the problems that going en masse would involve - split group between walkers and riders on the snowcats, cold issues given the pace and the risk of the summit attempt being called off as both guides need to accompany people turning back. It is never nice to split a group in this way and a few of the others are noticeably upset when I mention the possibility but after a bit people recognise that it is not such a bad idea.
The problem is that neither of the guides want to do the summit twice and so we will need to pay another guide to take us there. Vladimir tries, but is unable to find an alternative but feels happy coming with us as long as we pay him that fee. Dave is not sure enough of how he will be feeling for the second attempt with the rest of the group (especially as this is when he will most likely be required to take action or tough decisions) so does not come either.
So we prepare for our summit bid by trying to get some sleep in the afternoon (but not really succeeding) and early dinner and then an early night to get up for a 12:30 breakfast and 1am departure. As it is just Gus and I making the attempt and the guide thinks we are both strong, I am able to negotiate a one hour later start time.
Needless to say that for various reasons I don't sleep much that night.
When we get up at 12:10 am the stars are shining, there is a 3/4 full moon and it is warmish and windless in camp - great conditions for a summit attempt. However, by the time we have finished breakfast the sky has clouded over, the wind has picked up and the temperature has dropped quite a bit.
We set off at 01:10 and begin our long trudge up the mountain. From about 02:00 onwards we start to be overtaken by the snowcats ferrying people up the hill. Not the best feeling despite their waves and shouts of encouragement. We have not seen any other early activity in the camp or anyone else walking so we are probably the only group walking the whole way today.
This is also about the time that the wind gets even stronger and changes direction so that it starts blowing into our faces which makes it really pretty chilly and we soon have frost building up on our jackets.
We get to the first major drop off point at about 02:45 and it is a sea of people and groups trying to organise themselves - given that it is still pitch black you can easily see that it would have been pretty tricky to try and join the two parts of our group here. We stop very briefly and set off again to make sure we are ahead of all these people. There is a mini repeat of this as we pass the second drop off point at about 5,100. It has been a real slog up to here and it has started hailing which the strong wind is blowing horizontally into our faces These are some of the worst conditions I have been through on a summit day as yet and I feel a bit exposed without my big down jacket to keep the elements out - we are also not really waking at a speed that creates a lot of heat for me so I am having a pretty chilly day. I have stopped briefly to put on another layer and it is just about keeping my body from getting too cold. The only consolation is that at times we can see very long snakes of head torches stretching a long way down the mountain so these poor people have a long way to go.
At about 04:30 the sun comes up and there is also a brief break in the cloud allowing us to take a couple of photos and see our surroundings.
The bad weather returns as we approach the saddle between the two peaks. Despite the fact that we are no longer walking up such a steep slope, there is an interesting combination of strong wind, tricky terrain and steep drops to the side. We come across some fixed ropes which at first seem a bit excessive but later pretty handy as the wind picks up even more so that we are walking in probably 30mph+ conditions with some really rather strong gusts (probably over 60mph). These are difficult to cope with as you can't brace yourself in preparation and, whilst not strong enough to knock us big, heavy chaps over, they will certainly knock you sideways if you happen to be off balance when they hit. Some poor chap ahead suddenly shoots off down the slope with his ice axe all over the place and luckily comes to a stop on a mound as otherwise he would have gone a long way indeed and probably badly injured. A bit surreal, but a very timely reminder of the need to be careful in such conditions even on an easy mountain. I am slightly concerned that the guide will decide that it is getting too dangerous and that we will have to turn back but luckily this does not happen.
Visibility is reducing rapidly and soon we can't see one route marker from the prior one which is a bit worrying at times - we have spent all day in conditions which would see a summit attempt cancelled on all the other 7 Summits so it will be interesting to see how things fare from here on. We are still making good progress and have been overtaking all the other groups we have come across. After a while we have another break, eat some rations and then leave our packs behind as we enter the final approach to the summit.
Whilst we are doing this the guide potters off, when we look round for him a 20 seconds later to see what he is up to, he is a couple of metres to the side (really not very far at all) and squatting down still facing us. Given the visibility, we are having to stare very hard to see what he is up to and it is only then that we realise that he has dropped his trousers and is having a quick comfort break - we refrain from asking whether this is some curious way of showing respect to the mountain gods.
After that, there are a couple of steep slopes and then for the first time in the day the route flattens out as we hit the top of the ridge
and shortly after that a small plateau with a few people standing on it. We get there at 08:40, 7.5 hours after leaving and whilst it is a relief to finally be at the summit the conditions remain pretty poor - very windy, cold and with almost no visibility.
As such we only stay for about 20 mins; our guide says his prayers (a slightly more usual way of showing respect to the mountain and, we guess, some of his friends who have tragically lost their lives on it) and we take some (about 3) photos before heading off again at 09:00. That is more than enough time and the next groups are now arriving for their turn.
By half nine the cloud lifts and we can see about 150 - 200 people stretched out in long lines all the way back along the saddle. As always, the lift of having reached the summit and going downhill makes everything seem a lot better together with a significant improvement in conditions. As we descend it appears that the story that we have walked all the way has circulated as Vladimir is being congratulated by all the guides that we come across - one of them has the good grace to think of us as well and gives me a smile and a thumbs up.
As we get back to the main slope back to camp we are overtaken by some skiers. Whilst it looks a great slope to ski down, the rapid warming is turning the snow to slush and we later come across them struggling in the wretched conditions. As the morning wears on and we descend towards the Barrels, it really warms up and we are walking through deep, wet and heavy snow which is really quite a drain at the end of a long, tough climb.
We get back to camp at 11:30 (total trip of 10 hours, 7.5 up and 2.5 down) to bask in both our glory and the sunshine that has now arrived! I give Dave a quick debrief on the route and conditions to help the rest of the group for their bid and then start making arrangements to see if we can head off to Moscow early rather than hanging round in the desolate barrels for another couple of days.
This all works out and, having packed and said our goodbyes, we start down the mountain at 3pm. Unfortunately, at ten to three the clouds return and it starts to rain heavily. The chair lift is still running but it is a miserable descent and the conditions in the valley are little better. This is not helped by our driver not being there to meet us so we spend a while trying to find him before heading to a cafe for a beer and shashlik. We make some calls and finally find out that despite having been told that he would be there to meet us and would recognise us, he is sitting in his van in a car park that is a 5 minute walk away. I go and find him, expecting that he would be apologetic and would drive back to the cafe (it is still pouring) but instead he appears annoyed that I have interrupted his chat with a friend and makes it clear that we need to walk to him. He can then conveniently no longer understand enough of my Russian when I suggest he comes to the cafe. Eventually I am just too fed up and tired to argue (or at least attempt to argue) and so walk back to the cafe to get Gus and our packs before we finally head back to Cheget and the hotel. There we have a quick shower and another miserable dinner before an early night in preparation for celebrations in Moscow!
The rest of the group planned to head up the next day but did not really get started. The day after (their last chance) they headed up again with 2/3 summiting and the rest turning back not long after getting off the snowcat.
Next up, the adventure in West Papua and the Carstenz Pyramid which is the highest peak in Australasia
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