High-adventure, low-visibility on Elbrus

At 3:10 am on the morning of July 22, the snowcat showed up at the Garabashi Huts, also known as “the Barrels.” This was to be our Elbrus Summit day.

Riding the snowcatMichael Fagin, a weather forecaster who will be providing the forecast for the Berg Adventures Everest Expedition and Western Cwm Expedition this fall, had contacted us on Sunday with a weather update, a forecast. We’d seen a couple of days of beautiful weather in the Caucasus but Michael said the sooner we go to the summit, the better. He said the weather would worsen on Tuesday and get worse yet on Wednesday and Thursday.

As we rode up on the back of the snowcat, a Russian friend of mine who is a photographer who accompanies us on our summit attempt to get photos of BAI climbers, looked off to the southwest and said to me, “The weather is getting bad.”

I began to suspect already that Michael’s forecast was going to be accurate.

We stepped off the snowcat with our crampons already on at Pastukhov Rocks at 14,800 feet (4750 m) at about 4:10 in the morning and began our climb. The unsettled morning sky was beautiful in the dawn light as we approached the Saddle at about 17,200 feet (5244 m). This is the saddle between the east and west summits of Elbrus.

Approaching the saddleJust before we reached the Saddle in the morning light, I was surprised to see an old friend of mine, a Russian guide named Alec. Alec and I had guided Elbrus together a couple of times in the past and I knew he had gone to the summit with a team the day before. I was surprised to see Alec back up on the mountain. He reported to me that he was with a rescue team going to recover the bodies of four Czech climbers who had perished of exposure after a storm on the north side of the Saddle.

As we reached the Saddle ourselves, the weather was continuing to deteriorate. It was snowing and windy.

I should mention that, as always on Elbrus, I had my wands with me. You’ll see these on the photographs from high on the slopes of Elbrus. I always have dozens of wands, what mountaineers use to mark the route on glacial terrain in case of loss of visibility. They are just simple garden stakes with orange fluorescent flagging.

The Russians always laugh at me for using these things, but I carry them with me always on Elbrus and other mountains around the world. I was placing them as we climbed into the Saddle, knowing that the visibility would deteriorate.

It was now about 9:30 am and we were on the Saddle. We had made good time. Some people showed signs of a long, hard climb in the altitude. But, the team overall looked very strong.

We had the grim experience of seeing Alec and the rest of the rescue team march pass us with one of the Czech climbers on a litter, removing the body. They were doing hard work without a lot of thanks.

And of course for us it was a grim reminder of how unforgiving the mountains can be.

Richard on our summit attemptWhile we regrouped at the Saddle, Mike Fucci began to show clearly some of the early symptoms of cerebral edema. We knew he had to go down. For the Russian guides and all of us that climb at altitude, these symptoms are not that uncommon. We see them in people. Descent is the ultimate therapy; it takes care of it in every case, and we quickly moved into action.

Three Russian guides who were with my team, Alex, Victor and Misha, prepared to descend with Mike. And this group has a lot of camaraderie and strength amongst themselves, they get along very well and they are always very supportive of each other. Denio, Keith Wilson, Richard, Deborah and Gretchen all agreed to descend with the three Russian guides and Mike. These folks were willing to help and they also felt that they themselves, in some cases, had experienced about as much of the rarefied air of the Caucasus this morning as they felt up for. So it was clear that this team was going to go down.

I called on the cellular phone to get the snowcats started up as high on the mountain as it could go on the mountain to reach them, in case Mike needed to go down more quickly. We also were prepared to take Mike all the way down on the cable cars to the valley if necessary.

Just jumping ahead, I’ll report that this group did get down quite effectively. Everyone worked hard. Mike had a couple of moments where he was a little wobbly as they went down. But he improved as he descended. And Alex reported to me by radio a few hours later that they were back at the Barrels and that Mike looked fine and would not need to descend.

Karen and Yury close to the summit of ElbrusI should mention also that George, who had surgery on his ankle a few months ago, decided a little bit earlier that his ankle was not going to make it up Elbrus. Victor had helped him get down and then Victor returned to join the rest of us.

So at this point, myself and Yury, the lead Russian guide, and Spencer, Karen, Mike Doty and Mark were going to continue trying to reach the west summit of Elbrus. The visibility was worsening as we began to ascend. I was still placing wands, of course. We got on to the summit plateau – if you know how Elbrus looks, the West Summit is a broad plateau and you virtually reach the highest elevation at a point about one kilometre, almost one-half mile, from the true summit. Visibility is a huge problem up there as well.

By the time we reached the top we were in a blinding snowstorm. We felt our way along trying to find our way to the summit, placing our wands. But I saw fairly early in the traverse that it was going to be futile and we would not reach the true summit in that visibility.

We also, at this point, ran across four Russian climbers who were quite disoriented and not sure where they were. So we turned back to help them and began to follow my wands back to the edge of the summit plateau of the west summit of Elbrus.

BAI team near the summit in blinding snowstormThere we found a British climber and his Russian guide, who were waiting at our rope and our anchor to descend off the summit plateau with us. They clearly needed some assistance getting down. We, as a group, descended on our rope and began feeling our way back across the Saddle and out on the traverse that led us to Pastukhov Rocks.

As a team, everybody stayed together, moved well. We stayed on our rope all the way to the bottom of the Rocks and I’ll have to admit that even though it wasn’t necessary for Mike, Spencer, Karen and Mark, we radioed ahead for our own snowcat ride back down to the Barrels to give ourselves a break from the last two or three hours of walking down the glacier on a white out conditions.

Our team got together for one of Marsha’s dinners after what for me was a very rewarding mountaineering day. Deborah commented to me that it was the best day she’d spent in the mountains.

This may seem strange to people who just think about reaching the tops of summits and only having complete success – and not experiencing the power of the mountains. We moved safely and confidently and as a team all day. We got back, believe me, with a great deal of satisfaction.

Now, the morning of the 23rd, I’m sitting at the Barrels watching it snow. Completely overcast skies. And I’ll have to give credit to Michael Fagin for having hit this forecast on the nose.

Spencer is happy to be back on the chairliftWhat our team has to do now is get ourselves organized, ride that chair back down to the upper cable car and begin our ride back down into the Baksan Valley. We’re pretty happy because we’ve got two full days and nights left in the Caucasus with our friends down in what now seems to be the very warm climate of the Baksan Valley.

It’s cloudy down there; I’m sure it’s raining. But we’re going to join our friends at the hotel and I’ll report to you how the barbecues and the parties go on our final two days in the Caucasus Mountains.

Above: Comet Hale-Bopp over Mt. Elbrus from Pik Terskol, Caucasus, April '97. ©"Observers", AlltheSky.com