Skiing Mount Elbrus — Europe’s highest peak
The sky fell in at 3,350 metres. It was our second day on the peak, and we had entered an acclimatisation phase; climbing high on the mountain by day, then retreating down to camp to sleep. We crossed a plateau that the Russians called “Aerodrome”, supposedly because the Germans landed aircraft there during the second world war. Beyond it, we ascended a snow-covered valley, walking in single file on our skis. After a while, we eschewed the centre of the slope to minimise avalanche risk and instead tucked ourselves under rocky outcrops to the right. As the route steepened, we strapped skis to our packs and continued on foot, kicking boots into the snow. With only a short distance left to the ridge, the group traversed beneath a small gully rising up into the crags. I was last man.
The image imprinted on my mind is of a sky filled with rocks. At the time I thought they were the size of kettle bells. The others later told me they saw four to six, each the size of a wheelbarrow or dustbin, plunge past me. I scuttled across the gully to the safety of the far rock face. I brought my glove to my face. There was damp on the fleece.
When I clambered up to where the others waited, their faces blanched at the blood. Something had caught my upper lip; given that it cut only flesh rather than staving in my incisors, it must have been a light fragment. A neurosurgeon who happened to be in the party cracked open the medical pack. My face done up with steri-strips and surgical tape, we trudged on up the glacier.
Mount Elbrus, a twin-topped dormant volcano rising to 5,642 metres, is generally deemed Europe’s highest peak — which mountain takes the accolade depends on where you draw the boundaries. But in terms of pure size, there is no comparison: Elbrus stands more than 800 metres above the summit of its better-known rival Mont Blanc, the highest in the Alps and in the EU. Mont Blanc remains by far the more visited peak but interest in Elbrus is growing, fuelled by its status as one of the “Seven Summits” (the highest peaks on each continent), an increasingly popular tick-list for thrill seekers.
Elbrus sits north of the main chain of the Caucasus and, unlike many of the serrated peaks on that watershed, the volcano is not a technical climb. However, it is still a big, wild mountain, prone to high winds and ferocious cold. The huts that stud its flanks are less sophisticated than those in France or Switzerland too. “Skiing Elbrus is a tough endeavour,” says Tom Briggs, marketing director at Jagged Globe, the company that arranged my trip. “It’s quite different from going to the Alps.”
The vast majority of aspirant Elbrus climbers ascend from the south, where they can ride ski lifts to a camp at 3,800 metres and from there often hitch a lift in a snowcat to as high as 4,650 metres. The northern approach is the purists’ choice: wilder and more beautiful, but you have to walk, or ski, every step of the way. Our trip, last May, was to the north. It did not prove uneventful.
We were led by Jim Blyth, a Scottish guide based near Chamonix who runs trips to some of the world’s most exotic ski mountaineering destinations, from Antarctica to Uzbekistan, Japan and Georgia. “There has to be snow and nice mountains and it has to be culturally interesting,” Blyth told me. “Then you need to have nice people to travel with.”
From Moscow we flew to Mineralnye Vody, where we met Alexei Shustrov, Blyth’s Russian guide partner. Shustrov was fresh from a Brobdingnagian traverse of the Caucasus from Baku to Sochi, some 1,500km by ski and bike over almost three months, with about 86,000 metres of ascent.
At the road head at Djilisu, a local dog stood with ears and tail clipped — apparently to reduce purchase by any attacking wolf. We carried our skis past a reddish hot spring to a snow-covered meadow known as Hathansu, at about 2,500 metres, where there is a permanent base camp with huts for sleeping.
The next morning we began our first acclimatisation climb, moving uphill in line with “skins” attached to our skis — originally genuine animal hide but now synthetic material with a nap, providing traction for walking uphill. Specialist bindings unclip at the heel to allow free movement; before descents the skins are removed and heels clipped back in.
The Aerodrome plateau was baking in the sun. We ascended to a flank above, and traversed to a feature known as the Mushroom Rocks, at 3,200 metres. Here an American member of the group felt unwell, so Blyth descended with him while the remainder of the group, led by Shustrov, continued up a shoulder. We halted at a rock at 3,450 metres, stripped the skins from our skis, and turned round ready for our first proper downhill ski.
When the ground steepened, Shustrov went first. Another surgeon in the party followed. The snow began to slough at the top of the slope. An unearthly rumbling began — in retrospect, it is that sound that sticks with me most. Within seconds a full-blown avalanche was sliding down the mountainside. As we stood watching, it caught both Shustrov and the surgeon; the first was engulfed, disappearing under the moving snow. The second was carried down on the surface. Peter White, a former hedge funder and by some margin our party’s best skier, rapidly cut down to where the avalanche had come to a halt. Shustrov had been ejected, and was picking himself out. The surgeon was also unharmed. I looked back up at the debris — a trail perhaps of 400-500 metres long, with heavy slabs of snow in the centre, white slurry at either side where they had been pulverised.
At base camp that night, Blyth sat, granite-faced, and asked what we could have done differently. The American who had bailed soon departed for Moscow and home. After the slide, the surgeon said he felt elated. Some days later, higher up the mountain, we discussed as a group the risks of ski mountaineering. The surgeon pointed out, matter-of-factly, that given events of the past days, both he and I could have been dead.
After the rockfall on day two, I felt no immediate emotional reaction. As we ascended the glacier, roping up for the final stretch to a hut where we would cache equipment, my initial concern was whether my face would be scarred. That fear was misplaced; after the dressings came off it was clear that although it appeared gory at the time, the cut itself to my lip was minor. Moistened with lip salve, it healed without trace.
The high hut was a spectacular eyrie, perched on a moraine at the side of a glacier at 3,760 metres. There was a semi-cylindrical eating hut (missing a roof panel that had gone in a storm and been roughly repaired), two out-stations for sleeping and a semi-domesticated dog called Chuka, who roamed between base camp and here. Above rose the upper mountain; even here almost 2,000 vertical metres separated us from the summit.
Alexandra Zagorodneva, a capable 27-year-old with fluent but slightly idiosyncratic English, ran this austere establishment. Originally from Pyatigorsk, a city north of the Caucasus, she had renounced urban life in Moscow and St Petersburg to work on Elbrus after the death of her parents. “When I was in Moscow I saw mountains everywhere,” she told me. “In my mind I live in mountains; I sleep and I see mountains, I wake up and I see mountains in my mind, and then I decided to move to this place.”
Zagorodneva’s hospitality brief was a challenging one. Due to the altitude, water boiled well below 100C; she told me that she fried pasta before boiling it, despite my incredulity that such a process would surely burn it irredeemably. The subsequent boil time was critical too. “If you lose this time, pasta is getting like borsch,” she explained.
The next day we returned to high camp with our sleeping gear, and would remain there until our bid for the summit. Now the same acclimatisation rhythm kicked in, albeit with a higher baseline. The following morning, we made our first foray on to the upper mountain. Conditions were initially balmy; we wore just base layers. As we crested a shoulder, the Caucasus watershed emerged. Among the toothy peaks, Shustrov pointed out 5,205-metre Dykh-Tau and 5,144-metre Koshtan-Tau.
Higher up, the wind accelerated. The change was profound. “When you go above 4,300 metres, you are higher than the main chain of the Caucasus,” Shustrov explained. “All the time, almost 100 per cent, there is wind.” The party split. Those who continued found themselves in biting cold. It seemed like a different planet to 30 minutes beforehand. We reached the first Lenz Rocks, at 4,550 metres, and turned around.
The surgeon pointed out, matter-of-factly, that given events of the past days, both he and I could be dead
The next day we threaded an alternate line through the seracs to around 4,400 metres. These climbs served as an acclimatisation process but there was also a need to trial equipment for the upper mountain. By Tuesday afternoon Blyth deemed our acclimatisation complete; now we needed a weather window. The problem was strong westerly/south-westerly winds. The forecasts gave Wednesday and Friday as the best days. We prepped gear. Damp kit strung up to dry filled our sleeping hut. Tension increased; the acclimatisation forays had revealed the hostility of the upper mountain, and we had still not gone within 1,000 vertical metres of the top. We would leave shortly after midnight.
I slept fitfully for a few hours. I woke to find Blyth standing in the doorway and a gale howling outside — Wednesday’s bid was off. Torpor settled on high camp. It was a place of deterioration as well as acclimatisation; while headaches reduced over time, lips and other skin cracked and blistered. Due to my foolish use of factor 30 rather than 50 on the first day out, combined with a fair complexion, my face had burnt so badly that one of the doctors lent me Polyfax ointment, an unguent used after surgery, to salve it. A German party in co-residence complained of Lagerkoller, cabin fever.
Thursday’s forecast was not good: wind, poor visibility and snow showers. We were due to fly to Moscow on Sunday, meaning that we had to get off the hill by Saturday. Friday was our last feasible summit day; thankfully, when we rose shortly after midnight, it was clear. We set off.
As we skinned up the glacier by the light of our head torches, the cold was intense. I was glad of the leggings under my soft-shell trousers, the hand warmers in my mittens. By 3:30am we were at Lenz Rocks, the eastern sky streaked with dawn. I felt strong until 4,800 metres, then abruptly nauseous and weak. I was worried that I would have to turn around. I tried mental tricks. There were some 800 vertical metres left to the summit, the height only of a Lake District fell. That approach had little effect: Coniston or Wastwater, the base of said fells, do not lie at 4,800 metres. Stronger measures were required. I had not drunk caffeine for years but now I asked a Dutchman in the party if I could have some of his caffeinated gels. He gave me two sachets. Totally unacclimatised to their payload, the first registered like a much stronger stimulant. I plodded on.
Sachet one got me to the col at 5,350 metres, a wild saddle with an orange-coloured rescue hut. We cached our skis and strapped on crampons. The vista opened to the main range to the south and we encountered the more trodden southern route, marked with red flags. A second sachet carried me all the way to the 5,642-metre western summit. The last steps we conducted as though walking underwater.
At the summit there were tattered flags, but the clouds had returned and there was no view. I stood in a duvet jacket, with face mask and goggles, and felt profoundly unwell. It was just after 9am. Back at the saddle we clipped into our bindings and began the complex business of downhill skiing 500 metres above the summit of Mont Blanc. It was exhausting, and saving our energy was key — better to ski conservatively and avoid falling, given how hard it was to get up from a tumble.
However, as we descended, it was as though the air was tangibly thickening. Nausea evaporated. The run back down the glacier, scrubbing off 1,600 metres of altitude, became magnificent. The terrain was straightforward, like a high-altitude blue run; we passed large seracs; below lay the brownish plains. Most of all, we covered ground with thrilling speed — the same slopes that had taken hours of battling in the other direction. This was a wholly distinct activity to resort skiing, not a variant of it. As repeat Blyth client Louise Baltesz told me later: “Going on a piste now is just the most shocking thing.”
We were back at the hut by about 11:30am, hours before the German party who had made their summit bid on foot. I sat with my disintegrating face next to Chuka, the camp dog. I felt utterly spent but, somewhere deep down, a considerable sense of accomplishment.
While devoid of technical difficulties, it had been one of the most demanding activities I have ever completed. In ski mountaineering, the physical effort, the cold and wind, the basic living conditions, go hand in hand with the sublime — the meditative nature of skinning, the ability to traverse otherwise impassable ground, the magic speed of descent. It can though, undeniably, be dangerous. The leadership of our trip was sound (I corresponded with both Blyth and Shustrov extensively afterwards and found no cause for blame) but even their vast combined experience could not remove all risk.
On Saturday, before our flight to Moscow, we stayed in Pyatigorsk. That afternoon I wandered into a verdant, and determinedly monolingual compound: a museum to writer Mikhail Lermontov, often considered a Russian Byron. Lermontov died after a duel in Pyatigorsk, age 26, in 1841. His novel A Hero of Our Time ranks for me with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That as a book I loved as an adolescent and so cannot return to for fear that my adult self would repudiate it. There were furnishings from Lermontov’s apartment in St Petersburg; there were blossoms under the thatch. Early death, which had a kind of glamour when I first read about it, is, as an adult, shorn of romance.
Simon Akam was a guest of Jagged Globe (jagged-globe.co.uk) and Aeroflot (aeroflot.ru). Jagged Globe offers ski trips ranging from single-day ski tours in Chamonix to month-long crossings of the Greenland ice cap. Its 12-day trip to ski Elbrus from the north costs from £2,700; the next departure is on May 19. Aeroflot has up to 35 flights a week from Heathrow and Gatwick to Moscow, and five flights per day from Moscow Sheremetyevo to Mineralnye Vody; returns from London to Mineralnye Vody cost from £320. For more on Jim Blyth’s trips see jimblyth.com