Mount Elbrus – Day 1 on the mountain

Today we are leaving our warm, dry hotel rooms and heading up to the mountain. We will be staying at base camp the whole time we are up there. Many refer to base camp as the “Barrel Huts.” To get to the barrels, we actually take chairlifts. I wasn’t too fond of this because I felt like we were cheating, but that is what is typically done when you climb this mountain. We went on two gondolas and one chairlift to get to the barrel huts at 12,500 feet. I had two bags:

  1. My big bag holding my sleeping bag, clothing, gear, and food, most of which will stay at base camp.
  2. My day pack for hiking.
The two backpacks I used on my Mount Elbrus climb

The last lift was a single lift, so I went on first with my day pack, and then my guide, Roman, put my big bag on the seat behind me:

Backpack on a chairlift on Mount Elbrus

These are the “old” barrels. They have been on the mountain a long time and have provided many climbers with a place to sleep:

The old barrel huts on Mount Elbrus

These are the “new” barrels where we slept:

The new barrel huts on Mount Elbrus

The view from my “barrel”:

View from the new barrel huts on Mount Elbrus

And the inside. Not to shabby!

Beds inside the barrel huts on Mount Elbrus

The toilet even has a view! This outhouse was precariously placed on the edge of a cliff, and it is tilted slightly towards that cliff edge. Using the outhouse when it was windy was actually quite scary!

An outhouse with a view on Mount Elbrus

We had lunch at the barrels and then set off to do an acclimatization hike. Our goal was to get to about 15,000 feet, but we had to stop and turn around at around 14,300 feet because there were some dark clouds coming in. Our guide was very nervous that this was a thunderstorm coming in. He immediately said, “If it starts to thunder, jump onto your belly, throw your hiking poles away from you, and take your crampons off.” Since we were in the middle of a glacier, there was absolutely nowhere to hide.

This is Roman, our guide, smoking a cigarette. He smoked at almost every break.

Our guide smoking while climbing Mount Elbrus
Acclimatization hike up Mount Elbrus

This photo is looking up at the Pastuckhov rocks, where we went up to the next day:

Pastukhov rocks on Mount Elbrus
Acclimating on Mount Elbrus

 Thunder clouds. Time to head back down!

Thunderstorm on Mount Elbrus
Going down to the base camp barrels on Mount Elbrus
Walking on the glacier on Mount Elbrus

The hike went pretty well. It was slow going up, which is typical because we are not used to the elevation. We had to wear crampons to keep from slipping. Walking on a glacier is more than just walking on snow/ice. There are many hidden dangers, particularly crevasses that you sometimes can’t see. If our guide saw anything that looked like a soft spot, he would stop, poke it with his pole, and jump over what could potentially be a snow bridge over a crevasse waiting to collapse.

Crevasse on Mount Elbrus

Watch the video below to see a river/crevasse near the barrels. Don’t fall in!

 Our guide said we were a strong group and kept a good pace. During the hike, I felt a little lightheaded and had a mild headache. I attributed part of it to the altitude and part of it because I was very anemic to the point where I needed an iron infusion 1 week before the trip. Unfortunately, it takes 1-2 months for that to kick in, so I’m hoping my body will compensate (read more about my battle with ulcerative colitis here).

Getting an iron infusion for my anemia from ulcerative colitis

The minute I made it down to the barrels and stopped hiking, my mild headache turned into a throbbing killer headache. I felt like my brain was being squeezed with a vice so hard that it would pop out of my eyes, while I was simultaneously being stabbed in the eyes with butcher knives. I had to lie down. By the time dinner was ready, I couldn’t get out of bed. My guide came into my barrel and asked how I was doing. He encouraged me to eat and hydrate, so I made my way over. I filled my mug up with some hot chocolate because I knew that would go down easier than water. Our cook gave me soup, chicken, and pasta. I told her no, but she gave it to me anyway. I felt so bad. I didn’t eat one single bite. I felt so sick and nauseous, I could barely get my hot chocolate down.

By this time, Roman had turned on the generator. We get electricity for 3 hours a day, and this was that time of day! This didn’t feel much like a mountain adventure, but again, this was pretty standard. I shared my barrel with Don, a teammate from Seattle. We decided to turn our heater on for a little, and when I picked it up I noticed a lot of the plastic was melted off. We decided to plug it in anyway, and the heater caught on fire! At first it was a little bit orange, but then it full out burst into flames. Don unplugged it and ran outside with it as the smell of burning plastic permeated the air. I guess we’re not getting heat tonight…

I actually didn’t need the heater because I brought my Nalgene into my sleeping bag with me. At dinner, I filled it with hot water, so now I had something hot to cuddle with at night. It was the best feeling ever.

By the end of day 1, I had a pulse ox of 79%, and resting heart rate of 116. I must acclimate more!

After today’s journey, I spent some time thinking about hiking and climbing. I decided I have a new perspective on peakbagging. I don’t even want to summit because I’m not doing it right. I have gone on way too many chairlifts and seen too many snowmobiles and snowcats. I am sleeping in a “bed” in a shelter that has electricity 3 hours a day (aka heat, which is now gone since it caught on fire). I have someone cooking for me. And I was just told I can pay 1000 euros for a snowcat to take me to 5000 meters (16,404 feet).

Snow cats at Mount Elbrus base camp barrel huts

People will do anything to get to the top. But that’s not why I do it. I want to be out in nature, not next to chairlifts, generators, and billboards. I want to CLIMB the mountain, not get a ride halfway up it. It will still be a difficult journey to get to the summit, but even if I do make it, it won’t feel like the accomplishment it should. I’m glad I’m doing this because it has given me a wakeup call. My mind has been in a fog lately. “I’m going to climb the highest mountain in Europe!” What I should have been saying was, “I’m going to explore Russia. I’m going to meet awesome people, enjoy the scenery, and have some crazy stories to tell.”

I feel like this climb (and peakbagging in general) can be compared to athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs. When you have a goal in sight to be bigger/better/stronger, you will do anything you can to get there. But when you get to that point, are you even doing it for the right reasons? Is me taking Diamox for altitude sickness similar to athletes taking steroids? I think so. I’m taking a drug that will help my body do something it wouldn’t otherwise be able to do on its own. Maybe, just maybe, my body is telling me that I need to respect the mountain and get out of this, “I must summit, and I will do anything to get there” mindset.

The Penobscot Indians in Maine have it all down. The Penobscots I know are amazing athletes and could whoop my butt in anything. They look up to Mount Katahdin with the utmost respect. They respect it so much that they don’t even climb it. That mountain has been there for hundreds of thousands of years. You think you’re going to conquer it? Sorry to break it to you, but the mountain always wins.

I don’t know what will come out of all this, but I do know I now look at big mountains differently. I don’t think I will ever stop climbing mountains, but I think I will approach it in a new way and with a new midset. It’s all about the journey, and the fact that all I’ve been thinking about the past 10 minutes is how I’m in love with this hot water bottle in between my legs, I think I’m finally realizing that there’s more to this journey than just “conquering” a mountain.

With that said, I will be happy with whatever comes out of this, summit or not. I have had such an amazing journey so far, and I have had the greatest stories to tell. Between my criminal Israeli friend in the airport, my shower drenching me and my bathroom with its jets of doom, and enjoying the views from Mount Cheget, I think I have experienced more off Mount Elbrus than on it, and that was the reason I came here in the first place. Boy have I had a wakeup call. And I like it.

 Click here to view my Garmin Fenix GPS data of today’s journey.

Next in Sarah’s Elbrus Trip Report: A day for acclimating