Mount Elbrus Day 3 – Practice. Relax. Anticipate.

We had breakfast at 9 today, and then headed off for some “practice” at 11. It has been snowing all night, and it was still snowing when we woke up. There is absolutely no visibility, and it is very cold. It took a lot of motivation to get out of my sleeping bag this morning. I am very glad we didn’t pick today as our summit day, although tomorrow isn’t looking all that great either. Apparently two groups today could not summit because of the snow and wind. Roman told us, “The mountain is very dangerous when the weather is bad.”

Another snowy day on Mount Elbrus. The conditions were not favorable for us to summit, so we used this as a day to practice using our ice axes.

According to the weather report, the summit got 12cm of snow yesterday, will get 9cm today, and 3cm tomorrow. The wind will be about 18mph with a wind chill of -4F. Roman said, “The weather is going to be very, very bad tomorrow,” but it is our last chance to summit so we have to go for it. This is going to be very miserable! Roman said, “We will fight.”

Weather forecast for Mount Elbrus. Not looking good.

It’s amazing how this mountain was a beautiful place two days ago, and now it is a death trap. If you walk anywhere without a GPS, you have an extremely high chance of getting lost because you can’t even see your hand in front of you. That combined with the cold, snow, and wind, and this mountain has turned into a very scary place. What could have been an “easy” climb is now a very difficult and dangerous one. I wonder how hiking in these conditions would compare to hiking in the Himalayas.

Anyway, we set off at eleven for a quick hike and practice. We found a steep slope on the glacier and started by practicing holding our ice axes correctly while going up and down switchbacks. Then, we practiced going up (directly up) the steep slope by kicking our own steps. We then proceeded to go directly down, which was a bit more difficult.

Then, we practiced self-arresting our own falls with our ice axes. We started by sliding on our butts facing forwards and turning on our bellies to stop our fall by digging our ice axe into the ground and putting all our body weight on it. Next was head first on our bellies, and last was on our backs head first. Scary! I may have peed myself a little :).

Practicing self arresting with our ice axes

After practicing for a while, we headed back to camp for lunch. The hot soup warmed me right up. We then talked about our plan for tomorrow. We had a few options:

  1. Start at midnight from base camp.
  2. Take a snow cat up to 4700 meters (where we hiked yesterday) and go from there.
  3. Take a snow cat up to 5000 meters (1000 feet higher than option #2). The two groups that didn’t summit today took this last option and still didn’t make it.

Roman recommended option #3.

One member of our group, Tilo, wanted to do option #1. I don’t blame him. This one has the least amount of cheating involved.

The rest of us opted for option #2. Since we have already hiked up to 4700 meters, we will have still climbed the whole mountain from base camp at some point.

We were very hesitant to do option #3 because we will be taking a snow cat up parts we haven’t even hiked before. BUT, it would give us the best chance of summitting, especially since our chances aren’t looking very good.

No matter what option I take, I don’t think I will feel very accomplished if I make it to the summit. Yes, it will probably be one of the hardest things I ever do, but I will have used a chairlift and snowcat more than my own two feet. It’s just not right, and I don’t like it. Do I even deserve bragging rights if I make it to the top?

Right now, I am in my barrel, in my -5 degree sleeping bag, with a hot water bottle tucked in between my legs, and I am freezing. I can hear the wind and snow outside. The wind is so strong that it is shaking the whole barrel. I have to pee, but I can’t find the motivation to go out where it is even colder and more hostile. I only have one pair of clean underwear left, so now I have to ration my supplies. Okay, I guess that is the least of my worries!

My friend Dale recently participated in the K100. This is a 3-4 day event which involves backpacking through the 100 mile wilderness with little to no support. It is not easy! I know Dale is going to ask me how climbing Elbrus would compare to the K100, and I really don’t think you can even compare them. I haven’t even done the hardest part of my journey yet, but these are my thoughts so far: In the K100, you are tired. You spend long days hiking long distances, and everything hurts with every step. Because of this, every step is a battle. On Elbrus, I am tired. I cannot breathe. My body gets more and more fatigued by the day, even when I’m not doing anything, because my body is fighting to get oxygen to all my organs. I am extremely anemic, so now my body is fighting even harder. I am cold. Now my body is putting in energy to keep me warm. This is all just sitting here. Now I’m going to climb 6000 feet of elevation. Every step I need to kick my crampon into the ice so I don’t slip. I need to push my ice axe into the snow so I have a third point of security in case I do slip. Then I need to lift my crampons and ice axe out of their positions and do it all over again. I need my mind to be sharp because one wrong step will cause me to slip and fall down a steep slope. I am going uphill, exerting myself to the max, and I can’t get in enough oxygen. And I’m going so SLOW! We all are! I can barely see in front of me. If I didn’t have my guide, I’d be lost. It is snowing on me, and the wind is so bone-chilling, I can’t even explain it to you. Every step is a battle.

Tomorrow is the big day. We will have breakfast at 2am, and then off to the snowcat at 3am. I am going to be cold, tired, and miserable, and I am going to fight. I will be happy whether I summit or not. Either way, the mountain has already won.

In the clouds and snowing at Mount Elbrus base camp.

Next in Sarah’s Elbrus Diary: Summit Day