Mount Elbrus Day 4 – Summit Day!

Okay. I have this question that I’ve been pondering for a few days, and it’s really irritating me. How in the world is a girl supposed to pee on a glacier? If I’m hiking on a glacier and I have to pee, there is nowhere I can hide, and everybody above, below, left, and right of me will have a view.

This is a horrible thing to say, but this, in combination with the cold and having to wear a harness, has forced me to ration my water intake before and during the summit attempt. Water is one of the most important things to consume during alpine climbing, but this whole peeing thing isn’t working out all that great, and the more I drink the more I have to pee.

ANYWAY, today is summit day! Well, it’s actually “attempt to summit day” because the weather is looking awful and is calling for snow showers all day. We had to bail out yesterday because of the forecast, so this is our last chance, and we are going for it no matter what the weather is doing. That actually scares me in a way. These mountains can become very dangerous in bad weather.

We woke up at 2am for breakfast and then left for the snowcat at 3am. We decided to go up to 4700 meters (where we hiked to on Monday), while all the other groups went up to 5000 meters since the weather was awful. There were consistent 30mph winds, it was freezing cold, and there was barely any visibility. This 11 hour day is going to suck if it stays like this.

We started our climb very early, and we used our headlamps for several hours while it was dark out. The wind was howling, and it was very cold which caused the batteries in my headlamp to die. We took a snowcat up the first section, and braved the cold for the rest.

My first dilemma started right at the beginning. I was trying to keep my nose covered with my balaclava to avoid frostbite in the cold winds, and even though it had a nose vent, it caused my goggles to fog up. Also, with my mouth covered up, I felt like I was breathing through a paper bag. I can’t get in enough oxygen as it is, and this isn’t helping! About an hour into the hike, I told my guide about my dilemma, and he said, “Just go without goggles.” Are you kidding me!? Do you NOT see how cold and windy it is!?

Soon after, we stopped for a snack/water break. Even though I was hungry, I didn’t eat anything because it was so cold that I didn’t want to take my gloves off to open my bag.

My dilemma continued. My goggles were okay to see out of, but they were still annoyingly foggy. But now my headlamp was starting to dim! I had brand new batteries in it, but the cold just sucked the life out of them. Now I can’t see or breathe!

I ended up lowering my balaclava a bit to help with my breathing and goggle fogging. I kept checking to make sure my nose didn’t get too cold by curling up my upper lip and touching my nose to see if my nose felt cold. Whenever I did it, there wasn’t a temperature difference and my nose didn’t feel colder, so I assumed it was okay. However, I think my nose ended up being colder than I thought since I developed some signs of mild frostbite the next day. Either way, I didn’t notice the cold on my nose all that much because I was more focused on seeing and breathing.

All of us were turning into icicles. We all had ice dangling off our clothes and gear, but none of us complained because we already knew that everybody in the group was suffering. I was actually doing okay, but I attribute that to the fact that I just bought myself a new down jacket and mittens that are heavy enough for use on Denali. I figured I’d spring for them because I tend to run cold, and let’s just say I was very happy with my decision while I was on the mountain.

I didn't dare expose myself while the snow and wind were blowing, and as you can see I accumulated quite a bit of ice on my face, goggles, and jacket! I was warm underneath, though!

This is what poor visibility looks like in the daytime. Now imagine this at 3am when it’s dark and your goggles are fogged up:

The visibility was so poor the first half of our climb up to the summit of Mount Elbrus. We were basically walking in a cloud, and there is no way I could have done this without a guide. It is so easy to get off track and get lost because you are on a glacier and have no landmarks to guide you. Our guide needed to use his GPS since it was nearly impossible to get your bearings straight, especially in the dark!

As the misery continued, we all just kept putting one foot in front of the other. That’s all you can do. We were going to the summit, and there was no turning back. Our guide had to consult his GPS a few times because it was dark and the visibility was so bad. I was kind of happy I couldn’t see ahead of me because if I knew what I had left to climb, I would have been very discouraged.

I thought about a lot of things on my painful walk of death:

  1. WHY am I doing this!?
  2. Is this what it feels like to hike in the Himalayas? Is it this cold and miserable there all the time? Although Elbrus is a “tame” mountain in good weather, it is a beast in conditions like this.
  3. I want a hot shower, clean/dry clothes, warm food, and a massage.
  4. Is this stupid hill ever going to level off? Why is it so damn steep for so long!?
  5. I better get a good photo out of this. Too bad I’m too cold to get out my camera.
  6. Why do I always get stuck with the bad weather?

Hiking at high altitude is very frustrating, and it’s very easy to break down if you’re not prepared for it.  Once I get to a certain altitude, my feet can only take slow, little steps, and I have to rest more frequently than I’m used to, and at times it would be every few steps. This was VERY discouraging, and it means it will take a long time to get where you need to go. I just need more oxygen!

You’re not going to believe this, but as the sun came up the clouds went away, and we started to get a view of the mountains below us. It was spectacular. It was still cold and windy, but the icicles weren’t accumulating any more! We made it to the saddle, and it was time to do the “very steep part,” which meant we needed to get out our ice axes in case we fell and needed to self arrest.

This is a photo looking up from the saddle where we will need our ice axes. You can see a group of two people ahead of us.

This the the view looking up from the saddle.
The skies cleared up right as we made it to the saddle of Mount Elbrus. It was still windy and cold, but at least we had a good view!

Roman wasn’t kidding when he said this was very steep. I was terrified out of my mind. It was probably a 45 degree pitch, and we kept going further and further up, probably at least 500 feet. Now add in loose snow and fierce gusts of wind, and that’s one scared Sarah. I wanted to take a picture of it so bad, but I didn’t even have the confidence to stick my hand in my pocket to get my camera out. The biggest mistake I did was look down to see how long my fall would be if I fell. I'm telling you, it was terrifying! At the end, it got even steeper, and they were nice enough to hook us onto a rope that was anchored into the ice/snow. There were 3 of these. In my opinion, these are more dangerous than just doing it on your own because now you’re putting all this faith into a piece of rope anchored into loose snow, and you’re not going to step as cautiously.

Looking down the scary steep part. If you fell, you better self arrest with an ice axe quick or else you won't be stopping for a while!
Here we are traversing the steep part. I was definitely the slowest because I was so scared.
I didn't even get to enjoy the view because I was so scared. At least someone got a picture of it for me!
We made it past the scary part. Time for the summit push!

After this, we were just below the summit. The skies were blue, and none of us could believe it. The walk to the summit felt like it took forever. I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath which was very frustrating, especially because the summit was in plain view. Not only that, but the one-legged guy was already on the summit! Way to make me look bad.

Our push to the summit of Mount Elbrus

The views from the summit were spectacular. We were towering over 10,000 foot mountains like nothing, and there were clouds in the valley. I shed a few tears because I just suffered so much, and by pushing through the bad weather, we ended up with an absolutely beautiful day. And we weren’t even expecting to summit.

Rime ice on the summit of Mount Elbrus
Beautiful view above the clouds from the summit of Mount Elbrus in Russia
I made it to the summit of Mount Elbrus! The views were amazing.
My summit selfie!
Another view from the summit of Mount Elbrus
On our way down, looking at the lower east summit of Mount Elbrus

Here’s a video from the summit. Boy is it windy!

After taking summit photos, we headed back down. We started by doing the steep slopes of death, but we went an “easier” way down. My guide knew I was terrified going up, so he roped me up to him going down. Great, now I can plummet to my death and take him with me!

View from the saddle
Heading down with a great view
Amazing views of the Caucasus Mountains below us as we are descending Mount Elbrus
Deserted snowcat on the slopes of Mount Elbrus
Looking down at the Pastuckhova Rocks
Looking down at the Pastuckhova Rocks with an amazing view
Camping on the slopes of Mount Elbrus on the standard South Route
Starting to get even with the clouds. It is s fun being above them
Standard South Route up Mount Elbrus

We descended 6000 feet. It wasn’t what I would call fun, but at least being on the snow is easier on your knees. I even slid on my butt a few times, like in this poorly filmed video.

When we got back, we had hot soup waiting for us which was delicious. I chugged some water, hot chocolate, and a juice box because I hadn’t eaten or drunk much today, and I was HUNGRY!

Now, the rest of the trip is for relaxing! I don’t have too many battle scars, just two massive blisters on my big toes from my mountaineering boots, and some wind burn / mild frostbite / sun burn on my face.

Click here to view my Garmin Fenix GPS data for this climb.

Next in Sarah’s Elbrus Diary: Going down.