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Highest European Summit Conquered By Local Mountaineers

27th August 2006

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Photograph of Highest European Summit Conquered By Local Mountaineers

Three local northern Scottish mountaineers have just returned home following a successful ascent of Mount Elbrus on 23rd August 2006. The Scottish contingent of the climbing team consisted of Bob Kerr (28) from Melvich, Graham McFadyen (47) from Kinlochbervie and John Cuthbert (58) from Castletown.

Mount Elbrus is the highest mountain on the European continental plate and is the fifth highest of the seven summits. Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in the Russian Federation, is 18510 high (5642m) and more than four times the height of Ben Nevis in Lochaber.

The mountaineering teams successful ascent of Elbrus is the result of seven months of careful planning and preparation.

The planning and preparation had to be done correctly otherwise the outcome could have been fatal. Elbrus is located in southern Russia between the Caspian and Black Seas. The UK foreign office strongly recommend that UK citizens should not visit the area.

Travel is not advised to the area because of local terrorist activities, political activities, nearby uprisings and ongoing wars. Examples include the blowing up of Beslan school killing over 300 people in September 2004 (only 90 miles away); the ongoing Chechnya situation (only 120 miles away); the Georgian rebels (during acclimatisation treks the team were within 250 yards of the Georgian border); aircraft and public transport attacks in Moscow (e.g. 2 aircraft simultaneously exploded leaving Moscow in August 2004); and the recent activities in the middle east (e.g. Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, etc). Despite the obvious danger, if an expedition is played right, then it is possible to have a safe outcome.

Local English speaking Russian guides were contracted to lead the expedition and make all of the necessary local arrangements (e.g. hotel/hut bookings, organising expedition permits, liaising with the local mafia and local authorities, etc) and they facilitated the international logistics (e.g. invites to Russia, Russia Visa Support, etc).

For Bob, a veteran of altitude mountaineering, the equipment preparation and physical training was fairly straightforward. However Graham and John were new to altitude mountaineering. Both John and Graham had to undertake vigorous equipment selection and testing to help with a good outcome. With a hard goal of summitting Elbrus in mind, John worked exceptionally hard on his physical fitness. He managed to loose two stones in weight and improve his aerobic fitness greatly through multiple ascents of Ben Hope, Ben Griam Beg, and many other local hills.

Bob explained to us that even after lots of careful planning and preparation getting to the summit of Elbrus is not guaranteed for anyone. This makes an ascent of Elbrus even more satisfying as the outcomes were uncertain.

The local weather conditions can hamper ascents (e.g. strong winds, lightning storms, extreme cold, heavy snow, etc) and nobody knows how they will perform at altitude until they are there (every time at altitude is different for everyone and good acclimatisation is essential).

Part of the excitement of mountaineering is the unknown and dealing with problems when they arise. For example, Bobs flight to Moscow was delayed, resulting in missed connections, due to the UK terrorist activities of 10th August. He had to get rerouted to Moscow and then had to deal with the Russian lost baggage authorities, whom spoke no English, when his equipment was not loaded onto the plane in an Eastern European airport.

John and Graham had the same original flight itinerary as Bob but departing two days later. They also had flight delays and learning from Bobs experiences, they managed to get rerouted on aircraft with their luggage. The end result was luxury first class flights for them from Amsterdam to Moscow in a new Aeroflot airbus at no extra cost.

The three Scottish mountaineers met in Moscow and flew together on a dodgy old internal Russian aircraft. Bob told us that it was the sort of aircraft that creaked at every movement, the internal walls of the aircraft were freezing and heavy carbon deposits were seen behind the engines. Despite these reservations it was still the safest method to travel the 1500 km south to Mineralnye Vody.

Upon arrival in southern Russia, the team met up with two other mountaineers who also aspired to ascending Elbrus. Combining our efforts helped to reduce the overall expedition costs.

The two other mountaineers were John Sanderson (a retired county planner from Sheffield, 61) and Stavros Zenios (the vice chancellor of the University of Cyprus, 47). Both had previously ascended Kilimanjaro in Africa and John Sanderson had been defeated on Aconcagua in South America due to heavy snow storms.

From Mineralnye Vody, the mountaineers traveled by road for 200km to the Baksan valley in the Caucasus mountain chain. We were glad not to be driving ourselves in this area as the driving standards were appalling and the maintenance of vehicles was substandard. We often saw motorists doing overtaking maneuvers directly in front of us resulting in sudden braking and swerving to avoid head on collisions. More than half the vehicles would have failed a MoT due to corrosion, collision damage, etc. During the expedition, not one of the minibuses that we used had an unbroken windscreen and one of the vehicles had gun shot holes through it.

The Baksan valley runs parallel with the Russian and Georgian border. There are a number of gunning placements along the valley and we routinely noticed that the guns had been moved aiming at new unknown targets. We had been informed that the Baksan valley is the most important and best developed valley in the Caucasus mountains. This was partly because of the mineral wealth located near Tyrnyauz (molybdenum was mined here for incorporating into steels used for Soviet tanks) and partly on account of brave mountaineers spending money in the area attempting Mount Elbrus. Bob told us that in all of his international travels he had never seen such a dilapidated area. Hundreds of buildings were lying abandoned and falling down. Tonnes of rubbish littered the streets. The people looked poor and unhappy. The only exception to this were the individuals driving around in Porsches or Toyato Land Cruisers with tinted windows wearing black suits, black shirts, pointy black shoes and dark shades.

Bob also said that it appeared like most of the people had not adapted to life after communism. Most people seemed to have their one task in life and when asked a question outside their remit they did not want to respond. It was a strange culture to experience.

Having safely arrived in the Baksan valley, at a height of 2000m, the gradual process of acclimatisation could begin. Two acclimatisation treks had been planned to help the five mountaineers adapt to the altitude before attempting the highest mountain in Europe.

The first trek involved waling up the Adyl-su valley to an alpine meadow campsite at 2450m. This involved walking towards the Georgian border. There was a border check point in the valley however for some reason the solder who was meant to be at the check point could not be found. We all found this to be very strange and our Russian guide, Vladimir Zubashkov, commented that he had never seen this check point abandoned before. We proceeded with caution hoping not to upset an armed soldier.

Having spent a night sleeping at 2450m, and being eaten alive by vicious mosquitoes, the mountaineers continued up the valley and onto the Jankuat Glacier. All of the team members were roped together for ascending the glacier towards the Jankuat Pass at 3480m altitude (Georgian border with Russia). During the ascent multiple crevasses were walked around, stepped over, avoided or jumped across. Ascending the glacier relied on stable snow bridges to cross the crevasses. On a few occasions we were all worried about the quality of the snow bridges especially as the snow was turning to slush and we were having to jump crevasses of at least a metre wide with potential falls of 20 or so metres into them. Good ropework was essential to ensure the teams safety on this terrain.

All of the team had a very unnerving few minutes when a huge rockfall came down a nearby slope and we were uncertain whether it would career down the glacier in our direction. Thankfully it disappeared down a crevasse away from us leaving a plume of dust rising into the air.

The team continued up the glacier towards the Georgian border however we were stopped just 250 yards from the pass by a large bergschrund and had we been able to get across the gapping chasm then there would have been a short pitch of ice climbing to do (which we were not equipped for on this occasion). Hence the team descended the glacier again and headed back out along the valley. The final part of the walk out was in a thunder and lightning storm. No border guard was passed on the way out either.

The second acclimatisation trek involved four days of walking and three nights of wild camping. The first day was up baking hot mountain slopes to one of the largest lakes in the Caucasus mountains (Syltran Lake) at a height of 3210m. This was a very long, demanding, day which was excellent training for the long pull up Elbrus (about 1600m of ascent done in temperatures above 30C in the shade and we had no shade!). We were only challenged once during this phase of the trek for our paperwork.

The next day involved crossing the Syltran Pass (3500m), descending by the Mukal Valley, crossing fast flowing glacier fed rivers without the luxury of bridges and walking up the Mkiara Valley to camp at 3100m.

The third day of the second trek involved a long ascent up a glacier to the Irik Pass (3750m). Our Russian guide was not comfortable on this glacier as the last time that he had been on it he had fallen into a crevasse. On this occasion we managed to get to the pass without incident. A very steep descent on scree then followed and we progressed to the third nights campsite within sight of our prime objective Mount Elbrus. Another intense thunder and lightning storm kept us awake for most of that night. During the fourth day we rapidly descended down to the valley to collect our cold weather clothing for our ascent of Elbrus.

The following day we then proceeded up the lower slopes of Mount Elbrus to stay at a mountain hut at 4060m altitude. This was the highest that we had been throughout the expedition and we were all beginning to feel the significant altitude (e.g. slight breathlessness when ascending stairs in the hut too quickly).

To aid acclimatisation, after having slept at 4060m, a short walk up hill to the top of the Pastuchova Rocks was undertaken. This took the team up to 4800m i.e. less than the height of Ben Hope from the summit of Elbrus. The team then rapidly descended back to the relative comfort of the hut to sleep and prepare for a summit attempt the next day.

At 1:30am, local time, on Tuesday 22nd August 2006 the decision was taken not to ascend Elbrus that morning due to an overnight thunder and lightning storm that had deposited more snow on the upper reaches of the mountain. This resulted in a well earned rest day for the mountaineers and helped to aid acclimatisation by just living at 4060m. Some other mountaineers decided to ascend Elbrus this day and in the end they were lucky with the weather. The Swedish mountaineer, Fredrik Strang, reached the summit as part of his world record attempt on the Seven Summits. He is aiming to do all seven summits in under 195 days. He had already climbed Everest, Denali and Carstynsz Pyramid before jetting into Europe to do Elbrus. The internet site http://www.strang.se contains up to date information on his record attempt.

On Wednesday 23rd August 2006, at 3am local time (midnight in the UK), we set off for our summit attempt. The air was bitterly cold with a light breeze blowing. This resulted in a wind chill temperature of about minus 15C. Both John Cuthbert and Graham experienced very cold hands during the ascent and had to borrow additional gloves from fellow team mates. It was very important that no-one should frostbite during the ascent.

There had been even more fresh snow deposited during the night and lightning storms could be seen happening nearby below the altitude that we were now climbing at. Progress was slow at this altitude and we were significantly hampered by the deep accumulations of fresh snow. It was noted that a 2-3 inch layer of wind slab had built up on top of more than a foot of loose powder snow. We had some concerns about potential avalanches occurring on the slopes upon which we were now climbing.

Our spirits rose when we saw the sun beginning to rise and illuminate our world. As the sun rose, the temperature rose marginally and the shadow of Mount Elbrus could be seen across the Caucasus mountains.

After over 9 hours of battling through deep snow all five of us summitted Elbrus the highest mountain on the European continental plate (5642m, 18510). From the summit, the shape of this dormant volcano could be clearly seen and we were able to look down on the mighty peaks of the Caucasus mountains. We also saw that there was a bank of storm cloud moving rapidly in our direction so after a few happy summit shots we all descended, as quickly as our bodies would allow, to the relative safety of our hut.

Having successfully reached the roof of Europe the team then descended to the Baksan valley for a celebratory dinner and a few refreshments (including a small amount of Russian Vodka). The team parted company in the valley and the Scottish mountaineers traveled back to the UK using similar arrangements but having a stop off in Moscow to sample some Russian culture and historical sites (e.g. Kremlin, Red Square, etc). Overall it was a highly successful expedition that at times was stressful and it gave an amazing experience of Russian culture.

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