Part 2: Turn back or continue to the summit?
After a climb of about ten minutes from the village of Dschili Su on the north side at the foot of Mount Elbrus, which is more of a agglomeration of shacks than a village, I reach the top of a hill and suddenly a wonderful sight opens up to me. In front of me stretches a wide plain, through which a broad riverbed inexorably makes its way. Behind it towers majestically Mount Elbrus with its double peak and its huge glaciers, which are also the source of this riverbed. On the left side of the river bank, I catch sight of the Emanuel Meadow in the distance and thus also the base camp at about 2600 meters (8500ft) above sea level.
To the right of the river I spot a few huts of sheep and goat herders, who have already boarded up their temporary housings, however, because winter is already coming and hardly a soul comes by here at this time of year, let alone tries to climb Mount Elbrus. A stiff breeze blows in my face and my long hair is almost horizontal in the air, while I enjoy this phenomenal sight.
I march full of energy towards the river and keep a lookout for a passage to get to the other side of the river on dry feet. The water level is low enough so that with a few skillful steps and jumps over a few large stones, prepared beams and wooden bridges I get across without any problems.
After climbing the steep scree field, I find myself on the huge meadow, which in summer is covered with flowers and shines through the fresh grass in strong green.
At the end of October, however, the days are already very short and extremely cold, making the entire plain seem somewhat parched. I look around a little to find a suitable campsite for the next few days. Ideally, I would like to set up my tent near the ascent route, so that I do not have too long and unnecessary paths. I discover some more fenced huts and find a trail that apparently leads up to the next camp. Perfect, a little ways off I will pitch my tent. It seems like I'm the only climber here right now. All I see is a handful of men doing various jobs on the fences and huts. "Are they winterizing the camp so they can descend to the valley soon?" Without giving it another thought, I put my backpack down in a flat spot and begin setting up my tent with a view of Mount Elbrus.
Around me four goats roam and look at me curiously, in the hope that they can possibly get a bite to eat from me. After the tent is set up and sleeping bag and sleeping pad are spread out, I notice that I am also hungry. So I sit down in the tent and examine my "care package" that my generous hosts have given me along the way. I find a few pieces of flatbread and enjoy them. I look up at the sunlit mountain and am pleased with my campsite, for the site and location are well chosen. This is also important, because this camp serves me the next two to three days as a starting point for my altitude acclimatization.
I take a look at the clock and notice that it's not quite 2 p.m. yet, so I decide on the spur of the moment to go for a little acclimatization walk, because I still have about four hours of sunlight and feel pretty fit. Besides, acclimatization can't start early enough, because I need to take advantage of every sunny day, since the weather here is unpredictable. So I stuff a few muesli bars into my breast pocket, hang my camera around my neck, put on my glacier glasses and march southwest up the hill parallel to the river.
It goes over a narrow frozen path and a few boulders about 300 meters (1000ft) of altitude along the river, until after about 20-30 minutes I reach a huge plateau. This plain is called Nemetskiy Aerodrom (2900hm or 9500ft), which translates to "German airfield".
The plain got this name because the Wehrmacht landed here with their Planes during the Second World War and captured the mountain with a ruse. For propaganda purposes, the German soldiers at that time, after several failed attempts, also climbed the peak and raised their flag there. Apart from this story, the plain is beautiful to look at and there is a long, sunlit path leading straight as a die to the end of the plain. Mount Elbrus is now omnipresent, looking down on me almost mockingly with its colossal stature. At the end of the long, flat plain, a steep winding climb begins, now completely in the shade. From here on, the snow line begins and since I am now running in the shade, I can already feel the relentless cold creeping through my warm clothes. I am relatively lightly dressed, because I want to quickly climb to the High Camp at 3800 meters (12.500ft) and after a few minutes stay immediately descend again to kick off the first overnight acclimatization in my body. Climb high, sleep low is the motto here.
After this climb, the trail splits in two directions, once to the left to the "mushroom rocks" at 3100 meters (10,200ft). This route is often chosen as the first acclimatization trip, because the formation of volcanic rock is extremely beautiful to look at and you can even do a little bouldering there. I decide to take the steep climb up the flank to my right to get up to the moon plateau. Since I don't find the way right away, I climb by instinct cross-country up the steep flank in deep snow and between large boulders until I reach another hill. There I discover tracks that resemble a path in the snow and I continue to climb up through the now hard frozen snow. The westerly wind is now getting stronger and more merciless, which is why I am freezing more and more and shivering from the cold. I try to counteract the loss of temperature by putting on my two hoods, putting on my gloves and increasing the pace so that I can defy the icy cold with body heat through muscle contraction. I even succeed at first and make pretty fast progress and climb higher and higher.
On another steep flank, the snow is again very deep and I sink with my Salomon trail running shoes, which are not intended for this terrain, up to the knees. I fight myself with all fours further up, whereby I lose, however, clearly in speed and cool down further. After this short steep passage through the deep snow, I look back in a positive mood as always and think to myself, "well at least I have the way now for the next few days already pre-tracked". I look once around me, in front of me, almighty the Elbrus and behind me, beautiful and peaceful the wide plain of the airfield. I am once again completely alone, only the mountain, the cold, my thoughts as well as sensations and myself. It is of course everything else than pleasant in this situations, but nevertheless I love these moments. But suddenly, like crazy, an extremely violent and icy cold wind shoots into my right flank, robbing me of any warmth and snatching me from my thoughts. I start to freeze and shiver and my foot and finger tips slowly go numb from the cold. "Not yet Norrdine, you are not allowed to turn back yet, because the High Camp is not yet reached", I scold with me in a "Zwiegespräch" and force myself to march on because of the cold. Completely freezing, I reach thereby the moon plateau on 3500 meters (11,500ft).
Now I also understand the origin of the name, because it really looks like an icy, deserted and lifeless plateau on the moon. Due to the fierce wind, the snow is completely frozen stiff and many individual boulders of volcanic origin are scattered across the entire plateau. A completely surreal sight! Just in this moment the sun disappears with its last light and warmth-giving sunbeams behind the mountains and the hostile cold now dominates the upcoming night. I fight myself against the even stronger becoming wind over the moon plateau and force myself to go on, until the daily goal is reached. As I reach the end of the plain and stand completely frozen before the next steep, snow-covered ascent, I finally admit to myself that I am too lightly dressed to go further. Besides, I am completely chilled to the bone and half frozen by the icy winds. In addition, the sun has already disappeared behind the horizon and it is now gradually getting dark. "Well, good says my "superego" and concedes that 3500 meters (11,500ft) above sea level is sufficient for the first acclimatization tour and allows me to turn back".
Half frozen, I tap my hands tightly together in my gloves to stimulate the blood circulation and pull back the fingertips in the gloves to form a warming fist. Stowing the camera tightly in my jacket, I begin my descent at a run, sweeping down the moon plateau with a tailwind, down the steep sections along my tracks through the deep snow until I'm high above the airfield again. I run down like a madman and am happy as punch that the warmth is slowly returning to my limbs.
When I reach the end of the airfield, it is already pitch dark and I now have no choice but to dig my headlamp out of my jacket pocket, because the moonlight is not sufficient enough tonight for the rest of the descent. The ground and the rocks are already frozen and covered with a thin layer of ice, which is why every step is somewhat slippery and I have to pay particular attention. Since, as you may already know, mountaineering at night is one of my specialties, I still make quick progress, which means that after another half hour of descent in the dim light of the headlamp, I'm back at base camp and disappear into my tent without hesitation.
I immediately crawl into my sleeping bag to warm myself, my feet and the down. Without lossing a single second, I assemble my gas stove and prepare two packets of ramen noodles while I survey my provisions.
After dinner, I make a pot of hot tea and force myself to drink it all, whether I want to or not. Afterwards, I measure my pulse and oxygen saturation to see if I am acclimatizing well on a daily basis.
I now perform this ritual every day in the morning and evening to see if I need a little more time to acclimatize or if I might need to add more water.
In altitude acclimatization, continuous and sufficient fluid intake is enormously important and crucial to whether and how well the body adapts to the altitude during the night and forms red blood cells.
Info about altitude acclimatization:
Why red blood cells? As far as I understood as a "lay non-medical person", the body forms additional red blood cells to cope with the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. The oxygen content is actually not lower at high altitudes and is 21% at any altitude, but the ambient pressure is reduced by roughly 0.1 bar for every 1000 meters (3,300ft) we climb in altitude. At sea level, we have about 1 bar of ambient pressure acting on us through the Earth's atmosphere. Practical rule of thumb: This corresponds to the pressure of one kilogram per square centimeter on our skin. If you want to climb Mount Elbrus at an altitude of 5642 meters (18,510ft), you have to be aware that the ambient pressure there is only about half of that, i.e. 0.5 bar. This means that although I can inhale the same volume of air into my lungs with one breath, the actual mass is halved and thus the decisive amount of H² oxygen molecules is only half. The additional and newly formed red blood cells now help to ensure that more oxygen than usual from one breath can be utilized in my blood and transported throughout my body. Our bodies effectively need oxygen atoms to provide energy for muscle work, brain power and metabolic processes. With the carbon in our bodies, we then exhale CO², or carbon dioxide, after energy conversion, much like a machine. Depending on body size and activity, this can amount to between 0.5kg and 5.5kg of CO² per day, according to current studies. By the way, if you are wondering whether we humans are contributing to climate change in this way, I can reassure you, because our CO² emission via the lungs is part of the natural, closed CO² cycle, because in order to exhale this CO², we first had to absorb it in the form of food (carbohydrates/C-H compounds and the like).
Knowing this, I therefore try to provide the optimal conditions for my body and lie down well-fed and with enough liquid in my system in the already warm sleeping bag in the hope that my body can work well overnight. Outside it is already minus ten degrees Celsius (-10°C = 14°F) and I notice, if I move too much in my sleeping bag, that the warm air escapes. So I crawl deep into my sleeping bag and breathe inside so that no warmth is lost unnecessarily. Like a mummy, I lie there, my movements reduced to a minimum, and finally fall asleep. After a while it is sufficiently warm in the sleeping bag and I have an extremely restful sleep. However, it is extremely annoying when you have to urinate at night and leave the warmed sleeping bag to do so. But there are solutions for that too!
The next morning I wake up with the first rays of the sun shining over the Emmanuel meadow in the east. I unzip my tent and catch sight of the magnificent, white shining Elbrus in the morning light, which seems to be just waiting for me. In front of my tent the four goats are sitting again, looking at me somewhat expectantly.
I do my morning routine, brush my teeth in the cool air in the sunshine on the great plain and then cook myself two packets of strawberry oat porridge and cut two frozen bananas into it.
It's anything but a royal breakfast, but it will probably serve the purpose of today.
What exactly is on the agenda today? Well again acclimatize to the High Camp at 3800hm (12,500ft), what else?! Since I still remember all too well the ridiculous cold of the previous day, I decide that this wont happen to me again today. So it's time for the heavy guns. I put on my long merino wool underwear and switch from the slightly thinner black Vaude hiking pants to the thick orange Mammut snow pants with inner fleece and integrated gaiter. On the upper body I wear an Odlo undershirt, a T-shirt, a fleece jacket and over it my red Vaude hardshell jacket. In addition, two pairs of gloves, a headband and again two hoods. That should be easily enough for the High Camp! I leave my tent again, because I decide due to the weather forecast and for safety rather to turn an extra round and acclimatize another day. I pull the zipper of my tent and close it, as suddenly someone stands behind me and asks, what I am up to today. I turn around and see a dark-haired, slim Russian man about 38 years old standing behind me. His name is also Alim and he is a local mountain guide and porter from the Caucasus. I introduce myself to him and explain that I plan to climb Mount Elbrus and that today I am starting my second acclimatization tour to the High Camp. He smiles at me, wishes me good luck today and tells me that tonight after my tour, when I'm back down at Basecamp, I should stop by his hut for dinner and tea. I thank him very much and tell him that I will come by tonight. So I march off in full gear and conscientiously do my acclimatization lap. At the beginning and on the airfield I realize that I am dressed much too warm and almost start to sweat.
But when it goes up the steep flanks again to the moon plateau, I feel very comfortable and warm in my skin. After the moon plateau follows another fairly steep climb of 300-400 meters (1000ft) altitude through the deep snow, until I finally reach the High Camp at 3800 meters (12,500ft) above sea level. It is an extremely spacious hill and a variety of huts and camps are spread far apart up here. I sit down on a boulder and let my eyes wander over the camp to see if there is any soul up here. I thought that I might encounter a group or two who also want to try to climb Mount Elbrus.
No sign, no sound, no one is up here, just a few abandoned huts, the sun's rays, the cold wind, the double peaks, the deep snow and the glaciers and my insignificant personality. I still feel top fit and realize that I still have some reserves, so I decide to look around a bit up here and make my way to the highest point of the camp so that I climb as high as possible today. Between big boulders and deep snow I somehow stumble through the snow masses to a green dwelling that looks like a UFO from the 70s and from there a good bit higher, which probably brings me to about 3900 hm (12,800ft) in the end. I sit down on a boulder in the sun and eat a few quick carbohydrates in the form of gummy bears and caramelized nuts, while a large transport helicopter circles around the summit and the camp.
Just as the sun is about to disappear behind the western flank of Mount Elbrus, I end the acclimatization tour and quickly descent the entire distance, for which I need 3-4 hours up each time and again about 2 hours down.
It is already dark night again when I arrive down at the base camp in the light of my headlamp. I grab the gas stove and some provisions from my tent and walk over to Alims Hut, where I can see some lights. I can already hear some voices from outside and knock on the door. Alex, a friend of Alim's, opens the door for me and invites me in. It is nice and warm in the barely lit hut, because the boys have stoked the oven and are just sitting down to dinner. They invite me to join them at the table and tell me to just help myself as I please. Similar to the last invitation, only in a somewhat slimmed down mountaineer form, I am offered a variety of things to eat. A kind of carrot salad, sweetish bread, goat butter and goat cheese homemade by Alim and his goats, homemade sweet jam, black tea and dried fish.
Once again I am warmly invited and encouraged to dig in. Alim said, you want to climb the Elbrus, so you must eat enough and strengthen yourself well, so do not hesitate! We talked at great length about my trip around the world, Mount Elbrus, and of course the war with Ukraine was an inevitable topic. Especially Maghamed (the Russian form of Mohammed), Alim's brother, was eager to hear from me what impact the conflict has especially on us Germans and he wanted to know if the propaganda on TV is true. Another of Alim's brothers had come with a trailer and was helping Alim bring his goats down to the valley, because Alim too would soon be leaving base camp for the winter.
Alim told me that he works here on the mountain to earn money and that he has a cabin up at High Camp that I am welcome to use. I hesitate a bit at the offer, as I was originally going to spend the night up there with the tent, but then figured it wouldn't hurt to have the key to the hut with me as a "stopgap" measure. Alim suggested that he, Alex and one of their helpers climb up to High Camp with me tomorrow to show me the hut, besides they wanted to make a last tour up there anyway before the onset of winter. I accepted the offer with thanks and arranged for the next day to climb together with the guys to High Camp at 08:00 in the morning. I wished everyone a "good night" and went back to my tent, where I checked my blood oxygen level and my pulse again and then went to sleep.
So far so good!
The next morning I packed up my tent and all my gear and got ready to leave for High Camp, because today the camp will be moved up. We had breakfast together and then set off together. Alim insisted that we divide my gear between the three of us so we could move faster. Alex, Alim and I marched up to High Camp at an extremely fast pace and the helper hiked from the halfway point to the mushroom rocks. After the moon plateau, Alim chose a different route up to High Camp, which meant he couldn't use my pre-made track and struggled like a madman through extremely deep snow up a steep flank to the camp. After an extremely energy sapping ascent, the three of us arrived at the top of High Camp well exhausted. It was ridiculously cold and the wind was many times stronger than the days before. Standing still was not an option because the wind was freezing cold and very fast, causing us to cool down immediately. After I finally caught up with Alim, he appeared totally befuddled and completely out of it. I asked him if everything was okay, whereupon he signaled that he was okay and he pointed with a wave of his hand to two small snowed-in caravan-like tin huts where Alex was already waiting. I hurried over to Alex and explained that I didn't think Alim was well, and dug out a warm bar of chocolate from my breast pocket and handed it to Alex. "Give it to Alim quickly" I said, "I think he needs sugar and fluids badly, I'll take a shovel and remove the snow from the two tin huts in the meantime so he can lie down and rest". While I was clearing the doors Alex brought the chocolate to Alim, who without hesitation ate the first half of the chocolate bar in a nanosecond.
The two of them came over to me and sat down on the two benches in front of the tin huts, where Alim drank something and ate the rest of the chocolate. It seemed to help him a lot, because he was now responsive again. Once I had cleared the first door of the left tin hut and wanted to start on the second door, the boys told me that I only needed this one hut. I asked Alim if he wanted to lie down for a minute or if I should make him some more hot tea? He stammered, still a bit woozy, "No, I'll be fine, besides we have to descend in a minute". He explained everything I needed to know about the hut and how to close it off again if I actually go to the summit and go through with the traverse. I explained to them, my next course of action, the rest of the acclimatization plan for the next few days and the precise weather window I want to use and on which day I plan to summit and that I try to give them an interim report each day. I thanked the guys a lot and said goodbye with a smile.
After the guys left, I went into the tin shack and immediately started melting snow because I had nothing left to drink. And what happened to my plan to camp up here with my tent? Not at all, it was so extremely cold and windy outside even though the sun was shining. It would have been possible to camp out here, of course, and I also thought back and forth for a while, checking a few campsites that would have been quite suitable. But it was so relentlessly cold that after much deliberation I came to the conclusion that I would be extremely grateful to use the tin hut.
So I settled in, made myself a small lunch and prepared two liters of hot tea. I drank one liter on the spot, packed the other in my inside jacket pocket and prepared for another acclimatization tour the same day. It was just about 12 o'clock and I still had enough time to climb to the lower Lenz rocks at about 4600 meters (15,100ft). So I got my glacier gear out of my backpack and put on my Petzl crampons and strapped my Black Diamond ice axe to my back. Alim, before he left, gave me a rough explanation of the route and where or how the crevasses usually run. I looked up extensively to understand the route and where it went and resolutely made my way across the glacier. To play it safe, I kept a little to the left along the rocks at the beginning, because there was still a lot of snow in the lower part and crevasses would have been difficult to see. I studied the course of the glacier meanwhile and tried to understand how the ice masses move downwards, where they change course and where they are sufficiently compressed so that no large crevasses appear. After a while I recognized small red poles in the ice in the distance, probably marking the crevasse-free path. I descended from the rocks onto the glacier and carefully followed the markings at first. Further up, there was now hardly any deep snow, as the fast winds immediately swept away the loose snow, leaving only hard frozen old snow, also known as firn. On this surface it was pleasant to walk with the crampons, because I never sank deeply and therefore did not have to apply any additional force. Further up, however, the winds were so fast that the bare glacier ice was exposed and only isolated "firn islands" could be found on the bare ice. I tried to avoid the blank ice and tried to move mainly on firn, because with a correspondingly steep ascent it is extremely dangerous on the blank ice, the risk of slipping is particularly high even with crampons and vertical frontal spikes and you have to concentrate extremely not to make any mistakes. I climbed until my altimeter showed 4500 hm (14,760ft), which was my minimum goal for this walk. I was a bit cold and it was quite windy and the sun was about to set, but I still felt very strong and not far above me I could already see the lower Lenz rocks, indicated at about 4700 hm (15,420ft). So I turned my back to the wind, dug a bar of chocolate out of my jacket pocket and stuffed half of it into my mouth, hungry for energy. Then I opened my warmed bottle of warm tea from my inside jacket pocket, drank it almost completely, leaving only three or four reserve sips for the way back. Well fed and energized, I tackled the last 200 meters of altitude and did not stop putting one foot in front of the other until I reached the lower Lenz rocks.
I rolled back my sleeve from my wrist and looked at my altimeter.
"Good Norrdine, 4700 hm (15,420ft) to acclimatize for a summit attempt at 5642 hm (18,510ft) in the next two days must be enough" I said to myself.
I wasted no time, immediately turned back around and quickly made my way down. My few tracks were already completely blown away by the fierce wind, so I had to orient myself carefully again on the descent. It's tempting, especially on the descent, as you see the camp from above, to run straight towards your destination and not stick to the right path. So I keep an eye out for the red poles and stay away from the crevasses. Alex explained to me that between the two peaks are the largest and most problematic crevasses and that some climbers who think they can shortcut the route run across this crevasse field and often lose their lives. I remember that he said that they called this area Dead Body Area and he strongly recommended me never to go directly to the west summit but to climb first to the east summit and from there I could safely descend to the saddle and then climb to the west summit. This would be the safest way to avoid all possible crevasses. However, one should never forget, nothing in the mountains is granted for sure!
After about 1.5 hours I arrive back down at the tin huts and begin again my daily evening ritual. Warm food, two liters of hot tea, measure oxygen level and pulse and off to the sleeping bag to recover. Good night!
For the 24th of October very bad weather and extremely violent wind was announced and I had already prepared myself in advance that I most likely can not start a summit attempt on the 24th and in the best case only a small walk.
But even that was not to be thought of at all. I am not yet completely awake and lie still with closed eyes in my sleeping bag, when I am woken up by the sounds of heavy winds and hammering noise. It is bitterly cold in the tin hut and ice crystals have formed everywhere inside. On the windows, on the walls and even on my sleeping bag cover are small, white, icy and hexagonal crystal structures and with every violent gust of wind more and more snow crystals swirl around in the air. Just feeling the cold and hearing how hard the wind was whipping outside I knew, even before I glanced outside the door, that I couldn't spend ten minutes out there today. But first I had to find a solution, because somewhere this tin shack must have a leak, how else do the snowflakes and ice crystals get in here? After a short time, I had immediately located the problem spots. The window to my left was a bit broken and not completely tight, which meant that snow and ice crystals were whirling into the interior of the hut with the appropriate wind pressure. There was some sort of leather curtain at the top of the window, so I cleared the window of snow and ice, pulled the curtain over the window, and secured it at the bottom so that at least no snow and ice crystals were pushed in through the window. The second "temperature leak" I identified was the exhaust vent above the front door. It was completely open and the outer flap was banging violently in the wind against the outer shell of the tin shack. I found an old thick scrap of cloth in a corner and stuffed it between the vent to stop the air circulation, then fixed the flap from the outside to solve the problem. I briefly wondered if these measures might cause me to have fresh air problems. But every time a fierce gust of wind swept against the tin hut, I could literally feel the wind from the outside penetrating into the interior through every opening and crack of the hut, no matter how small, and I realized with a somewhat cynical laugh that I probably wouldn't have to worry about getting enough fresh air. I'm not sure how cold it actually was, but the weather forecast often indicated temperatures of -20°C to -28°C (-4°F to -18.4°F) and wind speeds of 80-100 km/h (50-65mp/h). I'm not sure how cold it actually was, but I can tell you I was freezing miserably and every single cubic millimeter of my bones was permeated with hostile cold. I was shivering all over my body and could only cope with the situation by making myself another warm mango porridge for breakfast and continuously drinking hot tea and hiding in my sleeping bag with all my gear on, moving as little as possible.
I think I fell asleep briefly or was in a kind of half-sleep when I remembered that I must at least try to send a message that everything is OK with me and I will not start a summit attempt today due to fierce winds and plan my ascent for October 25, 2022. So I dig my turned off cell phone out of one of my chest pockets to keep the battery warm and turn it on to see if I have a signal here. I knew the chances for a signal in the tin shack were extremely poor, and Alim told me before he left that there was sometimes a signal at a large rock about twenty meters next to me, if I was lucky. So I put on everything I had available and ventured outside. I opened the door extremely carefully, lest the wind rip it open immediately and I dislocate my shoulder or I break my arm. Sounds silly? But it has actually happened to so many people before me and up here, completely on my own, I can't afford to make even the smallest mistake. When I step out and run over to the rock, I turn turn around and face for a short moment into the wind and and cant breath at all, because of the strong wind pressure. Only after I turn away again, I am able to catch my breath and I don't even want to start with the actual or perceived cold. Once at the rock, I try every trick in the book to get reception. I type in a message hoping it can be sent. Left, right, in front of and behind the rock, once climbed all the way up and held it in the air like an antenna, then hunkered down again in the lee, but nothing worked. The battery immediately dropped below 15% due to the cold and the phone automatically shut down to protect the system. "Great try, now I was out here for nothing," I thought to myself. Well, if I'm already out here, I might as well take a dump, because I'm not going out in the cold again today. So I grabbed my toilet paper and mentally prepared myself for what was to come. I do not want to bore you with unnecessary details, but I can tell you I know after this experience LITERALLY, what it means to freeze your "A** off". That is all I have to say 😛.
Completely frozen I run back into my temporary tin dwelling and ignite the gas stove to boil some warm tea. But as you can imagine, when drinking a lot, you also pee a lot. You have to be completely out of your mind if you think that I go out into this icy cold for every time I needed to pee. Every time the half-frozen trousers and the completely frozen boots on and again take off? Certainly not, I've come up with a solution for that too, so I don't have to waste precious body heat unnecessarily! As you may have noticed recently, high altitude mountaineering beyond 5,000 meters (16,500ft) is no longer just about pleasure and breathtaking views, but rather about the ability to suffer and the inner struggle with oneself as well as one's own physical and mental limits, which must be overcome each time.
I decide to start my evening ritual early today, because the next morning I want to start early, as soon as it gets bright outside. So, dinner, drink tea, check oxygen and pulse, go to sleep and hope that the weather and especially the wind will be friendly tomorrow, you already know the game.
I don't sleep much during the night, because I analyze the upcoming tour repeatedly in my head, weigh all eventualities and think about whether I should climb Elbrus with my heavy equipment and dare the traverse, which would of course be a phenomenal achievement, or whether I try to climb quickly and with extremely light luggage to the west summit via the east summit and come back to High Camp? I think back and forth for a long time and decide to judge depending on tomorrow's weather conditions. I sleep very restless, get awake easily again and again, have to urinate more often, freeze, breathe my warm breath into the sleeping bag again and again and have the feeling not to rest at all. I probably keep falling asleep for a few hours, but it definitely doesn't feel like it. At some point I look out the right window and notice how the sky is getting bright and gray outside and I know the morning is almost here and with it the summit attempt and the moment of truth. I listen quite carefully to hear if the winds are still as strong as the day before. "Hmmm, yes, it still sounds like it, but nowhere near as strongly as yesterday." I have breakfast as usual and make up a strong sugary and isotonic drink for today's summit attempt. I prepare everything for departure and look out the window again to see the first rays of sunlight coming over the eastern flank of the mountain. Looking towards the summit, I notice that I can't see it and that it is hidden in a soft crown of fast moving clouds.
This cloud formation does not bode well, as it seems that strong winds are at work up there. Thus, the decision about the style of today's tour is made. There will be no traverse, but I will try the easy and fast way and then return to this camp. I prepare my equipment accordingly, put on everything that my arsenal of clothes and equipment has to offer and step resolutely, with a small backpack outside. I lock the tin hut and hide the door handle as Alim showed me. Let's go! I march off and try to find the right rhythm, not too fast so that I don't waste to much energy and sweat too much, not too slow so that my circulation is strong enough and my body feels well heated from the inside. After a while a good sequence of movements between the ski touring poles and the legs settles in and I make rapid progress without much effort. Pretty quickly I go over the snow field and the steeper firn field. Due to the fierce wind yesterday, the snow has now been completely swept away in some places and I have to cross some passages on the blank ice. I minimize the exposed blank ice sections and maximize the passages on the firn. After what feels like two hours, I arrive at the lower Lenz rocks and still feel very strong. There, in a pile of rocks, an airplane tire is piled up with a mount. From here I can already see the middle and upper Lenz rocks, which lie in a dead straight line above me. I crouch down briefly, drink a third of warm tea from my bottle and eat half a bar of chocolate. I stow everything back in my warmth-giving inside jacket pocket and continue on my way up. The two peaks are still shrouded in clouds and I can feel the wind getting stronger as I climb higher, causing the ambient temperature to drop. I'm pleading that hopefully the weather will improve and the cloud cover will disappear with the midday sun, because if the conditions don't change, my chances of reaching the summit aren't very good. However, I feel extremely strong and do not give up hope yet! And so I march on over the good and solid firn towards the middle Lenz rock.
I feel that my right hand, which holds one of the two ski touring poles, has become extremely cold because this side was permanently exposed to the fierce wind. So I try to increase the force on the right hand, clench my fist violently and ram the poles even more spiritedly into the ice, hoping that this will warm up my hands. It seems to work! After a while I reach the middle Lenz rocks. There a wind-protected hollow has formed directly on the rock and I use this deep hollow to hide from the wind, eat, drink and warm up again a bit and march on even more energetically. I am now shivering quite heavily all over my body and I realize that I can no longer compensate for the loss of temperature with movement alone. I look up and realize that the weather was getting worse and the increasingly icy and arctic wind was now dashing pretty hard against my face and my right cheek. In front of me I now see the upper Lenz rocks piling up. I feel that although I am slowing down, I am still moving very powerfully and energetically. It feels like I still have very good power reserves, so I decide to dare the maximum as long as my body allows in the hope that the midday sun may yet expose the summit. I am now already over 5000 meters (16,000ft), maybe even at 5100 meters as I spot the upper Lenz rocks directly in front of me. Now here it comes, my inner optimist and my ambitious self begin talking to me: "I know that from here it is only about 450 meters to the east summit, Norrdine! And from there?! Oh, only 20 minutes down to the saddle, it's certainly sheltered from the wind! Besides, there should be a bivouac where I could find shelter! And from there it's only a half hour's walk and I'd be on the west summit! Yes, that is possible! And you can always get down somehow, if you have to." Hear that? That's my sometimes not-so-helpful exuberant optimism! Don't get me wrong, I love my optimism because where other people see problems, I see solutions and possibilities and it has always been an exceedingly great companion in my 35 years of life, even if it has gotten me into many a predicament. But at this point I simply have to admit to myself that the weather is not getting any better. No, on the contrary, it seems to be getting worse and my body is also slowly weakening and cooling down more and more due to the fierce west wind. "Norrdine, we've been in a situation like this before and it didn't end so well on Mt. Blanc, besides you promised to go to your limits but no more pointless and ego-driven, risking everything regardless for a summit success. You've given it your all up to this point, and any further steps up into this storm would be foolish, and even if you were lucky enough to reach the summit, it wouldn't be in the style you've set out to be a mountaineer in the future. You don't want to reach the summit completely exhausted by luck and find yourself again, as you did on Mt. Blanc in a storm or whiteout on a glaciated summit plateau. You can do better, turn back!!!"
These thoughts flashed through my mind as I ascend and continued to move toward the east summit. But suddenly my inner conflict was resolved. The weather is getting worse rather than better, I can't continue like this, so the logical conclusion is to turn back and try again when the weather gets better. Without another thought to waste, to ponder or hesitate I stop, I look to the right where I can already see the steep glacier slope of the saddle, I exhale deeply and say to myself: "OK that's it". I turn around and climb straight down the steep firn flank again to bring me to safety.
Quickly I descend and finally feel the warmth returning to my hands. Am I disappointed that I have to turn back and can't reach the summit today? Yes, somehow I am, but the longer I think about it, the more satisfied I become with my decision. I look back and realize that the weather is not getting better, but quite the opposite, it is getting worse. As I realize how bad the weather actually is up there, I am now more and more satisfied with my decision. Yes, I am even extremely proud of myself and my decision! Of course, you always want to reach the summit, but there are moments when you just have to turn back and not take any more risks. I definitely pushed it to the limit today and fought my way up the mountain against the bad weather for as long as I could. There are certainly climbers who can reach the summit under such conditions and possibly I could have reached the summit too, but at what cost? I laugh inwardly because I am so infinitely proud of myself today. I feel as if I had reached the maximum point of responsible mountaineering today. It was the ideal moment, up to that point it was a justifiable and calculable risk and I almost instinctively found the perfect moment to turn back. Today I truly feel that I have grown as a mountaineer with this decision, because today I did not take it easy and at the same time I did not push the risk and my luck. Furthermore, I am amazed that I was able to read the weather reasonably well in the end and gave up hope of improvement. I couldn't be more pleased with this turnaround, indeed with this decision. The mountain will be here for a long time and I still have more than three weeks to reach the summit, so I admit defeat for "TODAY", but one thing is certain, before my visa for Russia expires I will be standing on the summit of Elbrus! My friend, I will be back very soon!
Arrived at the tin hut, I clean up everything, bring everything back in order, pack up my equipment and lock the hut again as I found it. Afterwards I hike on the direct way down the mountain from the High Camp, over the moon plateau, down the flanks and over the "German airfield". At sunset I arrive at the bottom of Basecamp in Alim's hut and explain to him that the weather didn't let me climb the summit today. He pats me on the back and congratulates me on my decision. "I've been watching the weather from below for the last two days and saw that you probably don't have a chance," he said in broken German. I took the opportunity at Basecamp to let everyone back home know that I was fine, back down at Basecamp and therefore safe, and that my first summit attempt had failed due to bad weather.
"What's your next plan?" Alim asks, who by now has been left completely alone. "Well, wait for better weather and then try again, what else?" Alim explained to me that he will leave Basecamp tomorrow towards Naltschick and recommends that I should come with him and rather try again via the south side, because this route is a bit easier and the chances are better from there. Of course, in my imagination I wanted to conquer the Elbrus via north-south crossing, however, I had to admit to myself that concidering the current situation and the time restrictions I should rather take the easier route. I look at him a little hesitantly and agree: "Very well Alim, you have convinced me, I will go with you to Naltschick tomorrow and try again in three days via the south side".
The next morning we barricade his hut, meaning we make it completely winterized, pack all his gear and my backpack in his Suzuki Jimmy and strap his skis on the roof of the car. We jump in the Jeep, he starts the engine and we drive off with the destination Naltschick.
Elbrus, I will be back!