Solo! Showdown in the arctic cold on the highest mountain of Europe!
My first attempt to climb Elbrus Solo in November from the north side and cross to the south failed yesterday morning. Extreme winds and a relentless icy storm simply did not want to release the summit for me. After risking what was for me the most extreme and at the same time still responsible, I felt forced to give up and turn back. I wanted to avoid another ego-driven incident where I would reach the summit, but find myself in a terrible storm or whiteout at the top and only come back down alive with luck and goodwill from nature and the mountain. I had promised myself and my dearest not to climb mountains like this again, so I practice patience, prudence and try my luck again with better conditions.
Because my first ascent of the summit of Mt. Blancs ended then with this result...
Someday I'll tell you this story in detail and how this mistake and setback taught me a few things about myself and hopefully made me a better climber.
Alim and I are in his jeep together, we have left the northern base camp at the Emanuel meadow and are on our way to Nalchick together, as he is returning home and I need to regroup to make another summit attempt. We drive down a wide gravel road into the valley, the sun is shining strongly on this early November morning and the sky is beautifully clear, majestically blue with a few scattered bands of clouds.
After about three hours of driving down into the valley we come to a small village where we will have a little stopover, because a local farmer and friend of Alim takes care of his four goats during the winter. The table is full with delicious food, because we are invited for lunch. Once again I witness that hospitality is an essential part of the culture in the Caucasus. There is an extremely delicious bortsch made of red beets, potatoes, onions, white cabbage, peppers, some garlic and beef.
Just excellent, especially when you are slightly frozen and just swept down from the coldest mountain on the continent. This was accompanied by pickled tomatoes, black tea with honey, homemade compote and homemade bread. So basically almost everything here is homemade, because this is the best and most cost-effective way to be self-sufficient, to survive the harsh winter and to be reasonably independent. After the meal we are shown the farm, the house, a large already harvested pumpkin field, the old farm machinery and some old vehicles on which occasionally someone tinkers.
They even make their own wool and use it to make slippers and other clothes.
This old vehicle looks as if Stalin himself still drove it. Alim talks for a long time with the owner of the farm, because his whereabouts on Elbrus are uncertain, because on the one hand he is increasingly driven away from the base camp on the Emanuel meadow and on the other hand, they had very few climbers in recent years, because three years of Covid and then the war with Ukraine have ensured that there are almost no international climbers on Elbrus. He, on the other hand, loves the mountains and his simple life on Mount Elbrus and just wants to live self-sufficiently in the mountains, so he is giving some thought to how things can continue for him in the future.
After about two hours we continue downhill to the next big town. In Nalchick live Alim`s brothers and I can stay two nights in the apartment of his older brother`s Maghamed.
Maghamed is a very devout Caucasian Muslim and super inquisitive about what is happening outside Russia. He asks me countless questions and explains to me again and again that he does not understand and cannot approve of this war at all. I am again invited to dinner at Alim`s oldest brother`s house. There, too, we talk at length about all kinds of topics around the world, but at this dinner table, too, the conflict with Ukraine and its consequences is the omnipresent topic and I feel the brothers' displeasure and helplessness at the same time, because none of them wants to risk expressing his opinion and disapproval publicly.
The next morning for breakfast I meet Alex again, whom I had already met on the north side.
We have breakfast together, because Alex has offered to drive me to the bus station in Nalchick, so that I can take the next bus to Terskol or Azau on the southern side of Mount Elbrus.
Arriving at the bus station, I buy a ticket for about 300 rubles, eat a snack and wait to finally get on the bus, because I want to be back on the mountain as soon as possible and try the ascent via the south side. Also, I don't want to stay too long down in the valley so that my acclimatization is not completely lost and I have to start the process again.
The drive to Terskol takes about two and a half hours and you travel steadily uphill parallel to the Baksan River until you reach deep into the valley between Elbrus and Ushba. Ushba is a phenomenally demanding mountain on the Georgian side, with its steep, jagged double peak and arguably the most difficult mountaineering challenge to be found in the entire Caucasus Mountains.
The north summit is considered somewhat easier than the higher south summit. This south summit of the Ushba was long considered the most difficult mountain in the world and therefore claimed many lives. Amazed, I enter this valley while surrounded by these more than 5000 meter high giants and dream of climbing up and down on narrow ridges between the peaks of the Georgian Caucasus. However, this adventure will have to wait for the future Norrdine, because my current self has an appointment with another peak that has been waiting for me for a long time. Since 2017, I have already been thinking about when and how I could climb Mount Elbrus one day. I had even booked a flight to Mineralny Vody once before and had already tried to get a visa for Russia at that time, because I always wanted to climb the mountain in winter via the north side, preferably with my mountaineering buddy Michal, who was also interested in this route. It failed in the end due to several factors, such as time, equipment, money and visa, which is why Elbrus has been buzzing around in my head for a very long time, but has never been seriously tackled by me until now. By the way, I also thought at the beginning that Mt. Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe and therefore one of the Seven Summits. The question is somewhat controversial, because whether Elbrus in the Caucasus or Mt. Blanc of the Alps, the highest mountain in Europe, depends essentially on how one defines the continent of Europe geographically. The majority of mountaineers take the Messner list as for the definition. I honestly don't care at all, because I'm going to climb all 9 mountains anyway, so the debate doesn't matter to me anyway.
During my trip around the world, I hope to climb at least 5 of 7 or 7 of 9 of these mountains. Mount Everest as the highest mountain in Asia and Mount Vinson on Antarctica I will probably have to visit at a later date as a separate expedition, because the cost of climbing these two mountains is in the low to mid five-figure range, for which I am currently definitely still missing the necessary change or in other words, my world trip budget would be exhausted pretty quickly.
Info about the Seven Summits:
The Seven Summits are each the highest mountain of each continent, so these mountains have a particularly strong attraction for many climbers.
There is the so-called Messner list and the Bass list. Essentially, there are two mountains where the two lists differ. Firstly, whether Elbrus or Mt. Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe and then whether Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya) with 4884 meters in West Papua or West New Guinea should be considered as the highest mountain in Oceania/Australia as one of the Seven Summits or whether Mount Kosciuszko in Australia with its 2228 meters should be considered as the highest mountain in Australia.
Mythology of Elbrus:
Greek mythology tells of the Titan Prometheus being chained by Hephaestus to Strobilos, the highest mountain in the Caucasus (Elbrus?), because Prometheus deceived Zeus, the father of the gods, with a ruse during an animal sacrifice and kept the delicious meat for the humans who were his charges. Zeus, in anger, then wanted to deny fire to mortal man, but Prometheus stole it and gave it to man. Prometheus was the bringer of fire, the teacher, even the originator of human civilization and in a variant of mythology he is even said to have created the first flawed humans from clay.
Chained to the strobilus, an eagle regularly visited him there and ate his liver, which was then always renewed. Only after a long time Heracles released him from this suffering by killing the eagle with an arrow and Prometheus was finally pardoned by Zeus and set free.
(Representation from antiquity, Prometheus at Strobilos)
(An illustration I created with Open AI, Prometheus hands over the fire).
I see in the story of Prometheus the creative disobedience of human beings, always evolving through curiosity, audacity, mistakes and setbacks. We are definitely flawed beings, but I firmly believe that we can learn from our mistakes and have a fantastic future ahead of us if we are always willing to critically question ourselves and we eventually understand what it means to be "human".
Arrived in Terskol, I first look for an accommodation and after short comparisons and wandering around I find it. It is a kind of hostel and I have the feeling that at this time only two guests are in the entire hotel, including yours truly. The second guest was an elderly Russian gentleman who must have been enjoying himself all night with vodka and singing old Russian songs at the top of his lungs in the middle of the night.
I made some more preparations, filled up my provisions, stocked up on pasta, candy bars, and gas canisters, and prepared to start climbing the next day.
The next morning I get up early, shoulder my backpack and meet Lisa, a German mountain guide and hut operator who has been living on the south side of Mount Elbrus for over 20 years, leading groups to the summit and successfully hosting a hut. Alim gave me her contact and told me to get in touch with her so she could support me from the south side. Lisa offered that I could use her hut, even though it is not currently staffed and I will probably be completely alone on the mountain again at this time of year. She explained to me which hut it is, where to find the key, and how to turn on the hut's electricity/gas stove. She insisted that I register with the mountain rescue so that the mountain rescuers in the valley would know that there was someone on the mountain, who should report back in three to four days at the latest. After experiencing firsthand how fiercely the extremely cold wind blows around the summit during my last summit attempt on the north side, I decided to improve my equipment a bit more. Lisa also strongly recommended that I dress as warmly as possible, because she knows the mountain, the winds and the freezing temperatures only too well and she was there last year when the tragedy with the five frozen climbers happened. I remember well my numb frozen hands and the stinging Arctic winds in my face, so I decided to get an extra pair of down mittens, a down jacket a balaclava and an extra down jacket so I would have three layers everywhere to protect me from the wind and cold. With that, it should probably work out after all and I should thus be able to brave the elements.
All right, I think I am now ready to make another attempt to climb. To be honest, the south side of Mount Elbrus is not much to look at. It is a tourist ski resort, full of hotels, restaurants, lifts and other facilities that you would expect to find in a ski resort.
Everything is being rebuilt and renewed, which is why the place Azau resembles a single construction site. There is the possibility to go up with several lifts up to about 3500 meters. I think about it for a short moment, because the climb will be extremely boring and monotonous and since a new cable car is being built, it is like walking on a construction site. However, my legs remind me that they are already impatient again and urgently need some movment, besides, it goes against my mountaineering style and I would like to do without, as far as possible, any infrastructure on the mountain.
So I trudge up the ugly construction site and walk cross-country up the slopes. It doesn't take very long until I pass the first cable car station. At first it is still warm in the sunlight further down, but it gets cold very quickly with increasing altitude and some snowflakes are already falling.
After about three and a half monotonous hours up the mountain, I finally reach the snow line and enter the glacier. From here on, the ski slopes are prepared and I climb up the already flattened slopes, occasionally sinking a little deeper into the snow. It slowly begins to dawn and the high peaks of the surrounding mountains wrap the south side of Mount Elbrus in an arctic cold. As soon as the sunlight disappears, it becomes bitterly cold and one is anxious to keep up a taut stride to stay warm. Leaving the Mir lift station at 3700 meters behind, I trudge up a steep hill and see to my right the famous "Barrel Huts" at 3850 meters. These are nine barrel-shaped huts made of sheet metal, each of which provides accommodation for six climbers and is often used as a camp. This means that I have almost completed my daily climb for today and should find Lisa's hut on my left somewhere. Following the trail, I climb a little further and initially find myself in front of the wrong hut. I realize that the description does not fit and thus I can not find a key, so I continue to climb until I reach a hut that matches Lisa's description. It's windy by now and I'm starting to cool down, it's time to get inside and warm up because I'm already starting to shiver from the cold. I find at the same time also the deposited key, open the door to the hut and close it immediately again behind me.
Thank God, finally a wind-protected area. I take a deep breath, take off my shoes and slip into the hut shoes, which are exemplarily lined up on the left side of the entrance.
The hut is completely cooled down and I'm still quivering with cold all over my body. Without wasting time, I look for the fuse box, turn on the power and connect the electric heater to warm the room.
Since it is still much too cold, I do not look around yet in the hut, but rummage my gas stove from my backpack and begin to cook me a tea. While the gas stove is running and the electric heating slowly starts to work, I look around the hut and start to get comfortable.
My feet are still way too cold in the hut shoes, so I decide to put on my ultra-warm sheepskin slippers that I got as a gift from the farmers on the way to Nalchick. They really make a huge difference, yet I can feel how cold the ground is through the thick sheep's wool and realize it's still too cold. So something warm to eat is needed. After I discover the gas stove in the kitchen, I finally make myself a hot soup and a huge portion of pasta with tomato sauce, hoping that this will warm me up. Gradually all the measures work together, I sit cross-legged with my thick slippers on the wooden bench so that my feet do not have to touch the floor. At the same time, I huddle in front of the electric heater, drink hot tea, slurp hot soup, and devour a good portion of noodles. All these measures in sum help me to keep reasonably warm and the cold air of the hut slowly becomes a little bit "less cold" and more bearable. On a bookshelf I discover several different mountaineering books, including the story of Josef Martin Bauer, "Unternehmen Elbrus" who was then in 1942 at the Elbrus ascent of the Wehrmacht and tells firsthand, very detailed about how they climbed the summit, shortly before the Caucasian front collapsed.
Suddenly I discover another copy that catches my attention. 8000+ Departure into the Death Zone by Ueli Steck.
It is about the first 8000m ascents of possibly the most talented mountaineer our time has ever seen. The news of his death on April 30, 2017 on Nuptse shocked me to the core at the time, and I still can't really comprehend that one of humanity's most gifted climbers died. The fact that Ueli Steck is no longer with us taught me another good dose of humility, because I became aware that even climbers who are 100 times better than me can die in the mountains if they permanently take too much risk or if a disaster occurs on the mountain at the wrong time. He still holds the Free Solo Speed record for the Eiger North Face of 02:22:50, although Dani Arnold had briefly taken the record from him in the meantime and he subsequently took it back. Likewise, he was the first solo climber to master the deadly Annapurna (8091m) South Face, which I think he undoubtedly successfully climbed, and received the Piolet d`Or for it for the second time in 2014. I would love to read through this book by Ueli Steck on the spot, but I have to go to bed early today, because I have decided to start another acclimatization tour tomorrow morning, so that I can increase my chances of reaching the summit the day after tomorrow. So, in full gear and thick sheepskin slippers, I lay down in my down sleeping bag and jitter a little bit until I'm finally warm enough to find some sleep. The next morning I set off for the Pastukhova rocks to reach an altitude of about 4800 meters, hoping to be top acclimatized for the summit attempt the next day.
Again I feel the icy cold at almost 5000 meters and I realize that I will definitely need the extra down jacket and balaclava for the climb tomorrow, especially since I will start walking at night. Therefore, I shovel the camp next to the hut free to get to the additional equipment.
Now I should be well prepared for the summit! I start again my evening ritual, make two liters of tea, eat, measure oxygen content and pulse, check the weather, so far everything is looking good. Then I read a bit in Ueli Steck's book and can hardly stop reading chapter after chapter, because he describes his experiences on the 8,000-meter peaks very comprehensibly and unembellished, even about the failure itself he speaks quite openly, as if it were a natural part of mountaineering. By 8 p.m., I'm lying in my sleeping bag, fully prepared and ready, thinking about tomorrow and the challenge that awaits me.
03:30 in the morning, my cell phone alarm clock rings and it's still completely dark. I listen and hear a fierce wind blowing outside. "Oh no, not again," I think. "Should I lie still until it gets light?" "Should I close my eyes again and postpone the climb?" My inner fear talks to me and gives me good reasons why it would be advisable to stay lying down. "Nothing new" I think to myself, the fear and doubt are normal, you have to overcome and motivate yourself again and again. Is the high, arctic cold, unknown mountain in the dark with its fierce winds out there scary? Of course! Do I have doubts? For sure! Do I want to retreat to the Comfort Zone and stay in my warm sleeping bag? Yes, even that seems more comfortable to me at this moment. "But there's no reason to be afraid, Norrdine, you can do it, you're experienced enough, you're well equipped and you're tough! So get out there and show what you are made of". I turn on my headlamp, prepare my breakfast and start to get dressed. Ideally a three-layer system starting with the legs: thick merino socks, long merino underwear, snow pants with integrated gaiters. On the upper body an undershirt, T-shirt, sweatshirt, down jacket and finally the hardshell jacket. For the hands also three layers, because the hands get extremely cold very quickly, so wool gloves, leather gloves and over them the down mittens. On the head and for the face the balaclava, a headband and over it the three hoods of the sweatshirt, the down jacket and the hardshell jacket. Now the crampon ready boots and in addition the crampons strapped on. Next, the ski goggles and my headlamp strapped on. Inside my jacket the hot tea and a decent supply of energy bars. The ice axe strapped to my back and the ski poles in both hands. Now we are ready to go! I close the door of the hut behind me and step out into the darkness, the cold and the merciless wind. I feel like an astronaut, equipped from head to toe in high-tech gear, and I feel myself getting warm immediately as I trudge through the high snow in the darkness. The gear gives me a solid sense of security, almost invulnerability. I don't feel any cold, on the contrary, it's actually very warm, maybe even too warm. I have to pull down the balaclava, because it's much too warm and I have trouble breathing. I can't move too fast so that I don't sweat and get wet. My field of vision is extremely limited, but I can't take off my goggles because the wind is blowing fiercely from the west. "Well then, let's get a decent rhythm going and see if it's possible to reach the summit today with this wind." I feel well acclimatized and quite strong, I am however a little bit cold from the last summit attempt and feel that I have to cough again and again and my lungs are not 100% efficient. Like a machine, I put one foot in front of the other and ram my ski poles into the ground for support. "This time it's getting real Norrdine, this is the moment, you have a real shot at the summit today." With my field of vision extremely limited in the darkness and the small dancing cone of light from my headlamp in front of me revealing only a tiny little part, I steadily work my way up the slope through the deep snow. At this moment, the world around me is quite small and almost engulfed in complete darkness, as I am focused only on this area in front of me and highly concentrated on not making any mistakes and putting one step in front of the other. Every now and then I lift my head up and look around in the darkness to see if I'm still on the right track. What do you think at a time like that, you ask? Well, you're in total focus and only in this present moment. There is no yesterday and no tomorrow, past and future are completely irrelevant, almost nonexistent, because all that matters is this moment, the present, the here and now is crucial and demands all the attention. I scan the environment, all signals on the outside, as on the inside. Where do I have to go, what is the path like, where are dangers or slopes lurking? If it's a crevasse area (it wasn't in that case), where do I see signs of crevasses and how do they run? How do I feel, am I cold, how is the wind, are my legs and lungs strong, do I feel good in general? It's a complete omnipresent system check. You do notice the crunch of the snow and hear the wind whistling, but it doesn't come into focus until it seems threatening. I can tell you anyway, you are extremely focused and it is a slightly threatening feeling. You are alone on a huge icy mountain in the middle of darkness in deadly cold and fierce winds. The danger and hostility to life of the environment feels very real, you can literally feel the environment coming for your life and you can't wait for dawn to come, but at the same time you don't want to be too slow. It is a starry and bitterly cold night, the wind beats violently like whip lashes against me and I can see the silhouette of Mount Elbrus only minimally and dimly in the half-lit moonlight. I feel good and my inner dialogue is one of respect and confidence. "Keep going, one step in front of the other, that's how it adds up to success". I leave the 5000 meters mark behind me and now climb an extremely steep and straight as a die section. The initially soft snow in which I had previously sunk is now hard frozen firn and the surface crunches under my crampons. A good confidence-inspiring sound, because on this ground I have a good grip and make good progress. The ascent becomes steeper and steeper, I look briefly to the right in the direction of the east and notice that the dawn is slowly but surely about to replace the deep dark and pitch black night. The stars still shine strongly, the half moon shines powerfully above me, the sky colors itself in the morning indigo blue and at the horizon the first orange rays of the rising sun appear. Suddenly the wind blows extremely violently and I have trouble to hold against it. I stop for a moment, leaning my upper body forward against the wind, leaning and resting on my two ski poles to brave the wind. "To keep running in this gust would be a waste of energy," I think to myself and persevere. As the wind dies down, I climb further up, while the sun in the east, chases the night westward over the horizon. After what feels like an eternity up the dead straight and steep ascent, I reach a snowcat completely submerged in the snow. Only the last few centimeters of the red roof are still sticking out of the snow. It will probably disappear one day in the eternal ice and be forgotten. The climb makes a bend to the left towards the west and I now traverse along the steep flank of the east peak to get across to the saddle. I now have to move sideways along the steep and partially icy slope, so I replace my right ski pole with the ice axe for safety, so that if I fall I can drop to the top of my pick and thus break the fall, because an unbraked fall on the icy surface would be fatal and I would not know when and how I would be stopped. In the left hand to the sloping side the longer ski pole and in the right hand between middle finger and ring finger the ice axe, which I ram into the ground with every step.
So I work my way sideways along the steep cross slope and have to stop again and again and lean against the fierce arctic wind. A felt eternity I climb the steep slope crosswise and wonder when the saddle is finally reached. Meanwhile, it has become completely bright and the sun is already strong in the clear blue sky, the wind is extremely strong at about 70-80km / h and makes the climb extremely difficult for me.
The air is now getting noticeably thinner, because I am probably at about 5200, almost 5300 meters. "The bend to the north has already begun, hasn't it, and the saddle should be there soon?"
I feel that I am getting weaker and increasingly have to fight against the fierce wind in order not to have to stop constantly and consequently cool down. The cold air flows into my lungs and my coughing becomes stronger. At one point I have to cough so hard that I feel slightly dizzy. Slightly hunched forward and panting, I ponder if this dizziness is a bad sign that I'm not acclimatized well enough and I'm physically too weak today? "Is it too risky to keep walking and could I faint from dizziness?" "Oh, it's just a cough, otherwise I feel strong and I still have quite a bit of reserves to fight the wind!" I look at the altimeter and see that I'm almost at 5300 meters. "Let's go now, I'm sure the saddle will be there soon and then maybe it will be a bit