October 2017

Elbrus (5,642m) unguided

Teshil Gangaram
October 2017
About Elbrus

Nestled in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains, Mount Elbrus (continental Europe's highest peak) stands majestically at 5,642 meters, drawing climbers worldwide. Despite its apparent simplicity, Elbrus conceals challenges, boasting one of the highest mortality rates among the Seven Summits. The mountain's temperature can plummet to a bone-chilling -15°C to -30°C, and its unpredictable weather often shrouds the landscape in a curtain of low visibility. Navigating off into the northern side presents a particular risk, with hidden crevasses waiting to challenge the unsuspecting.
Deciding the Team

Recognizing the inherent risks, choosing a reliable climbing partner for this unguided ascent was paramount. My thoughts turned to Rohan, a childhood friend I hadn't seen in a decade. Despite the geographical distance – he in Europe, and I in Asia – our shared passion for exploring nature endured. Rohan's solo expeditions in the remote corners of the Himalayas showcased unparalleled self-sufficiency at high altitudes. While he excelled as an independent hiker, my strengths lay in high altitudes, snowcraft, and navigating in challenging whiteout conditions.

Rohan (left) and myself on the acclimatization to Terskol
The Plan

Our plan was simple: stay healthy and fit and acclimatize by climbing high and sleeping low. Once we hit 3,000m, we aimed to climb only 600m in elevation at most to avoid altitude sickness. Our acclimatization plan began smoothly, taking us to Terskol Peak at 3,100 meters and then further to Mount Chaget at 3,800 meters. The initial plan included a rest day, followed by two more acclimatization days up to 4,700 meters, culminating in our ascent to Elbrus's 5,642-meter summit. However, nature had other ideas.

Heading up the easy trail for our acclimatization hike.
Some fun bouldering
Gorgeous lush green valley
Happily hitch hiking down to save the knees
The Curve Ball

A looming storm forced us to abandon our acclimatization strategy and head directly to 4,100 meters to spend the night. It felt like our carefully crafted plan had been upended by unpredictable weather. We hoped that our previous experience at high altitudes would help us cover the 1,800m of elevation (from 3,800m - the highest we have reached on that trip, to 5,642m) in less than 36 hours.

Took our backpack and decided to gave our best shot to this new plan

Once we reached the Barrel Hut at 4,100m, we decided on an acclimatization hike. With crampons and ice axes, we began our ascent. Around 4,500m, I sensed a slight headache and knew I should descend to increase my chances of a summit attempt the next day. Glancing at Rohan, who was still fine, I hinted to him to continue while I descended. He ventured a bit further. Back at the barrel, with a horrible headache, we prepared our gear for the summit push.

The day of our summit attempt arrived, and we began our ascent before dawn, bundled up against the biting cold. A disheartening sight was witnessing other 'climbers' taking the snowcat from the barrel to 5000m. Snowcats after snowcats made their way up while we steadily climbed.

The cold was harsh, and I envied those climbers in their down suits. We had all our layers on, and while the cold was manageable, our speed slowed due to incomplete acclimatization. At around 5,000m, with almost 700m of elevation still ahead, we decided to turn back. Our bodies were not ready for this journey. Despite the disappointment, we knew we had given our best and needed to prioritize safety on the descent. The return was swift, and we took the cable car back to town for a well-deserved shower and rest.

The struggle was real. I had four layers on and felt miserable while the people in the down suits in the background were cozy.
Second Chance

Thinking that our chance to summit Elbrus had passed, we were exhilarated to hear whispers of a weather window. Excitedly, we decided to give it another shot, now well-acclimatized to 4,700m.

Our second climb felt easier, and we knew it would be. Reaching our previous high point, we pressed on.

This was where we last stopped on our first attempt. Beautiful mountains at the back.
The Whiteout Zone

As we reached the col between the east and west summit, whiteout and low visibility engulfed us. Despite the freezing cold, our faces suddenly started to feel like they were burning. I had to take snow and put it on my cheeks. After a few meters, that strange feeling vanished as suddenly as it appeared. In the low visibility, I carefully tracked our route.

Elbrus is known for its sudden change in weather.
The summit

Climbers who had taken the snowcat descended, some leaning on their guides due to exhaustion. Shortly after, I witnessed my first case of high-altitude sickness in person. The climber was disoriented and unable to walk. One guide held him on a leash from the back to prevent him from rolling off the mountain, while another pulled him from the front. It served as a stark reminder not to underestimate these mountains, and we were relieved we had turned back on our first attempt. Minutes later, we reached the summit, but there was no view – just a whiteout. While a clear view would have been ideal, we were still content with the experience, proud to fly the Mauritius flag on the summit. Possibly the first unguided team from Mauritius.

Not a view at all, but very proud of what we did.

Our journey up Mt. Elbrus was a testament to teamwork and the application of our skills for a safe ascent. Convincing Rohan to join me for more unguided climbs of the Seven Summits is an ongoing mission, but his heart remains set on exploring the secluded valleys of the Himalayas. Perhaps, in the future, our paths will once again converge on a shared trail.
Just for Fun - Rohan and I try to mimick ice climbing moves. Move the slider to see who has the best shot!
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