The icy wind bared it’s teeth and bit into the exposed skin on my face, but by this stage I had stopped worrying about trying to cover my nose and cheeks, all I could think about was getting off the mountain and back home to my family. My mind raced with images of my wife and baby son, this wasn’t how I had imagined it would be like, far from it. The storm raged, the winds howled, visibility reduced to a matter of feet and panic began to set in - I had read enough mountaineering books to know that in such conditions serious, often fatal, accidents occurred.
I had returned to Russia with one goal, to finish what I had started the year before and successfully summit the highest mountain in Europe. Mount Elbrus, a dormant volcano tucked away in a quiet southwestern corner of Russia, dominates the western reaches of the Caucasus Mountains at a height of 5642m. The mountain’s double-domed summit can be seen from miles away, a polished contrast to the sawtoothed tops of other more sinister looking peaks surrounding it. From the very moment that you turn onto the solitary road leading into the Baksan Valley there’s a sense that you’re leaving the rest of the world behind. Craggy mountains hem you in on either side, growing in stature the further along the road you travel, until the road abruptly ends at the foot of Elbrus.
When I first travelled into the valley I never imagined that I would be returning, but then I hadn’t expected to see my first summit attempt thwarted by an untimely bout of food poisoning. As Sergey, my stoic looking driver, raced along the valley road in his battered Skoda, I took a moment to look around, to take in my surroundings. Nothing had changed in the past ten months, it was still as if we were travelling back in time the further into the valley we ventured. Sporadic collections of ramshackle buildings littered the way, peasant farmers tilled the land as their cows wondered aimlessly along the roads, oblivious to the threat of Sergey and numerous other fearless drivers.
It took me by surprise when a sense of happiness washed over me at being back here, not because of the chance to climb again, but because here I was in a little pocket of the world where life was simple, where there was a lack of noise and commotion, a lack of responsibility. The rest of the journey blurred into one as I let my mind wonder. it was the first time since becoming a Dad ten months ago, my son was born eight days after returning home from my previous trip here, that I had been able to switch off and allow myself to forget about life outside of the valley. For the next week this was to be my reality, the mountains, the great outdoors, and I intended to enjoy it without any feelings of guilt at neglecting my duties at home.
Sergey’s weathered face broke out into a proud smile as he delivered me right to the front door of my hotel, quite how he had done so without any mishaps will forever remain a mystery. I greeted his smile with one of my own, only mine was borne of relief to have made it this far alive. In less than 16 hours I would be making my way on to the mountain, in which time I still had to head out on an acclimatisation hike to adjust to the attitude, re-pack my kit and catch up on almost a year’s worth of news with Justin, my good friend and climbing partner whom I had not seen since the last trip.
Any minute now and Justin’s alarm would go, not that there was much need for it as we had both been awake for some time now, he hadn’t said as much but I could sense that, like me, he was restless and itching to finally get going. I lay perfectly still focusing on my breathing as I stared into the darkness of our cabin. My mind was empty but for one clear thought as I played out the same scenario over and again; taking the final steps to reach the summit of the mountain.
I didn’t know exactly how it would look, or even how I would feel, but I had created as detailed a picture as possible of the moment I walked onto the summit of the mountain, and intently focused my mind on it, burning it into my subconsciousness. For all of the physical training that I had endured to ensure I was in prime condition to take on this challenge, I'd spent an equal amount of time fortifying my mind and developing my mental strength, a large part of which was practicing the art of visualisation. With close to two vertical kilometres of ascent between base camp and the summit I knew that the challenge that lay ahead would require all of my mental and physical strength if I was to be successful.
Our summit attempt began to the to the rhythmic crunch of boots in the fresh snow, the mountain veiled in a cloak of darkness broken only by three head torches slowly making their way up the lower slopes. It sounds cliche but if we were to make the summit I knew it would be a matter of never getting too far ahead of ourselves, on ticking off one small section at a time, and so I never allowed my focus to waiver from the next step I had to take. Hour by hour, and metre by metre, we steadily made our way up the unrelenting initial slopes, rearing straight up towards the summit. Every hour we paused for a cup of hot tea, which I knew we had to ration but was so tempting to drink more of at each interlude.
After what seemed like an eternity, having walked through the night, slithers of light finally began to creep in from the horizon, penetrating the darkness as day broke. As it did I soon began to realise that any hope of scenic views, or at least seeing further up the mountain, were just that, hopeful. The veil of darkness that had hidden the enormity of our task for so long was replaced by a shroud of misty white, reducing visibility to a metre of feet. I could just about accept a lack of views, but what I found hard was never knowing where exactly we were going, not being able to mentally break down the climb into smaller sections based on way points along the path. Other climbers would ghost in and out of vision as they were swallowed by the sea of white.
‘If we reach the saddle we are guaranteed of making the summit’. Justin’s words from earlier in the day kept popping up in my mind as we battled through bitter winds, and still yet to reach the saddle, the col between Elbrus’s two peaks. With my energy and motivation levels dwindling after a particularly long uphill section the path finally levelled off and before long I could make out a large rock in the distance. As the rock drew nearer I realised my eyes had played a trick on me and it was in fact a gathering of other climbers, huddled around drinking hot tea and eating biscuits. I dumped my pack and set about eating any food that I could find, anything to boost my flagging energy levels ready for the final push to the summit.
My mistake was believing that we were almost there having reached the saddle. In my head we had done the hardest part of the climb and now it was just a case of summiting and then heading back down. I couldn’t have been more wrong, what followed was a torturous two hours battling seemingly vertical slopes and treacherous sections of icy rocks. The higher we climbed the worse conditions became, until as we finally neared the summit a storm was upon us. For all of the visualisation I had engaged in I never for one moment imagined that we would be battling such extreme conditions to reach the pinnacle off the mountain.
We struggled through the storm to cover the final few hundred metres to the summit, and no sooner had I set foot on top of the highest mountain in Europe than the words from a mountaineering book I’d read a few years ago popped into my head. Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory. The seriousness of the situation suddenly hit and a wave of fear and panic washed over me, I had a wife and baby son waiting at home for me, and here i was in the middle of a storm a million miles from the safety of their arms. I closed my eyes and wished I was with them. Just as I was on the verge of letting my emotions get the better of me I felt a surge of adrenaline course through my body. This was no time to lose focus, else I could end up in serious trouble.
Knowing that I had to maintain absolute focus on the situation I was in in I gathered myself and followed the orders of our guide, trusting that he would get us back down, that he would ensure I returned to my family safely. Unlike on my cycling challenges, where if I reach a point where I simply can’t go on I can step off the bike and climb into a support vehicle, there’s no such luxury on a mountain, it’s all or nothing. Aware of this my body ignored the fatigue and simply went into auto-pilot, calling on the strength built up over months of training. My mind too was forced to it’s limits, fresh bouts of fear rising up when conditions got so bad that we had lost all traces of the path and not a single way marker flag could be seen.
But for our incredible guide this story could have ended so differently, but thanks to his expertise and ability to stay calm under the most severe pressure we managed to climb down and out of the storm, until eventually I could see back down the mountain and to base camp in the far distance. Already mentally and physically exhausted the prospect of another three hours before the expedition was over filled me with dread, but after the ordeal of making the summit I was just glad to be heading for home.
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