I feel I need to clarify a few things. Firstly, I place the overall blame for the team being inexperienced on the Northern Irish expedition company for their misleading marketing which made the north route look like a basic mountain hike suitable for fit walkers. I was conscious of their disclaimer which stated that “people of all levels of experience will participate so being patient is important“, but to give you an example, four of the team had originally planned to climb the south side but as it was fully booked they were sold the north. They were told it was exactly the same except they’d carry heavier packs.
Secondly, I have absolutely nothing against most of the team members on a personal level. A few of the people I met were fantastic fun, really nice people and it would be a pleasure to climb with them again, as they learnt a lot from this trip.
Onto my story.
Today was a skills and rest day. This was totally bizarre considering the majority of the things we would cover would have been important for yesterday’s acclimatisation hike up to Lenz Rocks. Why wasn’t this done first? What if someone had slipped yesterday? I wondered to myself.
It started off with your classic self-arrest, crampon skills, and cutting steps activities.
Anyone who has done a winter mountain skills course will surely agree that practicing self-arrest is great fun. Repeatedly sliding down a snowy slope on purpose is the ultimate excuse to play in the snow like kids. Imagine my surprise when the inexperienced members of the group just sat on their backsides after one attempt, instead of making sure they had a basic safety skill nailed. I snapped at two of them. “Why are you just sitting there?”. Blank, dumb stares back.
In one of the falling scenarios you must arrest your fall as you slide down the slope on your back with your head facing down the hill. It’s hard to get momentum for a staged fall like this yourself so a team member usually pushes you down by your feet. It was strangely cathartic watching the absolute pain-in-the-arse, know-it-all, ‘everything you can do, I can do better’ team member get pushed down the hill at full force in this scenario. I even managed to get a photo to savour the moment, here for your viewing pleasure.
After this session concluded we moved on to learning about ascending a fixed line, something I hadn’t done before but had read up on before I left. I really enjoyed putting this into practice and learning something new. However, here we uncovered a big miscommunication from the company regarding an integral piece of kit, a sling, which would be used with karabiners to clip into the fixed line i.e. an apparatus to prevent you taking a long fall on a steep slope.
What was the problem? Well, the first kit list we were supplied stated we should bring a 120cm sling. In a second, amended kit list we were told it had to be 60cm so that is what everyone brought along, and what some of the team purchased in the gear shop debacle with the assistance of the guides. As it happened the guides informed us we needed a 120cm sling; 60cm was too short. Improvisation was required for the majority of our team so they weren’t on their knees trying to get short slings to reach the fixed line from their harnesses. The guides were not impressed. I was livid but glad I’d brought both lengths along just in case. Somehow the guides managed to set up a suitable system for everyone and the skills session concluded.
That evening we were served another bowl of buckwheat stew (the portions got smaller and smaller the longer we were on the mountain), rounded off with Russian chocolate, dry circular pretzel-tasting biscuits and jelly sweets, as had become the routine.
Over dinner we discussed the weather conditions for a potential summit push, which until this point had been very bleak. Over the course of that afternoon, as is often the case on Elbrus, the conditions had changed dramatically and we had a beautiful weather window opening up for us right on schedule. The plan was to move up to Lenz Rocks to camp the following day and make the summit push early the next morning.
Despite the positive news about the weather, I only remember how I was feeling when I went to bed that evening. Still drained from ongoing dehydration and diarrhoea and probably suffering with low iron levels due to the unexpected menstrual bleeding (which, fortunately had now stopped), I’d had enough. The know-it-all team member was on top form over dinner, bragging about everything under the sun and I simply couldn’t bear it any longer. I crawled into my sleeping bag, put my music on, and sobbed quietly until I fell asleep.