Settling in at Plaza Argentina base camp

22nd January 2016.
For the past few days we had been travelling north along the Vacas Valley but today we were going to turn west and head towards the mountain through the Relinchos Valley up to base camp at Plaza Argentina.
To get to the valley we had to cross a wide multi-stream river with fast flowing water and soft sandy ground. It was without question that we would be taking the mule taxi service across the river. I was delighted by this. I love animals and riding a mule would be a great experience. Bruce was not so thrilled.

It was a chilly morning for the first time since arriving in Argentina, so it was nice to get cosy in a hat and warm jacket. I was the second last to cross and as we bounded across the river the gaucho suddenly stopped halfway, dismounted from his mule and started walking away. He popped up a second later holding my water bottle which had fallen out of my backpack thanks to the bumpy ride! I’m amazed (and grateful) that he heard or spotted it drop.

Once Tincho had joined us across the river, we started our walk through the Relinchos valley, a gentle amble along another stream. As the sun rose the blistering heat began again so I stripped off the layers and got sweating again. Who needs saunas and spa treatments when you can hike in Argentina.

Finally, we had a reprieve from the flat valley terrain to enjoy an hour-long ascent of a steep hill to gain some altitude. This was my favourite part of the day. I was feeling so strong, enjoying the pace, loving the scenery and taking it all in. At the top of the hill the walk continued on undulating terrain which, with the temperature around 32C the rest of the day, was pretty tough at times. The 7-hour day was broken up with a small river crossing higher up the Relinchos Valley. On a hot day there is little more therapeutic than walking through ice cold water.

The final push into base camp felt very long as we trudged along more flat, open plains but we made it in good time and great spirits.  Plaza Argentina base camp is vast. I knew it would be a big place but I had absolutely no grasp of how big. It was a town of tents nestled into the side of the mountain. It reminded me of a smaller, tented version of Namche in Nepal.

Grajales, the logistics company who were supporting us, has huge permanent dome tents used for meals, socialising, meetings etc. at Plaza Argentina. Our first stop upon arrival was to our dome tent where drinks and snacks were waiting for our arrival. We had mango cordial, fruit, olives, cheese, popcorn, ham, savoury snacks and a drinks table full of various teas, coffee and hot chocolate with huge flasks of hot water. I couldn’t believe the quality of the service.

We pitched our tents (still using one each) and chilled. I had a quick wash and checked out how my blister from the previous day was doing. I had used a Compeed hydrocolloid dressing but the edges had stuck to my sock so as I tried to remove the sock I started to tear off the dressing. I figured the best thing to do would be to cut off the dressing entirely and start again. Fail.
As I cut into the dressing I caught the blister at the same time, making it worse by leaving a raw patch of skin open to the air. I cleaned it up and covered it lightly to dry it out. Tomorrow was a rest day and I knew I would be able to fix it up properly then.

At camp the toilet facilities were again really great. There were two pit toilets in the vicinity of our tents which were made of metal and even had a sliding door for privacy! Better still, there was toilet paper provided. This trip was turning out to be far more luxurious than I imagined.

Fast forward to dinner. We started with a meaty broth with croutons, followed by a delicious ham and leek carbonara covered in loads of cheese, and then a honey pudding. The food was restaurant quality flavour and there was plenty too. After our meal we played a few games of Hearts and chilled out. The boys must have been envious of my outfit as they seemed to find a talking point of my bright purple socks, royal blue calf supports, scarlet shirt, grey shorts, and jacket in canary yellow, bright red and ice blue. I think I rocked it.

Keeping hydrated at altitude is so important and with the Grajales team constantly refilling the jugs of fruit cordial and topping up the flasks of boiling water for tea and coffee, we spent a lot of our evening back and forth to the facilities. Had this not been the case we may have missed the incredible cloud inversion. In the Vacas Valley a massive lightning storm was developing and from Plaza Argentina we were looking down onto the top of the thunder cloud and see the lightning flashes within it. Above us at camp the sky was clear with the moon shining bright and the stars twinkling. I have never seen anything like it.

Shortly after the clouds came in, the temperature dropped and a light rain started falling. I went to bed and fell asleep to the sound of the rain on my tent. Unfortunately I didn’t sleep brilliantly as it was still too hot, even at 4200m. I was pleased though; I had spent a lot of time (and money) on warm sleeping gear for the higher mountain so it boded well.

Aconcagua… or is it?

21st January 2016 We set off from camp for a gentle 6-hour walk through the valley, excited by the prospect of catching our first glimpse of the summit of Aconcagua closer to camp. It was blistering hot again but more manageable thanks to choosing long trousers and long sleeves instead of shorts. I’d made a conscious decision to cover up as much as possible because the amount of dust I was covered in the previous day was such a waste of my 0.5 per day baby wipe allowance and I wasn’t sure how many more camps would have running water.

We followed the stream most the day including crossing a very precarious rickety old bridge. I’m not a big fan of bridges over water and the sign ‘Pasar de a una. One at a time‘ did little to comfort me.

The terrain today was flat and dry again, up until a point where we had to negotiate a sticky bog which added a little excitement to an otherwise pleasant but uneventful day. As we squished through the muddy mess I spotted a little paw print that had been left by some kind of local mammal (I still don’t know what it was).

This one IS Aconcagua (I think!) ūüôā

As we extracted ourselves from the mud and came lower down into the valley along the river bank I heard Tincho call out my name. “Lexi…Aconcagua!” he said, pointing across the valley towards a snow-capped peak in the distance. I was so excited! I grabbed my camera and started snapping away before I noticed Tincho chuckling to himself. “Okay, maybe it’s not Aconcagua” he said. It turns out Tincho was just winding me up (as he does all his gullible clients) and I was looking at the no-less-beautiful Ameghino, Aconcagua‚Äôs little sister. You can imagine that I was dubious when we walked a little further and the call went up again, but this time Johnny got his camera out too and offered to take photos of us in front of another beautiful snow-capped peak – this time our objective! What a beauty.

We arrived at camp to find we had the place to ourselves again. We pitched our tents and got sorted. Amazingly there was running water at camp again and the guys were cooling our drinks for dinner in the icy water! Bathroom facilities were again excellent, a pit toilet which appeared to be freshly dug. Happily my previous days’ tummy problems were resolved.

As we freshened up three climbers on their descent arrived into camp. Only one of them had managed to summit after horrendous conditions including high winds and seriously cold temperatures. They didn’t have a guide and hadn’t managed to secure any mules for their gear for the walk in or out, they were shattered. We met Scottish Alan who was living in Cambridge and two ladies from the USA. It was great to get their perspective on the climb ahead and meet some other climbers after having the trails to ourselves for two days. We said our farewells and they wished us a safe climb.

Instant dirt tan

I fixed a blister I’d developed that day, washed my clothes, hung them out to dry, then chilled out and re-hydrated before dinner listening to music (yes, it was Justin Bieber) in the warmth of the afternoon. Asado again with barbecued chicken, salad and herby Parmesan potatoes with another nice bottle of Malbec. Another restful day, another amazing meal, another evening of feeling amazingly happy. Loving it!

Into the valley | Steak asado

20th January 2016

We loaded up the gear and drove to the trailhead. 7 people in one 6-seater meant a tight squish. We pulled over to the side of the road, put on our hiking packs and started walking. The expedition had begun.

Unlike the majority of commercial groups we were not taking the ‘normal’ route to the summit. We were taking the Guanacos Variation of the False¬†Polish. This route takes you first through the Vacas and Relinchos Valleys, up to a False Polish camp, around to the Guanacos high camps and up the False Polish route to the summit. On the way down you traverse the mountain and descend on the normal route via Plaza de Mulas, and out of the Horcones Valley in a single-day push. For full details visit:

It was late morning by the time we set off, and wow, it was hot. After 20 minutes I checked the temperature on my watch and it was reading 37C. The landscape was beautiful. The trail was totally flat, there was a trickling stream on our right, desert plants and flowers all around and rugged, rocky and dry cliffs towering above. It reminded me a lot of the Atlas mountains.

After about 90 minutes we stopped at a stream to enjoy a break for some fresh watermelon and cool ourselves down. I was so glad for the Cobber body cooling neck wrap I had brought with me. Unlike the other group members living in San Diego, Kansas, Oregon and Mendoza, I was not quite as well equipped for the climate being from England.

After another 90 minutes we stopped for another snack break, sandwiches and fresh oranges, in a shaded spot under an overhanging rock. After hearing stories of people saying how ugly and boring Aconcagua is, I was blown away by the beauty of the landscape.

We arrived into camp dusty, sweaty and smelly so were amazed to find a flushing toilet, running water and camp to ourselves. We pitched our tents, one each, and relaxed, rehydrated and washed at camp, taking it all in.

It wasn’t long before I became very grateful for the flushing toilet as I discovered I had the first case of diarrhoea. I quickly dosed myself up with Imodium, downed another litre of water and felt much better. 5 months earlier I’d learnt an important lesson on Mt Elbrus about stomach complaints; ‘letting it take its course’ is a recipe for dehydration and weakness. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again!

I felt positive, at peace, and unbelievably happy to be there. Nothing would stop me from giving this mountain my all. To top off my enthusiasm and round off a great first day, the dinner call went out and we were greeted with a real treat.



Cheers! Malbec in a Nalgene

It was steak asado (BBQ) and salad with wine for dinner. I could not believe the quality of the food. We heartily tucked in and no food went to waste.  We went to bed feeling full, happy and excited about the day to come.


Onward to Los Penitentes

19th – 20th January 2016

The following morning we loaded up our gear and food into the van and started our 185km journey from Mendoza to Los Penitentes. For such a small team (5 of us including guides) it was astonishing how much we were taking and the thought of us having to carry it all up the mountain was daunting.

We stopped for lunch en-route at a local restaurant for another steak (when in Argentina…!) before arriving in the very dry, very windy town of Los Penitentes. During the winter it is a popular ski resort and in the summer it is used for climbers and hikers visiting the area. I found it a bizarre, uninspiring and pretty desolate place. We got checked into Ayelen Hotel de Montana then Bruce and I went out to explore.

We walked down to the street to the ‘Mini Market’ which was simply a corrugated metal container containing a freezer. A lad was trying to communicate with the elderly lady in charge but she didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak Spanish. I tried my best to translate and it turned out that the Mini Market didn’t have any food or drink available. It didn’t look hopeful that Bruce would be able to find a memory card for his camera (which he had just discovered he didn’t have in his camera).

Bruce and I headed across the street to Refugio Cruz de Cana where we grabbed a Coke and caught up after quite a hectic few days travelling. It was a really cool place covered in flags, photos and mountain memorabilia. Johnny and Tincho were at the Grajales HQ sorting out the supplies we’d brought from Mendoza and separating them and our gear into loads for the mules the next day. It was an incredible thing to watch.

The following morning we had an amazing breakfast, chilled out and got our kit loaded up in the van ready to hit the trail.


Photo by J. Shrock

From the IMG blog:
“Another expedition has started on Aconcagua.¬† Jonathan Schrock, Martin Lucero and team are heading to Penitentes today.¬† Final packing occurs there and the approach starts tomorrow morning.¬† Here‚Äôs hoping for favorable weather.¬† The mountain has not made things easy so far this season.”

Photo by J. Shrock

“On Aconcagua, Jonathan Schrock sent this photo before Martin, the team and he began their approach march.¬† Three days of enjoyable walking to get to base camp, Plaza Argentina.¬† They‚Äôre ready to rock and roll.”¬†


Buenos dias Mendoza

16th – 18th January 2016
After flying for the best part of a day across continents it’s an absolute pleasure disembarking the aircraft and finding your baggage in one piece on the carousel.¬† I’d met Rick, one of my team mates, in Santiago airport as we were on the same flight across to Mendoza so upon arrival we grabbed a cab at the airport and took the short drive across to the hotel.

Gear checkJonathan Shrock, our guide, was there at the hotel sorting gear when we arrived. It was wonderful to see him again after a year and a half since my Rainier climb. Rick and I checked into our rooms and unpacked our gear ready for a gear check. Bruce arrived a few hours later.

We met in the lobby that evening ahead of going out for dinner and learnt that one of our team members had dropped out the day before because of a flight mix up. He arrived into the wrong Argentine city and instead of taking the journey across to Mendoza he just flew home back to the USA again! We also discovered that another member, who was there at the hotel that day but none of us had yet met, was unfortunately in the middle of an unexpected family emergency and he’d have to fly home urgently. So there we were, just three clients and two guides.

That evening we had an incredible meal at a local restaurant and started to get to know one another. Rick was a very intelligent, softly spoken, and experienced mountaineer. Tincho, our Argentine guide, had been climbing Aconcagua and surrounding Andean peaks since he was a teenager. Then there was Johnny the IMG guide (who had guided Bruce and I on Mt Rainier in August 2014), Bruce and myself.

The following day we bought extra snacks for the mountain, explored Mendoza, bought and hired any last minute gear (yes, there were a few impulse purchases), and generally relaxed ahead of our long transfer across to Penitentes the following day. It was lovely to sit outside at the hotel pool, relaxing in the 35C sunshine listening to music. I don’t think I could have felt more chilled if I tried. What a wonderful way to begin an trip I had been dreaming about, and preparing for, for over 5 years.

A brief history: My great friend and climbing buddy, Bruce, and I over the years.

KilimanjaroIn Spring 2012 I was leading a voluntary service trip in Tanzania. A group of students from an American girls’ school, and their parents, had come to Tanzania to build a new kitchen in a primary school in Moshi. I had the honour to work for and get to know some fascinating people. Among those people were Bruce, his incredible wife and wonderful daughter. I connected with the family instantly.

The team and I spent a week in Moshi under the watchful gaze of Kilimanjaro, the clouds shrouding and revealing her as we worked hard and succeeded to build the kitchen, install the water, fix a broken fence, paint a number of buildings and more. Bruce and I got chatting about my previous visits to Tanzania and Kilimanjaro; one day he turned to me and asked that if a space ever opened up on a trip to Kilimanjaro to let him know.

The following year, 2013, I was scheduled to return to Kilimanjaro twice, once at the end of May and again at the start of October. My October trip looked bleak –¬† last minute cancellations threatened whether the trip could run. I had intermittently kept in touch with Bruce and his wife since the service trip, so a couple of months before the trip was due to depart I emailed him and asked ‘Do you want to join me on Kilimanjaro?’. As luck would have it he was in the middle of a work sabbatical so took the chance and said yes.

Kili summitDuring our successful climb of Kilimanjaro (100% summit for the team – awesome), Bruce and I chatted about what was next on the list. Just before the trek I’d read something on Twitter about Mt Rainier so imagine my surprise when Bruce said he was considering it. His daughter was at college in Seattle so it made perfect sense for him. Upon agreeing that it would be an incredible peak to climb the plan was born.

10 months later, August 2014, I was on a flight to Seattle. Bruce and I had booked places on the International Mountain Guides (IMG) Mt. Rainier Glacier Skills Seminar. 6.5 days of learning all about glacier camping, safe glacier travel (and crevasse rescue), ice climbing, belaying and rappelling and loads more, while ascending up the mountain putting our new knowledge to the test. Our guides Dallas Glass, Jonathan Shrock and Betsy Dain-Owens (who joined us for the summit push) were phenomenal. Our fellow climbers were the best and we all got on so well. It was the best mountain experience I’d ever had, and that still stands two years later. I still get goosebumps thinking about how awesome it was.

Mt RainierDuring this trip Bruce and I had the conversation again, “what’s next?”. We both agreed we wanted to climb Aconcagua but felt we needed to take our time, get some more exposure to altitude and build up our mountain experience before tackling it so we decided on Mt Elbrus (which you can read about here). The theory was that the Mt Elbrus north route would put our glacier skills and roped travel knowledge to use, while adding in the extra challenge of higher altitude as Mt Rainier is ‘just’ 4392m /14,411ft.

Two months later, October 2014, we had signed up for Elbrus and intensive training had commenced but still the dream of Aconcagua was there. We talked about it a lot. Around February 2015 IMG announced their 2016 Aconcagua departure dates and guide names.¬† Our Mt Rainier guide Johnny Shrock was guiding on our preferred departure date – it was a no brainer. In April 2015, just four months before jetting off for Mt Elbrus, Bruce and I submitted our¬†Aconcagua applications to IMG to climb in January 2016…


IMG_2507 (Large)After helping one of the team members with a first aid issue he suffered on the previous day’s summit (severe facial sunburn which had blistered), we descended from high camp down to base camp where we spent one further night. At base camp we bumped into Leszek Mikulski who had just successfully summit both peaks of Elbrus and snowboarded down each time, achieving a Guinness World Record.

It was then the walk out, back to the vehicle, which would take us on the 5-hour drive back to Pyatigorsk for one final night before flying to Moscow and then home. The walk out wasn’t fun for me. I was experiencing severe chest pain on exertion and as we progressed off the mountain and back onto the road the impact seemed to make it worse.

IMG_2530 (Large)Upon return to Pyatigorsk we checked back into the hotel. We went out for a celebratory meal in town which was delicious; essentially all you can eat barbecued meat and vegetables. Certificates of achievement were handed out and dedications made, and the team handed out the tips to the guides. After the meal we went out into town and we ended up in a shisha bar (not my thing). I could see how the evening was progressing so I left early to return to the hotel and a bit of peace and quiet.
The next morning we had a huge breakfast at the hotel buffet which included coffee, gateaux, buckwheat, bacon, fruit, pastries, chicken drumsticks and a huge range of other bizarre breakfast items. I had 3 slices of gateaux because why not. 6 of us transferred to the airport, checked in and flew back to Moscow. Our van picked us up at the airport, dropped 2 off at the Hilton, and the 4 of us continued onto our hostel.

We wandered around Moscow that afternoon for souvenir shopping (did you know you cannot buy a postcard with Mount Elbrus on it anywhere in Moscow?!) and sightseeing and also picked a place to eat dinner. We contacted the other team members to see if they fancied joining us for one more meal before we flew home. We agreed on a time so made a reservation. After getting back to the hostel to get ready for the meal I ended up pulling a muscle in my lumbar while twisting when pulling off my jeans, which was so extremely painful I literally couldn’t stand up and it didn’t ease off when stretching. Where’s the first aid kit? Hand me the Codeine. Why couldn’t I catch a break?!

After being able to stand up and move again, we went across to the restaurant and waited for the rest of the team to arrive for our meal. And waited. And waited. The first ones were 30 minutes late. The rest were an hour and a half late. We had a delicious meal then said our goodbyes. We flew home the following morning and I stood up for the whole flight because my back causing too much pain for me to sit down, despite the maximum Codeine dose I was taking.

Overview: Sometimes it’s just not your trip. There were a number of factors at play in this which you will have grasped from my previous posts. Not summiting doesn’t bother me one bit; in fact the lessons I learnt from this were far more important to me than summiting.

The first lesson for me was only to climb big objectives with people you trust and respect in a mountain scenario. Ideally someone with the same or similar mountain/hiking background as you, and certainly someone with the same attitude to and respect for the mountains.
(NB I trust my climbing partner Bruce completely, and had this trip been the two of us and a few of the other members this would have been a different experience entirely).

The second lesson is to climb with a guide or organisation you trust and has respect in the mountain community. I will never use that company again, and should you wish to know the name of the company I used so you can avoid them, please contact me.

IMG_2444The third lesson is one I already knew but was reinforced on this trip. If you aren’t well and you have any doubt about your safety or well-being, don’t keep pushing on to the summit. It is definitely not worth it. Turn around and try again another day.

The fourth lesson is ‘even if you feel like shit, a smile never hurts’.

Despite a lot of negativity I have been writing about this trip,¬†overall I am pleased I took part. Experience on the hills comes in all forms, good and bad. I loved Moscow, Elbrus offered some lovely views over the Caucasus and it was amazing that toilet paper was provided in all the toilet huts on the mountain! All that said, I don’t think I will return to Mount Elbrus. And with that we close the chapter on this adventure.

Next… Aconcagua.

Sleeping on a boulder and going for the summit

Warning: Lots of curse words in this post.

I didn’t mention that before departure the expedition company asked me for a favour. They asked if I would accept delivery of two expedition tents, brand new, which would be used by our team on the push up to the summit if we put in a camp at Lenz Rocks. They said they were asking because the customs procedure to send them to Russia would likely cause delays. I won’t go through my thought process about the request (I’m sure you’re thinking the same things right now), but in summary I agreed – subject to the company paying the cost to check an additional bag on my flight, and on the condition that someone would meet me at Moscow airport to take the tents from me. Unbelievably it took a few days for them to agree to this. Remember, I am a paying client, and this was my first time booking with the company.

Back to the trip. So after a really miserable evening and restless night I woke up and we went for breakfast in the dining hut. For some reason we didn’t pack up and leave for Camp Lenz until after midday. The weather was forecast to be good but we still had a good 5-6 hour climb up to reach our campsite at Lenz. We packed our gear and retraced our steps which took us 6 hours to complete.

IMG_2459By the time my roped team reached the campsite the other members had already started setting up tents. The wind had picked up, the sun was setting, it was around -10C and most of the team hadn’t got a clue what they were doing. Very few of them (all but the same experienced three of us) had ever pitched an expedition tent, let alone in high winds in very cold conditions wearing heavy gloves and down jackets. Of course the guides hadn’t used the free time that morning to show everyone how to pitch these particular tents, instead the three of us who were experienced had been paired up with those who were inexperienced to minimise the risks or take responsibility I guess.

As I was the last climber in the last roped team, my two teammates had already arrived at camp before me and had made a start erecting the tent. I arrived to find quite a frantic scene. I helped the guys finish constructing the tent and the head guide came rushing over. He grabbed the tent we were just about to pitch, moved it a few feet to the right and started securing it in place. He had moved the tent from the area I had been clearing of rocks (for a ‘comfy’ night’s sleep) right onto a huge boulder, and ignored my protests. How the boulder didn’t split the base of the tent I have no idea; it was around 1.5 wide, 2.5ft long and 6-8 inches high off the ground in a ‘C’ shape. This boulder was to be my bed for the night as I was the smallest of the three tent mates. I would use the top part of the boulder as a ‘pillow’, curl up around the middle and wedge my knees into the bottom part.

Before getting to sleep we of course had to eat supper. It was 8pm by this point and we needed to collect snow to melt for water. Again, no briefing done on this for the group. Fortunately the guide came round to check everyone was cooking and brought extra snow to melt. Despite the wind being low, probably 35-40kph, it was bitterly cold and getting in and out of the tent was a massive challenge with three people. Next step was lighting the stove. We had half a box of crap Russian matches and a gas stove that wouldn’t light no matter what I tried. I heard my climbing partner Bruce outside the tent and called him in to help – my tent mates had never used a gas stove before so weren’t any help. He had the knack and got the flame going first time so 8:30pm and we started melting snow. By 9pm we had safe water for drinking and for making dinner. A can of ‘stew’ which smelt like dog food was quickly rejected so noodle soup followed by a tiny pot of instant mashed potato was all we could muster. One of the tent mates decided he was too tired to eat or help so just slept while myself and the other cooked for the three of us. I accidentally spilt boiling water over the hand of my tent mate as I was trying to cook in the vestibule while sitting on my fucking boulder, it was really late and we had to get up to summit in just a few hours. I was pissed off.

We ate our food, turned off the stove which in combination with the soup and mashed potato meal had helped take the chill off the tent and I curled up around my boulder while the boys stretched out. It was only at that moment that I realised that the tent I was ‘sleeping’ in was some ancient piece of crap with duct taped holes and evidence of many uses. Where were the brand tents I carried for three hours on a train, dragged through Gatwick airport and transported through customs for the company to Moscow for our group to use?

Staying awake all night cuddling a boulder and listening to the wind is not something I’d recommend. It wasn’t long before the guide was back at the tent door to let us know we needed to wake up for breakfast. The thought of trying to get the stove on and melting more water for foul-looking porridge didn’t appeal to any of us, so snack bars it was. I felt like shit. I couldn’t even get my layers on. I told my tent mates I didn’t think I could do it. One of them (who had decided not to attempt the summit) told me it was a risky endeavour going for the summit anyway and maybe I should just stay behind. The other encouraged me and said I’d come that far and I should at least give it a try. He was right. I needed to try.

I put my layers on, exited the tent, put on my crampons, grabbed my axe, switched on my head torch and stood up. It was a very calm night, with a light wind of only 15-20kph but my mind just wasn’t in it. I found the guide and said to him I didn’t think I would be able to do it and he asked what I wanted to do. I told him I would try. I then expressed my concerns to Bruce and he gave me a word of encouragement. The next thing I know the rest of the team had disappeared into the dark and onwards up the slope in a trail of lights. I took a deep breath and started walking. My body was weak from being undernourished and exhausted, my mind was weak from being broken down after days of mental battles.

The snow was deep, around knee-high in places so it was very tiring. After about an hour I stumbled and dropped to my knees. Roped up I knew I had to get up quickly to avoid the climber ahead of me being pulled back so I stood and carried on walking. Not long after that the pins and needles started in my arms. Concerned, I wiggled my fingers and tried to move my arms to bring back the circulation; this wasn’t something I had ever experienced before while walking, or indeed walking at altitude. About 10 minutes later I started to feel the pain in my chest; a sharp, stabbing pain as if someone had driven a stake right through my back into my left shoulder blade and out of my chest every time I took a breath. Having had a shoulder injury a few years previously I told myself I was okay, and that hunching up against the cold and sleeping on a boulder was causing my pain. But the pins and needles remained. I fell to my knees once again.

I turned around and said to the guide I didn’t think I could continue. He asked me if I was sure, “we are close to the saddle“. I said I would push on. Another ten minutes went by and I dropped again. This time I knew. I turned to the guide again and said I was done.
I remembered advice I’d heard from guides in the past about summit fever, I remembered giving the same advice to my own clients while leading Kilimanjaro treks, I remembered my guides on Mt Rainier explaining that getting to the summit was just half way and you needed fuel in the tank to get down. I knew that turning around now was absolutely the correct decision and even if my mind was willing (which it wasn’t), my body was not. The head guide bounded up to me and short roped me down to camp. On my way down past my team members I spoke to Bruce and wished him good luck for the summit. He said he knew I had made the right choice but later told me felt like it wasn’t right that we weren’t going for the summit together.

The guide who took me down seemed delighted to not have to continue up on the summit push. This was his last climb of the season and I suspect he had had enough. On reflection, it was an odd choice for the head guide, the one that spoke the most fluent English, to accompany me down to camp rather than one of the assistant guides but at that stage I didn’t care as long as I could get down. We reached camp after a short time and started breaking down tents and packing up equipment to help out the rest of the team upon their completion of the summit push.
LenzThe member who hadn’t gone up for the summit carried down my main pack with some of the camp supplies as I was too weak to carry more than the basic summit pack he had brought up. Even that pack felt like lead on my back. We descended down to high camp and waited for the rest of the team to join us. 4 more of the team arrived back, not having summited, around 90 minutes later. The 5 remaining team members didn’t get back down for many hours more having successfully summited. It was after 4pm. I am delighted that Bruce made it successfully to the summit; he earnt it and I am so proud.

Upon their arrival back at camp I did my best to support the team, carrying their bags to the hut, sharing out leftover snacks and sweets, filling water bottles. I felt I owed it to them. The rest of the evening is a bit of a blur but I seem to remember another horrendous meal of buckwheat but also a sense of relief that the trip was drawing to a close. Almost over now.

Onwards and upwards

IMG_2438I 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.

IMG_2453In 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.

StewThat 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.

This is how I felt when I got into my sleeping bag that night
This almost sums up how I felt that night

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.

“Will today be the day I die?”

The porters’ hut

The following day we moved up to High Camp (3800m) with the rest of our gear. Another scorcher of a day, with blue skies and bright sunshine all the way to the top. The conditions underfoot were amazing with snow that makes that awesome crunchy sound and your boots really seem to stick in place.
Despite that, every step I took felt in my calves as if someone had wound a guitar string so tight it was about to break. I used the rest step technique the entire way up. Upon arrival at High Camp we discovered that we couldn’t sleep in the hut we had left our gear as another group hadn’t descended yet due to poor conditions higher on the peak. We were moved into the porters hut instead which was fine, and had dinner of buckwheat and stew before going to sleep.

Next up was another acclimatisation day, up to Lenz Rocks (4800m). A 1000m ascent was always going to be a tough day but wow, I had no idea how tough. Waking up I could feel how stiff my calves were from the previous day, so massaging Tiger Balm into my skin I wished for my muscles to hold out for me.
Plastic boots, crampons and harnesses on today; we were going onto the glacier. Now if you recall, only 3 of 11 of our team had any previous mountaineering experience. This means that today we set off from 3800m to 4800m on glaciated terrain with 8 people who had either never used crampons, never worn a harness or didn’t know an ice axe from a toffee hammer. There was a delay setting off as one of the party had his harness on backwards.
As soon as I stepped outside the hut I knew it wasn’t going to be my day. I had only walked about 50m and I felt unusually out of breath, dizzy and my legs were so heavy. I figured I was just warming up; I’m not a morning person. We roped up in teams (a first time in a roped team for 8 people), and set off up the mountain.

Me at the rest stop, on the way up to Lenz Rocks
Me at the rest stop, on the way up to Lenz Rocks

I was in the final team, second last on the rope. One of the things I learnt during my glacier skills course was about keeping the tension on the rope just so¬†to be in the best position for recovery should one of the team fall into a crevasse. (Check out this article if you want to learn more about roped travel). It turned out that none of the team I was roped up with knew about this, and it wasn’t explained by the guides before we set off (I suppose they assumed everyone knew it).
As I noticed the rear team mate creeping up a few feet behind me I tried quickly to explain the concept of avoiding too much slack on the rope. As I ran through the basics, I noticed the person in front grab hold of his rope to take in the slack he’d built up behind the guide! As I was found myself stuck between two slack ropes and we negotiated our way around an enormous crevasse I wondered to myself, “will today be the day I die?”.

Do you remember in the first part of this story I mentioned that being in the mountains is sort of like my therapy, my place to experience peace and calm, to enjoy the beauty of our planet and to escape from the daily worries and responsibilities. Today put paid to that.

The terrain didn't even look steep when you were on it!
That plateau you think you see, is uphill.

The route itself was challenging. I knew it would be steep, you could see that from camp but I had never experienced terrain where there was literally no let up, not even a slight undulation, just constant, increasingly steep, calf-burning uphill. As we turned the corner I noticed a bump in the terrain which led onto what looked like a small plateau before continuing¬† uphill. I felt my body relax as I imagined the moment my now agonising calves could enjoy a few minutes relief. I was wrong. The bump was an illusion and the terrain I was looking at was the steepest part yet. Not only was each step like an icy dagger splitting each fibre of my gastrocnemius one by one, but with my upset stomach cramping and churning, I didn’t know which I was more worried about – tearing a muscle or shitting myself.

I continued to drag my body up the hill. I had to stop the team a few times to ease off the pressure building in my legs. I didn’t think I’d make it up to Lenz Rocks and told the guide as much. We were close though, so I pushed on through and stopped at the base of the rocks with a few other struggling team members while the rest continued the 200m slightly above us to where camp would be, to complete their acclimatisation. All I could think of was about getting down, using the bathroom, and how on earth I’d get back up there for the summit push.

Thunder snow cloud coming in across the glacier
Thunder snow cloud coming in across the glacier

As we descended, we found ourselves in a storm of what’s known as ‘thunder snow’. Little tiny polystyrene ball looking snow which comes from a thunder cloud. As soon as this started to fall, our guide picked up pace, yelled at us to hurry up and we legged it down. One of the team slipped momentarily, and what would be the only time I laughed on the trip, the Russian guide shouted “THERE’S NO TIME TO FALL!”. People were commenting that their hiking poles were vibrating and buzzing in their hands, and it was only later I’d find out that the type of lightning that’s associated with thundersnow storms is positive polarity, which means it can be significantly more dangerous. With us being on a featureless snowfield with crampons, ice axes and metal hiking poles, we were in a considerable amount of danger. We made it down in one piece and moved into our new digs, the climbers hut, before having another bowl of buckwheat and stew for dinner.

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