Load carrying to camp 1 through the penitentes


24th January 2016.

It was a very windy and noisy night. I’d only been asleep an hour before I awoke wondering if the tent would fly away. After a futile few hours tossing and turning, I figured I’d try relaxing to music for a while. It worked. I found my eyes getting heavy and my mind quieting. I put in my earplugs and went to sleep solidly for four hours. The next morning we had another great breakfast of yogurt, pancakes and eggs before packing the group loads of food, fuel, pots and pans and so on, to carry up to Camp 1. I was anxious about the day and how I’d cope with my first heavy load carry, particularly after a rough night’s sleep.

We set off and the day started great with us all maintaining a strong steady pace. It was very cold so we kept our warm layers on. I was quietly glad of the cool temperatures to keep us comfortable despite the additional exertion of our load carry. After about an hour we stopped for a water and snack break and I adjusted my backpack which made life a little easier.

The next section of the climb was the part of the mountain I was most excited and curious about, los penitentes. Penitentes are icy blade-like formations which are found in clusters, generally facing the sun. They are caused by a scientific process called sublimation in which solids turn to gas without first becoming liquid. These otherworldly pinnacles tend to be found at high altitude in areas with dry air and sunshine, particularly between Argentina and Chile in the High Andes. The literal translation of ‘los penitentes‘ is ‘the penitents‘, named as such because they resemble the tall, pointed hoods worn by the Catholic penitents during Holy Week processions. It is also said that they look like crowds of people kneeling in penance, looking toward God.

There are few words to describe the beauty and mystery of the penitentes. These cold, faceless figures surround you like a dense winter jungle. They seek to trick you, enticing you with the illusion of easy passage through an icy maze. They drain your energy as you tentatively progress over their unstable and angular surfaces like the steps of a first dance.

I see the penitentes as a representation of the humility required in the mountains. Individually some penitentes are large, some are small but together they form something bigger than yourself. They are a vast obstacle and a formidable challenge. To progress through the penitentes you must weave your way through their path, you cannot forge directly ahead. At times it feels like a standoff, man versus nature, but fail to stay humble and respect your environment and their sharp edges will catch you and remind you into whose territory you are straying.

The wind was picking up speed and it was getting colder. Despite the challenging terrain of the penitentes I had settled into a comfortable breathing rhythm and I felt strong and was moving well. After another two hours and another two rest breaks the bitter wind roaring down the valley towards us picked up some more. I suddenly felt myself weaken. As the penitentes grew sparse we approached a field of loose rock and scree. One step forward, a quarter step back. You’ve just got to keep going. Another hour passed and it was time for a  break. I forced myself to eat and drink as much as I could. I needed my body to find those reserves. I was tired.

The final push into camp was briefly through more penitentes which made the going easier but it was short-lived as we soon progressed up a steep scree slope with multiple switchbacks. I paused, took a deep breath and switched mental gears. I needed to get back into the comfortable non-stop rhythm I’d enjoyed earlier in the day. I let the guys get a few steps ahead of me, put my head down and walked. One step at a time, not stopping. Johnny stayed behind with me for the final section, “dig deep, just 20ft to go Lexi”. I arrived into camp just 2-3 minutes behind the others having managed my pace and preserved my energy.

We unpacked and cached our loads but not before weighing our packs. I was amazed that we were carrying only 19kg each. I calculated later that I’d carried 35% of my body weight from 4200m to 4900m that day. Tincho carried double; 38kg.

Now it was time for the descent. My right calf was screaming and I was feeling pretty drained. We were keen to move down the scree and penitentes quickly but in doing so Rick stumbled and snapped his trek pole arresting his slip. Fortunately he was unscathed. At 6:50pm we arrived back into camp after a very long day. At 7:30pm we tucked into a dinner of hot soup, vegetable stew and a tiramisu style cake with fruit. Our energy levels were so low we were all freezing. Only Tincho and Johnny finished their meal.

As we sat at the table I saw Bruce turning pale and he said he felt faint. We got him laying down on the ground, legs elevated, to recover. Our group tent had a gas heater so there was some semblance of warmth so we got Bruce huddled up next to it as he hydrated and recovered. Nobody said it, but we all knew how Bruce felt. We felt it too.

After dinner we had a chat about the day, debriefed on how we’d progressed and discussed the onward plan. It was then we learnt that the thunderstorm we had been admiring from above when we arrived at Plaza Argentina had caused 20 landslides (18 minor, 2 major) on the main highway between Argentina and Chile blocking the progress of 36,000 vehicles between the countries. As a direct result of this crisis all the emergency helicopters in Argentina had been dispatched to help with recovery. Consequently Aconcagua National Park rangers had to close ascents to the upper mountain from Base Camp because helicopter support in the event of an emergency wouldn’t have been possible so it was not worth them (and us) taking the risk.

Our plan to move up to Camp 1 the next day was put on hold. A mandatory rest day at Plaza Argentina was in order. At 9pm it was time for bed and to get cosy and warm in my sleeping bag.

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…

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.

“So, which other mountains have you climbed?”


I don’t recall exactly when the diarrhoea began but I am pretty sure it was the evening after our second full day of hiking.

IMG_2314 (Large)After a very cold night in our luxury tents, we had some lost time to recover so took an acclimatization walk up to Mushroom Rocks (3100m). I felt strong, confident and happy in my abilities until the last 20 minutes uphill when suddenly my energy plummeted and my legs felt like lead. Slowing down, I could hear “what’s going on?” whispered between two of the team behind me. I stepped to the side of the trail and invited them to pass me. Refuelling at Mushroom Rocks before the descent did the trick for my body, but distracted by what felt like quite an insensitive comment, my mind wasn’t in it. I stayed quiet and listened to certain other team members tell their colourful stories of lions and tigers and bears. Oh. My.

The following day we packed up loads to carry up to High Camp (3800m). I carried 15kg up to the hut that IMG_2339 (Large)would be our home the next night. Despite dreadful weather forecasts we had a mostly dry day walking with snow only lasting the final 40 minutes of ascent; actually a blessing in the unexpectedly high day time temperatures. The dry spell was short lived as that evening back at base camp it was pouring with rain again which made my frequent visits to my new favourite place, the long drop, a slightly more miserable experience.

I would consider myself an amateur when it comes to mountaineering. I have a lot to learn and Elbrus was going to be a next step for me to consolidate a lot of experiences and move forwards. Elbrus is a tough peak, renowned for its unforgiving and unpredictable weather conditions. The North side, free of mechanical support such as chairlifts and snowcats, is highly glaciated and remote and a far less trodden route to the summit. There were three hypothermia fatalities 2 weeks prior to my arrival on the North side.

At the time of visiting Elbrus I deemed myself ready to take on this challenging North side having done 5 treks above 5000m, 3+ above 4000m, a glacier skills course, a mountaineering skills course, and lots of overseas and UK hiking. In our group 3 (out of 11) of us shared a similar level of experience, the rest had done one or two treks or climbs, or were mountain newbies. This is the beauty of a mixed ability group –  experienced people are amazing resources, and those new to the game are like sponges and their enthusiasm and excitement for the mountains is thrilling and inspiring.

IMG_2349 (Large) That said, a high altitude peak with potentially extreme temperatures, load carrying and highly glaciated terrain did seem a curious choice for a first mountain experience. My attitude towards the mountains is ‘enjoy the ride, progress gently, walk before you can run, take your time, let it play out’ you get the gist.

So imagine my bemusement when the least experienced group member, the same one who’d had boot IMG_2319 (Large)issues on day 1, announced plans to climb Everest in 5 years, dismissing Kilimanjaro for being ‘far too easy’, and explaining that their progression plan to summit Everest had to fit into a two-week holiday slot per year (and be within 6 hours flying time of his country). I could feel my blood boiling (or maybe it was my rising body temperature from fighting whatever gastrointestinal problem I was suffering with). I love enthusiastic people, and I admit there was a time I wondered if Everest might one day be on the cards. This was something else entirely – naivete doesn’t cut it. Arrogance is closer. I could just see this individual as the kind who simply throws money at a climbing outfitter to guarantee they made it to the top. The kind that would be so unprepared they would be a hazard, not only to themselves but to fellow climbers and the guides. The worst part about this entire conversation was this person’s rebuttal of the suggestions and advice of the more experienced parties in the team.

I couldn’t bear to listen to any more. Time for bed, mp3 player and finding that happy place.

Camp beds and a dirty spa


IMG_2267 (Large)Bright and early the next morning, fuelled by a breakfast of strong coffee, cake, cheese, meat, pastries, stew, buckwheat, porridge and a few more slices of cake, we loaded up the minibus with our astonishing amount of baggage to start the drive from Pyatigorsk to base camp. It was pouring with rain and the plan was to leave early so we would reach the river before the water level rose and the vehicle couldn’t cross it…

The first stop was the gear rental shop. Fortunately the proprietor had agreed to open at 7am on a day he is normally closed so a few team members could change their hired boots to something more appropriate. It turned out only one of four who intended to swap their boots actually did so; the rest kept their original rental boots after all.

The next stop was at a hotel just outside Pyatigorsk where we picked up a guide and her client (we’ll call her Elena and him John). They were getting a ride with us to base camp in exchange for Elena’s company bringing our remaining team member to join us at camp when his flight landed (visa issues had him a day behind).

As we waited in the bus while Elena helped John sort out difficulties getting his papers and passport back from the hotel, it became clear there was no chance of getting to the river in time to cross it – we’d have to hike in. When we finally departed it transpired that John was a very interesting, intelligent, highly experienced mountaineer with a deep respect for the mountains and it was a pleasure to hear him share his experiences during the journey.

IMG_2287 (Large)As the rain eased up the temperature dropped, the cloudy sky cleared and we got our first views of the mountain. What a beauty. We stopped at a view point where the guides told us the snowline was lower than they’d ever seen it before at that time in the summer, and waited for a 4×4 from base camp to arrive which would transport our baggage while we walked the rest of the way.

We set off on the 2 hour walk and almost immediately as we turned the corner we were faced with an enormous boulder which had just fallen from the cliff face into the middle of the road making it totally impassable for vehicles; we’d never have got to base camp by bus even if we’d been on time departing.

Continuing on the road which passed through what looked like a refugee camp, we reached the IMG_2282 (Large)famous open-air spa where people come from all over Russia to bathe, to heal and to enjoy the mountain air. It smelt like sulphur and rusty brown mineral deposits from the earth made it appear as if people were bathing in muddy puddles of a disused quarry. The wooden shed that was being utilised as a changing room was rudimentary at best and the hiking trail ran through the middle of the spa. I am confident that the word spa in Russian has a different meaning than in English.

IMG_2309 (Large)The remaining 30 minutes of the hike felt slightly less voyeuristic with the double peaks, “is like woman breasts, no?“, dominating the horizon. Before long we were greeted by a very comfortable base camp: for the next couple of nights we would be staying in huge platform tents with camp beds! At camp there were also three clean long drop toilets (toilet paper provided and on a holder!), an outdoor sink with running mineral water and antibacterial soap, and a warm, inviting dining hut where we would enjoy delicious meals, unlimited hot water, WiFi (at a fee), crap Russian music TV and where snacks/drinks/booze were available for purchase. The tiny lazy mountain cat, Yeva, who lived at base camp was my personal highlight. It was far better than we’d expected.

IMG_2307 (Large)Arriving so late put paid to our acclimatization walk so with a hearty meal consumed, a briefing by the guides done, time getting to know the team better, and a first night under canvas in pretty luxurious surroundings things were looking up. Or were they?

Welcome to Russia (Добро пожаловать в Россию)


I often explain that my hobby of being in the mountains or trekking or hill walking is my ‘therapy’, my way to experience peace and calm away from our busy lives. To recharge from the demands placed upon us, to enjoy solitude, self-reliance and often to push the limits of your body through extreme conditions and experiences. I know that being in the mountains takes me to my happy place.

Bruce and I on the summit of Mt Rainier, 2014
Bruce and I on the summit of Mt Rainier, 2014

In August 2015 I departed the UK for Russia with the intention to summit Europe’s highest peak, Mt Elbrus via the less trodden north route, away from the uplifts, snowcats and, apparently, the worst long drop on the planet (according to climbers on the south side). Myself and my good friend and climbing partner Bruce, had carefully selected the north route to solidify the glacier skills we’d learnt on Mt Rainier in August 2014 but adding to that challenge with heavier load carrying and higher altitude. It was the logical next step. My husband and another friend also joined us.

So fast forward to travelling to Russia. It was a smooth and pleasant journey to Moscow thanks to EasyJet (tip: always pay for speedy boarding and extra leg room) only marred by the female climber’s least favourite unexpected visitor. Thank goodness for the emergency stash of Tampax. Having changed contraceptive methods earlier in the year specifically to avoid unexpected bleeding this was a very frustrating start.
IMG_2260 (Large)After some time chilling in Moscow doing the tourist thing, we took the domestic flight across to Mineralnye Vody, coincidentally on the same flight as our guide, and were met by a minibus to take us to the hotel a few hours away in Pyatigorsk. Pyatigorsk is a small city, with a wealth of kebab shops, bars, fashion shops and huge grey industrial estates built next to imposing Russian Orthodox churches embellished with gold. A very Russian city.

The hotel was fine and in the 35C heat, a cold Coke at the bar was very welcome. The team made their introductions, a gear check was done and a plan was made to visit the gear hire shop later that afternoon for those who needed to rent kit.

You remember I just mentioned my happy place at the beginning of this blog? Well the first time I IMG_2263 (Large)really needed to search for my happy place this trip was during the 2.5-hour visit to the gear hire shop to help 8 out of 11 members of the team rent the proper equipment for the climb, including a debacle with boots which ended up spilling over to the next day to resolve. This is not entirely due to their own fault; the information provided by the expedition company was basic so only the three of us with prior mountaineering experience had the correct kit. That said, I had expected a higher level of experience in the group because of the type of the climb and the more complex route we were taking.

Add to this the shocking state of some of the hire equipment provided by the UK-based expedition company and the first day in Pyatigorsk ahead of the climb I spent wondering if I had made a huge mistake signing up. Not exactly the best mindset to start the trip.

We returned to the hotel for our first evening meal together and met the other team member who had arrived late. After a hearty Russian meal of soup, bread, salad, chicken and chips it was time for bed.

An exasperating first day, but hey, maybe it was just the long few days of travelling and meeting new people. The real start would be the following day, the commencement of the climb.

%d bloggers like this: