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.
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.
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 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.