I went to bed at eight. I lay back closed my eyes and listened as the others played Uno.
I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep. My night passed in that same nervous tension that grips prior to a rugby game or taking the stage at a poetry slam. In a few hours I would get out of bed and head out to climb Elbrus solo. No support. No one to talk to. No backup.
The culmination of six months of hard graft. Carving my body down to a utilitarian state. Training every day. In the still, darkness of the hut I reflect on this.
At around ten Natasha leaned over from her bunk. Between us was a small window which she opened and peered out of.
“James” she whispered.
“Yes” I replied.
“I can see stars. It is a good night for you to climb.” Through the inky darkness I could just make out her smile at me before she shuts the window and rolls back over.
My alarm finally sounded at quarter past midnight. I slept in my climbing clothes (minus my outer layer) so as to be able to get ready faster. The rest of the hut was in peaceful slumber as I fumbled with my sleeping bag. Getting it rolled up just right.
I sat on the end of the bunk bed and pulled on my thick plastic boots in the pooled light of the full moon. First the inner insulation layer, then the heavy, cumbersome outer layer. I then gathered the rest of my kit in a bear hug and headed out.
I packed my bag outside worried that the noise would wake the others. My breath clouded in the cold still air. I took a piss and stared up towards the summit.
Nadia (the cook) called for me from the steps of the mess hut. She had prepared a small meal of leftover rice and tea.I ate in silence as she filled up my Camelbak. My arms began to shake from the knowledge that when I finished my rice I would put on my crampons and set off into the darkness. Alone.
I could feel my confidence draining as I pushed the rice around the plate. I wondered if Nadia could see my arms shaking. She handed me my Camelbak.
“Please be safe James.”
I nodded, thanked her for the food and left the warmth of the mess hut. I sat on a small bench outside and clamped my crampons on. Giving my feet blades to cut my way up this mountain.
I was off.
With every step the snow made this sickening, crunching sound. Not unlike pulling the drawer out of a freezer that is in want of a defrosting. I loathed that sound. It stabbed at my subconscious.
Crunch, crunch, crunch. I began to not notice it.
The night was clear, just as Natasha said. The full moon cloaked the mountain a dull silvery glow. Once I settled into my stride I turned off my headlamp and hiked in this soft light.
I reached the memorial where we did our first acclimatization hike in around half an hour. Pastukhova rocks another forty minutes after that. I was floating up this mountain. It was crumbling beneath my feet. I was powerful. I was unstoppable.
Little did I know at the time though, but I was going way, way too fast.
At the rocks I took a few minutes rest. My back was cold and clammy with sweat. I took a Powershot (think Jello on steroids)and some water. The problem with Camelbaks in cold conditions is their tendency to freeze up. I had read before I came out that the best method to prevent this was the “blowback” method. Where, after each drink, you blow the water back into the pack leaving the tube empty.
I set off again. Hitting the long exposed stretch before the saddle. As soon as I broke free from the cover of the rocks the wind hit. A constant 30km wind that whipped and tossed the virgin snow about me. I sunk my head deeper into my hood trying to prevent the stinging snow and pressed on.
The wind picked up and was utterly unrelenting. The first I began to struggle was when I lost the feeling in my fingers. I remember thinking “Oh shit. I wish I had brought better gloves.” I found a small rock and crouched behind it trying to get out of the wind. I took another drink. I hit my hands against my chest in an attempt to feel something. Nothing. I took my gloves off and stuffed my fingers under my clothes trying to warm them between my armpits. I wriggled them about a little and the feeling came back ever so slightly. I put my gloves back on and took another drink.
The bite valve of my hydration tube, along with the tube itself had frozen solid. It was a stupid, stupid mistake. I took my phone out and looked at the time. Two thirty. An hour and a half into the climb and I now had no water. I felt stupid. I felt angry. But what good is anger on a mountain. I closed my eyes.
“I maintain at all times a calm, confident, cheerful state of mind.” Lemon Jelly.
I left the slight respite of my rocks. The incline was gentle but the cold was horrific. Soon I couldn’t feel my fingers again. They were alien to me. My nose ran constantly and my eyes stung. I paused and looked up into the clear night sky.
I took strength from the constellations. Gently tracing their way across the heavens. Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Pleiades. They were still moving. They were unaffected by the wind or the cold. They felt no pain. They just stoically carried on. I resolved to be like them. To shut out everything and just carry on. Ignore the cold. Ignore the wind. Ignore the pain. Cut my mind from my body. No thought. Just movement.
I climbed in this strange fugue state for hours. Watching as the constellations passed into the mountains and the sun broke free from the embrace of the horizon.
I remember the snowcat passing me at around five. I recognized Natashas bright yellow puffer jacket. It looked warm. As the snowcat sped up the slope I resolved to catch up with them. I sped up. Throwing myself up this mountain.
I hit the area where the slope steepens and you have to skirt around the East Summit. I stopped in an area of depressed snow. Not completely out of the wind but if I crouched low enough I could at least get some shelter from it. The cold washed over me. I had to warm up. I took my pack off and took out all my spare clothes.
I then took my coat off loosing my windproof outer layer while I struggled to get some more inner layers on. I put on my hoodie (which fares far better on a sunday night on Venice Beach then it does at 5000m in the screaming cold) and a thin puffer jacket that Janet had lent me. I then wrestled my coat back on. I stayed crouched for a little while longer. Mentally building myself up. I then pressed on.
The path wrapped up around the East summit. Andrey had told me that this would be the toughest part of the climb. Over 5000m altitude sickness becomes a real problem. I went slow.
My breathing became shallow and labored as I struggled with the lack of oxygen. A dull headache broke out, pulsating through my head.
I went slower.
Each step had to be taken. Each step had to be paid for. My body was screaming at me.
I stopped and leaned over my sticks. Closing my eyes I imagined this as a boxing match. Elbrus had me pinned against the ropes toying with me. Peppering my torso with sharp jabs, working the body.
I opened my eyes and walked a few more steps then stopped and leant over my sticks. I became aware of everything. Time slowed down as I struggled to defend my head from the punches raining down on me. Time slowed. I felt her left hand brush against my nose. A light ranging blow. I saw the weight shift onto her back foot and I knew I was fucked. Saw it twist round propelling the weight through her body compressing it into her right fist.
She hit me with car crash physics. Whipping my head back. Lifting me off my feet throwing me through the air. Weightless until crashing in a heap on the hard canvas.
In my mind I could hear the referee. Counting.
I lay there looking up at Elbrus through bloodshot eyes. She danced around me daring me to get back up.
At the count of ten. I knew I was done.
The mountain had finished me.
I opened my eyes. Pulled my phone out of my pocket and texted Natasha. “Feeling sick. going to turn back. Just below the saddle.”
And just like that I turned my back on six months of training.
Tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion.
The company that I am climbing Mt Elbrus with is Elbrus Tours. They are a small travel company based out of Moscow that specializes in trips to Mt. Elbrus but also offer trips to other mountains within Russia. You should check them out!