Now things were starting to move forward. This was the start of the main attempt. We checked out of the hotel, leaving some of our equipment behind, just taking what we needed for the next three or four days. This apparently was more the exception than the rule, as the hotel wasn’t booked up. The minibuses took us to the cable car station that was at the base of the mountain in Azau. We were also loaded up with all of our food and provisions for the next few days.
We then took the cable car up to the Mir station where we had to wait an hour or two before taking the chairlift up to the barrels. This area was very interesting. A war memorial was on proud display for the fallen soldiers of the Soviet Union. This area was an area of intense fighting during WWII. Just looking at the terrain, it must have been bloody. During the Battle of the Caucasus in World War II, the Wehrmacht occupied the area surrounding the mountain from August 1942 to January 1943 with 10,000 Mountain troops. Wikipedia tells us that when news reached Adolf Hitler that a detachment of mountaineers was sent by the general officer commanding the German division to climb to the summit of Elbrus and plant the swastika flag at its top, he reportedly flew into a rage, called the achievement a “stunt” and threatened to court martial the general.
This area is also very bleak in colour. But bearing in mind that Elbrus consists of two dormant volcano domes, it’s understandable why everything ranges in colour from grey to black.
The chairlift up to the barrels was interesting. We were told that if the weather was bad then we would have had to walk up to the barrels, our home for the next few nights, but we were lucky enough that this was not the case. This is where we got to see the Russian attitude to Health and Safety as I’m pretty sure that the phrase doesn’t exist in Russian. Risk assessment experts from the UK would have been jibbering wrecks. The plan was to get one or two people into the rickety chairs and go to the top. Then kit and provisions were loaded onto the chairs by themselves and sent on their merry way for collection at the end. Whilst going up, I did notice that there were more than a few items on the ground, 20-30m below me, from having dropped off the chairs in the past. Luckily this wasn’t the case for us.
Once we had all arrived, we had to walk the last 20 or 30 m to the Barrels, also known as the Bochki. Once we had put our belongings into the barrels, we waited for lunch. As there was no running water in either the barrels or the kitchen, we were dispatched to an area between the barrels and the chair lift to search for a water pipe to fill up numerous 5l waterbottles to be used for cooking. All water that we used came from the glacier and the pipe tapped into this. This was one of the chores that we had to perform over the next few days.
After lunch, we set off for another walk up to the former refuge “Prijut 11” at a height of around 4200 m. This was a small walk in the park and nothing technical. Up the slope, stop and down the slope. The weather was a little bit miserable; some snow but really nothing to worry about. After this little jaunt, it was back down to the barrels for rest, dinner and sleep. I think it was around this time that we got familiarised with the barrels and the accommodation within.
Each of the barrels can accommodate 6 people. Beds are provided with worn mattresses, pillows and blankets. How often these are washed is anyone’s guess. Everyone basically got their sleeping bags out and slept in them. On the plus side, it was probably too cold in the area to get fleas or any other biting insects. The barrels are very spacious, adorned with stickers from visiting groups fro around the world. I saw a campaign sticker from the US, climbing clubs from the Czech Republic, French graffiti and so on. It struck me as graffiti to show the world that someone had been there and not to deface the interior, if you see what I mean.
On a recent flight using easyJet, I’d read an article about Elbrus and there was a comment in the article stating that the toilets by the barrels were probably the worst ones in the world. Whoever wrote this article wasn’t wrong. Three toilets, consisting of holes in the ground (or on the roof) of an abandoned building, were there to satisfy the needs of anybody and everybody that happened to be in the area (including day trip tourists). I cannot begin to describe what they were like. But if I had really known from the outset, I would have eaten Imodium for the following three days.
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