The highest woman in Europe
Most people climb to the summit of Mount Elbrus in about eight hours. It took me 14 years.
As students in southern Russia in the early 1990s, my friend Simon and I would stare through my kitchen window and marvel at its rounded twin peaks and icing sugar smooth slopes, 40 miles away in the Caucasus. At 5,642m Elbrus is the highest mountain in Europe, one of the seven summits coveted cov·et
v. cov·et·ed, cov·et·ing, cov·ets
1. To feel blameworthy desire for (that which is another's). See Synonyms at envy.
2. To wish for longingly. See Synonyms at desire. by mountaineers who want to reach the highest point of each continent. My mountaineering experience amounted to a few hill climbs in the Lakes and Snowdonia but I promised myself I would return one day.
Only a few hundred western Europeans complete the climb each year, yet it is much less technically challenging than its lower Alpine rival, Mont Blanc: its cone shape and smooth sides make it accessible even for inexperienced peak baggers like me.
Simon chose a Russian outdoor activity specialist because "they have a 75% success rate" and were cheaper than UK-based operators. They also allowed us to travel as a small group - just me and five male mountaineering mates and marathon runners - rather than join a larger team.
Pasha, our guide, greeted us with traditional Caucasian warmth, and a traditional Caucasian smile with a shining gold tooth, at Mineral Waters airport, a two-hour flight from Moscow and four hours by minibus min·i·bus
n. pl. min·i·bus·es or min·i·bus·ses
A small bus typically used for short trips.
a small bus
Noun 1. from Azau, the main ski resort at the foot of Elbrus. But Courchevel this is not. Azau is, after all, in Kabardino-Balkaria, a semi-autonomous region of the Russian Federation, which grants it the freedom to be completely ignored, financially at least, by the government in Moscow.
First, we needed to acclimatise. Pasha led us on a gentle three-hour walk up Mount Cheget to around 3,000m from where we got our first view of Elbrus - brilliant white and forbidding. On the second day, we reached 3,600m on the romantically named All Communist Union Party mountain.
On the third day, we took the cable car to base camp. Priut-11 refuge, in the shadow of Elbrus's twin peaks, is basic but adequate. It was once a diesel hut that supplied a state-of-the-art three-storey hotel built in 1939. Campers now use the carcass of the ruined hotel as a windbreak windbreak
a physical obstruction to the passage of the wind, usually in the form of a line or copse of tall bushes or low trees or a porous fence. Of very great importance in temperate climates and periods of cold, wet, windy weather. .
Mountain views and our brilliant cook Nadya, a brass-blonde Ukrainian and nine-time summiteer sum·mit·eer
An official who takes part in a summit conference. , more than compensated for a bunk room the size of a London cab. At 4,160m my first night sleeping at high altitude was fitful fit·ful
Occurring in or characterized by intermittent bursts, as of activity; irregular. See Synonyms at periodic.
fit , but acclimatisation Noun 1. acclimatisation - adaptation to a new climate (a new temperature or altitude or environment)
adaption, adaptation, adjustment - the process of adapting to something (such as environmental conditions) is only one factor in summit success. In the Caucasus, the brightest day can be transformed by a cloak of cloud within minutes. The summit window is therefore narrow, between June and August. The sunny day before our planned ascent looked promising as we practised walking on glass-blue ice in crampons and ice axe arrests.
At our last supper, Nadya revived our flagging appetites with chicken and apricot stew, but warned: "Just remember, it's not hard, it's just long, very long." I decided to take the snowcat A snowcat is an enclosed-cab, truck sized, fully tracked vehicle designed to move on snow. Snowcats are often referred to as 'trail groomers' because of their use for grooming ski trails ("pistes") or snowmobile trails. the first 300m from base camp to the start of the summit climb with Zhenya, our second guide, and Simon, who didn't want to let me "cheat alone".
The Milky Way shone brightly as we set off at 5am. Zhenya stamped out a cigarette under his crampon cram·pon
1. A hinged pair of curved iron bars for raising heavy objects, such as stones or timber. Often used in the plural.
2. and advised: "relax your legs and think lazy steps." We moved at a moonwalk moon·walk
A walk on the surface of the moon by an astronaut.
intr.v. moon·walked, moon·walk·ing, moon·walks
To walk on the surface of the moon. pace. My heart was trying to beat an escape through my rib cage rib cage
The enclosing structure formed by the ribs and the bones to which they are attached. , my lungs struggled to catch the freezing air. Nobody had the energy to waste on talking. The only sound was the rhythmic hack of axes and the dull crunch of crampons on ice.
Darkness turned to grey, and the first victims of mountain sickness moun·tain sickness
Altitude sickness brought on by the diminished oxygen pressure at mountain elevations.
mountain sickness appeared out of the gloom. A lone mountaineer trudged past me down the slope, his face bile-green, his summit attempt clearly over.
At 5,000m we took a longer rest stop. Zhenya lit a cigarette which took an age to burn at this height and gave us an opportunity to rehydrate re·hy·drate
1. To cause rehydration of something.
2. To replenish the body fluids of an individual. , refuel re·fu·el
v. re·fu·eled also re·fu·elled, re·fu·el·ing also re·fu·el·ling, re·fu·els also re·fu·els
To supply again with fuel.
v.intr. with jelly babies and admire the view in the first light. Low pressure at altitude acts as a lens, making mountains zoom in closer than they really are. We were now above the ridges of snaggle-tooth peaks that stretch out in a chain for 750 miles from the Black Sea to the Caspian. Our base camp at the Priut-11 refuge was just a tiny fleck.
Pasha and the five others caught us up on the traverse, a single track that runs around the lower east summit towards the saddle, the dip between the twin peaks. Although it's not steep - about a 25% gradient - it's very precipitous with sheer drops on either side of the track. One false footing here could have sent me skidding down the glacier into a crevasse crevasse (krəvăs`), large crack in the upper surface of a glacier, formed by tension acting upon the brittle ice. Transverse crevasses occur where the grade of the glacier bed becomes suddenly steeper; longitudinal crevasses, where the glacier - just one of many ways that takes the lives of an average of 12 climbers a year.
It was gone 10am when we left our backpacks at the saddle for the final section. Without my pack I felt liberated. In my mind, I was fleet of foot and wanted to stride ahead. In reality, I was probably as ashen ash·en 1
1. Consisting of ashes.
2. Resembling ashes, especially in color; very pale: A face ashen with grief. and wobbly as the others. But I was in the grip of summit fever, the euphoria caused by high altitude which endangers climbers with exuberant confidence, and it pulled me up the steepest incline.
We passed a final spur and the mountain opened up across a wide snowfield towards the summit: a small pyramid of white. Summit fever seized everyone, Simon forgot his fatigue, Myles got colour back in his cheeks and Colin shouted at an American trying to urinate urinate /uri·nate/ (u´ri-nat) to discharge urine.
To excrete urine.
to void urine. upwind from us.
Pasha called us to a halt. "Felicity, ladies first," he cried, inviting me to take the lead for the first time. After 14 years of waiting, I counted every step - 15 - before I got to the top and I became, for 20 all too short minutes, the highest woman in Europe.
Pasha hurried us off the summit. The weather was closing in and cloud rapidly envelopes the mountain.
After an overnight stop at Azau, we rewarded ourselves with a few days in the spa town of Kislovodsk, where Russian aristocracy flocked in the 19th century to cure everything from heart disease to depression. As I soaked my aching muscles in a "Narzan bath" of hot, fizzy mineral water I pondered my next summit.
Way to go
The nine-day trip was organised through the Russian-based Extreme Group (007 861 259 4021, extremegroup.ru) for around £900 including Aeroflot flights. Just Go Russia (020-8434 3496, justgorussia.co.uk) can tailormake similar trips. Best time of year: June-August.