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Climbing Mt Elbrus, 1994

It was, I guess, inevitable that I would try to climb Mt Elbrus.[1] When I was a teenager, Mt Kilimanjaro was a magnet for me. In 1959, at the age of 15, I hitch-hiked from Johannesburg to (what was then) northern Tanganyika and tried to climb Africa's highest mountain. Although I only got to about 4,900 metres (16,000 feet) on that occasion, I returned to the mountain twenty-six years later and on 12 December 1985 made it to the top of Uhuru Peak, the 5,895 metre (19,340 foot) summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. When I was a teenager too, I thought that Mt Blanc (the 4,807 metre / 15,770 foot peak on the French-Italian border) was the highest mountain in Europe, and only learned years later, after I had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, that Europe's highest mountain is, in fact, Mt Elbrus – a 5,642 metre (18,510 foot) extinct volcano just north of the main Caucasus range in southern Russia.

Discovering that Mt Elbrus – and not Mt Blanc – is the highest mountain in Europe is an experience many others have shared. In their book, Seven Summits, Dick Bass and Frank Wells recall the first conversation that Frank Wells had with mountaineer and professional adventurer Jack Wheeler. Wells told Wheeler that, "Other than Kilimanjaro …, the only mountain I've climbed was Mont Blanc, last year. … I was throwing up near the summit just from exhaustion. But I made it – the highest peak in Europe – so I've got two [of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the world's seven continents] crossed off the list."

"There's only one problem," Wheeler said. "That's not the highest mountain in Europe."

"What do you mean?"

"Europe is measured as everything west of the Ural Mountains," Wheeler replied. "The highest peak in Europe is Elbrus, in Russia's Caucasus mountains between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea."

As a millionaire, Frank Wells could afford the simple reaction, "Well, fine", and then set about planning a trip to Russia "right away … in ten days or so"![2] For my part, however, having decided on a personal goal of Three-and-a-half Summits – i.e., to climb at least three of the six tallest continental summits, plus Mt Kosciuszko (the high-spot of Australia, which is merely 2,228 metres / 7,316 feet above sea-level and thus, in my book, rates as a Half-Summit!), I had no doubts that the fact that Europe's tallest mountain was in Russia rather than in accessible, clean, and linguistically comprehensible France would make life more complicated for me. Consequently, I began some serious consumer research in early 1993, and wrote to more than half a dozen adventure travel companies in the UK and the USA in an attempt to compare details of their Elbrus expeditions. The choice soon became reasonably clear, and I opted for REI without much hesitation. REI, the initials formally standing for Recreation Equipment Inc., is an American company (based in Sumner in the state of Washington) that specialises in "travel for outdoor enthusiasts" and has a particular expertise in trips to the former Soviet Union. In March 1994 I enrolled for an August 1994 "Climb Mt Elbrus" trip with REI and paid $US400 as a deposit. I had hoped to go to Elbrus with Eric Hodge (with whom I had climbed in both Nepal and New Zealand), but, alas, REI's catalogue of expeditions proved too tempting for Eric and – after a lot of discussions between the two of us – he chose the high road and signed up, instead, for a trip to Mustag Ata, a 7,500 metre peak in western China, while I took the low road and stuck to my original plans …

REI 1994 catalogue cover**REI 1994 Elbrus trip description**REI 1994 Mustag Ata trip description
The 1994 REI Adventures catalogue with brief descriptions of REI's Elbrus and Mustag Ata expeditions.

Getting there
In June 1994 I paid the remainder of REI's bill (I remember the sum: it was my birthdate – 1944 dollars!), my Russian visa arrived early the next month, and on 27 July I flew virtually non-stop from Wellington (via Auckland, Sydney, Bangkok, and London) to Copenhagen to start the overseas portion of my sabbatical leave (I was based at the University of Aarhus until early December 1994). It is not coincidental that several of my major adventures have begun in Denmark. After being on leave in Denmark on previous occasions, I have deliberately used the "tyranny" of the distance between Europe and Australasia to return home via exciting and interesting places: in December 1985 I flew from Copenhagen (via Geneva and Vienna) to Arusha International Airport in Tanzania in order to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, and six years later I flew from Copenhagen (via London and New Delhi) to Kathmandu to go trekking in Nepal (which included an unsuccessful attempt to climb Lobuje East in the Everest region). As a result, when I caught the commuter "S-train" from suburban Allerød into central Copenhagen on Monday morning, 8 August, it felt familiar to be setting out once again from Denmark for a climbing trip.

At the same time, however, I also felt distinctly different from previous trips. I was far more nervous than I'd ever been before. Stories of the Russian bureaucracy weren't welcoming ("Practical problems in what are elsewhere simple matters … can still make the USSR a more difficult country than most to travel in" – USSR: A Travel Survival Kit); newspaper clippings sent to me by family and friends with warnings about the dangers of flying on Aeroflot were, to say the least, unsettling (they culminated in Heather's observation that while she could live with the fact that I could die in a mountaineering accident, she'd be very annoyed if I was killed on Aeroflot!); a comment in REI's trip notes about the dangers of catching taxis in Moscow – they are, apparently, largely in the hands of the local Mafia and are a sure way to be robbed or worse – was more than mildly disturbing; and then there were the standard health spiels: "the Soviet health system is fairly dismal" … "tetanus and diphtheria immunisations are highly recommended" … "don't drink the water – that includes ice in your drinks and brushing your teeth in tap water" … "Leningrad water harbours giardia lamblia" … and so on and so on. It's all a bit depressing, because showering with one's mouth closed is – frankly – an unnatural act.

Map of the Elbrus area
Mt Elbrus is just north of the Caucasus Mountains, near the Russia-Georgia border.
(On this map, it's above the second "u" in the word "Caucasus".)

My flight from Copenhagen to Stockholm and then on to Moscow was on SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) and thus was neither problematical nor uncivilised. Arriving in Moscow wasn't too traumatic either. Immigration (i.e., passport control) was distinguished by two features. First, it was chaotic. There was no such thing as queuing (or, for my American friends, standing in line). Memories of when Heather and I fought and jostled for hours in an East German shed in October 1969 (when we attempted to alter our route out of West Berlin) came flooding back as two, then three, plane loads of passengers pushed and shoved their way toward the head of the non-queue. Then, when you reached an immigration officer, you stood waiting in front of him for at least five minutes while he did absolutely nothing. He didn't punch any details into a computer; he didn't write anything down; he barely looked at you; he didn't consult any colleagues. He simply sat and passed the time, not even appearing to revel in the chaos. I can only conclude he – and all the others like him – were (a) being paid by the hour, and (b) desperate to avoid making decisions which they knew they would ultimately have to make and for which they could, later, possibly in a few awful instances, be held responsible. When I told an Indian colleague in 1991 that I was going to go to India later that year, he gave me a sage piece of advice: "Oh, Nigel, don't let the little things worry you." It was also a useful philosophy for getting through Moscow airport and into Russia without feeling frazzled. Clearing customs was easier (though returning Russians were given a hard time and generally had their bags searched), and eventually eleven of us – four Elbrus expeditioners and seven Silk Road cyclists – were taken in a mini-bus (with our luggage following behind in a truck) into Moscow to be put up in the Hotel Molodyozhny for the night.

If first impressions really are the most lasting, then my most persistent views of Russia will be how it reminded me of the third world countries I have visited. Driving into Moscow from the Sheremetevo international airport brought back vivid memories of entering, say, Nairobi or New Delhi (not to mention Jakarta or Manila). Wide under-utilised streets with dusty verges, queues of people waiting – forlornly? – for a ride, trucks and buses belching fumes, the stench of diesel, and a host of roadside stalls and kiosks: I'd seen and smelt them all before. It was an impression reinforced by our hotel: overstaffed but slow; with peeling wallpaper; without hot water; and, of course, there was that well-known symbol of Russian travel – no plug for either the hand-basin or the bath. My Russia-is-a-third-world-country thesis was also supported by some of the poor villages we passed through later in the Baksan valley, and by half-built houses that dotted the landscape wherever we went. On the other hand, however, my view was dented when we crossed the Moscow River on our way into the city (when the city suddenly emerged as archetypically eastern European), bruised by the middle-class Russian tourists we met in the Caucasus mountains (sightseeing and day-tripping in first world fashion; a select few with their own video cameras), and battered – possibly beyond repair – by the glories of St Petersburg.

Molodyozhny Hotel guest card

The Molodyozhny Hotel, Moscow **Peeling wall-paper in the Molodyozhny Hotel
Moscow's Molodyozhny Hotel ... and some of its exquisite features.

On Tuesday morning, 9 August, we drove through Moscow (Elena, our guide, giving us a quick history of the city and pointing out some of the sights), pausing only briefly at the Lenin Hills (the site of Moscow University) for a view down onto and across the city, before reaching the Vnukovo domestic airport shortly before noon.

Moscow University
Moscow University.

Checking onto Aeroflot flight number 1213 was simple. Partly because Steven Smith's duffle bag had not arrived in Moscow on his (and my) SAS flight into Russia, as a group of six people our luggage wasn't grossly overweight and we weren't charged any excess baggage fees. Local travellers are separated from foreigners in Russia, and our suspicion that the plane taking us from Moscow to Mineralnye Vody was going to be very empty was woefully wrong. After a bus dropped us – roughly thirty or so foreigners – at the foot of the plane, we found ourselves jostling for space on the stairs with what seemed like every man, woman, and dog in Russia (literally, and including some cats too).

Aeroflot ticket
My Aeroflot ticket

I am profoundly grateful to be able to report that Aeroflot did not live up to its reputation (if "live" is the right word in these circumstances). The plane took off on time, and – although we obviously weren't party to conversations between the flight crew and air traffic control – it seemed to be flown competently. In the cabin, I must admit that the service left some things to be desired (such as safely instructions, sick bags, and decent food), but when we arrived in Min Vody (as the city is commonly known) at 3:15 pm – five minutes ahead of schedule, I didn’t feel as though I had been through a life-threatening experience.

Aeroflot planes at Min Vody airport
Aeroflot planes at Min Vody airport.

It took almost an hour-and-a-half for our bags to be delivered to our bus, and as a result we didn’t begin the almost four-hour drive from Min Vody to our base in the heart of the Baksan valley until 4:40 pm. It was our first – and at times we all felt as though it would be our last – bus ride in Russia. I've never come across such a bad group of drivers anywhere in the world as the bus-drivers we encountered in Russia. They made African, Indian, and Nepalese bus-drivers I've come across look like sane, sensible, cautious people. As someone in our group commented later in the trip, "We were warned about Aeroflot; why didn't anyone tell us about Busoflot?"!

About to board "Busoflot" in order to get from Min Vody to the Baksan Valley.

Our hotel in the Baksan valley – situated only about 15 kilometres from the foot of Mt Elbrus – was extremely pleasant. It ought to have been, because it was the former dacha (or country house – i.e., the Russian equivalent of an Australian "shack" or a New Zealand "bach") of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. It was clean, had a constant supply of hot water, and the kitchen staff were unfailingly helpful – even though the food lacked variety (for example, green peppers stuffed with mince were a staple part of our diet, served with dreaded frequency regardless of which meal it was – breakfast, lunch, or dinner; and we lived in mock fear of what we called the "white breakfast" – a white yoghurt/cream cheese substance, followed by a white rice-based cereal, and accompanied by spotlessly clean white hard-boiled eggs). Nevertheless, the hotel, now formally known as the Pensionat Prielbrusie (meaning, in effect, the Elbrus Area Hotel), was a warm and welcoming base, which we always returned to willingly during our stay in the Caucasus.

The Pensionat Prielbrusie
The Pensionat Prielbrusie (or Elbrus Area Hotel), our base in the Baksan Valley for climbing Mt Elbrus.

The Elbrus expeditioners
Six of us had signed up for REI's 7 to 20 August "Climb Mt Elbrus" expedition. In alphabetical order, the others in the party were:

Barry Deren: A 35-year-old consultant economist based in both Arlington, Virginia, and Herefordshire, England, Barry was quiet – even reserved, but was great value to everyone on the trip. A graduate of Princeton and Oxford, Barry's first degree had been in Russian and Far Eastern Studies (before he switched to Economics at Balliol). While in Russia, his command of the language improved visibly – well, I guess, audibly – on a day-to-day basis and, as a result, he was the functional equivalent of Dave Little, the GP on my 1991 Nepal trip, i.e., indispensable! Barry had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro at the beginning of 1984, and had been up My Shasta (a 4,317 metre / 14,163 foot peak in northern California) a fortnight before he came to Russia.

Greg Matte: A 22 year-old respiratory therapist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, "young Greg" (the baby of the party) had an old head on fit shoulders. By taking a string of summer courses, he'd gone through university in three years rather than the standard four, worked hard in job he loved, and had had extensive backpacking experience along the Appalachian Trail. His ability to "power-nap" was enviable. With the exception of a visit to the Caribbean, the trip to Russia was his first abroad. Greg's one worry was that the highest mountain he had ever climbed was Mt Washington, a 1,917 metre (6,289 foot) New England peak. How would he cope with the height of Mt Elbrus when he'd already set a personal altitude record simply by arriving in a bus at the Pensionat Prielbrusie (which was 2,133 metres, or 7,000 feet, above sea-level)?

Peggy McKay: A 31-year-old environmental engineer (i.e., a writer on one of Elsevier's science journals), Peggy lived in Golden, Colorado. She was by far and away the fittest member of our party: she had bike raced for five years after graduating in geology from Amherst, she had climbed Mt Rainier (the 4,392 metre / 14,409 foot peak south of Seattle), and – more recently – had climbed more than 30 of the 54 '"fourteen-thousanders" (i.e., the peaks over 14,000 feet) in Colorado. Peggy's sister, Betsy McKay is a Newsweek correspondent in Moscow, and as a result this was Peggy's third trip to Russia.

Barry Deren**Greg Matte**Peggy McKay**Nigel Roberts

Jim Smith**Steven Smith**Christian Johnson**Aleksie Lopatko
Top row (l. to r.): Barry Deren; Greg Matte; Peggy McKay; and Nigel Roberts.
Bottom row (l. to r.): Jim Smith; Steven Smith; Christian Johnson; and Aleksie Lopatko.

Jim Smith: A 58-year-old timber mill owner with a lumber import/export business, Jim was from Newton, North Carolina, and was literally the grand-daddy of the group (two of his children had children of their own). Despite knee problems during most of the trip (walking downhill was hell for him), Jim had a steely determination to succeed, and three years ago had climbed Mt Rainier together with one of his sons, who was …

Steven Smith: A 36-year-old fitness consultant from Seattle (where he works mainly with Microsoft personnel). Steven had resisted his father's desire that he take over the timber company, and has revelled in living in Seattle for twelve years. Newton, North Carolina, he said, is too small for him. Nevertheless, Jim and Steven enjoyed each other's company a great deal, and they particularly liked undertaking outdoors activities together. Because Jim and Steven always shared a room (be it in Moscow, at the dacha, or on the mountain), I didn't get to know them as well as the other three members of the group (with each of whom I shared a room at one time or another during the course of the trip), but I liked both and found Steven particularly thoughtful and helpful.

When I went trekking and climbing in Nepal in 1991, there were nine of us – none of whom had known each other before we set out for Lobuje. It was an amazing experience: we got on fantastically as a group (in five weeks together, there wasn't an argument between anyone). As a result, eight of us met afterwards for a reunion in Australia's Blue Mountains in May-June 1992, and five of us went climbing together in the Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand in March-April 1993. I didn't think it was an experience that could be repeated, and it wasn't in Russia in 1994 – but mainly, I suspect, because there was too little time to build up a group experience, an esprit de corps, akin to that forged by "the Lobuje Legends." However, there wasn't a lemon in the group. Everyone got on well together, and – as was the case with the people I met on Mt Kilimanjaro in 1985 – I think we will keep in touch for some while to come. In brief, I couldn't have asked for a better set of people with whom to climb Elbrus. When it comes to climbing companions, I have been really lucky on three consecutive occasions!

There were two other key people on the expedition, who also need to be introduced at this stage. We met both for the first time when we flew into Min Vody.

Christian Johnson: A 27-year-old MBA student at the University of Virginia, Christian had previously graduated in Russian from Hamilton College (in New York state), and he was the REI Trip Leader. He'd spent the entire summer in the Baksan valley, leading five Elbrus trips (ours being the last). In addition to his undergraduate work in the US, Christian had also studied Russian at Moscow University in the late-1980s, and had returned to Russia a couple of years later to work in an American law firm's Moscow office. As a result, he was next-to-fluent in Russian, and his Fraternity House charm enabled him to get on like a house on fire with everyone he came into contact with – including all the Elbrus-area mountain guides, the hotel management, and (especially useful) the kitchen staff at the Pensionat. Having had a next-to-useless (or should I say "worse than useless"?) leader in Nepal, I was chary, but can happily report that Christian was a first-class trip leader and I have no criticisms whatsoever of his leadership abilities and style.

Aleksei Lopatko: A 46-year-old physicist from St Petersburg, Aleksei was our head guide. A small, wiry man with a moderate command of English, Aleksei was an extremely accomplished climber: he has climbed more than two hundred peaks in the Caucasus, Pamirs, and Tien Shan, and holds the Order of the Snow Leopard as a result of climbing all the 7,000-metre peaks in the former Soviet Union. He was always helpful and encouraging, and none of us ever had any cause to question his judgment. Aleksei's wife, Olga, and their 13-month-old son, Misha, stayed at the dacha too, and were pleasant and amusing company respectively.

The climb
On Wednesday, 10 August, the day after we reached the Baksan valley, we donned our double-plastic boots, packed our climbing harnesses and cold-weather gear, and – accompanied by Aleksei – set off on a six-hour acclimatization hike along the Adlysu river valley and then up the left-hand side (but true right) of the Kashkatau glacier. In some ways, it was similar to climbing Mt Matthews (in the Rimutaka Forest Park near Wellington): after a moderately flat walk-in, you go virtually straight up. The difference, of course, is that when climbing Mt Matthews you start near sea-level and go up to a summit which is slightly less than a thousand metres above sea-level; while climbing alongside the Kashkatau glacier, on the other hand, we went from the Pensionat Prielbrusie (which is – as I've indicated – about 2,133 metres or 7,000 feet above sea-level) up to 3,000 metres (or 10,000 feet). Heavy rain meant that we had a quick snack at the magical three thousand metre mark, abandoned any plans for crampon and ice-axe work on the glacier, and beat a hasty – and muddy – retreat to the hotel.

Climbing up to the Kashkatau glacier**limbing alongside the Kashkatau glacier
Climbing up to and alongside the Kashkatau glacier.

The following day (on Thursday, 11 August), we went on a second acclimatization climb. We were taken by bus to the Cheget ski field chairlifts and caught the first chairlift as far as the Kafe Ay (I was followed on the chairlifts by three young Russian soldiers and their machine guns: discretion being the better part of valour, I did not take a photograph of them). We then walked for about two hours – from 10:00 am to noon – up to the end of the second chairlift, and then beyond it to a ridge about 3,500 metres (or 11,500 feet) above sea-level. Just as we reached our high-point for the day, the weather turned nasty, with sleet and snow, so – once again – we had a few hurried bites of bread, cheese, and chocolate, and headed down the mountain with alacrity. Once again, too, the weather cleared slightly during our descent, and we were treated to some spectacular views south across the valley to the Donguzorun-Chegetkarabashi massif in the main Caucasus range.

In the mountains above the Cheget skifield
Bad weather at 3,500 metres in the mountains above the Cheget skifield.

We moved onto Mt Elbrus on Friday, 12 August. We went by bus to the aerial cable-car station at the foot of the mountain, and getting back up to Wednesday's and Thursday's acclimatization levels was painless: we simply rode in aerial cable-cars in two stages – first to the Stari Krugozor station (if that's the right transliteration) at 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) and then to the Mir (meaning, I think, Peace) station at a height of 3,500 metres (11,500 feet) above sea-level.

Aerial cable cars on Mt Elbruss**Peggy McKay in a Mt Elbrus aerial cable car
Aerial cable cars on the lower slopes of Mt Elbrus;
Peggy McKay (and her large climbing pack) riding in one of them.

The chairlift that began at the Mir station was thankfully out of order. It was in such poor condition I doubt I would have let even my pack go in it; and – to reverse the order of the New Zealand "Fresh UP" fruit juice advertising slogan – I was not going to put my body into anything that was bad for it!

At 3,500 metres and about to start the climb up to the Priut
At the Mir cable car station, we had a group photograph taken before beginning our hike up to the Priut.
From l. to r.: Barry Deren, Steven Smith, Jim Smith, Nigel Roberts, Peggy McKay, and Greg Matte.

As a result, we had to carry our full packs along a scoria track up to the snowline, which – in summer – is at roughly 3,900 metres (i.e., about 12,800 feet) above sea-level. (This is, of course, higher than New Zealand's highest mountain, Mt Cook, which – since a major rock-slide lopped ten metres of its summit a few years ago – is now only 3,754 metres / 12,315 feet high.) The trek took less than an hour, but the day was getting steadily warmer and at noon we were relieved to be able to put our packs (for $5 apiece) onto a snowcat that was waiting at the snowline for tired travellers such as ourselves. Christian and Jim went ahead with the packs, while the rest of us trudged up the final three hundred metres to the Priut in scalding sun and soft snow.

Walking above the snowline on Mt Elbrus-line
Heading towards the Priut on Mt Elbrus (without our packs, which were on the
snowcat). From l. to r.: Aleksie Lopatko, Greg Matte, Peggy McKay, Barry Deren, and Steven Smith.

Heading towards the Priut
Heading towards the Priut in the heat of the day. The 5,642-metre western summit of Mt Elbrus in
on the left; the eastern peak (which is only 21 metres lower than the western one) is on the right.

The Priut (formally, the "refuge of Camp 11") is about 4,200 metres (13,800 feet) above sea-level and is a large – three storey! – nissen hut-like structure at the southern end of a rocky spur on the slopes of Mt Elbrus. It is widely known as a disgusting hole, and it certainly lived up (if "up" is the right word) to its reputation. Arriving there at 1:20 pm, I was greeted by an overwhelming stench of urine – which stems from the fact that the toilets are so revolting that sane people avoid using them if at all possible. Peggy, for example, took one look at the toilets shortly after arriving at the Priut, gagged, and simply refused to go again, Despite all the excrement and spit along the track to Mt Everest, nowhere in Nepal did I see a site like the Priut.

The Priut
The Priut (also called the "Refuge of Camp 11"), which was at 4,200 metres above sea-level.

Room in the Priut
The room that Peggy McKay and I shared in the Priut.

We lay around in the sun for a while (growing accustomed to the smell), had lunch at 3:00 pm, sorted out our belongings (the six of us were in three rooms on the top floor at the northern end of the building: Peggy and I were in one room, Jim and Steven next door, and Barry and Greg across the hall), and at 4:20 pm set off on another acclimatization walk. We went up (for part of the time in light snow) almost as far as the Pastukhov Rocks, taking an hour-and-a-half to do so and then spending a very pleasant hour descending – partly with the aid of two $2:99 sleds Peggy had brought along for the ride, so to speak …

Acclimatising near the Pastukhov Rocks
Acclimatising in the late afternoon sun near the Pastukhov Rocks.

By late afternoon, the weather was unusually good. Even more important, it appeared to be settled. There were very few clouds, and – exceptional for Elbris – almost no wind. As a result, at dinner we decided that if the opportunity arose and we all felt like it, we would be prepared to convert the next day's "acclimatization hike to the Pastukhov Rocks" (to quote the schedule in the programme for REI's "Mt Elbrus Climb") into a summit attempt. We would not make a 3:00 am or 4:00 am start, but would set out for the Rocks after breakfast and play it by ear. Although walking up the stairs in the Priut could catch you unawares and leave you gasping for breath, we were all in good shape (except for Jim's knees, which he covered with ice-packs in the evening). I'd had no trouble whatsoever with altitude sickness (something I've worried about ever since my initial experiences on Mt Kilimanjaro in 1959), and – as was the case in Nepal in 1991 – I hadn't even had a twinge of a headache. We were all keen to go.

Saturday, 13 August, dawned fine, clear, and still. We set out at 8:20 am after a hearty breakfast (which was another good sign: our appetites were unaffected by the altitude), and – covering much the same ground as the previous evening – walked slowly up towards the Pastukhov Rocks (which are roughly 4,600 metres, or 15,000 feet, above sea-level). From the Priut, the climb to the top of Mt Elbrus is usually divided into three stages: it takes about two hours to reach the Rocks; then there is a roughly four-hour haul up to the Saddle which separates the east and west summits of the mountain; and – finally – there is the two-hour ascent of the west summit itself. The first section, the walk to the Pastukhov Rocks, is not particularly steep (I would estimate that the gradient is not even 20 degrees), and we all took less than two hours to get there, No-one was having any problems, and – not unexpectedly – we all decided to press on.

Ath Pastukhov Rocks on 13 August 1994
Resting at the Pastukhov Rocks, Christian Johnson waves as I take the picture.

Stage II, from the Rocks to the Saddle, is the real killer. The route gets considerably steeper almost as soon as it leaves the Pastukhov Rocks. A slope of about 30 degrees on the shoulder of the east summit of Elbrus seems to stretch on for ever. It rises remorselessly for about 400 metres (or 1,300 feet) before levelling off slightly as it rounds the western edge of the eastern side of the mountain and eventually reaches the Saddle. I left the Rocks at 10:25 am and began moving slowly – ever so slowly – up the slope. Peggy rapidly pulled ahead of us (well, that's a slight exaggeration: no-one moves rapidly at that altitude!). Barry was just in front of me for a short while, but after pausing to put on our crampons (the slope was now too steep for climbing comfortably without them), Barry's pace quickened and/or mine slowed. With Greg some distance behind me, and the Smiths bringing up the rear, I was on my own. Leaning on my ski-poles, I counted out my steps – one … two … three; one … two … three – trying to do that twenty times, sometimes only ten times, before stopping to catch my breath.

Peggy McKay heads off from the Pastukhov Rocks**Climbing above the Pastukhov Rocks
Left: Following Viktor, Peggy McKay heads away from the Pastukhov Rocks and towards the saddle.
Right: A picture of me trudging slowly up the slopes towards the saddle that separates the
western and eastern peaks of Elbrus. (Photo by Greg Matte.)

It seemed to be a never-ending process. Painful drudgery is the most apt brief description I can give of this stage of the ascent. Gains in altitude appeared, at best, to be only marginal; and my spirits were not helped by a stream of exhausted people coming down the mountain past me (they were people who had made the standard early-morning start to the climb) – but in many instances they were moving only slightly faster than I was. If they were that tired and slow coming down, what was the rest of the climb up going to be like?

When I reached the Saddle, which is about 5,100 metres (or about 16,730 feet) above sea-level and is marked by a ruined hut (demolished, I assume, by avalanches and the wind), I was surprised to find that it was only 1:22 pm. The second section of the climb – from the Pastukhov Rocks to the Saddle – had taken me three minutes less than three hours. I was heartily encouraged by my progress, but instantly discouraged by Christian urging me leave almost immediately with Peggy and Barry, who had been at the Saddle for a while and were now cold and waiting to move on.

The saddle between the western and eastern peaks of Mt Elbrus
The ruined hut at the saddle between the western and eastern peaks of Mt Elbrus.

I put a cramponed foot down: I couldn't leave straight away. I wanted to take a few photos (though why I bothered, I don't know: they turned out dreadfully!); I had to change into some warmer clothes for the summit attempt; and I badly needed to get some food and water into me. Christian saw sense in my views, so he waited for me while Barry and Peggy went on ahead with Viktor, an immensely strong local guide with long blonde hair. All in all, though, my stay at the saddle was only about 15 minutes long, and shortly after 1:30 pm I began the final section of the climb.

The steep slopes of the western peak of Mt Elbrus**Looking towards the summit of Mt Elbrus
Left: Ahead of me, Christian Johnson plugs his way up the steep slopes on the eastern flank
of the western peak of Mt Elbrus. Right: Finally, the summit of Mt Elbrus came into view.

The third part of the climb – the final haul up to the summit of Elbrus – is the steepest, starting off at an angle of about 45 degrees. But as Christian and I traversed our way up the first slopes of the third stage of the climb, I found the going far easier than the slog from the Rocks to the Saddle. I think the fact that it was steeper made my slow progress seem more tolerable to me, and – anyway – progress was at least visible with every step I took. We turned a corner to encounter strong (50 knot or so) winds – spindrift shooting past us, and the gradient of the climb became still steeper, close to 50 degrees. But the snow was deep and reasonably firm, and it wasn't necessary to rope up. My climbing lessons with "JR" (John Roberts) and Gerry Kennedy in the Southern Alps of New Zealand proved invaluable. At no time did I feel in danger or lack confidence. Abul, another Elbrus-area guide sub-contacted to work for REI and its Russian arm, LenAlp Tours, chanted verses from the Koran to encourage me up one last sharply-rising slope, and – suddenly – there it was in the distance: the summit of Mt Elbrus. A moderate walk of about half a kilometre, with the false summit on my left, was all the ground that remained to be covered. It wasn't going to be a doddle; it would possibly even be a dodder – but I knew then, for the first time with utter certainty, that I would make it. And at 3:32 pm on Saturday, 13 August 1994, I did.

Nigel Roberts on the summit of Mt Elbrus**On the summit of Mt Elbrus
On top of Europe! Left: Self on the summit of Mt Elbrus. Right: Abul, Greg Matte,
Christian Johnson, and Nigel Roberts on the summit (photo by Aleksie Lopatko).

Greg and Aleksei reached the summit a few minutes later. The five of us (Greg and Aleksei; Abul, Christian and I) stayed on the top – alongside the plinth which in Russia's post-Soviet era no longer bears Lenin's bust – for only ten minutes or so. It was a glorious day. The wind had dropped slightly, and the views across to the east summit and, looking south, over the entire Caucasus range were stunning.

A view of the eastern peak of Mt Elbrus from the western summit
Looking across at the eastern peak of Mt Elbrus (5,621 metres)
from the 5,642 metre-high summit of the western peak.

Panoramic view from the summit of Mt Elbrus
A panoramic view from the summit of Mt Elbrus, looking south
towards the Caucasus mountains and Georgia.

Nevertheless, it was exceptionally late in the day to be atop Erebus, and we had to head down. By the time we'd reached the Saddle again, I was exhausted. I was almost dropping, but biscuits, chocolates, and glucose sweets soon restored my equilibrium. Accompanied by Aleksei, Greg and I strode down to the Rocks, where Peggy and Viktor caught up with us, and we were all back at the Pruit by 6:32 pm (a mere three hours, to the minute, after I'd reached the summit).

Resting at the saddle during our descent**Heading down from the saddle
Left: Abul and Greg Matte resting at the saddle during our descent.
Right: A picture taken by Greg of me and Abul descending.

Peggy was our outstanding summiteer. She'd reached the west summit (i.e., the 5,626 metre / 18,510 foot top of Elbrus) at about 2:55 pm, followed only about five minutes later by Barry. Barry resisted Viktor's invitation to climb the east summit, but Peggy rose to the challenge, and – as a result – went down to the saddle with Viktor, climbed the 5,621 metre (18,441 foot) east summit, and then descended to the Saddle once again before catching up with us at the Rocks. In doing so, Peggy became the first woman for more than a decade to climb both the west and east summits of Elbrus in one day. Back at the Priut, we learned about Jim and Steven's fates. While altitude sickness has defeated Jim before he'd even reached the Saddle, Steven had struggled on part the Saddle to within 200 vertical metres or so (roughly 650 feet) of the summit when he began to cough up blood and wisely turned back at that stage.

The Priut
Looking back at the Priut and the western peak of Mt Elbrus on 14 August 1994.

The western and eastern peaks of Mt Elbrus
Looking up at the western peak (left) and the eastern peak (right) of Mt Elbrus.

The Smiths' story does not end there, though. On Sunday, 14 August, we all left the mountain, walking down as far as the cable-car station at the 3,000 metre mark (the top section was out of order) before catching, first, the lower of the two cable-cars and, second, our bus back to the hotel. (Our bus-driver, incidentally, was a transformed character: he drove slowly and with consideration and care. Either he had been taking valium or, more likely, in response to numerous complaints about him, he had been threatened with dismissal by the hotel management.)

Descending Mt Elbrus**Descending Mt Elbrus
Descending Mt Elbrus: heading down the lower snow slopes, and going down the scoria.

Showers, clean – not to mention flushing – toilets, a celebratory meal with a special Elbrus sponge cake, and a good night's sleep on soft beds restored everyone's spirits and dulled the Smiths' memories of the Priut. Consequently, while Barry, Christian, Greg, Peggy, and I spent an exceptionally pleasant couple of days down at the dacha (going for a walk up the Shkhelda valley to a glacial moraine beach on Monday [15 August], Greg and I jogging up the Adylsu valley that evening, ice-climbing on the Kashkatau glacier on Tuesday, and having a lap-up shishkabob meal in the hotel's Hunters' Gallery on Tuesday night), Jim, Steven, and Aleksei went back up to the Priut on Monday afternoon to try again. Having previously walked up well past the Pastukhov Rocks, they felt justified in catching a 4:00 am snowcat ride to the Rocks the following morning before re-tackling the long slog up the slopes of Elbrus. Despite the wind and the cold (our two previous days on the mountain turned out to have been the best weather of the entire summer), Jim and Steven persisted, and made it to the summit just after 10 o'clock on Tuesday morning, 16 August.

After my first run in Russia**Ice-climbing in Russia
Post-Elbrus activities included running and ice-climbing.

Jim and Steven had given Elbrus a hundred percent, and – as a result – we had achieved a hundred percent success rate. We were only the second of REI's five 1994 Elbrus expeditions to do so. Christian had told us before the climb that he thought we were the strongest group he'd led during the summer, and – dare I say it? – we certainly proved him correct on this score. Before we climbed the mountain, the fastest time to reach the summit by an REI expeditioner in 1994 had been seven-and-a-half hours. In our case, though, on Saturday, 13 August, Peggy and Barry took just over six-and-a-half hours to reach the top, while Greg and I took only slightly more than seven hours. Moreover, two-thirds of us got to the summit on the day before our first scheduled attempt! At the same time, it's essential to bear in mind that we were undoubtedly aided by magnificent weather. Indeed, it's the first time for years that I have been in snow and ice and not felt at all cold. On Elbrus, foot-stamping and hand-rubbing were an alien activity …

Post-clim celebrations
Toasting our success with Russian champagne and orange juice.
From l. to r.: Greg Matte, Barry Deren, Christian Johnson, and Peggy McKay.

A group photo before leaving the Baksan valley
A group photograph before leaving the Baksan valley. From l. to r.: Barry Deren
Greg Matte, Peggy McKay, Steven Smith, Jim Smith, and Nigel Roberts.

On Wednesday, 17 August, Aleksei, Jim, and Steven returned to the Pensionat Prielbrusie at about 22:00 pm and by 4:20 pm we were all on our way by bus out of the Baksan valley heading for Pyatigorsk, where we spent the night in a (surprisingly good) Intourist Hotel. At 9:00 pm we went to have dinner in the hotel's PECTOPAH (i.e,, the Russian word for RESTAURANT – and if you can work out the relationship between the two words, you have cracked the Russian Rosetta stone). The restaurant had a live band with a burly blonde belting out good Russian versions of Whitney Houston's songs. Our meal was transformed and instantly became one of the most enjoyable – certainly one of the most memorable – parties I have ever attended. Sweet Russian champagne (which costs all of $3 a bottle!), genuine Russian vodka (what else?), numerous toasts, Christian doing the "chilly Willy", and all of us dancing in footwear ranging from Teva sandals to hiking boots were among the highlights of the night. The next morning Christian left at 8:30 am to catch an early plane from Min Vody to Moscow, and the rest of us – a somewhat quieter group than we'd been the previous evening (but, remarkably, no-one had a hangover) – had a look round the city, famous for its mineral springs and as the site of Mikhail Lermontov's death (he came to his end – in a duel – in almost as spectacular a manner as the Russian cruise liner named after him which sank in New Zealand's Marlborough Sounds).

Partying in Pyatigorsk
Partying in Pyatigorsk: Peggy McKay, Steven Smith, Christian Johnson,
and Greg Matte don't let Teva sandals inhibit their dance-floor style.

A Russian 'gas station'
Living dangerously: A Russian gas (petrol) station!

Whiling away the hours in Min Vody airport
Whiling away the hours at Min Vody airport. From l. to r.: Barry Deren,
Steven Smith, Jim Smith, Greg Matte, and Peggy McKay.

During the afternoon, our flight from Min Vody to Moscow was delayed for three hours, but by 10:00 pm we were back in Moscow, by 11:00 pm our luggage had finally been delivered to us, and by midnight we were back at the Hotel Molodyozhny (thankfully only for one night or what was left of it). On Friday morning, 19 August, Elena took us via the Moscow Metro to see the Kremlin. Red Square and St Basil's cathedral are very impressive, but – inside the Kremlin's walls – the beauty of Cathedral Square is stunning. At noon, Barry, Greg, Jim, Steven and I met Peggy, her sister Betsy, and her brother-in-law Neil, at Patio Pizzas for a final lunch. After the laughter and gaiety of previous occasions, the meal was – like the Last Supper – a relatively subdued affair. We said farewell and went our separate ways at 1:15 pm – Greg, Jim and Steven to the hotel to prepare for their flights out of Russia; Peggy home with Betsy; Barry to town; and I went to the New Zealand Embassy. I wonder when we'll meet again?

St Basil's, Moscow**Lenin's tomb; inside the Kremlin's walls
Moscow scenes: St Basil's Cathedral (left); Red Square (above);
and buildings in the Kremlin precinct (below).

That night Barry, Dimitri (one of our guides in Moscow, and I caught the 10:00 pm train from Moscow to St Petersburg, and arrived in the city at 6:10 on Saturday morning, 20 August. Barry and I were the only two members of our party to opt for a St Petersburg extension to our tour (though Peggy had been there on a previous trip to Russia), and we spent two-and-a-half wonderful days there. St Petersburg is – without doubt – the most magnificent European city I have ever visited. Words alone cannot do justice to this magnificent city of the Tsars, so I won't try now. All I will say is that visiting St Petersburg was a fitting end to a great trip. While flying back to Denmark from Russia on Monday afternoon, 22 August, I felt more emotional than I've felt for a while (though 'twas aided – like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie – by an SAS bottle of wine and an after-dinner cognac!). The old adage, "It's better to travel hopefully than to arrive", had been hit firmly on the head by the fortnight I'd spent in Russia. A much better phrase, so far as I am concerned, would be "It's better to travel nervously, then to arrive."

St Isaac's Cathedral; the Hermitage Museum**Church of Christ's Resurrection, St Petersburg
St Petersburg scenes: St Isaac's Cathedral (top); The Hermitage Museum (bottom);
and the Church of Christ's Resurrection (right).

Catherine the Great's summer palace

Catherine the Great's summer palace.

Looking to the future, I can only conclude that the easy part of my Three-and-a-half Summits quest is over. Elbrus and Kilimanjaro aren't difficult mountains to climb; Aconcagua and Denali are an altogether different proposition. Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world outside Asia. At 6,960 metres (22,834 feet), it is more than a thousand metres higher than either Elbrus or Kilimanjaro. In anyone's language, particularly mine, that is high. And Denali is so far north (it's 63 degrees north of the equator, just short of the Arctic Circle) that the effects of its height (6,194 metres or 20,320 feet) are magnified considerably. The extremely cold weather in Alaska combined with severe spring storms makes tales of holing up in snow-caves standard fare for Denali.

I'm already nervous.


This account of climbing Elbrus was originally written in Denmark in late August 1994, and printed as a twelve-page booklet for family and friends.

[2] Dick Bass and Frank Wells, with Rick Ridgeway, Seven Summits (London: Pan Books, 1986), pp. 13-14.