Report: Climbing the highest mountain of Europe with Refuga
“Do you want to go with me to the top of Europe?”
… That was the question my boyfriend Lars asked me in the beginning of 2015. He had climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with Refuga and to put it mildly I was very envious! Now I had the chance. The chance to go out of my comfort zone and to get totally away from the everyday life.
“I think it’s gonna be a bit tougher and colder compared to Kilimanjaro, even though it’s not that high…” he said. But with my years as a scout on hikes in Denmark and Norway, i just thought that it would doable – This was going to be my next big, unforgettable experience.
In this post I’m gonna describe this trip – One of my life’s biggest adventures.
Beautiful, but incredible tough warm-up days
The group was 5 other Danes, one Indian-Amercian and our two guides, Ukranian Georgii and Russian Alex – and of course Lars and I. We arrived at 3am to our hotel, which was in an altitude of 2.000 meters / 6561 feet a the small mountain village called Terskol. It was here we started our first warm-up hike the next morning. No light start, just out spending the whole day in the mountains – And boy, was it tough! Even though I have hiked quite a lot in mountains I was surprised about how steep the tracks we walked on were. With a temperature 30ºC / 86ºF, we were sweating like crazy in our shorts, t-shirts and huge mountain boots.
Even though it was super tough we managed to hike to an altitude of 3.400 meters / 11.154, which meant an increase of 1.400 meters / 4.593 feet in just one day on super steep tracks. We reached a point where we had an incredible view of the two tops of Elbrus (there is 21 meters / 68 feet difference between them). It also gave an incredible view of the tops around Elbrus and to the whole Caucasous mountain range, which go all the way from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Sitting there at the top of Cheget, I was convinced that it was all worth it and that we would have an amazing trip. But I had no idea about how tough it was going to be.
The next warm-up day was just as amazing, but even hotter when we started out. This day we got to the snow on the top of a mountain close to Elbrus. We had to cross big areas with snow, paths with ice and deep holes, where you could sink pretty deep down. We didn’t have all of our snow equipment on yet, so we were all skating around and most of us fell a few times. But we had a great time in the snow and managed to go to 3.700 meters / 12.140 feet.
In theory, we could be anywhere in the world that had beautiful mountains and many of the mountains and areas we walked through, reminded me a lot about the Norwegian mountains. But we didn’t totally forget where we were.
On the first evening, after 10 hours of tough hiking, the program said “Banya”, which is Russian sauna. Not quite the same as the prior experiences I have had with saunas. The humidity in the sauna is much higher and they just kept on pooring water on the rocks, so the temperature got over 93ºC / 199ºF. We also got introduced to the Russian sauna tradition of hitting each other with wet birch and oak branches, to get the blood flowing in the body. And to make things a bit tougher than they were already they also switched between the sauna and jumping in a small pool with ice cold water from the mountains. It was super fun to try the Russian sauna traditions, but the best thing was that it loosened up the muscles after a really tough day in the mountains.
On the second evening, we had a feast of caucasian specialities at a restaurant that was decorated with mountains from Elbrus, flags and greetings from mountain climbers from the whole world. At the restaurant we were served Kitchjin; a thin pancake with eater patato-, cheese or meat stuffing. I think it was more a local dish than something Russian, but I super delicious. The eat a lot of lamb and at every restaurant they have an outdoor grill, where they barbeque the delicious lamb meat, so it’s super tender.
The meeting with the snow
On day 3 we packed up all of our stuff and moved from the cosy setting of the hotel to 3.700 meters / 12.140 feet with lifts. From here we had to walk with our huge bags up to 4.100 meters to / 13.450 feet, where base camp is. Here we stayed in a small container house. This was our home for the next 3-4 days. Even though you plan to get to the top of a mountain like Elbrus, the weather controls everything. If the weather is not with you, then you will just not get up there. Then you have to try another time.
Base camp was way over the snow line, and we finally got to use our crampons (also called steigeisen, which are things you put under your shoes, so you get a better grip). We also practiced using our ice axes by falling down a small hill and using it to stop the fall. It was exciting and fun to try, but also frightening to know, that there really was a risk of falling down on the way to the top. Our guides also taught us some breathing techniques, so we could keep the pace up even though the air gets thinner as you go up. Breathe in via the nose, all the way down to the lungs and a big breathe out the mouth, short break and then repeat. And then we just had to do it aligned with each step we took…
Sunrise at 5.000 meters / 16.400 feet
Then the last big effort before the attempt for summit arrived. We left camp at 3am in the morning to hike up to 5.000 meters / 16.400 feet. We were tied together with a rope in 2 x 5 person, so we walked on a line, practicing the breathing technique, walking at the same pace and using our ice axes. We walked up the endless wall of snow. It was super tough and a couple of us were trying super hard not to fall a sleep, because of the lack of oxygen, the very repetitive pace and because there was nothing to see and no one to talk to.
A super tough day for everyone, but also almost too tough for a few of us… But we all struggled and got up to 5.000 meters / 16.400 feet – and the view was amazing! Impossible to descibe. The clouds were like a soft blanket between all of the surrounding tops that was covered in snow. Not until know were we able to get a real view of the whole Caucasian mountain range. Our guide Alex told us, that in clear weather it was sometimes posssible to see all the way to the Black Sea.
It takes luck and good weather to reach the top
We spent a day more at Base camp, where we used the rest day to just take a short hike. Why? The more you get used to altitude and to walking up and down, the less risk of getting hit by altitude sickness. That night the guides talked about going to the top sooner than planned, because it looked like there could be a window with good weather. The weather just means so much, so if there was a chance we had to take it.
But that night the weather got worse, so we didn’t attempt the top before the next day. Most of us were wide awake, but at 1am our guide, Alex, told us that the weather was too bad, so we went back to bed and got some sleep. But suddenly at 2am Alex woke us up with “COME ON, LET’S GO”. At this point we knew Alex pretty well, so we all knew he was serious and we jumped up, all extremely excited about making the last push to the top.
While the sky became lighter and lighter our two lines of people moved slowly up the white wall towards the top of Elbrus. I didn’t think it had been this hard the other days. Was the pace, the rhythm, that it was so steep or maybe the altitude that was giving me a hard time?
I’m not gonna make it
Suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly and I had to concentrate like crazy to follow the breathing technique that we had been taught. There was still a long way to the top. My body was panicking about the lack of oxygen and I started to cry. After a short break, where the others had to wait, I managed to get back in to the rhythm and we got to stretch that was a bit more flat, so I was able to keep up the pace.
Between the two peaks, an area called “the saddle”, we took a small break, got some water and some quick energy. But when we were about to go again my breathing was a big problem again and I couldn’t keep the pace up the next super steep part, even though our pace was super slow now. I was crying and shaking and sunk together on the path. I just couldn’t take the thought about moving on.
I admit, at this point I didn’t believe I was going to make it.
Our guide reacted fast. He made the other group pass us, detached himself and me from the robe. He quickly asked “You still want to go up, right?”. Not like an option to turn around, but just a confirmation that I was able to make it. He walked behind me, so I could walk at my own pace, talking tiny, safe steps, when I felt I had the air to do it. This was much better for me and I felt safe again. The clouds around us got thicker and we were barely able to see the back of the rest of the group in front of us. But we continued up the steep side of the mountain with ice and snow, leaning in on the mountain wall. This was the steepest part so far.
But soon after we got to a flat path again and it was no longer a problem for me to follow the pace of the rest of the group. I was extremely exhausted, but it felt so close now! I could feel the excitement. This is it, this is it, this is it! We caught up with the rest of the group on a really narrow path, where it was only possible to have your feet super close to each other. The wind was hitting us hard, with over 40 m/s / 130 ft/s. The narrow path ended up on a small platform, where I used – what felt like – my last energy to push myself up. Here there was just enough space for all of us.
It took me a couple of minutes and a lot of breathing before I understood it. God damn, we are here!!
Around me the rest of the group was yelling with their arms above their heads. They were hugging each other and bent down to hug me. I didn’t dare to stand up, of fear that my legs would collapse under me or that the wind would blow me down the small top. Sitting down, I was able to get hugs from everyone in the group, most of them had tears in their eyes, saying that they were proud of me!
The crazy wind made the clouds pass just by us super fast. Once in a while they opened up and gave us an incredible view of the blue sky and the sun shining above the clouds. It’s impossible to describe. It was pure happiness!
It felt like a dream
Going down was so easy compared to getting up. Breathing and pain in the muscles was no longer a problem. We did it! Unfortunately, we were still covered in clouds and couldn’t enjoy the view, but going back down felt way shorter and we were almost dancing down. It felt so crazy that we had just been at the highest point of the European continent. Everyone we met on the way down asked us “Summit?”. Now it was our turn to answer “YES!” with a big smile.
Are you considering climbing Elbrus? DO IT!