Mt Elbrus Summit Diary 2019
Mountain Designs Adventure Ambassadors Alyssa and Glenn Azar recently took on the might of Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest peak, when they lead a team of adventurers on the 5,642-metre summit attempt. Here Glenn recounts the remarkable journey to the top of Russia, detailing the incredible preparation undertaken, the courage required to attempt the ascent, and the make-or-break decisions when things don't go to plan.
A New Challenge
In 2019 I had the chance to do something I had never done before - go to Russia to climb the highest point in Europe, Mount Elbrus. My daughter Alyssa climbed this mountain when she was 20 years old. She travelled to Russia on her own, organised a climbing guide for the mountain and off she went. She has always had a strong inclination to tackle challenges and adversity is something she has proven to adapt to well. The idea of going to a new country, somewhere unfamiliar, was never going to stop her doing what she loves - climbing mountains.
A little over 12 months prior, at the age of 19, Alyssa had successfully stood on the summit of Mount Everest, becoming the youngest Australian to do so. She was well proven in her field of endeavour, having already climbed in South America, Nepal, Africa, New Zealand and Australia - adding Russia to her resume was another challenge I was confident she would handle.
Putting A Team Together
2019 presented me with the opportunity to join her for the first time on the mountains and we quickly amassed interest from within our friends and database of our own adventure business - Adventure Professionals. We were joined by Martin Stack and his two sons Declan and Dylan (6'5 twin boys), Matt Wilson, Elizabeth Sacher (20 years old) and her brother Nick Drapac (29) who flew in from New York to meet us, and Mia Austin (13).
This was a team of adventurers who had collectively completed the Kokoda Track, Kilimanjaro, the Aussie 10 Peaks and the like. Each climber had different experience levels (some having never been to altitude before) but all really wanting to be a part of a unique experience - climbing with someone of the calibre of Alyssa, who had since summited Everest a second time, on this occasion from the North Side which made her the youngest woman in the world to have done so.
Lessons In Adventure
I didn't really know what to expect from Russia, even though Alyssa and I had spoken about it, so I was excited just to have the experience. Often in life we try to know everything about something before we take it on but I believe a large part of what makes adventure so rewarding is the unknown and unknowable. This is something nature is very good at -throwing us challenges that we must overcome or adapt to if we're to achieve the goal.
I have long held the belief that adventure is the best form of personal development. Who you are at the start of a journey is very different to the person you are at the end of it. I learnt this by taking Alyssa to cross the Kokoda Track as an 8-year-old back in 2005. At the time she was the youngest person to do it and as a soldier (I was still serving at the time), I never even considered that she was too young, too small or too anything to not be able to take on that challenge.
I think it's fair to say I had no idea that her introduction to adventure at such a young age would see her go on to climb Mount Everest twice. I do know that adventure gave her an understanding that if you do the work you can achieve any goal, but also that no goal is guaranteed!
Alyssa learnt this when she was 16 and climbing Mount Manaslu, the 8th highest mountain in the world at 8,600 metres. She had great lead up climbs, her acclimatisation was perfect, she felt good - but poor weather saw the team turned back from their summit push. She experienced this again in 2014 and 2015 when natural disasters scuppered her first two Everest attempts. Once again her training, her dedication and her discipline in the lead up could not be faltered but the very nature of adventure, and in fact the appeal, is that it is a battle that you can only win if nature is kind enough to you.
The Journey Begins
In our team for Mount Elbrus was Mia Austin, who was travelling to Russia without her parents. I don't know what you were doing at 13 years of age but I know for certain that I wasn't travelling halfway across the world to climb a mountain. Mia was no stranger to these challenges. She had already completed the Aussie 10 Peaks with us and then last year she travelled to Tanzania with Alyssa and I to successfully climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
We started our Russian trip by flying from Brisbane to Sydney where we met with Mia and her family for some teary goodbyes, before jumping on a 15.5-hour flight to Doha, then 5.5 hours to Moscow, followed by a 2.5-hour flight to Mineralnye Vody (Mineral Water in Russian). We travelled a further 3.5 hours by mini-van to a small town called Chaget, about 15 minutes' drive from Elbrus. Over the next 24 hours the rest of the team arrived and we were ready to tackle our Mount Elbrus experience.
Russia is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever travelled to. Chaget is a small ski-resort town that sits at the base of Chaget Mountain with chair lifts up the slopes. The scenery is second to none, with large fir trees and snow covered peaks. As someone that grew up through the Cold War of the 80s, I really wasn't expecting the Russians to be so accommodating. They are such a relaxed and friendly people that treat tourists with the utmost respect. The only true challenge for us was the fact that not many people spoke English in Chaget, which is very rural and a long way from Moscow. The joy of climbing mountains is that you get away from the more traditional 'tourist' spots, with your adventure taking you deep into a very different side of your visited country.
Fortunately for us Nick was a well-travelled guy and had a more-than-basic grasp of the Russian language, so he pulled us out of many a drawn-out conversation, which at times felt more like a game of charades complete with hand gestures and the like! Nick would swoop in and save us the comedic routine and we would be on our way again.
Once the whole team had arrived we did equipment checks and hired anything that people may not have brought with them, including specialist equipment such as double-lined mountaineering boots and crampons. The weather in June is amazing and we were met with 25-30°C temperatures, but of course up on the side of Chaget we were exposed to the cooling effects of the wind and therefore still required some cold weather gear.
The next two days we set about completing some acclimatisation hikes on Chaget. The base camp on Elbrus is a cable-car ride straight to 3,890 metres above sea level that doesn't really allow your body to acclimatise, so we figured we would slowly work our way to that height on other peaks first. Once these acclimatisation hikes were completed we set about packing our gear for Elbrus itself. We left a bag behind in our hotel and headed to the mountain with a duffle bag and small back pack ready for base camp.
The cable-car ride is a series of three cars, which is quite the effort with your duffle bags and back packs. Once at the top we took a short walk to our base camp cabins and settled in for our first night. We were very thankful for our down jackets and extra layers of fleece from Mountain Designs as it was much cooler on Elbrus than it had been down on Chaget. Here we experienced temperatures anywhere from 0°C to -15°C plus a bit of wind chill when it came through.
The next day we took a 7-hour acclimatisation hike up to 4,600 metres. Amazing scenery but a tough little hike because there aren't really any ups and downs on this mountain. It's straight up so we went up for a few hours and then came back down. For many this was our first use of crampons and mountaineering boots and these certainly take some getting used to as your gait is altered. I know for me personally I could really feel my hip flexors when I got back to camp that afternoon.
On the way back down the mountain we pulled over and practiced rescue and emergency stops with our ice axes. Elbrus is quite renowned for its iciness and crevasses that are off the main routes of the mountain. Having an understanding of your equipment, and how to self-arrest if you slip down the mountain, is not only useful but vital.
We came back down the mountain for a night of rest before completing another acclimatisation hike the next day. This time we pushed a little higher for a little longer bringing ourselves up close to the 5,000-metre mark. The weather was quite cold and the mist closed in to make our visibility less than 100 metres so we didn't get the views of the previous day, but it did allow us to focus on why we were here and what this mountain brings to the table. Everyone returned to the base camp feeling quite tired and we all slept well. The following day we had a rest day and went down the mountain and all the way back to Chaget. We had a good lunch and enjoyed a day at lower altitude before making our way back up the mountain to get ready for a very early start the next morning for our summit attempt.
Down To Business
1:30am and it's time to pry ourselves from our warm sleeping bags and get out of bed. We dress with the bulk of our layers and gear (minus crampons) and go have some breakfast. It's always a little difficult to eat at altitude as you tend to lose your appetite to some extent but it's also vital to ensure you have the energy to do what you're asking your body to do.
After a good feed and some coffee because, well, coffee, we finish putting our layers on and get organised. We now put crampons on, check head torch batteries and by 3:00am we're ready to head up the mountain. We jump on a snowcat and transport a little way up the mountain to our start point. Here begins the long, slow climb towards the summit. It's bitterly cold up high as the wind whips across the face of the mountain. There's not too much chat up here. Everyone's tucked inside their down jackets with beanies and hoods pulled up over the top.
The pace is slow but deliberate, as it should be at altitude. To rush up here will cause certain failure as the body struggles to consolidate energy to deal with less oxygen and working under fatigue. Over the next few hours our pace slows and Dmitri, our Russian mountain guide, comes to chat to me. He notices that Mia is fatiguing faster than the others. Despite her experience at altitude, Mia is a small-framed girl so her energy reserves aren't the same. She takes two paces to everyone else's one. Dmitri asks me if he can move Mia to the back for me to observe while he continues on with the others.
There's no time for egos on mountains. No climber wants other climbers to give up their summit push so the others push on and Mia, Alyssa and I walk together. I am chatting to Mia constantly. I had noted that she barely ate the night before and didn't eat breakfast at all. I think this is a major factor in the lack of energy she's experiencing now. Whilst we're quite high by this stage (approximately 5,400 metres), we're still also a long way from the summit.
I keep pushing on 20 paces at a time and then wait for Mia to catch up. I watch and observe. With 17 years of Australian Army service as well as being a qualified registered nurse, I have honed my skills of assessing people under pressure.
I am conscious to never have their experience for them but let them experience everything they need to in their adventure. If I felt there was a risk I would terminate the climb and push them to head back down the mountain.
While walking with Mia and knowing her strengths mentally and physically, I continued to push on. I decided I would not head down unless she made that call. I felt this was an important part of her journey as an adventurer.
We pushed on for the next 45 minutes or so. By now the rest of the group had long since walked out of our sight. We were alone on the climb and that is the essence of the mountains. Even when surrounded by others it really is just you and the mountain. You go through your own thoughts in your own head.
When you start to struggle there's a lot of 'noise' in your head. You are self-assessing, beating yourself up, questioning why you're here or why is it so hard. This is where adventure spurs your personal growth.
After another 15 minutes or so I paused and waited. Mia caught up to me and she looked totally exhausted. She had appeared drained of all energy for at least 30 or 40 minutes by this stage. I asked her how she felt and did she want to continue, and she said no. She knew she was done.
Making The Tough Call
This is always a hard decision but even more so for a 13-year-old who was so determined to achieve a goal. It's also a very mature decision to make. Understanding your own limits, pushing yourself but being able to say 'I have to turn back this time' is a mature decision to make. I was personally quite proud of Mia for making that decision. She will definitely be back to try again.
Often as parents we desperately want our kids to succeed. This is a very normal response however I also think it's important not to lose sight of the lesson when things don't go well. Allowing kids to experience adversity and the fact that things don't always go well is necessary. It allows them the opportunity to process what happened, look at where they could do something differently next time, take ownership over their part in the outcome and then come back with a renewed focus to take on that goal in future. It takes away immediate gratification and allows us to focus on the journey.
Again, I see adventure as the best personal development in the world. The feedback is immediate. You're either good enough or you're not. You either prepared well or you didn't. The weather is either good to you or it's not. That's it. There's no room to be mollycoddled out there. You adapt, you grow, and you overcome.
Once the decision was made by Mia to head back down the mountain I asked Alyssa to catch up to the group and let Dmitri know that we were taking Mia back down the mountain, which in itself was a long process. I knew Alyssa was strong at altitude and was more capable than I was to catch up to the group and let them know. After Alyssa explained what was happening, she made her way back down the mountain until she caught up with us. Mia, Alyssa and I made our way back to base camp while the rest of the group pushed to the summit. The weather was amazing and the summit photos were spectacular. Both Declan and Dylan suffered some altitude illness but soldiered on and the entire team successfully made the summit later that day.
Mt Elbrus is an amazing experience. While you do require some specialist mountaineering equipment, I wouldn't let that put you off. It's a climb that I feel any level of adventurer can and should attempt. I know I will be back - in fact I have already planned two trips in June and July 2020! I can't wait to get back there.