The decision to climb Elbrus (5642 m), the highest peak of Europe and one of the Seven Summits, crawled in pretty unexpected. Still recovering from some health issues from the previous year, I needed a goal larger than life to keep me motivated to quickly get back to my top fitness. Little did I know that this adventure would bring me so much more.
My preparations for the ascent that is considered one of the technically easiest compared to the other Summits, but nevertheless amongst the deadliest ones, began six months earlier. I was hiking on the highest and technically most difficult peaks in the Balkans, swimming three times a week and running in between. All in an attempt to get fit for the biggest challenge of my life yet.
Adventure mode: ON!
We have started our eighteen-day adventure at the beginning of July. The 6500 km bus ride through Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Russia started with a horrible traffic jam in Turkey due to Ramadan. We have spent three days on the road and instead of having a good night sleep in Stephansminda, a village that lies in the foothills of Kazbek peak, we had decided to repack and immediately start the ascent to the Bethlemi Hut (3675m). With our backpacks carried by mules, we could start the ascent to the refuge.
We were walking through beautiful forests and green fields, intersected with mountain torrents that were quite difficult to cross over at times. The rocky terrain started to take over the scenery, and at some point the mules were unable to carry the load. In front of us was the Gergeti glacier, which was impossible for the mules to pass over, due to the cracks covered with snow, that were more than tens of meters deep in some cases.
Dead-tired and sleepy, we had to carry over 20 kg of load on our backs. It was getting dark and the terrain was very slippery and demanding, so we needed every bit of concentration and strength. With my steps sinking into the grainy rocks I became aware that this was my swim or sink moment. Some 200 meters below the refuge, I sat down to regroup and find that last bit of strength to continue. Exhausted as I was, I left there my massive 120l backpack that was too heavy for me to carry, to be later taken by my dear friends from the group. Finally, I used last atoms of strength to get to the refuge at 10pm, exhausted, hungry and frozen. We couldn’t wait to cook some dinner and slip into our sleeping bags.
The next day we had started our acclimatization to a small orthodox church that was on the altitude of 4100m. Everything was easier after a good night sleep, so the rocky terrain didn’t slow us down. We spent some time on the top, to get used to the lower levels of oxygen that was expecting us at the final ascent that was planned for that night.
To the Prometheus
We have started our ascent at 1am. The requirements set by our local guides were such that if one of us experiences altitude sickness, the whole group of 27 people would have to return. Therefore, we took all the precocious measures to make sure that we are safe and physically and mentally ready for the ascent. We were walking in line, very disciplined and slowly, there was no talking, and no brakes, unless the guide says so. This was all necessary, as one misplaced step or undisciplined mountaineer could jeopardize the ascent success of the whole group.
After some three hours of walking the first rays of light started to appear. We came to the saddle below the final 500 meters of the ascent. Suddenly, a magnificent fireworks of colors exploded in front of us. Above clouds and away from the world as we know it, the otherworldly sunrise was welcoming us to the mountain of the gods. According to the legend, the gods chained Prometheus to a rock on the Kazbek mountain, in punishment for having stolen fire from the gods and having given it to mortals, where his liver is eaten daily by an eagle, only to be regenerated by night due to his immortality. It seemed as if Prometheus himself set the sky on fire to greet us.
The last hundred meters were so steep that we had to tie ourselves to each other in a formation to avoid any accidents. At 10am we had finally reached the top. The overwhelming moment of having the world below your feet, above clouds and surrounded by the mesmerizing Caucasus was one of those moments to remember. There were mixed feelings of achievement, pride, humbleness and gratitude in all of us.
Rise and rise again
We continued our journey to Russia and the village of Terskol in the foothills of Elbrus. We had a much needed one-day break where we had a chance to recharge and enjoy the beautiful nature of the region. The next day we took a cable car to the Mir station, followed by a chairlift to Garabashi base camp at a height of 3720 m. The camp consists of 11 barrels refurbished to accommodate 6 mountaineers each.
Too excited to sleep, I woke up at 6am. The early rays of the Sun were announcing a clear day without clouds. The East and West Elbrus were standing tall almost 2000m above us, only to remind us what we were about to encounter. We started the ascent from Garabashi to the last base camp before the final ascent, Priut 11 at 4100m. Even though the weather was warm and sunny, in an instant the sky clouded over and it started snowing heavily. Caucasus showed us its whimsical nature it’s famous for. Four days before we came, no one had attempted the climb to Elbrus due to the weather that was changing by the hour. Our ascent was scheduled for midnight and we were worried that Caucasus won’t let us conquer it.
The night was clear and quiet. We started the ascent as scheduled. Our group was moving slowly to make sure we don’t experience altitude sickness, as two other members of our group did. It was just before the sunrise when the blustery weather whipped around us. I quickly put on my ski goggles and feather jacket. The key here is to sense the right moment when to put on the warm jacket, not too early as you would quickly sweat, but not too late as well, as the body will quickly experience hypothermia, as one group member nearly did.
With my body on autopilot, my mind started working vividly. There are so many things in life that we have no influence on, yet we let those circumstances influence both our actions and well-being in most unfortunate ways. The storm wind, the temperature that was almost -20 degrees Celsius and the deep snow were just the unfavorable circumstances that I was in, they didn’t define me. What defined me were my firm steps, my will power and the vision I had in front of me. When we choose to focus only on our field of impact and deplete every possible option, even failure won’t seem like the worst thing that could happen, but rather a valuable lesson that leads to success.
7 Summits Club
We were walking for good nine hours when we came to the saddle between the East and West Elbrus. With only a few five-minute breaks until now, we had a chance to finally get some much needed rest before the final accent. It was then when we had some time to actually think of where we were standing and what was in front of us. One of my friends started having a slight panic attack when he realized that we were in the middle of nowhere, frozen and we were yet to encounter the final ascent, the final test of our mental and physical readiness. I encouraged him with words that he needs to think that he was the mountain and the mountain was himself and that whenever he thinks of giving up, he was actually giving up on himself.
I took the lead and he was at my heels. I somehow started repeating a child song in my mind that became my mantra for the final ascent. “Every little cell in my body is happy” ... I stopped feeling the blistering stormy wind, it was just a circumstance surrounding me, and I didn’t allow it to influence me … “Every little cell in my body is well” … I stopped feeling the ice scraps that were whipping my face … “I can tell, every little cell in my body is happy and well” … I stopped despairing about falling all the time as the snow was waist-high, I just continued walking with confidence after every fall … “I can tell … every little cell … in my body is happy and well” … Until the rhythm of the song became the rhythm of my breaths and the rhythm of my steps.
The clouds were rushing above the reef. The wind was so strong, that it held me when I tried leaning on it. We rose above the clouds and into the clear sky. There it was. West Elbrus was just a couple of steps away. I felt tears of joy in my eyes, as my frenzy, smiling face was congratulating everyone on the top.
At the end I reached the top. I rose above myself and grew into a person that could do the impossible. It is sometimes needed to put ourselves into extreme circumstances to finally realize that no problem is larger than us, that we we able to do anything that we put our mind and soul into. I reached myself.
Special thanks to Future Forward and the City of Niš, Directory of Sports for their donations that made this adventure possible.
Photo credits: Aleksandar Lazović, Nenad Berić, Nikola Bobić