Monday, 16 July 2012

Mount Elbrus - Part Eleven

A day to chill

I wake just after 5am and it's already getting warm, I try to get back to sleep but my brain is running overtime. I toss and turn 'til 6:15 when I can stand it no longer, I put the music back on and start to write. The heat inside the tent is becoming unbearable, I dress and move outside into the bright sunlight. The Norwegians decided that they liked my story of the spa and have enlisted Vladimir to take them down to sample the waters. We meanwhile take it easy in the sunshine, enjoying a late breakfast and the tranquility of an ever emptying base camp. The Adventure Consultants break down their base camp and hand Sergei some supplies, everything here seems to work on a trading basis. Amusing that such a world renowned commercial venture such as AC work in this way, but I suppose that they sub out to local contractors and after all when in Rome! Midday and the afternoon clouds are gathering at the end of the valley and bank along the high peaks to the east. BJ goes down to the silver pool and returns just before Una and EK who are a little disappointed because it's ladies time until 1pm and they didn't want to wait about that long. We need to organise our kit for our return, which is so much closer now. It's going to be strange leaving this patch of grass in the shadow of snow capped Elbrus and to return to a culture that is so very different that's less than 24hrs away now. There is no real plan for today, Sergei has spent most of his time on the laptop. Kenny the third Norwegian arrived back in camp around 3pm from his successful summit earlier this morning. Una and EK are pleased to see him but rag him until he produces his camera and shows them conclusive proof in the shape of his summit picture. They wait all day for Andrei to pick them up and take them down to Ptiagorsk (City of 5 Hills), this leaves BJ and I wondering about our travel arrangements tomorrow. After the brilliant sunshine of this morning for most of the afternoon it's been cool and raining. The only time to be outside the tents/bags is to see the hapless newcomers attempt to be photographed with the stroppy Yak/Dzo. While we are eating one of the hardcore camper vans rocks up and the Norwegians are told that it's their transport down. Kenny is trying to eat his first meal, Una and EK are watching a video on the laptop in their tent. All hell breaks loose as the three of them dash about grabbing kit and stuffing it in to bags. With goodbyes said they trundle and bounce away.  Then as we go to turn away they circle back around about 50metres away and head back, we start cheering! As the van pulls up Una jumps out of the back, clambers over the fence and trots over to the mess tent "I’ve forgotten my boots!" he grabs a plastic bag and dashes back. With a few toots of the horn they bundle down the track and they're gone. We're left to speculate about Andrei's arrival time tomorrow.

And so to Civilisation

We wake early with the heat. Stuffing our sleeping bags and sleep mats and that's the last of the kit away. We eat breakfast and then just hang about, we've seen both a jeep and a camper van come bundling up the track into camp, neither are driven by Andrei. We continue to think of useful, fun and effective ways to deal with the cows which, like a scene from Vietnam movie, are testing our perimeter again. One causes a diversion, diagonally opposite the toilet opening, while another trys to slip in, they are also making an assault on the military post and toilet too! Vladimir calls from the other side of camp, we don't connect with what he's calling out. Sergei then confirms this is our jeep, I head back from the toilet and I'm glad I've been as the thought of being bounced around in the back of that tough little beast and it's 4hrs to Ptaigorsk!   BJ and I look at each other as our driver loads our bags, he looks like the archetypal Russian Bond villain, complete with DPM cap and waistcoat. He puts his own rucksack and waterproof boots on the roof rack as there is barely enough room for us and the kit. As BJ and I crawl onto the rear bench seat we realise at our heels is a hunting rifle! Laughing about shooting the cows becomes ever more feasible on our way out of Dodge. As we rattle about along the track down to the river BJ grabs at the handle by his head, there's a telescopic fishing rod tied to it, the driver is a bit of a hunter we figure, haha. We're laughing like idiots as he reaches back and offers us a bag full of 2" apples from his "area", we don't know if that means garden/farm/hunting stomp. I politely refuse but BJ has one to my great amusement, his face is a picture, haha, how sour? We rumble off through the river bed, so different to when we arrived, hardly deep enough to wet the axles, while a week ago it would have swept us away.

The driver and Sergei are in deep conversation while BJ and I are dying from a mixture of Carbon Monoxide and fuel fumes. We stop a couple of times at what seems quite random places, once for our driver to hand over 3 Leki poles over to the driver of an expensive and very new looking Toyota Landcruiser, while Sergei chats to 3 guys from a hardcore camper. "Is that guy in the Toyota taking photos of us?" "Yeah! what the fu..?" It must be BJ's glasses that draws so much attention to us, haha. We crack on, half the time on the wrong side of the road/track as it seems smoother, then veering back across the marbles on the surface to elude the on-coming vehicle, but that’s only about six times in a 4hr journey. As we drop down through a weird village, comprising of brand new and near derelict homes and towards a bridge I tap Sergei on the shoulder and point to the obstruction in the road "Sergei, it's the muzafukincowz!" This dusty track loops through valley after valley, after about 21/2hrs in the middle of nowhere on a bridge, over a gap rather than what will probably become a torrent in the winter, Sergei says "This is where the border check point was". We begin to wonder how we could have dodged around that? Bouncing along we are then treated to a metalled surface although still full of craters infinately smoother, our heads and spines grateful for the respite. Both we and the oncoming vehicles swerve back and forth to avoid potholes and each other. On and on we drive with the fumes making it difficult to enjoy anything of this journey.

We finally turn into Pytaigorsk and weave our way through streets filled with suicidal pedestrians and kamikazi drivers. We drive alongside an ornate square filled with people, flowers, trees and fountains there before us is the "Intourist" hotel. Built in the 70's at the height of developing communism for tourist market. The entrance hall and reception is vast, high ceilinged marble Russian excess, on the other hand BJ and I with the big bags and day sacks barely fit in to the lift. As we look about for directions to our room in the lift lobby we realise we have our own bar on our floor. Laughing we wander along the corridor to our . . . . . small squalid box. Thank God we don't have a cat, we have to move the coffee table and an armchair out on to the balcony in order to have enough room to fit ourselves in. "Well it has beds and running water" We have to keep the balcony door open in order to breathe, it's meltingly hot in here. Both freshly showered and dressed in clean "going home" clothes that make us so much more presentable than our trekking shorts and fetid shirts we set off out into the heat. This place is so surreal, everyone but everyone is dressed up to be going out for the evening but it's only just lunchtime?! We have limited idea of where to go from Sergei, taking mental notes of cafes, restaurants and bars we could try later. The heat is too much and we desperately need to feed and take on fluids so we settle on an open fronted cafe in the shade, where the menus are all in Cyrilic! We haven't a clue about any of it, haha. When the waitress comes over she explains that she doesn't speak English just Russian and Spanish in English, how random!! but she swaps the menu over for one in English, PHEW!! So we order from the English menu she uses her Russian menu to take our choices, again quite random. BJ does his best to translate English to Spanish but becomes royally confused when she asks where we are from in Spanish and he thought the question was in Russian, his excuse was that he was severely dehydrated and had just downed half a litre of Russian beer, low altitude lassitude strikes again! So here we sit watching the strangest city catwalk drinking local beer and eating mussels and chips, just gets weirder. We finish our meal, if it could be called that, and wander off through the streets finally ending up in a swanky mall. Then down into the "fun park" that had seen better days (or possibly not), BJ eating his ice cream is desperate to get a quad peddle cart to hoon around on, only to discover that it was kids only and confined to a tiny square, he's crushed. He suggests that we rent them and just ride off around the park, I again smash his dreams by telling him that there is no way that we could out run the attendant. We meander through the streets back to the hotel and take a turn back down the hill, BJ says "Hey here's the cafe", we head up the stairs and discover that it is actually a ladies outfitters, amidst our laughter and the confused looks of the assistant and the customers, the cafe was was on the ground floor and closed for refurbishment. We continue our quest. A little further along we discover a kebab shop?!  of sorts, looks pretty busy with the locals ordering meat and chips in pitta bread, BJ starts salivating at the window. Further still is a bar with some very flash 4x4's outside, we both instantly think Mafia. BJ starts giggling like a schoolboy looking at boobs for the first time I turn back and see him standing outside a shop full of hookah pipes and belly dancers costumes, I assure him that Steph wouldn't want him in one. HAHA. We reach the bottom of the hill and try out the "walk of death", you just step out in front of the moving traffic and watch it stop instantly with no foul words, blarring horns or gesticulations, bloody hell that really works! We head back up the hill and stop off at the "bling" bar, where they curiously don't sell Russian beer?! so a Tuborg and a quick wifi surf, where we learn a little about this crazy city and we're back off to the sanctuary of our hotel to ready ourselves for tonight’s onslaught. Back in our room we change down in order to cool down, remember AC in this place is an open balcony door. We come to around 8pm when we are due to go back out to eat, BJ is complaining of a headache and goes to the bar on our floor and returns with a couple of litres of water, fruit juice and a sack of crisps, which we demolish in seconds. We seek some cooler air out on the fire escape and to our surprise watch the sun set on Elbrus, it's incredible that it only a 4hours drive between these two places, yet there it stands before us showing its sheer snow covered size, bloody hell it's huge!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Mount Elbrus - Part Ten

A day at the Spa – joining the locals

A day at the Spa – joining the localsI wander out into the thickest fog on the way to the loo, desperately trying to locate it amongst the cattle and the moody yak. On the way across the field I encounter two of the local “cowboys”. The shortest a hugely stocky man in an animal skin cloak engages me in conversation. We haven’t a clue as to each others language, until the second guy throws in an English translated word here or there. It turns out that No.1 wants me to go drinking with him. I explain that we’ve just come off of Elbrus and need to sleep, we shake hands, wish each other and trade words of best wishes and go on our separate ways. I didn’t fancy being the prize in a Chechen drinking game.                  
After a surprisingly cold night, that brought a thick fog through the valley, but allowed us to fully enjoy being burrowed down in the sleeping bags, we’re woken by the rapidly rising temperature and Sergei asking what we want to eat. After a fine breakfast of cheese spread, bread, rivita, muesli, canned peaches and tea we kit up for our spa day. We walk casually back down to the “Bridge of Death” where we started the real adventure. Instead of crossing we wind our way up through the rocks up to a plateau that gives views back to Base Camp and out to the crossing valley we saw on our way in with the White Hotel, but this time scattered around the “grounds” are all sorts of tents, tarps and vehicles. It looks like a vagabond community has just invaded. We dip down and cross the thundering river that cuts through the deep gorge far beneath us. The path turns, weaves and heads steeply up. BJ takes it at great speed, I’m feeling the effects of altitude as I huff and puff my way up only to find BJ at the top close to throwing up, again even at this low altitude we’re suffering. Sergei again points out what looks like marsh mallow and tells us to be careful as “This plant burns and you’re in short pants”, I don’t even notice I’ve come in contact with it at all until I feel a severe stinging on my shin, a blistered area of about 10mm diameter, I lick a finger and dab at the spot with which a layer of skin comes away! Vicious vegetation around here. We descend on to the valley’s edge, the gorge to the left with the White Hotel reminiscent of a Romanian horror scene. To the right is a mixture of portacabin/static caravans, tarps and tents, it looks not too dissimilar to a refugee camp. Quite squalid, the permanent buildings are decrepit and look at first glance derelict. We follow down the dirt road past a collapsed bridge and around the river’s edge to the right, across a bubbling spring to the base of a colossal waterfall. Retracing our steps back to the bridge where we cross to the spa pools. Some of the concrete structures have been washed away by landslip, not surprising when you look at the valley walls of soft loose powder fine scree. Further along are four similar concrete "pools" filled near to the top with this loose strata. During the time before Glasnost the army would have been sent down here to dig these pools out and generally maintain the facilities, something that we wouldn't have expected from our Western perception of the former USSR. Luckily for us it's now the male time to use the tiny pool, which when we arrive is already quite crowded, a similar smaller pool to the front has two small boys splashing about in it. I turn round to find BJ stripping down to his boxers, he's going in, "to join in with the locals", I pull off my clothes and tip toe across the sharp stones to join him. As BJ steps down the re-bar ladder in to the group he discovers what 22o feels like, the manic giggling tells me it's quite cool. the locals, all cross armed, stand crowded together glaring out of the pool as these two tan striped white guys clamber in. Outside and over to one side guys stand in their shorts rubbing joints or whole limbs with the damp Iron Oxide rocks, leaving ocre coloured paste on the skin, left to dry and then washed off prior to sitting in the pool. I try to blend in with our counterparts and wash the cold water over my head and face, cleaning the dust and muck off, BJ trying not to raise interest of our neighbours says "Don't! That’s the quickest way to pick up all sorts of bad bugs" "really?" "oh yeah, how hygenic do you think this water is? anything could be in this water they could be peeing in it and you know how rough our bog is!" "Ahhh!" I could be doomed, great. One of the locals amongst us calls over to Sergei and on his answer start to file back out of the pool, we tuck into the line and exit too. I stagger about attempting to dry myself while trying not to continously hit my head on the low roof of the clothes rack, I'm chuckling to myself as I wobble about drying my feet and trying not to contaminate my dry shorts with these small sharp stones that cling to the soles of my feet.

Once dry and composed we wander off to the small cafe and shop to buy freshly baked bread. I notice that my ankle has a strange heat inside of it, it feels surprisingly good on the way back. It's only once we're back at base camp EK tells me that it's a holy spa and that the people down there go as a pilgrimage to take the medicinal waters. Complete bunkum! But the ankle is feeling strangely better. We walk past a small pipe, stretching across the river from the opposite side, spilling water onto the bank. Sergei suggests that we try the water, I cup my hand and take a sip, eeek that's metallic!  We search the shop and cafe for a coke for BJ and draw a blank, we did however buy 3 round breads, fresh and warm. Which we start ripping at and devouring, delicious! Heading back and back at the pipe we encourage BJ to try the water, which he decides tastes like Alka Seltzer, I try again and see what he means by the effervescence. Back at the pools it's peak time as we follow back down to the bridge. Returning up and over the hill it's warm and steep, wandering across the hill we look across the valley floor and out towards our base camp. To get there we have to cross the "bridge of doom", this time though the water is considerably lower. Sergei leads across, BJ camera in hand snaps away, and I follow turning to photograph BJ, who as he gets midway starts to rock and bounce the bridge. Sergei looks back to see where we are and seeing BJ goes crazy, "I'm only joking around, no harm" "Many peoples each year die by this little joking!" BJ looks suitably admonished. When we arrive back at camp the two Norwegians are busily drinking cognac, it's about 3pm and they are well on their way to being completely trashed. When we arrive back at our enclosure the Adventure Consultants’ staff have tethered their Yak/Dzo right at the entrance. BJ holds his fist out for the animal to smell until the owner says it's really not friendly, we three tactfully skirt around it. "If it's a moody git then why park it right by our entrance?" A little later after some tea BJ goes over to the loo, except the Yak/Dzo doesn't want anyone near and drops its head. I hear him call over to me, I look out of the mess tent to see the owner trying to pull it out of the way.

I'm in tears. The owner tells me "Mafia" and gestures that it wants money or food as a toll. Vladimir says "everyone here says 'mafia' to get what they want". In any case it's a dumb place to park your Yak. We go over to our tent and hunker down trying not to get involved in the increasing levels of drinking as the soldiers come round and join in, the noise levels from the mess tent tells its own story. After it's calmed down I catch up with Una (the big Norwegian, who looks like Ross put on a bodybuilding course). He tells me a story of climbing the highest mountain in Norway where he and the guys set out without a guide. They're given directions but they are sent off in the opposite direction. An epic ensues, following just behind them are a group of Russians who are under the impression that locals should know the way. But with closing clouds the route isn't obvious, they take a longer route and eventually meet up much later at the summit. EK hooks out of his pack a bottle of cognac and shares it with the bedraggled Russians. He tells me he has just shared this story with the soldiers, who enjoy this tale, one of them says he has also climbed this mountain. Una pulls out his laptop and shows the photos of the adventure. He scrolls through and when he reaches the summit pictures one of the Russians recognises himself, the mess tent errupts. The small world just gets a little smaller. As I return to our little tent to hide from this craziness I find BJ is craving red wine. He crawls out and heads down to the weird shop/cafe to satisfy this need. A little later he comes back clutching a bottle of Merlot but it's a cork not screw top and I get lumbered with going back to the mess tent to get mugs. I try to slip in - slip out but I'm held captive by the massively drunk Norwegians for an hour, but the guys are endearing and honest. I escape with the mugs and on my return find that BJ all this while has been unable to remove the cork, I'm up and out so it falls to me to return to the shop where they've already agreed to pull it for us. The reason that BJ gives for pulling the cork and for not driving it into the bottle is that we can finish it tomorrow, we settle in and finish the bottle as I read this journal back to him. EK pitches up outside of the tent and has one of the worlds most random conversations through the flysheet, is it his or our consumption of alcohol that's making it so strange? A short while later Sergei brings over half of a bread and a tube of cream cheese, which is rapidly and eagerly consumed. BJ settles back reading his Kindle and I lay back listening to my Walkman, waking up much later with my headphones still in an BJ snoring, oh yes he does snore despite his protestations. I look out of the tent, all the lights are out across base camp and I have no idea of the time, all I do know is it is cold and I need to hunker down in my bag.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Mount Elbrus - Part Nine

Time to Summit

We’ve syncronised our watches; up by 1am, fed by 2am and on our way by 2:30am. ARSE! The French once again screw with our plans. Despite the fact that they’ve walked to over 4600metres on the last two days they’re summiting at the same time as us. DOUBLE ARSE!! They’re leaving an hour before us, so that means that they will be crashing about with headtorches scanning about the hut like the Eddison Lighthouse. So BJ and I feast and drink tea until we can physically get no more in before heading to our bags around 5pm. We settled down for as much rest as possible, eye masks and earplugs in, that’ll keep their intrusive ways at bay. NAAAH! They come in and out, talking loudly, dropping as much as possible on to the wooded floor. One Frenchman, whose shelf was at the end of ours began snoring like something from a 1930’s French farce. They manage to slam the outer door more times than I care to count, which in itself was amazing due to it having never been closed in all the time we’d been there. I got up a little after 8pm most of the French were laying quietly others fiddled about with their headtorches on and the snoring man was still making a racket. I woke again as BJ wriggled back into his bag, I foolishly took my mask off and earplugs out, I managed to sleep on in short spells. Then as I laid quietly the alarm went off, the French erupt into activity with complete disregard to the impact on the huts other occupants, they just don’t give a toss. We wait until they leave to dress as we walk outside we find them crammed around the doorway taking up every inch of space, kit strewn everywhere. We saunter down to eat.

As we shoulder our packs, hook ice axes and clip crampons to our harnesses we look at each other, this is it, the wind is picking up but we know we’re strong enough to crack this. Down across the glacial bowl, funny how by the light of headtorch this moraine so much longer to cross. As we set about locking our boots into the crampons BJ and I question our choice of lightweight gear “Once we’re going it won’t seem half so cold”. We crack off walking in our 3metre pool of light, the wind building all the time washing away any communication between us. When we stop to rope up and look up the lights of the other teams are converging from both camps sparkling their way up the slope. Thankfully we’re soon walking again as the cold is biting. Grateful for the speed as the effort is starting to warm me again. The weather is worsening by the minute, ice crystals being lifted from the glacier sting the face and the wind strips heat and energy from the body. Our speed is as good as the acclimatisation day and we’re fighting against worsening weather and the heavy easterly wind. We’re starting to pass groups of to our left, who had started from the other camp, using our straight up strategy before long we’re passing the French teams, very easily too. Man we’ve got this in the bag! BJ pulls on the rope and needs to ease the speed a little, not a bad thing in these conditions, no point ragging it and burning out before halfway. Even at this slower speed we pass other teams hanging on their poles, blowing hard. BJ and I had formulated a plan of walking for 60mins and rest for 5mins, this wasn’t happening, it was just too raw out here. My fingers were starting to get chilled curled around the head of my axe, my mind wandered about to find something to focus on in order to hide from this discomfort. I got into a strange wiggle which seemed to help my momentum. We coursed onwards gaining height and ground on yet more groups. How can the weather be getting worse? Bigger mountains have been climbed in worse weather than this. I don’t remember quite what happened but there it was, that familiar searing pain in my Achilles again, maybe it was because of the wind, the cold, the speed, BOLLOCKS! We’re going well and I’m not stopping. A tug on the rope and BJ comes up, his hands are done (there were always fears from previous frostbite, no heroism in loosing fingers). A heavier jacket, big gloves, heatpacks and he’s feeling better. A drink, a bite of a chocolate bar and we’re moving solidly again. Sergei asks about my heel regularly which is good, but I don’t need that darkness to be let out of its box. It’s hard work but I’m weirdly enjoying this experience. I have to put on my heavier jacket and big gloves as the cold is sapping my energy, but a few minutes of slogging builds both temperature and resolve. I’ve had enough of my bloody heel feeling as though it’s tearing itself apart, nothing I do lessens the pain. BJ suggests I go to the end of the rope as for the last 45mins it’s felt as if I’ve been hauling up the hill. The weight is too much for me to pull against, so every ten steps I have to wait for the tension to come off the rope so I can continue, I’m happy enough in the middle chasing Sergei so stubbornly stay put. It’s not much further and the toys are definitely being scattered all over this snow slope, I’m hanging on to my poles. F**K IT!! I’m done I can’t bring myself to say it out loud, but that’s it, ENOUGH! I go to the end of the rope and will reassess at the Lenz Rocks, it’s just 10mins away. We keep climbing and now everything is grating, this f***ing weather, this f***ing slope and worse than everything together this f***ing agony. As I crest up onto the flat lip under Lenz Rocks I’m just a few steps behind BJ, conversations are happening around me in the howling gale, it’s quite an out of body experience. I’ve tears in my eyes and I know it’ll be all over for BJ if I go down, that hurts more than my ankle. To take the summit away from him now, especially as he is feeling stronger now that he’s warm and he’s found his pace. We huddle up in the biting wind and drink some hot water from BJ’s flask. I have to tell them that I have to turn around, if I go on I know that I’m open to bigger problems on the way down. I give a thumbs down to Sergei in response to his “Are you ok? Is the heel ok? What you want to do?” I point down, I can’t bring myself to speak, how stupid? But I feel broken, BOLLOCKS!! Sergei pulls the rope out to go down, BJ is confused as to what direction we’re taking. I tell him it’s over, that I’m done, that is such a hard thing to do, I’ve just managed to trash his trip too. I pull my goggles on to help protect my eyes from the sting of the ice carried on the wind and the sting of the tears of failure don’t sit well with me. I’m glad I never brought Mums ashes after all. BJ asks if we can sit up here to wait for the dawn, as the weather starts to clear the horizon becomes a line of soft orange. Sergei says that it’s too cold and we’d have to wait too long, another blow to BJ. Meanwhile I just want to attack this mountain with my axe, it’s not the mountains fault it’s my foot’s. It now hurts from the big toe to my butt cheek with an explosive white noise, around my heel and spreading to my calf, so I start thumping my boot with the axe instead. We quickly drop down out of the weather band, the wind is lessening, heading towards the dawn sky. The valleys below us are filled with soft clouds, the sky up here is crystal clear now, the wind still blowing but more gently now. We’ve dropped down about 500metres vertical when we stop to watch the sun burst over the horizon. BJ is taking photos and videos of the stunning vista spread out before us. Sergei points out the second highest peak in the Caucasus, Dykh-Tau “Very technical”. We continue down, the last thing I really want to do is record today, it is incredibly beautiful and makes being here worthwhile but I’d prefer to have all of this to my back as I work my way to the summit. My mind isn’t here anymore, though spiraling, leaving BJ on a loose end and standing in the middle of a snow bridge and should be better focused on getting down safely. We cross the ends of some gapping cravasses bring home the fact that we’re still in the danger zone. It’s not much longer and we’re at the moraine end, unclipping from the rope, removing crampons and dropping over the edge of the glacial bowl, nearly back! BJ and I are talking of what to do, I’ve already spoken to Sergei and suggested that he take him back up tomorrow. BJ’s not so sure that he has the energy to try again so soon, still we have 2days and I’m prepared to sit tight and wait. We sling our kit onto the bench, stripping off the thermal layers, releasing the heat to the fresh air and sunshine. We keep looking towards the summit, judging whereabouts we would be had we continued on. Eventually it’s decided we’ll go down but we’d get the hell outa Dodge before the French to return/gloat. While we are packing Sergei arranges for two soldiers to come up from base camp to carry our big bags down for us. At 2000RUB each it’s not cheap but it does mean that we’re not being put under any more pressure, as BJ has kept saying “We’re on holiday!”. Vladimir, the refuge keeper, brings us a pot of a traditional herbal tea and a couple of Snickers bars, most unexpected and very welcome. Small acts of kindness like this have continuously amazed us, our acceptance by the people we’ve only just met has been moving. With our little ledge stripped bare, our big bags packed, our day bags containing the absolute minimum, it just leaves BJ to take a ceremonial photo and the handing over of his big boots to Vladimir. Despite their sentimental value and their great condition in order for a comfortable fit on this trip BJ had to remove the insoles, not good in freezing conditions. The end of another era.

We sling our packs on our backs and set off down, a daunting prospect for the damaged ankle but slow and steady and all that. There is no easing a descent, it’s always hard on the joints. BJ has been constantly ragging me about my ability to fall over on any surface, but karma plays its hand as the scree he’s standing on washes out from under him causing him to do the splits. We gently descend, it’s a warm day and when we get down to the “beach” its little daisy posies are alive with butterflies. We sit for a while enjoying the tranquility, nothing can be heard save for my camera shutter whirl. We wander down to the “Mushroom Rocks”, people lay about on the flat stone tops enjoying the sunshine and cool breeze. We slide our way down the scree, just over to the side is a small Swiss encampment, a great place to camp. All the way we’re discussing possible trek/adventure ideas both privately and commercially. We ultimately agree that Elbrus must be bagged sooner than later so we start to hatch the planned return for June ’12 from the south side, BJ “Why make it more difficult?”, I on the other hand need to summit from the North, to finish the job I had started. We cross the bowl and continue into the meadow gorge, above us spiral three huge birds of prey, because of their colouring BJ suggests laughingly that they maybe vultures waiting for us to take a tumble on the “Path of Doom”. The dry river bed to the left looks landscaped with its almost evenly placed steps. When we reach the “Death Path” sign we cut off on to the alternate route, we’re suddenly reminded that “you’re still at altitude matey” as the first big rise leaves us both puffing. By the time we have crossed this little set of hills we’re blowing out of both ends but at least didn’t die horribly in the torrent below. HaHa.

We stand atop the last rise looking down on to the Base Camp working out the differences in the tent configurations from the last time we were down there, seemingly so long ago. we slip and curse our way down the final slope, remembering the burning hot ascent. We meander along with the river looking at possible kayaking lines in the killer river, BJ figures that he’d pretty much die if he were to enter the river at any point. We arrive back at our enclosure, the mess tent is open and a couple of the little Husky tents are up too?? We weren’t expecting there to be any signs of inhabitation for our return. We look for snacks and a lighter so we can get the stove on to make tea, neither can be found. We grab a spare Husky tent and walk over to the perimeter fence and pitch it amid scathing commentary on its worth as a mountain tent. A jeep pulls up and empties three rucksacks and some gear over the fence. The owners arrive shortly after, three Italians who plan to climb unguided. Later we discover that they’re pretty clueless as to where they need to go! We flake out for a while until we hear other voices which belong to three Norwegians and another Vladimir their guide that we met at the hut. We vaguely remember the Norwegians, they tell us that the fittest member of their team (the youngest and fittest) failed to summit from the saddle due to D&V so they had a couple of days to recuperate down in Pyatigorsk and were going to send him back up.

BJ and I are wasted, we drink tea and eat Vladimir’s freshly prepared Borscht, something I’ve wanted since we arrived in Russia. Our bags arrive along with Sergei, the soldiers are paid and we rip them apart in search of our sleep mats which we hit, hard.