by Kuba Bogdanski 19/09/2015
My notion of a ‘summit attack’ before it was nothing less and nothing more than just a concept of time I’m going to try my chances.
My first thought was not the tremendous effort which perfectly captured the word itself ‘Attack’. Today I know that if you really want to stand on the summit of a mountain, you have to fight for it, staying constantly in deep focus on the main target.
The day before the ’summit attack’ we went out from the barrels where we spent the last night trying to get some sleep which is definitely an issue on this altitude (3800 meters / ~ 12 467 ft.). Early next morning we together made a decision to leave all unnecessary gear in the barrels. Pack as light as possible, only taking climbing gear, food and try to set ABC camp at 4500 meters (~ 14 764 ft.)
The altitude we gained crawling up the hill for the most of the day maybe wasn’t something to be proud of, but thinking about our heavy backpacks, which truly didn’t get that much lighter after repacking at the barrels, and the lack of acclimatisation made a huge difference. We ended up this boring and exhausting route up nearly 100 meters higher than we originally planned.
We placed our tent between a small formation of rocks. First thing you do after you get into your sleeping bag is start cooking. Water is the gold ingredient. Without it you can’t do anything. Your body dehydrates crazy fast on this altitude, this is one of the key aspects you need to keep track of. If you think you want to go higher tomorrow, you need to fuel your body like a car and let it get some rest.
I have to admit my stomach wasn’t good at all. Partly it was caused by the altitude, but I’m quite sure the food we took with us to the mountains wasn’t our best choice. I still have had this bizarre feeling in my belly after the last dinner and the morning snacks. I could barely put a spoon of adventure food to my mouth, even though I knew if I refuse to eat it now I will have no power to walk up the next day. In my humble opinion it was one of the key mistakes we did while planning this expedition.
We didn’t test it before we left Malta. We went to the mountains with food we didn’t know or had tasted, this could have cost us gravely. Sitting in a cold tent, nearly 4600 meters over sea level, after a whole day of walking up, carrying heavy backpacks; we simply had no other options. Rest of the afternoon we spent filling up our belly’s, drinking cup after cup and sharing thoughts about our main target, loudly listing every piece of gear and plan for the main event, the attack of the great Elbrus.
Its 6 pm. Time to lie down, close your eyes and get as much rest as it’s possible. It’s not easy.
We all lay in a strange silence. Everybody knows rest isn’t sleeping, but there’s no one saying a word. Everybody focus like the final exam is about to start in a minute. Excitement doesn’t allow us to fall asleep even for a minute.
Like this was enough, even weather is turning into storm in a millisecond. Suddenly wind increases so much that the only thing we could hear inside our tent is a terrible rustle. Every thirty seconds the wind is gaining sort of a single punch into back wall of our tent, which opens our eyes for a second and we give each other signs speechlessly, like we all know we’re not going to rest here, not even for a second.
The sun then went down completely and the temperature is decreasing with every moment from now on. We’re getting closer together zipped in our sleeping bags, trying to keep our bodies warm. After few hours of listening to the wind, I felt peace came back to the valley and it’s getting warm enough to close the eyes for a bit.
I could almost experience pleasant warmth, when suddenly I was put back on my feet by the awful sound of Geir’s phone. The sound of an alarm clock reminded me kind of the siren you could hear loud when you stay on a sinking ship.
The final start shot.
Each of us took care of self-preparation like it was an automated task, even though it was hard to find a space as we were packed together in our small tent like sardines in a can. The moment that I went out of the tent will be always an exceptional part of the summit push. Complete silence. Something you can’t experience anywhere else but in the mountains.
There was no wind, no creatures around, no people. I couldn’t hear any noise whatsoever, my ears felt strange like I’m watching mute video. Down on the slope in distance I noticed a line of head torches heading in our direction, I knew they would pass us in less than 20 minutes. We decided to wait for them and follow them up as we felt it’s better to have someone around.
Then the walk up the mountain started. Geir went first, and then Magda, I was at the end of our team line. My first thoughts were to keep eye on Magda all the time, as she had some issues before with a bleeding nose because of the altitude and she was already struggling with a heavy breath.
At some point I heard a strange sound like the wind is whistling in a kind of rhythm and I couldn’t understand what that strange noise is. When I got to Magda I realised she’s the one who’s trying to feed her lungs with oxygen. First few hours were horrible, we had problems with finding an equal pace and we all felt the altitude is affecting on us. Every few minutes we were hanging on the trekking poles giving small favours to our bodies which were almost screaming for more air.
Step by step we were closer to 5000 meters (~ 16 404 ft.), I couldn’t see the sun but the surroundings was much brighter. This could have work like a patch on my morale cause with every step up I felt my stomach is enormously upset. Trekking up I felt more and more dizzy, that at some point I simply needed to stop. My eyes were following the rest of the crew climbing higher and higher, but I couldn’t walk a step further. Magda couldn’t hear me behind her so she turned around asking me if everything was alright.
This time I was the one who needed a break, “I felt like I would throw up!”
My team was standing in silence far up the hill and was I left alone with my doubts? ‘What’s happening with me?’ I couldn’t stop wondering, I felt like my body is so weak right now. Standing there for a moment I realised how long and demanding it is. I then turned my sight back into the valley. I could see the wide range of Caucasus, beautiful, sharp summits and ridges covered with snow. This picture made me proud of where I am right now. This view compensated us all with the effort we had made.
We had planned this trip for so long. We travelled so many kilometres to finally be in this place and to fill our dreams. I thought to myself ‘This is exactly why we are here’. From this moment I was repeating to myself that ‘I’m completing my dream’, whenever I felt I need to hear it again.
The clouds enfolded us surprisingly, we couldn’t see much. All we knew was the elevation which Geir was checking on his watch. Getting higher we went up on the plateau placed on 5100 meters (~ 16 732 ft.). Unanimously we decided to take a break in this place. Trying to chew the frozen protein balls from bounce and fill our bellies with cold water, we stared back at what we left behind. The view was priceless and something I will never forget. A stunning mountain panorama highlighted by the morning sun, seen from over 5000 meters. I promise you, this seems magic and you don’t want to leave this place.
We needed to go. Time is running out, bodies are losing heat and we still have work to do. The turn left which should have been ‘flat’, wasn’t really flat. Hearing all the stories before we were sure after all the pain until this stage it was that now the sweet taste of dessert that comes. Crawling slowly we were looking for the saddle to see. The whole team was tired. Amount of oxygen in the air on this altitude is 40% less than at sea level. So you could imagine how ‘lively’ pace we all had.
Funny thing about breathing at this level is that you suck as much air as you can. You can feel the speed of the air at the edge of your lips. It’s clear that it is there, but it’s not feeding you the way you expect it. Simply it means that you have to breathe faster and faster in order to get light back to your head. I’ve been reading about it lately, just before we went to Russia. But this was the first time I could experience that bizarre feeling myself. At first I was scared and confused, but then I felt kind of proud that I am able to feel exactly the same what heroes of my beloved stories experience during their climbs!
The saddle was quite of a surprise so to say. Placed around 5400 meters (~ 17 716 f.t) the saddle was the middle point between the two summits of Mount Elbrus. Down in the funnel we could see some climbers having a break, and looking up we saw tiny black spots high above us moving to the left. This was a group of climbers going to the main summit of Elbrus (West 5642 meters / ~ 18 510 ft.). Here in this place the slope was getting much steeper than before. I heard Magda crying despairingly, saying ‘I am not going to make it’. Geir wasn’t saying anything and I reminded myself of the last chat with my best friend when I told him ‘man, after talking with you now, I gained so much power. I know I’m going to climb this mountain easily’. Standing there in the saddle, after sleepless night, tired of the first part I couldn’t find any power inside whatsoever. I told Magda we’re going to make it, but I remember in my mind was circulating around all my friends and family. Around everybody that was counting on me and I simply knew giving it up now is not an option.
To stop wondering I went up first. I didn’t want to leave space for unnecessary thoughts and doubts. I knew we have perfect conditions, the time is right ant this is the moment we need to test ourselves mentally and physically. The route was marked with red flags every 7 meters. I planned those markers as my checkpoints were I could have a second to catch my breath. Climbing up like crazy I was kicking a wall of ice and stabbing the snow with my trekking poles one after another. Left, right, left, right Like I am in a trance. ‘Breath in, breath out’. Going up like I’m a machine programmed for one purpose. Slowly getting up the mountain. Listening to the sound of my heavy breath I was quite sure that if I won’t make a break I will suffocate myself. With every break I had to catch up greedily 10 to 15 breaths of air to get back to normal. I got to the fixed ropes where I met three Russian climbers sitting next to it. One of them was on the ground like he couldn’t walk. I looked at them and asked if it’s alright. Two of them were taking care of the one who probably felt already the effects of deterioration.
From this moment I was even more focused on my task. I took a look back and I barely could see them, I noticed Magda telling me to wait for them. I wasn’t proud about that. It might have looked like I was running away from them to the summit, I have to admit somewhere in my trance I went too far, just crawling up a hill. We changed sequence again; Geir was going first, Magda in the middle. We got to another set of ropes but people were stuck there. In this place there was a turn and straight rope up. We needed to pass by around climbers who were going down.
It wasn’t easy, considering strong wind which appeared exactly here on the uncovered space. We went to the summit of the massif and felt a bit confused, where is the summit of Elbrus? Now the ground was almost completely flat, we went further till the point we were completely uncovered. There it is, 60 meters away. Looking like it’s been specially made there, a pile of snow which you have to climb like a ladder.
The summit of Elbrus, the highest point of Europe and Russia.
I was looking at it hypnotised. Magda started to cry and was repeating ‘I can’t believe it’s here’. Then I got this feeling like you want to run to it now, immediately. Still it’s not easy, but want to ‘have’ this mountain. Stand on its summit like it was the final piece of the puzzle.
It’s like a drug; you want it so bad that you feel warm just by looking at it. I know we are safe by now. I know there’s no harm, so I ‘run’. I just need it. Pushing my body to squeeze a bit more and finally see the view from the purpose of our journey.
I give the last few steps and I feel like this is the best mix of emotions I’ve ever had. I feel like I want to laugh, I feel like crying, pride almost blows of my chest. This is it. We’re screaming widely all together, giving high fives and jumping around. The view is just stunning.
It is the summit. Summit of your suspense, summit of doubts, summit of fears, summit of tiredness, but also the summit of your dreams, plans, effort and happiness.
Going back down the valley I was thinking that somewhere in this pain, constant tiredness and dizziness you can find sweet addicting craziness. You can lose yourself in this kind of experiences, willing for more.