The highest mountain in Europe

When our new friend Albert just suddenly appeared out of nowhere, landed at our table and took the role as our tamada – or toastmaster – we knew this trip was going to be a winner. We were in the village of Zhankhoteko in Kabaradino-Balkaria, eating dinner on our way to conquer the 5542m high peak of Elbrus.

The team;

  • Lars “I have all the equipment in the store (and a pretty bad sunburn)” Ragnar
  • Finn “medic with a sunburn” Børre
  • Eirik “the second”
  • and yours truly

Lars will remember sunscreen next time

Lars has now learnt to apply the sun block before entering the sun. Except for this, a strong team to explore the Caucasus with, as all speak Russian, and with the honorable exception of Eirik “the second” nobody had ever been at altitudes above 5000m before. And to be honest – when Eirik “the second” climbed Kilimanjaro – he did it with in a group of 8 tourists that had a total of 24(!) guides and porters. Now it was just the four of us.

My own claims to hiking at high altitudes are quite modest. I’ve been above 3000m a few times, amongst them at Mount Agung in Indonesia and in Sierra Nevada in California. And I’ve been at the top of Mount Kosciuszko, which some count as one of the seven summits. It is disputable if Kosciuszko, and not Puncak Jaya, should be considered the highest mountain of the Australian continent. Regardless it is hardly a challenge to get to the peak at 2228m.

So – nothing wrong with the experience level. So here we were. Sitting in the kitchen of some friendly Balkarian lady, who called her kitchen a cafe. Most of us would just call it a kitchen with two tables. Our driver had assured us that we could get anything we wanted there. He was right. As long as we only wanted the local dish khichini (a pancake like dish of potatoes and cheese), and cold chicken we really could get anything we wanted.

Her bar was in a plastic shopping bag, which she conveniently just left at our table. A few bottles of beer and vodka. Anything you could desire basically. And we found out that when the bar ran out of anything, the enterprising hostess would procure further drinks at the “bar” next door.

Before we managed to settle the bill (an astounding $30 for the four of us) Albert, a self-declared “kommersant”, or merchant, had given us an interesting insight in the honour codes of the people of Caucasus. Also, he introduced us to a whole universe of drinking rules. Never drink without a toast etc. This was quite confusing, especially for Finn Børre who always got it wrong. Accordingly he was repeatedly punished by having to down his drink. A warmer welcome I don’t think it is possible to get for foreigners coming to Kabaradino-Balkaria.

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We made our goodbyes to Albert and drove to Azau. This is the village at 2350 where the ski lift starts from. You can ride three different ski lifts all the way up to 3850m. This is not cheating. It is saving time. So after an acclimatizing climb to the top of Mount Cheget at around 3400m the first day, we took the ski lift up to the barrels camp next morning.

At the barrels we are already in snow. Elbrus is covered by a glacier. Long story short – we spent three days acclimatizing and exploring the mountain up to about 4700m before we attempted the peak the fourth night. Even though he had the hottest gear, Lars also had the lowest tolerance for the thin air. After a painstaking 10 hour hike starting at 02.00 at night, Lars had the dubious honour of joining the “I puked at 5642m”-club. We’ll see to it that he gets the shirt later, as they were temporarily out of stock in Azau.

At 5642m above sea level this air sure is thin. You don’t have the energy to take many steps at a time if you have not spent lots of time at those altitudes lately. We all got up, and the view both on the top, and on the way up was worth the effort. See the pictures.

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When we eventually got down again, and had recovered sufficiently, we decided to get drunk to celebrate. For reasons unknown to me, Finn Børre managed to get up early the next morning and catch his flight back home. The rest of us discovered that there was a counter terrorism operation going on, and that our freedom of movement in the Baksan valley would be restricted. The valley is bordering to Georgia, and neighbour with North Ossetia, and close to Chechnya and Dagestan. We heard on the news that there were some attacks on government troops, and seeing that we were not permitted to do any further hiking, decided to skip to Pyatigorsk.

And what a pleasant surprise that was. From the (badly tasting) mineral hot springs to the loud taxi driver, who told us about his model daughter who had married a French millionaire movie producer and moved to Switzerland. Pyatigorsk is a kurort (a health resort) filled with sanatoriums. They even have their own Institute of kurortology. It is a beautiful city of 140.000 inhabitants with lots of pre-revolution buildings. We had no problems filling the time – from swimming in the local lake, to jumping of a mountain in paragliders.

Check out the pictures.

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