ELBRUS : A STORY ABOUT DESTINY ON THE PERILOUS SLOPES OF RUSSIA'S MOUNT ELBRUS.
Physical and Spiritual Limits
"The journey to mountain peaks seldom passes without meaning; whether we find something in ourselves, a hidden strength or courage to overcome great challenges in the pursuit of reaching our physical and spiritual limits; or discovering that in the isolation of the mountain world , destiny reveals itself in all its thunder and glory, and the hearts and souls of all who dare to stand in its path are forever joined in the triumph or tragedy which unfolds."
John Michael Mouskos on Mount Elbrus, 27th August 2006
It is said there is only one way to reach a mountain top… be humble and climb as if you will never get there.
I had arrived at the base of Mount Elbrus in the early hours of the 17th August 2006 having travelled a gruelling 17 hours from Athens, as part of the first Greek and Cypriot joint expedition to climb Mount Elbrus. I had joined expedition to acclimatise in preparation to attempt a challenging climb of Cho Oyu the sixth highest mountain in the world.
It was during one of our team's early acclimatisation walks on the mountain that I first met Stavros Xenios a Cypriot mountaineer and as I was to later learn, distinguished academic.
He had noticed the Cyprus flag I always carry on my rucksack and probably overheard the laughter and conversation of several Greek members of our team as we made our way up the mountain with good humour, allowing our bodies time to adjust to the rarified atmosphere whilst gasping breathless with laughter.
He excitedly approached us, introducing himself enquiring where we were all from, stating that he was from Nicosia in Cyprus. I was shocked and so pleased, amazed at the coincidence of meeting a fellow Cypriot mountaineer high on such a remote mountain so far from our small and beautiful island.
Unknown to us both, a third team of Cypriot mountaineers were elsewhere on the mountain steadily preparing for their summit bid, aiming to be the first team of the Cyprus Climbing and Mountain Federation to summit Elbrus.
Stavros went on to explain he had been on the mountain for some days, that he and his team of mainly experienced Scottish climbers were fully acclimatised and planned to go for the summit the following night, or soon after if the conditions were good.
We pondered if the mountain had ever been climbed by a Cypriot and agreed it would be tough to get to the top. The altitude gauge on the summit would read 18,510 feet (5642 meters) above sea level. We would be higher than Everest's base camp.
In a moment that was prophetic and sealed our destiny on the mountain I insisted that if the situation allowed, that we should summit the mountain together and share the honour of the mountain. I could see in his eyes that had we been in the same team going for the summit together, and I faltered up high on the mountain, that I could count on him to do the decent thing and wait.
In truth we knew it unlikely that we would be going for the summit at the same time as his team were fully acclimatised and ready, and it would be at least a further three days before our team could have attempt at the summit. I wished him luck, fully anticipating his triumphant return and celebration before he departed the mountain.
The weather that night raged a fierce gale, and savage rain swept over the entire mountain. I was relieved Stavros was not going to attempt the summit this night for it would surely have ended badly for him. In high mountains, weather plays a pivotal role in success and failure often determining if you return home at all.
The next day passed without incident, with continuous acclimatisation exercises ascending the mountain still higher before descending later in the day to our base camp which lay at an altitude of approximately 3400 meters above sea level.
Nightfall came and the dark sky was full of stars, perfect conditions for a summit bid. I awoke around 2am, the usual time that summiteers depart, so as to benefit from extremely low night temperatures which freeze layer upon layer of snow ice and rock reducing the risk of avalanche on the assent and descent.
With conditions in their favour I fully expected Stavros and his team to be taking their chance. Unable to sleep my mind wandered and I was with them in my imagination edging closer and closer to the mountain top.
It was August 21st, the day before our summit bid and we rested at base camp organizing our kit for the challenge ahead of us. Even at relatively low altitudes simple tasks require effort and it wasn't long before I was growing impatient with my inability to prioritise; what should remain and what I should carry on my journey.
Of utmost importance was protection from the extreme cold and avoiding being dehydrated. I packed extra gloves and an inslated jacket, having just read Maurice Herzog's Annapurna with its graphic description of the terrible frostbite injuries he suffered when dropping his gloves and being forced to descend the mountain in appalling conditions. Everything was stuffed tight into my 20 litre capacity rucksack along with a chocolate bar which I placed in its hood.
On our way
My preparation was almost complete only the final placement of an ice axe and crampons and a two litre insulated bottle of water which would be positioned just before we left.
By late afternoon there was no sighting of Stavros or his team, I was puzzled! Had they postponed their summit attempt for some reason or just maybe abandoned it completely. Maybe they were resting in a higher camp, exhausted from their summit trip yet content.
Retiring to my sleeping bag on summit night I hardly slept, my second night with little or no sleep. It was August 22nd the night was cold the air dry and crisp. I ached from head to toe but knew as soon as I set off the pain would disappear.
Before setting off for the summit I was alone in my own world, aware that I was about to venture into the unknown with only my strength and faith to help me. All that passed before seemed distant in the silence on my inner thoughts. Each step, each breath would take me closer to my greatest fears; a hidden crevasse, avalanche or rockfall could change my life forever, maybe end it.
We were on our way, soldiers into battle with ourselves, all of us connected with a determination to succeed and a hope that all of us would be there at the end.
In the darkness our group of 17 brave climbers were softly lit by moonlight, our shadows reflecting on the giant slopping wall of ice and stone before us. The wind roared and the air temperature read -25 degrees celsius.
It was 3.am when we set off, ahead of us a climb of some 1600 meters to the summit; relentlessly the group moved like a giant caterpillar our spiked metal crampons boots and ice axes forced hard into the frozen snow whilst trying to use as little energy as possible, conserving what we could for the final stages of the summit push and the return to base camp.
Our group was strong and within a short time we were passing other teams on the mountain. The night air grew thinner and colder as we climbed higher, our survival totally dependent on our ability to keep moving. In the darkness all sense of exertion faded, as if walking on a cloud, with all around us nothing but stars. I wondered if I was really climbing a mountain or slipping more deeply into a dream.
The rising sun appeared from below the steep slopes, illuminating the mountain in a warm glow. It also brought Mount Elbrus's summit into view which appeared like a giant flame which might burn me if I got too close.
Ahead of us lay a gentler section which lay beneath the lower summit of the mountain. From this point a traverse would take us to a sheltered point called 'The Saddle' from where we would rest before the final summit effort.
We had been moving for nearly 4 hours when we came upon a small group of climbers who were moving above us. With steely determination we soon caught up with them. As I passed each climber I offered a nod and muffled words of encouragement, that the summit wasn't far and to keep going. In the dim light I caught sight of one member of the team who gave me a warm smile and deep gaze as I passed him.
Who was this person who seemed to acknowledge me in a way that had left such a deep impression? It would be some hours before all would be revealed for as quickly as our eyes caught sight of each other, I had passed him moving strongly with my team which had now separated leaving half of our group in our trail.
We arrived at the saddle a sheltered valley that lies between two of the highest peaks in Europe. From there a steep traverse and gentle trek would lead us to the summit some 1 hour away. It was time to rest! We had been on the move for 6 hours.
Other climbers from different teams began to appear as well as members of our own who had decided on a more measured pace. We had rested and waited for some 45minutes until all the members of our team where ready to attempt the summit.
Four of our group decided to retreat, they had reached the end of their journey and wanted no more.
Just as we were getting organised to leave for the summit I heard a familiar voice from behind a group of mountaineers coming towards me and Stavros Xenios appeared. I could not believe my eyes for in my imagination he had already climbed the mountain.
Without hesitation I told him that we would summit together, that I would wait for him close to the top, that I would honour the sentiment made when we first met and we would walk onto the summit together.. A few words of encouragement to him and his team who were now in need of rest and I was off trying to catch my team who had moved on up the mountain without me.
The summit was within sight, far above the clouds and all of the surrounding mountain peaks. It rested on a gentle mound of snow, and at it's base, some twenty feet below the summit, I stopped climbing and explained to my team that I was going to wait for Stavros. One by one my team members stepped onto the summit and I applauded them with all my heart for it was an honour to be part of their team.
Reaching the summit
I waited, gazing over distant mountain peaks my mind turning and turning wondering was it all real. I remember feeling as insignificant as a snowflake in the vastness of it all.
In the distance I could see a figure slowly, determinedly making his way towards me. I just knew it was him, and I raised the Cyprus flag high to salute his achievement and welcome him. We embraced, and shrouded with the flag continued onto the summit, the final steps seemingly lasting longer than the entire journey there.
It was 11am, on August 23rd, and we were standing on top of Europe's highest mountain with nothing above us but sky.
No sooner had we commenced our descent when we witnessed something which truly opened our hearts to the belief in destiny.
Unknown to us two courageous young Cypriot mountaineers Evripides Kyriakides and Lazaros Sofokleous were moving steadily towards us to the summit, their Cyprus flag blowing in the wind. They had set off 8 hours earlier on their quest to be the first members of the Cyprus Climbing and Mountaineering Federation to summit Elbrus.
Had this been planned it would never have happened. Destiny had brought us all together at the summit. We were unknown to each other before we stepped on the mountain and now we were brothers sharing in each others triumph.
In a single moment the mountain had touched our lives forever.
John Michael Mouskos 6th October 2006, Hampstead, London.