Elbrus is the highest peak of Caucasus and Europe located in the brunch of main Caucasus Ridge, Russia. It has two summits: East summit altitude is 5621m and West summit is 5642m. Elbrus is a stark volcano with usual for such mountains slope profile. It still has open fumaroles and the smell of carbonic gas may be felt during the ascent.
Reminding Elburus those who have ever been there imagine Backsan valley, views from Mt. Cheget, Tersckol village, refuge "Priut Odinatsaty", i.e. the south slopes of this great mount. Developed infrastructure makes ascending to Elbrus along the classic route possible for any person if he or she is well acclimatized, wants to walk a lot and weather is good. In this area alpine skiing is the all-year-round activity especially near the upper station of Garabashi cable way (3800m).
East Elbrus was first skied by V.Gippenreiter as long ago as 1939. He descended to refuge "Priut Odinatsaty" along the most popular ascending route.
The situation differs when it comes to the north slopes of Elbrus. It is a really wild area without roads and hotels and, of course, not to mention ski lifts and cable ways. The only shelter for climbers is the half barrel of North Refuge (3800m) found its place on one of north moraines.
Wilderness, severe and flux climate makes climbing and skiing in the area of the North slopes of Elbrus significantly more difficult. Suffice to say that two groups of climbers from Kiev and Moscow were missing here in 2004. But wilderness of the region attracts those who eager not only for powder skiing but for real backcountry experience on the slopes of great five thousand mount that have never seen skiers and snowboarders.
The idea of ski descending from East Elbrus captured our minds in 1999 after successful (and not the first) ascending to this summit. Huge neve fields which heavily cover ice doom of Elbrus (height overfall to the north moraines exceeds 1800m) are quite attractive for backcountry skiers. This heavily glaciated area is cut by widely spaced ice falls and rock ridges and stretches northward into the green valleys of Karachaevo-Cherkesia and Kabardino - Balkaria. Due to the different reasons realization of this attractive idea was postponed.
First ski descending from East summit of Elbrus towards the North Refuge was made by the group of Moscow skiers and local rescuers in 2000. However the descending from more demanding (higher and more difficult) West summit was waiting for its hour.
On July, 31, 2004 our team - successfully skied off from West Summit of Elbrus along the north slopes toward the glacier Ullukol. In a day skied from East Summit and made "Double Elbrus".
Our team 2004 was quite age dissimilar. The age spectrum was from 18 up to 61 year.
However we spent some mountain seasons together and knew each other very well. Even for elder members of the team, who had climbed a lot in different regions, our trip 2004 was unusual in many respects. The goal of the trip - ski descending from the big mountain seemed absurd at the height of summer season. More over this time we decided to turn down usual train and to travel to the start point of ski adventure by jeeps. We determined to go to upper sheep-fold (12 km from Hurzuk village above the valley), to live there our jeeps and to deep into mountain ridges.
So we began to prepare for a journey. When we saw huge pile of our things we were dumbfounded. We should load into cars not only usual in these cases tents, ice axes, gas-jets and food but also skis and ski boots taking a lot of place. After the whole hour of loading manipulations our jeeps were off with mournful groaning. It was getting dusky:
Just after Hurzuk village asphalt road ended and we found the camp of mountain rescuers. Here we registered one more time (first time was in Cherkessk - the capital of Carachaevo-Cherkesskaya republic) and explained the goal of our trip to chief rescuer. He strongly recommended us not to poke our skis at Elbrus slopes but nevertheless gave us the permit.
So we drove to the upper sheep-fold. The road looked like a serpentine crossing the river (we counted 11 bridges over the stream) in the magnificent forest. All the bridges were hollowed by timber lorries and when we drover over them I just closed my eyes (fortunately I didn't drive at the moment). After a while in spite of all obstacles we arrived at the sheep-fold. It was getting dusky:
Acclimatization was very important for further trip so we decided to be quite serious about it. For a start we hauled skis and weekly food reserve on Balkbashy pass and than hid all the things there. The task was to find the gear in a week by ourselves and not by anyone else. We heaped our gear with the stones under the thick mist in the firm belief that we did it exactly on the pass. How naive we were! However we found our gear in a week but not at once.
Acclimatization is like a vaccine against mountain sickness. It's necessary to have a slight sickness in order to be healthy at critical moments.
We walked over three passes and made a detour around Elbrus than enclosed our traverse in the reverse direction. Finally we reached the altitude of 5200 m. We finished our two - day traverse of south and west Elbrus snowfields on a nice nunatak dividing upper parts of two great glaciers Ullyuchiran and Karachul.
We guess that one-week high-altitude limbering-up is a reasonable minimum for such a trip.
At last we reached our ski moraine between Ullukol and Karachul glaciers where we set our base camp. (It should be noted that we had found it beforehand). Some days ago we had made great efforts to bring here our equipment and food from Bulkbashy pass. But that day we found ourselves in good spirits and ready for further deeds. For a start we should define the snow conditions and refresh our ski skills. With the rope party we were going up along the slope trying to find out crevices and remember them since we would be coming back without the rope. The weather was excellent and we were elated. Far in the distance we saw Elbrus saddle and realized that we were high enough for the first skiing day. So we decided to put on skis and go down.
We were the first skiers on these huge snowfields! This made me feel joy and proud. Delighted with our first ski descending we approached to the moraine. Even this descending showed that our efforts and hopes were not in vain.
July, 31, 2004. Today we got up earlier than yesterday and became our ascent on the summit. We passed ice fall and decided to make our way towards the north ridge of Elbrus. This ridge seemed to us logical and moderately steep. Our way became more and more difficult because of altitude but the summit still stayed far away. Suddenly we saw fragments of tent and remembered of climbers from Ulyanovsk who perished here this year. The snow was very hard here and it made digging impossible so we cut a piece of tent in order to give it mountain rescuers, fixed the point on the map and went further.
In an hour the ridge was over and rocks appeared. It was apical plateau at a height of 5500 m. Far-far away we saw a little pimple - West summit of Elbrus. We put away ropes and members of the team drifted apart along the plateau. (Nevertheless ropes are useful at least they prevent climbers from scattering : -) Summit of West Elbrus was a small eminence amid of great plateau. The top stone was decorated by pennons and smth else. While we were having fun and taking photos the snow began and visibility became extremely low. We felt strong desire to start descending. We clicked into skis and began descending.
We quickly slid off to the plateau. A thick mist hid features of relief and slope. The slope was heterogeneous: soft snow alternated with hard snow. Snow sastrugis were unpredictably striking our skis. With wobbly legs from altitude I came to the edge of plateau. Here we decided to ski exactly along our ascending way in order not to lose right direction under such weather conditions. And one more demand: every member should be within the field of vision. Turn after turn I skied down. When I stopped I saw a cloud of snow and then flying ski. It was the first and the only fall in this descent. The skiing became joyful and my legs at last remembered skiing technique.
Our only snowboarder experienced some difficulties. The snow was too hard for him. If it had been powder he would have demonstrated his skills. Our beauty skied off as nice as beauty should though it wasn't easy to drag heavy freeride skis on the summit. Our camera man was always ahead of the team shooting our descending. When we reached the lower part of the ridge we should make a traverse to go round the huge bergschrund. Now we were in the zone of ice fall. We had been there yesterday and now we wouldn't lose the way but we should be thoughtful for crevices. I strained my memory and remembered their locations. Our camp was near. At last we were on the moraine. I was excited by our successful accent. Suddenly I realized that we had done it! We made the first ski and snowboard descending from the West Summit of highest mountain of Europe along the north slopes!
August, 2, 2004. Today we were going to climb and ski off East summit of Elbrus. All the more snowboarders never descended this summit and we were ready to accompany our young friend (Zhenya was only 18). The weather was clear though a bit windy and the climbing was really enjoyable. Soon we saw a group of climbers walking ahead along the Lenz Rocks. They had start ascent much earlier then we. But today we had hurried ascent and found ourselves on the summit in 6 hours. (It was excellent result).
The view from the summit to panorama of Main Caucasus Ridge was incredible but wind and frost on the summit forced us to lower a little where we began to take funny photos with skis and snowboard. At that moment we met climbers whom we had already met some hours ago. (Being well-acclimatized we outrun them). We wished each other good luck and good weather.
So we skied off again! Wide and gentle fields of East Elbrus attracted us. Clear, sunny weather helped us to have great fun. Today we had an excellent day of climbing and skiing! Being kept by wonderful skiing two of us missed base camp and were forced to go up on the glacier to the tents.
In the evening Elbrus showed us fantastic sunset. Marvelous clouds floated over our heads towards dark valleys. Elbrus said good buy to us and called to come again.
At night the weather turned bad. Being offended by it we took off our camp and went back to the sheep-fold. When we were crossing Ulluuchiran glacier the snow and wind began. Thick mist covered the glacier and we lost the way. We put off our rucksack and refueled with a soup. Meanwhile the weather cleared up and showed the way.
The next morning we had mineral bath and began our way home. Elbrus was covered by clouds but we had a good look at him! We left mountains with the feeling of good job done.
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