My heart was beating fast and I found my breathing shallow as I marched up the road with Pat Falvey and the rest of the Elbrus team. We’d just been travelling for 24 hours, taking three flights from Dublin through London and Moscow to arrive last night at Chegret Village at the foot of Mount Elbrus, after a three hour bus ride from Mineralnye Vody. This morning is our first acclimatization walk. For several days we will be training on lower peaks, gaining and losing height on the mountain, to try and fool our bodies and help us to adapt to the thin air, and avoid the debilitating affects of altitude sickness. Symptoms include tightness in the chest and shallow breathing, in fact pretty much the way I’m feeling now, but its not altitude sickness I’ m suffering from, it’s sheer dread at what I know is coming next.
We are taking a chair lift, several in fact, to bring us halfway up Mount Cheget and I’m terrified. We arrive at the hut and Pat tells our Russian guide Artem Rostovtsev that I’m a bit nervous, and he offers to sit with me. I suddenly realise the chair sits two people and some of my fear eases. I’d been Googling chairlifts before breakfast, which probably wasn’t wise, and had been dreaming up all sorts of flimsy structures. This didn’t seem too bad, except you had to stand in front of it and then catch it as it came up behind you, jump on and chain yourself in, while being swept up the mountain, feet and legs dangling over the trees below.
Now if that still sounds scary to you, I’m glad – because it was! Much higher up the mountain we swung into another station and swapped to another chair that would bring us up even higher. This was a single car, so I had to brave it on my own. I got on, chained myself in, ignored all thoughts of falling off or the cable snapping and finally got brave enough to look all around me. It was beautiful. No noise other than the occasional crank of the metal cables above, and the distant roar of melting ice-water flowing from the glacier, sun warm on my shoulders, cooled by the mountain air in my face, flowers and forest below, Cheget Mountain rising above me and icy snow-capped peaks all around. To my right I could see the volcanic twin-peaks of Mount Elbrus, our eventual target, and it reminded me of the task ahead.
The chairlift brought us up to 3,000 metres on the mountain and we hiked and scrambled the remaining 400 metres and along a short ridge to the summit. What a reward, this beautiful country stretching out in front of us under blue skies and golden sun, surrounded by the Caucasus mountain range and Mt Elbrus, our challenge, the highest peak in Europe and one of the Seven Summits. Our first local summit under our belt, an easy hike with lots of help, but a great start to our acclimitization and a great introduction to the beauty of the region. We turned to go and I fairly skipped to the chairlift down, fear all forgotten…