02 Apr Vertical Rush – 5555 – Climbing Mt. Elbrus
Climbing solo at high altitude – Lessons from the highest point of Europe – 18,510 feet (5,642 meters)
In 1987, after Ivan Kristoff completed his mandatory service in the Engineering Corps of the Bulgarian army-and just after his discharge he was part of a national climbing expeditions at the Mt. Elbrus. Ivan went just for the fun of it, but the lessons he learned from this journey, shaped his focus on safety and responsible training for people who want to venture into the world of high altitude rope access. Here is the short story of his experience.
Before his attempt to climb the summit, Ivan had to do his first Search and Rescue mission for a climbing party, which did not return to their Base Camp. The weather was getting bad and there were less chances for these men to survive out there in the freezing cold. Even though, the expedition organizer and leader was a professional Mountain Rescuer and prominent member of a Mountain Rescue Service with over 50 years of history, there were a lot of things that should be done safer. There were no radio communications, no well prepared rules of engagements, which had to be communicated to the expedition members.
Two climber, decided to climb a nearby peak. To Ivan’s recollection, they did not set up a control time for their coming back. When a reasonable time passed, Ivan and a group of climbers went towards the peak to search for their comrades. It was just a coincidence, that Ivan was curious about checking out a place that would be good for hiding from the snow storm, where the missing party was found. Risking lives because of miscommunication was not what Ivan, a teenager at this time, would allow to happen in his professional career.
When Ivan and the deputy leader of the expedition started climbing the side of the mountain, which was never climbed by Bulgarians, they had to bivouac at the height of 5200m. They had to make their hot soup and milk shakes by melting the snow and ice in a gas burner in the tent. Just opening the tent and letting the cold air and blowing snow form outside, was quite an experience. Both climbers were getting dizzy, and Ivan assumed that this was part of the altitude adaptation and “business as usual”. There was no more fun. Every time Ivan was close to the ground trying to make the liquid meal, so important for the survival and success of the climbing mission, he was feeling sick. At on point, their movements were so chaotic, that somebody hit the cup of hot milk form condensed conservative, that both men, without loosing a second and drop of this survival fuel, started sucking it form the dirty floor of the tent. After an agonizing night, in the morning, the team was not happy to find that the visibility outside was no more then a few meters. Plus, the were exhausted from the lack of sufficient sleep.
The climbing partner of Ivan, who was almost twice of his age, gave up on the attempt and headed back to Base Camp. Aiming high, Ivan headed for the summit. Just before the climbing attempt, one of his friend Sergey, gave up to his climb. Ivan did not even thing of giving up. The breading was difficult, and he had no previous experience at this height. Only common knowledge about high altitude acclimatization was guiding him how to move forward. In the process he learned how to breath efficiently in thin air. On every step he had to take a moment to take a deep breath.
Things got worst, when Ivan was on a steep slope and had to take off his third layer of ice climbing gloves in order to tighten his ice crampons. He put the cloves between his thighs and at one moment he saw how the pair were blown away and flew into the abyss. Thinking would force Ivan to go back and abandon the climb. But the reason for him was not the summit, but rather the experience. And there was nothing to learn from giving up. Now the adventure was not so exciting, after the pain form the cold hands, and even worst, when Ivan had to warm up his hands under his pants, the warmest place. Here it is how it works. First you ignore the pain, until your fill your fingertips and hands numb. Actually, this is the point when you don’t feel them. Then, if you don’t want to go with the flow and loose them (have them amputated later on), you have to put them in the warmest places, usually near your tights. And believe it or not, but the feeling of the blood circulating back in your limbs is unbelievably unbearable. That’s is when you find where is the HELL in your body. And how far can you go like that? Every 50 meters and doing these procedure all over again. The feeling of the pain in repetitious periods was like on commercial for batteries: ” And it just keeps on, and on…”
As Ivan says about this precious moment of his exploring life, “I was surrounded by this dense fog, that gave me a chance to see only a few metres ahead. My only companion was the blowing and freezing wind in my face I did not know where I was going and how far I was from reaching the top of Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe. But I knew only one thing – when I reach a point of going nowhere higher, that is when I have reached my goal and the summit. So, I was climbing up by myself and my thoughts, and once in a while, almost every 20 minutes, i was screaming from pain and saying,’There it comes again…’ I just had to put my numb hands, where it hurts most.”
One thing the solo climber noticed, is that when he is near the ground he was feeling dizzy again. So, he decided to take straight his breaks. Unfortunately, no body around was offering any coffee.
So, Ivan decided where would be the smart line of risk. If he recognized signs of going close to the point where the consequences of his action would be irreversible, he would head back immediately. The way back would be easier and faster. Now all that Ivan had to endure was the painstaking process of testing his guts, stamina and patience. How far can you go, when you only know that you are on your own in every aspect of your journey to the top. Finally, he reached the summit, saw the hand made from rocks tripod and accomplished his mission.
Back in the Base Camp Ivan talked to his friends and was discussing some of the challenges he had. To his surprise he learned that the reason he felt dizzy and occasionally had to throw up, is because at this period of the season, this part of the mountain was famous for having a large sections of methane gas evaporation. The methane is a heavy gas and because of that it stays near the ground in the cold water. Approximately at the height of one foot (30 cm). Ivan asked his partner, who was at the age near his father, “Did you know about that???” The answer was, “Of, course! I was even wandering how far can you keep going on. In part that was part of the main reason for the this expedition- to see the effect of these anomalies in the region. That is way at this season, the category of difficulty of the climbing is considered as this as of climbing a 7,000 meter peak. I was impressed by your stamina…”
As Ivan Kristoff recalls, “I was in shock to find out that this man, would watch me in agony, feeling seek, and left me climb up, without sharing his “little secret: with me. Was I a test animal for him, or the government…? What kind of people are these alpinists and “team leaders”?
I would never let that happen under my watch to anybody. That shaped the vision of how I would train my men for professional missions, and do the hardest things my self first. Safety and bringing my man safe back home was the only way of training.”
Later on, in his article for the Toronto Sun Newspaper , SUCCESS IS UP IN THE AIR, author Ryan James writes – “He’s always been an entrepreneur as well as a climber. ‘Except for the government, Ive never worked for someone else,’ he says. “That makes me happy.”