Dawn at 5300m Elbrus South Side.
As a kid growing up in Ireland we had relatively inneffective log and peat fire heating in our home. So when it became cold you put more layers on and did manual work to keep warm. It felt like living outdoors but we were inside. Waking up on a winter’s morning with my woolly hat on in bed and scraping the ice off the inside of my bedroom window was commonplace. So, it’s not too big a jump to push myself into uncomfortable situations for pure enjoyment, and I love the feeling of achievement it brings.
Elbrus expedition flag 2014.
Climbing mountains is something you do because you love it or perhaps you are just plain crazy. You can’t imagine what it’s like to wake up in the morning above the clouds. It’s an amazing experience.
Sunset at 3700m Elbrus North Side.
I always loved the mountains and spent a lot of time as a child with my Father in the wilds. In 1989 I read the book Seven Summits by Dick Bass and Frank Wells. They were the first to climb the highest mountain on every continent and this I found inspirational and a task I have now set myself. Of these 9 peaks, Mt. Elbrus’s is the highest in the Caucasus Mountains and in Europe – and this was to be my third attempt.
Waking up above the clouds at high camp Elbrus North Side August 2012.
Elbrus, also known as Mingi Taw, the eternal mountain, is not a technically difficult mountain, but all the same it has many dangers. The death toll averages from 15-30 per year. Like all mountains you must be prepared, have ability and be vigilant as the weather can change in a heartbeat at altitude.
My climbing partner Mikael Sjöberg at 4700m, Lenze Rocks Elbrus North Side August 2011.
In 2011 prior to my departure the Russian military closed the mountain to climbers because of terrorist activity on the South side of the mountain. Bullet holes can still be seen in the windows of the cable cars on the South side.
Bullet holes in the glass of the cable cars. Elbrus South Side July 2014.
I was determined to go anyway and managed to get onto the remote North side with the help of my Russian guides. An uneasy agreement was made between the military and the climbers. It was forbidden to take any pictures of their presence. We would pretend to each other that we were not there. This led to some surreal situations.
The Russian Mountain troops were removing a crashed helicopter bit by bit every day from above Lenze rocks.
A photograph that used to reside in the high camp. Elbrus North Side August 2011.
In the evenings they would use the boulders on the glacier for target practice shooting tracer rounds into the night. That year I met my Elbrus climbing partner Mikael from Sweden. We had a difficult time and didn’t make the summit due to very bad weather but came back with many stories to tell. I went back again in 2012 but this time approached the mountain from the North. Again I had more difficulty and wasn’t able make the summit. On the descent I snapped the ACL in my left knee. That was the end of my climbing for a year. I was operated on and had it replaced using part of my hamstring.
Russian special forces dropping into our camp in the valley for a coffee, North Side August 2012.
Russian climber, Elbrus North Side.
In July 2014 Mikael and I returned to the South side of Elbrus determined to summit. We spent two days in the Balkaria valley and summited Cheget mountain on the Georgian boarder to acclimatise. Then up to the famous barrel huts on Elbrus.
Cheget Mountain looking towards the Georgian Boarder. 2014.
Barrel huts. Elbrus South Side July 2nd 2014.
Operating physically at altitude is not easy and it affects each person differently. Your body needs adjust. The air gets thinner and thinner the higher you go. This is something that you cannot experience watching climbing documentaries on TV or by walking below 2000 metres. We spent two days training on Elbrus up to 4800 metres, getting further acclimatised to the higher altitude. Both Mikael and I were in good condition and were experienced and eager to get this done.
Mikael Sjöberg taking a breather at 5550. Elbrus South Side July 4th 2014.
Checking my gear and taking in the view at 5550. Elbrus South Side July 4th 2014.
On July 4th we set off in the early hours of the morning, heading up into the darkness. Elbrus ascent from the south takes about 6–9 hours, with a total height difference of 1700m between 5718m and 6542m, from the Barrels Huts to the West Summit. This time ‘Grandfather’ (as Elbrus is nicknamed by the locals) gave us perfect weather – clear skies and little wind. We achieved the summit by midday. For Mikael and I it was the end of a long journey.
Mikael Sjöberg and Seán O’Mara on the summit of Elbrus 5692m. July 4th 2014.
Within 10 minutes of being on the summit the weather changed completely and it started to snow heavily turning to a complete white out. The descent was treacherous. Descending off the summit un-roped, I slipped off the side onto a steep slope on my back but managed to flip over and self arrest with my ice axe. That was a wake up call. Then came the long descent. 7 hours. Then a well deserved celebration beer and a warm bed. We achieved in 4 days what we had waited 3 years for. Our motto is never ever give up!! With two of the seven summits under my belt, Aconcagua’s next!