Nizar Fakhoury, we call mountain man, an entrepreneur, (owner of Urban Peak and founder of Climb for Cancer) with a beautiful diary to share with everyone on his life changing experience climbing Mt. Elbrus. It’s funny how we all want a ‘life changing moment’ but too afraid to go out and get it. Everyone thinks it will happen to you…it wont. You have to happen to it first. Get up. Nothing can stop you. Do something, before it’s too late.
Nizar runs Urban Peak, a newly-launched Dubai-based company that is dedicated to providing trusted outdoor equipment, adventure gear, camping systems, active apparel, survival tools, innovative sports brands, and performance foods for life-changing expeditions, back-country journeys and outdoor lifestyles.
He also is the founder of Climb for cancer.
A Diary Climbing Mt. Elbrus with Nizar Fakhoury
Destination Caucasus mountains in a remote area of South-western Russia
The plan was to climb to the summit of Mt. Elbrus (5,642m above sea level), the highest peak in Europe.
In 2009 I founded a charity called Climb For Cancer, which is a non-profit initiative that encourages people to climb mountain peaks around the world in an effort to raise awareness and funds for children suffering from cancer. Our goal was to reach the summit of Mt. Elbrus in memory of 3-year-old Lyla Nsouli who passed away months earlier from a severe battle with DIPG Brain Cancer. Our objective was to raise funds towards the Lyla Nsouli Foundation for Children’s Brain Cancer Research, a registered cancer charity in the UK
There were no hotels on the mountain! We stayed in a metal shack that had been airlifted onto the mountain by a helicopter. It’s the equivalent of an old rusted, container-shaped metal crate that is the only material capable of withstanding the extreme conditions on the mountain and the severe winds and sub-zero temperatures all year long. It is quite an inhospitable place but these metal containers did there job safe in keeping us safe from the elements.
The temperature inside the shack where we slept hovered slightly above freezing for the duration of our stay on the mountain. We had beds made of a rusted metal frames, and pieces of wooden planks tied together to keep our bodies off the cold floor. We used sleeping bags (rated to -25C) inside the shack to keep us warm at night. The bathroom was an experience of its own. It was an outhouse (an external toilet with no plumbing) sitting on the side of a cliff-ledge 100 meters away from the shack, and was filled to the rim with waste and excrement. Details would not be appropriate but surely it was memorable to say the least! We stayed in the shack for about a week. It was basecamp for us. Every day we climbed a little higher a little higher up the mountain, then and came back in the afternoon for a snack and early dinner. We went to bed at about 8:30 or 9pm. We tried our best to sleep at night, but most of us struggled to fall sleep for the first few days. This is a normal experience as a result of being at altitude. The elevation of basecamp was roughly 3,200 meters.
Month We went at the beginning of September, which was a little late as it is on the very end of the season, and just around the time before the weather permanently deteriorates until the following year.
In your suitcase Below is an idea of what was wearing and what I carried on summit night only. The full gear list is even longer.
Lightweight long thermal underwear
Insulated synthetic pants with side zippers
Hard Shell pants with full-length side zippers
Lightweight long sleeve thermal t-shirt
Insulated Goose Down Parka with hood
Hard Shell Jacket with hood
Warm Wool Socks
12-point mountaineering crampons
Pashmina knitted hat
Lightweight synthetic glove liners
Warm Ski Gloves
Hard Shell Mitts with insulated removable liners
Alpine climbing harness
2x trekking poles
Ski Goggles (100% UV & IR)
Sunglasses polarized with 100% UV, IR, and extra eye socket seal
Mountaineering Ice Axe with leash
2x 1L wide-mouth water bottles
2x insulated water bottle parka
3L water with electrolytes
2x fruit/nut bar
1 small bag almonds
1 Toblerone bar
All the above items were used to help me reach the summit safely and securely, and most important of all allowed me to return back to basecamp in one piece.
There were no restaurants anywhere near basecamp, but we were blessed to have a great Russian cook, and we relied on her completely for the duration of our stay on the mountain. She was a young blonde Russian girl in her late-twenties or early thirties that made the best pasta and soup I’ve ever had on a mountain. Her food was delicious and out of all my journeys on a mountain, I had never felt more full and satisfied with food. One night she didn’t have a place to sleep in the other shack where she was staying with our guide due to over-crowding, so without invitation or hesitation, she came and crashed at our shack which was used by the team and myself. That same night as I was struggling and trying hard to fall asleep, I heard one of the boys snoring heavily and severely at 1am, then again at 2am, and then at 3am… he wouldn’t stop even after my multiple attempts trying to call out his name and asking him to stop. He simply wouldn’t stop snoring.
Finally by 4am I had enough, so I got out of my sleeping bag and rushed over to him and grabbed him by the foot aggressively and shook him very hard to wake him up. He was shocked and had no clue what happened so I told him STOP snoring! He said it wasn’t him, and to all our surprise seconds later, I heard the same exact snore continuing loudly without shame. It turned out to be our young female Russian cook who was snoring the entire night.
Needless to say, I didn’t dare wake her up by aggressively shaking her, so I let her be and went back to my sleeping bag disappointed and defeated.
We found a place near the base of the mountain that sold bottled water. That turned out to be my favourite place to visit during our rest hours and also on our rest day in between the climb. The water tasted great, and was the only limited luxury that could be purchased within walking distance to our camp. It was a happy distraction as well during the quieter hours of being on the mountain.
There’s a very simple theory in climbing that says “Climb High, Sleep Low.” This helps you minimize the onset of Altitude Sickness, and gives your body enough time to acclimatize to this new altitude. It gives your body the trigeer to develop more red blood cells the higher up you go, and therefore giving yourself the chance to recover and adjust when you go back down slightly lower. So that’s exactly what we did for the duration of our stay.
We’d wake up very early, slightly after sunrise. We’d gear up, brush our teeth outside in freezing cold, grab a quick bite with some warm tea and buscuits, and then head off up the mountain. For several days we would push up the mountain for several hours, then climb back down to base camp. This entire process was allowing our bodies to acclimatize, and prepare ourselves for summit night.
On one of the days we got caught out in a wind storm, with winds reaching 100 km/h, we were being knocked off like paper baskets in the wind. It was difficult to stand, let alone climb, but we pushed on until we reached our objective, then again headed back to camp for the night.
We didn’t meet a lot of people on the mountain, it wasn’t a very crowd-friendly place to be. We got to know a few other climbers, and I was honoured to meet one of the most remarkable people I have met my entire life. He was a 70-year-old Romanian man that was attempting to summit Mt. Elbrus with his son. His story inspired me a lot and I was amazed by his performance on the mountain on days where I was feeling weak.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in Terskol, the village we stayed in off the mountain, was a Muslim Russian community with Mosques in the surrounding area. Many women were veiled and the tiny restaurants in the valley all served kebab and Laban Airan. If you plan on climbing Mt. Elrbus, do it! It was a memorable journey and one I wont forget. The Caucasus mountain range is incredibly beaituful, the valleys at its base are lush green and riddled with water falls, streams, forests, and are just heavenly.
A high level of fitness is required to reach the summit of Mt. Elbrus and back safely. At least 7 days would be required on the mountain, giving you enough time to acclimatize and if you are lucky enough you will find a weather window that would welcome the opportunity for a summit push.
Expect to climb many hours a day, and to have many free hours at camp. Use this time wisely to disconnect and reflect on yourself. Not many people are with you on the mountain, so it’s a perfect time for self-discovery.
Do not take this journey lightly. It requires a lot of preparation, a strong fitness discipline, and lots of mental strength to get you through on the long days, and especially on summit night which is a 12-hour round-trip that starts before sunrise and ends close to sunset.
Once you reach the top, walk a few meters to the left of the summit point, and look at the incredible views in the distance. Use this time to stand away from the crowd at the summit, and allow yourself to reflect and enjoy your new achievement. You will be tired, cold, hungry, and ready to collapse at times, but remind yourself of your mission and why you are there.
Mode of travel
It takes multiple stops to make it to the mountain. We took Emirates Airlines from Dubai to Moscow which was approximately six hours long. From Moscow we took a local airline called S7 to a city called Mineralnye Vody (MV) in the south-western part of Russia near the Caucuses. From MV we drove all the way to Terskol in the Caucuses which was an additional 4 hour drive. After an 8 eight hour summit push, we finally made it to the top of Mt. Elbrus in picture-perfect conditions. It felt like we were blessed with the weather window as the winds and freezing conditions were relentless on previous days.
Young Lyla’s picture was buried on the summit of Mt. Elbrus, with a little help from my Ice Axe that I used to dig a hole in the snow with. Leaving Lyla’s picture on the summit was a tiny gesture of love, compassion, and strength that she left with all of us. As a result of her brave fight, Lyla is giving hope, awareness, and help to so many brave children in the world suffering from cancer.
We were proud to raise the Lyla Nsouli flag for the first time on a mountain summit, and the Climb For Cancer flag for the third time. These journeys leave a permanent mark on you.
Trips likes these change your life forever. They allow you to completely disconnect from the world, and to re-connect with yourself, which is something we rarely do at sea-level in the middle of our busy lives. They allow you to learn what your true values are, what matter the most in your life, what drives you, what inspires you, and they give you the much needed time to look back and reflect on your life. It sets the path that you need to move forward, and all the obstacles that come in your way in life suddenly become insignificant.
This trip and others, provided me with a sense of gratefulness, inner peace, and strength that came as a result of helping children suffering from cancer. If they can have the strength to survive a deadly disease, then I can do anything I put my mind to.
It’s because of this trip and all remaining journeys with Climb For Cancer, that I have learned who I was as an individual, built the dream I was longing for, acted on it, and pursued my own ambitions outside the corporate world. I have never looked back since.