At 5642m Mt. Elbrus is considered by most to be the highest summit of Europe. Located in southern Russia within the Caucasus mountain range near the border with Georgia, Elbrus stands just within the widely accepted boundaries of the European continent. A dormant volcano, Elbrus is gently sloped and a non-technical climb.
I had planned to make a quick ascent of Elbrus after climbing 7134m Pik Lenin in Kyrgyzstan, due to the low cost associated with getting to Russia from Kyrgyzstan and the even lower cost of basic logistics support once within Russia. I was unsuccessful on Pik Lenin, and found myself headed to the Caucasus mountains intent on finding some redemption.
My trip began in the Mineralnye Vody airport, where a driver from Pilgrim Tours picked me up and drove me ~5 hours to their hotel in Terskol, a small tourist town nearby Elbrus. Terskol is a ski resort village, and in the summer caters mostly to climbers. Elbrus is a very popular climb, and lots of climbers from all over the world were around. Already acclimated from climbing on Pik Lenin, I planned to begin my ascent the next afternoon and turned in early.
Day 1: I took a taxi about 5km into Azau in the early afternoon. In Azau a cable car runs from 2350m up to 4050m. I used the cable car to access the base of Elbrus’ glacier, and the beginning of the southern ‘standard’ climbing route. This shaves 1700m off of the climb, quite considerable. Use of the cable car is considered standard practice when climbing the southern route and is the same, I suppose, as making an approach via vehicle when climbing similarly sized mountains elsewhere. Regardless, using a gondola to access the base of the mountain gave me an odd feeling. Elbrus’ southern side is highly developed, and gondola access was only the first of several infrastructural elements which I would encounter. I found myself considering the difference which the Gondola made and reflecting on climbs in Peru and in China, as well as my recently attempted ascent of Pik Lenin, and how such climbs are made considerably more difficult due to the long approaches which they entail.
The gondola stops at several stations on the way up. One such station, the Barrels Hut at 3700m, is where many climbers opt to stay for acclimation. I continued higher, to the 4050m Diesel Hut station at the base of the climbing route.
At 4050m I left the gondola and was surprised to find the lower glacier quite crowded. A large number of people, some clearly climbers acclimating, others Russian day-hikers, were all over the place. Snowmobile drivers were selling rides higher, and the noise of their engines was everywhere. Snowcats were taking large groups of people up the slope, and a variety of ugly buildings stood amongst the rocks.
I had read that Elbrus was crowded during the climbing season, but wasn’t prepared for what I encountered. The lower mountain was unattractive, noisy, and overdeveloped. I began to hike upwards at a leisurely pace, and stopped around 4 p.m. at ~4300m to pitch my tent in the rocks.
Day 2: The forecast had called for 30+cm of snowfall, and so I woke up at around 1 a.m. to check the weather. The skies above were clear but a thunderstorm was booming, lightning flashing to the south. A snowcat loaded with climbers drove past – evidently many choose to use them for a ride higher before beginning their summit push. I went back to sleep. Awake again around 4 a.m. and the thunderheads had moved off, so I began preparing to head upwards. The sun cracked the horizon, and the sky began to resemble a watercolour painting, awash with pastel colours.
Above the mountain was tinged purple with alpenglow, and with no other climbers around was quite a pretty sight.
I began moving upwards at 5:15 a.m. I focused on my breathing and foot placement, and it felt great to be rest-stepping upwards at a clean and steady pace. Already acclimatized from 20 days of climbing on Pik Lenin, with a climax of three nights at 6100m, moving at this relatively low elevation of ~4500m felt easy and smooth. The slope was gentle, no more than ~30 degrees, and the snow condition was good.
I first encountered other climbers at the base of the east summit, and soon was passing small groups. The weather was holding nicely, with only low winds. Clouds were building to the south, but were still quite far away. The terrain was very easy, with the route following a gentle slope to the base of the east summit and then traversing westward below it towards the saddle between east and west summits. I continued steadily, not rushing or pushing my breathing, and focused on maintaining my pace.
The route dropped a bit into the saddle, a large level area, before beginning up the west summit block. The slope was somewhat steeper here, but still no more than an easy ~40 degrees. I was happy to have brought two trekking poles, opting to carry my ax in my pack. Atop the west summit block I walked across nearly level terrain towards a distant highpoint, and then continued on past it towards another. As I got closer, I saw others atop it and realized that this was the summit. I reached the top at 11:25 a.m.
The clouds began to move in, obscuring views. The top was marked by a peculiar rock and several plaques.
The other climbers, a friendly Polish group, left as I arrived and I spent 15 minutes or so alone on top. With clouds rolling past, light snow beginning to fall, and the wind picking up I began to descend. Through periodic gaps in cloud the east summit stood ahead of me. As the weather was worsening, I decided to continue descending and abandoned any thoughts of tagging the top of the lower 5621m east summit.
The weather deteriorated further on the way down, and I found myself walking through a whiteout. Near the base of the east summit a buried snowcat – likely having been there for quite some time – served as an easy to spot landmark.
The descent was very fast and I reached my tent at 1:15 p.m., where I took a one hour nap before packing up my equipment and heading down towards the gondola. The weather had begun to clear somewhat, although dark storm clouds still haunted the horizon. View of the Caucasus to the south were interesting, but marred by the ugly buildings clustered around the gondola station.
I was back in Azau by 4 p.m., where a cold beer and some lunch in a cafe were a welcome celebration.
Thoughts on Mt. Elbrus
Mt. Elbrus was an easy climb, and somewhat uninspiring due to the overdevelopment on the southern side of the mountain and the lack of any technical challenges. I had been repeatedly told that the north side of the mountain is wilder, undeveloped, and a much better choice for a proper expedition, but my time constraints and solo climbing dictated my choice of the southern normal route. The climb was long, with over 1300 m of elevation gain between my tent and the summit, but completely non-technical. Due to good snow conditions I didn’t feel the need to use my ice ax during the climb, and was more comfortable with two trekking poles for balance on the gentle slopes. The famously unstable weather reared its head during my descent, and I can see how the mountain has developed a reputation for being dangerous as a result of this. Disoriented in the frequent whiteout storms a climber could easily get lost and descend the wrong direction, or manage to get off route and into a crevasse. Every year numerous climbers die on Elbrus’ slope, many due to weather instability, and the climb – like all high altitude mountains – isn’t to be taken lightly.
Coming into the climb pre-acclimatized and completing the climb solo in a single ‘overnight’ push with the use of a simple campsite was a good choice, as doing so saved me the time consuming process of acclimating on the mountain itself. This is a strategy which I definitely intend to use again in the future, and its success for me on Elbrus served as a valuable lesson. I am glad that I climbed Elbrus in a financially inexpensive manner, as the mountain isn’t particularly beautiful, remote, high, or challenging. I wouldn’t go back to Elbrus, and wouldn’t really recommend undertaking the costs of flying to Russia just to climb Elbrus by itself.
Climbing Elbrus does involve some red tape. I utilized the service of Pilgrim Tours for a very basic logistics package. They provided me with my permits, airport transfers, a ride into Azau, and a hotel room. They were professional, their services are very reasonably priced, and they have a lot of experience with the mountain. I would strongly recommend them.