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An Adventurer’s Guide to Climbing Mount Elbrus

September 29, 2018

One of the most interesting of the Seven Peaks (the seven highest mountains on each continent), Mount Elbrus is a popular destination for climbers and adventurers from around the world.

Tucked in the Caucasus Mountains near the Russia-Georgia border, Mount Elbrus is the highest peak in all of Europe. But perhaps most impressively, it is also the tenth most prominent peak in the world (meaning that it is a rather “independent” mountain, that isn’t bordered by other high peaks).

Physically, Elbrus is a very impressive mountain. It has a permanent ice cap, which not only makes it a beautiful peak to appreciate from afar, this ice cap feeds more than 20 glaciers situated on and around the mountain. Elbrus actually has two peaks: The east summit stretches 5,621 meters (18,442 feet) into the sky, while the taller western summit climbs to a height of about 5,642 meters (18,510 feet).

Each peak is a dormant volcano. But don’t worry – the chances of either erupting while you are scrambling up the summit are exceedingly low. Elbrus was last thought to have erupted nearly 2,000 years ago.

Now that you know a little bit about the mountain, we’ll explain what you need to do to have a good chance of making it up the summit.

Getting to Mount Elbrus

You can climb Elbrus as part of a guided commercial expedition, or you can climb the mountain on your own. If you elect to join a group, you’ll need to follow their recommended itinerary, and meet up with the party in the designated location. Independent climbers can also have a great time summiting Elbrus, but you must be sure to plan your trip carefully if you wish to make it up the mountain on your own.

No matter where your journey begins, you’ll need to start by traveling to Moscow, situated some 870 miles away from Mount Elbrus, or Istanbul, which is about 150 miles closer to the mountain. From one of these two places, you’ll need to board a plane and fly into Nalchik Airport, although some tour groups meet at or fly into Mineralnye Vody Airport instead.

From there, you’ll need to board a minibus and travel to one of three towns located near the mountain. Terskol is the largest of the three and provides the most amenities, but some travelers chose to travel to Cheget or Azau – the closest of the three to Elbrus – instead. It’ll take you between one and three hours to reach these destinations from the airport.

At this point, you’ll head directly to Elbrus and begin preparing to summit the mountain.

Routes to the Summit

There are several different routes to the summit of Elbrus, but two – one that climbs up the north face, and another which climbs up the south face — are by far the most popular. The eastern and western routes up to the summit are typically only attempted by seasoned and skilled climbers, who’ve already accomplished both of the common routes.

South Side of the Mountain

The South Side of Elbrus is the most popular way to reach the summit. It is also the route by which most people have success. Whereas climbers who tackle the north side of the mountain only succeed about half of the time, climbers scaling the south side of the mountain are successful approximately 90% of the time. The south side of the mountain can also be completed more quickly than the north side.

The south route begins in Azau. Unlike most other climbing routes around the world, the south route up Mount Elbrus features a number of cable cars and chairlifts that will not only carry you most of the way up the mountain, they’ll also haul your pack. This means you will only need to carry your day pack while climbing.

There are several camps along the route, including three different barrel camps, constructed from large, circular metal containers.

Mir Station, located at about 11,500 feet (3,500 meters), is the first and most crowded of the camps, as day hikers and skiers often stop here before turning around and heading back down the mountain. There are plenty of amenities at Mir Station, including souvenir and coffee shops (be sure to use this opportunity to charge your phone). However, if you aren’t suffering from altitude sickness, and you don’t have a compelling reason to do so, it is generally wise to keep heading up the mountain without stopping.

The second set of barrels is located at Garabashi Station, situated about 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) above sea level. You can hike from Mir to Garabashi, but most climbers will instead prefer to take the chairlift between the two camps. Garabashi represents the terminus for the motorized lift system, and it is a good location to acclimatize and prepare for the summit push. This is one of the last places to charge your phone or buy a cup of coffee, so take advantage of these opportunities as necessary.

You can hop aboard a snowcat at this point, and it’ll take you up to about 15,500 feet (4,700 meters). You’ll have to pay for the privilege of doing so, but it does shorten the length of time you’ll need to reach the summit. Nevertheless, most mountaineers will not feel like they’ve truly completed the summit by utilizing these motorized vehicles, so serious adventurers generally stay on foot.

Many climbers make the final push for the summit from Garabashi, but others continue farther to the third camp – Shelter Maria, located at about 13,500 feet (4,100 meters) – before attempting to reach the summit. Shelter Maria provides fewer amenities than the lower camps do, but you’ll have access to a gas stove all day and night long, and you’ll even have electricity during the day. There is not, however, a water supply for this camp, so you’ll need to melt snow for drinking water.

Regardless of which camp you choose to make your final push from, you’ll need to start early. Most expeditions begin the final summit sometime between 12:00 and 3:00 am. This gives you enough time to get to the summit and back down to the highest chairlift before it stops running around 4:00 pm.

Assuming you start at Garabashi, it’ll take you about 8 hours to reach the summit, and then an extra 4 to 5 hours to climb back down to the chairlift.

North Side of the Mountain

Climbing up the north face of Elbrus is far more challenging than climbing the southern face, and relatively few climbers opt for this route. Only those with a significant amount of experience climbing snowy peaks should attempt it without a guide.

There aren’t any cable cars or chair lifts on the northern side of the mountain, so you’ll be forced to haul your gear up 10,000 vertical feet from base camp to the summit.

There are also several significant hazards that climbers must negotiate on the way up the north side of the mountain. There are several large and dangerous crevasses, and the north side’s steeper slope makes avalanches more likely too.

Additionally, the summit push itself is incredibly long on the north side of the mountain and stretches for about 6,000 vertical feet.

Trip Timing

Most climbers scale Elbrus during the summer – primarily between the months of June and September. July is likely the single most popular month during which people climb the mountain, but many climbers find it easier and safer to climb during June, while there is still plenty of snow on the ground.

A few guide services do schedule climbs during the winter, but the very low temperatures make this a challenging endeavor. Oftentimes, the temperatures will fall to less than -40 degrees Fahrenheit during the long winter nights.

How Hard Is It to Climb Elbrus?

Elbrus is considered one of the easiest of the Seven Summits in many ways, but it also presents a number of unique challenges to climbers.

The climb doesn’t require a lot of technical climbing. Most adventurers – even those who don’t have much mountaineering experience – can learn the necessary ice ax skills “on the job,” while climbing up the mountain. Bad weather, however, can make climbing the mountain much more difficult and hazardous. And because the weather on Elbrus is very unpredictable, there are always risks associated with the climb.

Additionally, climbers will face a pretty difficult summit push when trying to ascend Elbrus – many experienced climbers even consider the summit push one of the most difficult of any of the Seven Summits. This is primarily because there aren’t any camps at high altitudes, so you’ll need to climb more than 6,000 vertical feet to reach the top.

Staying Safe During Your Trip

Safety should always be at the forefront of your mind during any trip – you don’t want to have to cut your trip short because you become sick or injured before getting the chance to reach the summit. In addition to incorporating the same safety practices you’d use on any trip, you’ll want to do the following things when trying to climb Elbrus.

  • Register with the Elbrus Rescue Center upon arriving. They will give you the chance to share your contact information with them, as well as the date on which you intend to finish your climb. If you do not return or contact the center by this time, they’ll begin mobilizing a rescue effort.
  • Make sure you bring cash with you when heading to the mountain. There aren’t many ATMs in the vicinity of Elbrus, and those that are in the area frequently run out of cash during the summer season.
  • Speak with your doctor before traveling to southwest Asia. Some healthcare providers may recommend that you receive vaccinations for Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and rabies before traveling to the Caucasus region.
  • As with any other adventure, travel with a group if possible. This will reduce the chances that you’ll be the victim of a crime while making your way to the mountain, and it’ll help provide additional safety while scrambling up the summit too.
  • Be sure that someone back home knows your itinerary and your intended date of return. This way, they can contact the authorities if you don’t make it back on time.

Avoiding Altitude Sickness

Anytime you undertake a high-altitude adventure, you need to be careful to avoid altitude sickness. It is impossible to completely eliminate the possibility that you’ll be stricken with the illness, but you can do a few things to help improve your chances of staying healthy on your trip up the mountain.

The amount of oxygen available falls with increasing altitude. By the time you reach 8,000 to 12,000 feet, the levels become low enough to cause health problems. In fact, prolonged oxygen deprivation is essentially the cause of the altitude sickness.

Your body can cope with reduced oxygen levels to some degree – many people live their entire life above 8,000 feet. But if you’ve lived around sea level for most of your life, you’ll need to acclimatize (allow your body to adjust to reduced oxygen levels) gradually. There are hard limits; nobody can acclimatize enough to live normally above 18,000 feet or so. But most people should be able to cope with the low oxygen levels encountered while scaling Mount Elbrus.

The most important thing to do to acclimatize as effectively as possible is to spend as much time as you can at a given elevation before increasing your height. It may be wise to stay in Cheget, Azau or Terskol for a week or more before beginning your ascent. Azau, for example, is 7,700 feet (2,350 meters) above sea level, which is already pretty 50% higher than Denver.

Some of those who climb Elbrus begin by first climbing nearby Cheget Mountain, which climbs to about 11,800 feet (3,600 meters). Terskol offers another acclimatization opportunity, as it is home to Terskol Observatory, which sits a little over 10,000 feet (3048 meters) above sea level. Climbing Cheget Mountain or hiking to the Terskol Observatory will help your body acclimatize and set you up for a successful summit, but be sure to take it slow and let your body adjust gradually.

But if you don’t want to do any of these things, you’ll just need to proceed slowly, and be sure to descend promptly if the symptoms become serious. It is also wise to speak with your doctor before attempting the climb, as he or she may be able to help you know how your body will react and what symptoms if any, you need to watch for. Your doctor may even be willing to prescribe medications that can help eliminate the symptoms of altitude sickness.

Packing and Preparing for Your Trip

In many ways, your Mount Elbrus pack list will resemble the pack list needed for most other mountain adventures. As always, be sure to follow any advice provided by your guide service (if you are going with a professional group), and tailor the list to suit your specific needs.

Clothing

  • Heavyweight base layers (top and bottom)
  • Lightweight base layers (top and bottom)
  • Warm socks (at least two pairs)
  • Fleece or synthetic mid-layers (top and bottom)
  • Raingear (including a jacket and pants)
  • Heavy outer coat
  • Hiking pants (lightweight)
  • Long sleeve shirts (at least two)
  • Winter gloves
  • Winter mittens (for summiting)
  • Winter hat
  • Warm-weather hat
  • Cotton t-shirt and shorts (for use during traveling)
  • Hiking boots
  • High-altitude mountaineering boots
  • Sandals/camp shoes
  • High-rise gaiters
  • Sunglasses
  • Ski goggles

Equipment

Tips for Traveling to Russia

Many of the most alluring mountain peaks and other natural points of interest are located in potentially dangerous areas, but Mount Elbrus’ location – near the Russia-Georgia border – is a particularly hazardous one.

Accordingly, you’ll need to consider whether or not it is wise to make the trip; and if you do make the journey, you must plan it very carefully to give yourself the best chances of a problem-free adventure. This means, among other things, embracing the following tips:

  • You’ll need to obtain a Russian visa to gain entry to the country. Russian visas can take some time to secure, so be sure to start the process well before your intended departure date.
  • The U.S. State Department actually recommends that citizens completely avoid traveling to the North Caucasus region. In fact, the State Department specifically warns against climbing Mount Elbrus, as doing so requires you to travel through very dangerous areas, which U.S. government employees are not allowed to visit.
  • The U.S. State Department explains that terrorism, civil unrest and targeted harassment are all quite common in the region. Additionally, westerners traveling through the Caucasus are often kidnapped and held for ransom by local gangs.
  • The U.S. State Department also cautions that American citizens may experience problems with government officials while traveling to Russia. Extortion of U.S. citizens is common, and officials frequently prevent detained individuals from communicating with the U.S. Embassy in a timely manner. Additionally, the number of U.S. diplomats stationed in Russia is very low, further complicating matters.
  • Extreme caution is advised whenever visiting a place that westerners are known to frequent.
  • It is likely safer to travel with an experienced and reputable guide service, who already has financial, governmental and personal relationships in the area.

Mount Elbrus is certainly one of the most interesting of the Seven Summits. It presents a few unique challenges, including significant dangers related to terrorism and crime, but the mountain also provides a few unique creature comforts – like chairlifts and coffee shops — that few of the other seven do.

So, as with any other adventure, be sure that you plan carefully and learn as much about the destination as you can before your journey begins.

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