So you have heard the call of the mountains. Maybe you’ve even decided to conquer some or all of the famous Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents). What is the highest mountain in Europe you will ask me? If your mind turns to the Alps and Mont Blanc (15,771 feet), you are not alone, but you are wrong! At 18,510 feet, Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus Mountains is the tallest mountain in Europe.
Mount Elbrus, with its dormant double-dome volcanic peaks, is a popular climbing destination for experienced climbers and amateurs alike. Climbing Elbrus is a fantastic mountain challenge and an incredibly rewarding experience. But, like any serious mountain climb, the Elbrus can be dangerous. In good weather, and with the right preparation and the right equipment, any normal person can do it. The Elbrus may not be a technical climb, but it should not be underestimated. The cold weather and the altitude can make the ascent quite difficult and dangerous, in fact, every year, a few people die while climbing the Elbrus.
The allure of Mount Elbrus attracts thousands of climbers every year. If you are planning to tackle the climb on your own, here are a few things you should know before you book your flight to Russia.
1. Which route should I use?
There are two main approaches to Elbrus: the southern and northern routes. The south side is significantly easier than the north. The southern summit success rate is around 80 to 90 percent, as opposed to the north, the summit success rate is around 50 percent. The ascent of Elbrus from the south is a 5 to 6 day expedition and that of the north will take you 6 to 7 days. Both routes involve basic technical skills like rope travel, crampons, glacier crossings (north side only) and the use of ice axes on some steep snowy slopes. These skills can be learned in the mountains if you book with a reputable company.
The south side via the cable car
This is the most popular route on Mount Elbrus. If you have limited high altitude mountaineering experience or want to go without a guide, then this route is for you! It is the easiest, safest and fastest way to climb Elbrus. On the south side, climbers only need basic experience in the use of crampons and ice axes. The south side approach uses a unique cable car system to transport climbers up to 12,500 feet. From there you can see the barrels (bochki), the steel containers, where you will sleep and eat. There are three sections of barrels on the south side of the Elbrus. On the southern route, you can expect more comfort and even have the option of staying at the LeapRus hotel which is equipped with comfy bunk beds, modern showers, good food, free Wi-Fi. Fi and a fantastic view of the Caucasus. While this might not be the hardcore mountaineering option that some mountaineers are looking for, it is certainly very comfortable. The other cabins on the southern route are also comfortably equipped, but not as luxurious.
The Northern Route
It is a more difficult route. The drop is greater, the snow slopes are steeper, which means more ropes and experience with crampons and ice axes are needed. There are no roads, cable cars, chairlifts or snow caterpillars on the north side, so you will have to walk to base camp (8,200 feet) carrying all your belongings. The route also includes glacier crossings where crevasses are a risk, and some crevasse rescue skills are important. The northern approach is much more difficult and therefore there are a lot less people on this route. I would only recommend following this route if you are going with an experienced guide or if you are an experienced climber yourself.
I love the north side of Mount Elbrus, but if you want to be safe and successful, and not that experienced, then the south side is the best route for you. Honestly, no matter which route you choose, after all, a successful climb either side will get you to the top of Europe.
(There are routes on the eastern and western sides of the mountain, but both are quite wild, with very few people and no infrastructure. Climbing from the west or the east requires experience and skill. strength, and therefore these routes only get a few climbs annually).
2. Should I hire a guide, which company should I choose and how much will it cost?
Aside from the technical challenge of climbing the Elbrus, planning the logistics of the climb, if you are not using a travel agency, can be very difficult. Although a guide is not necessary to climb the mountain, I think it is money well spent. A tour operator will organize your entire trip: transport to and from the mountain, accommodation on and off the mountain, equipment rental, meals, etc. In addition to taking care of all the logistics, their professional training and rich experience will really boost your chances of successfully reaching the top of the mountain.
The cost of climbing Mount Elbrus depends on how you approach the mountain. Here are three options:
Budget independent escalation
It is possible to climb Mount Elbrus independently. You could probably do it for as little as $ 500 (excluding international and domestic flights), but it would be really cheap. You will need to budget for your transfers, accommodation before and after the ascent, cable car rides (if you are going up from the south), food and water on the mountain, and accommodation on the mountain. As much to tell you here, it is not easy to organize an ascent without a guide. In southern Russia, you are likely to encounter only a handful of people who speak English, so some degree of fluency in Russian is quite important if you are traveling without a guide.
Climbing with a local guide
There are a number of good Russian guide organizations that you can climb with for around $ 1000 per person. This price would usually cover accommodation before and after the ascent, all logistics and mountain expenses, as well as a professional guide. I would highly recommend Elbrus Tours, they have great local guides and are also happy to help with the difficult logistics of getting a Russian visa and all required permits.
Climbing with a western operator
There are a number of Western operators who offer Mount Elbrus climbs. International outfits will guarantee English speaking guides and often help with formalities like visas and international flights, but they will be much more expensive. Prices can range from $ 2000 to $ 5000 per person.
3. When is the best time to climb?
The climbing season on the Elbrus runs from May to mid-September. The best time to climb is July-August when the weather is more stable, the days the sunniest and the temperatures warmer. If you prefer calmer slopes, climbing later or earlier in the season is possible, but the weather will be colder and less predictable.
The best time to ski Mount Elbrus is June, when there is more snow. It makes the climb more difficult, but I have been on the mountain before with an Icelandic team that climbed the mountain in June, through snow up to the thighs, and then snowboarded back down!
4. How do I prepare for the ascent?
There are no two ways you have to be in good shape to climb the Elbrus. Trekking is demanding, especially on summit day when climbers can expect a 12 to 3 hour round trip. Climbers should be comfortable with a 25-pound pack on long hikes of 5,000 feet in one day. A training program should include a mixture of hiking uphill with a loaded pack, jogging / running and weight training, and should begin at least 8 weeks before your ascent.
Climbing Mount Elbrus is not for everyone, but with a good level of fitness and some mental preparation it can be for you.
5. What should I bring?
Make sure you have the right clothes and equipment. Your trekking company will help you with a packing list. Appropriate hiking boots are a must, as are waterproof gear, a range of merino wool layers and good quality gloves. If you are not a professional climber, I suggest that you bring the basic hiking equipment and rent the special climbing equipment you will need.
Equipment rental is fairly straightforward, with many stores offering a variety of options at affordable prices. You can rent almost anything you need, which is useful both to reduce the weight of your luggage on the plane and to avoid having to invest in expensive technical equipment that you can only use once. .
6. What about acclimatization and altitude sickness?
Many people who climb Elbrus will experience some form of altitude sickness. At the top, there is about 50 percent less oxygen than at sea level. Symptoms usually occur above 7,500 feet and include headaches, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, difficulty sleeping, nausea, vomiting and rapid heartbeat.
To aid acclimatization, climbers should take regular acclimatization hikes in the days before their summit push. Drinking plenty of fluids will also help. The drug Diamox can be taken prophylactically, although with sufficient acclimatization hikes you will hopefully not need it.
7. How do I get to Mount Elbrus?
The closest airports to Mount Elbrus are at Mineralnye Vody (125 miles from the Elbrus region) and Nalchik (about 75 miles). Most people travel via Moscow (or Istanbul or Dubai), although you can take the train.
Most visitors to Russia require a visa, which can be a long process. You must apply for the visa at least one month before travel.
Elbrus is a fabulous climb. I have been to the mountains several times: first as a client, then as a guide, I even took my 17 year old son with me once. With a little preparation, a good level of fitness, and a lot of determination, Mount Elbrus is an achievable feat and well worth it.
There are other mountains that are difficult to climb: