So, you’ve heard the call of the mountains. Perhaps you’ve even set your sights set on conquering some, or all, of the famed Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents). Which is the highest mountain in Europe you may ask? If your mind turns to the Alps and Mont Blanc (15,771 feet) you’re not alone, but you are wrong! At 18,510 feet Mt. Elbrus, in the Russian Caucasus Mountains is the highest mountain in Europe.
Mt. Elbrus, with its double-domed, dormant volcanic peaks, is a popular climbing destination for experienced and amateur climbers alike. Climbing Elbrus is a fantastic mountain challenge and an incredibly rewarding experience. But, like any serious mountain climb, Elbrus can be dangerous. In good weather, and with the right preparation and gear any normal person can do it. Elbrus may not be a technical climb, but it should not be underestimated. The cold weather and altitude can make the ascent pretty challenging and dangerous, indeed every year a couple of people die climbing Elbrus.
The allure of Mt. Elbrus draws thousands of climbers every year. If you are considering tackling the climb yourself 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 the northern routes. The south side is significantly easier than the north. The summit success rate from the south is about 80-90 percent, by contrast from the north the summit success rate is around 50 percent. Climbing Elbrus from the south is a 5-6 day expedition and from the north will take you 6-7 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 snow slopes. These skills can be learned on the mountain if you book with a reputable company.
The South Side Via The Cable Car
This is the most popular route on Mt. Elbrus. If you have limited high altitude mountaineering experience, or want to go without a guide, then this is the route for you! It is the easiest, safest and fastest way to climb Elbrus. From the south side, climbers only need basic experience in using crampons and ice axes. The south side approach uses a unique cable car system to ferry climbers up to 12,500 feet. From here, you can see the barrels (bochki), the steel containers, where you will sleep and eat. There are three barrel sections on the south side of Elbrus. On the southern route you can expect more comfort and even have the option to stay in the LeapRus Hotel which is equipped with comfortable bunk beds, modern showers, good food, Wi-Fi, and fantastic views over the Caucasus. While this may not be the hardcore mountaineering option some climbers are looking for, it is definitely very comfortable. The other huts on the southern route are also comfortably equipped, but not as luxurious.
The Northern Route
This is a more challenging route. The elevation gain is greater, the snow slopes are steeper, which means more ropework and experience with crampons and ice axes is required. There are no roads, cable cars, chairlifts, or snowcats on the north side, so you’ll have to walk all the way from base camp (8,200 feet) carrying all your stuff. The route also includes glacier crossings where crevasses are a risk, and some crevasse rescue skills are important. The north approach is significantly more challenging and as a consequence, there are a lot fewer people on this route. I’d only recommend you take this route if you go with an experienced guide, or you are an experienced climber yourself.
I love the north side of Mt. Elbrus, but if you want to be safe and successful, and you’re not that experienced, then the south side is the better route for you. It honestly doesn’t matter which route you choose though, after all, a successful ascent on either side will take you to the Roof of Europe.
(There are routes on the eastern and western flanks of the mountain, but both are quite wild, with very few people and no infrastructure. Climbing from the west or east requires experience and strength, and as a consequence, these routes only get a few ascents 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 Elbrus, planning the logistics of the climb, if not using a tour company, can be very challenging. While a guide is not required to climb the mountain, I do think it’s money well spent. A tour company will organize your entire trip — providing transportation to and from the mountain, lodgings on and off the mountain, gear rental, meals, etc. In addition to sorting out all the logistics, their professional training and wealth of experience will really boost your chances of successfully reaching the top of the mountain.
The cost of climbing Mt. Elbrus depends on how you tackle the mountain. Here are three options:
Budget Independent Climb
It’s possible to climb Mt. Elbrus independently. You could probably do it for as little as $500 (excluding international and domestic flights), but this would really be on the cheap. You will need to budget for your transfers, accommodation pre- and post-climb, cable car journeys (if climbing from the south), food and water on the mountain, and accommodation on the mountain. Let me say here, it’s not easy organizing a climb without a guide. In southern Russia, you will likely come across only a handful of people who speak English, so some degree of Russian proficiency is pretty important if traveling without a guide.
Climbing With A Local Guide
There are a number of good Russian guiding organizations with whom you can climb for around $1000 per person. This price would usually cover accommodation pre- and post-climb, all logistics and expenses on the mountain, and a professional guide. I would highly recommend Elbrus Tours, it has excellent local guides and is also happy to help with the challenging logistics of obtaining a Russian visa and all the required permits.
Climbing With A Western Operator
There are a number of western operators who offer Mt. Elbrus climbs. International outfits will guarantee English-speaking guides and often help with formalities such as visas and international flights, but they will be far more expensive. Prices can range from $2000 to $5000 per person.
3. When Is The Best Time To Climb?
The climbing season on Elbrus is May to mid-September. The best time to climb is July–August when the weather is more stable, the days are sunniest and the temperatures are warmer. If you prefer quieter slopes, climbing later or earlier in the season is possible, but the weather will be colder and less predictable.
The best time to ski Mt. Elbrus is June when there is more snow. This does make climbing more challenging, but I have been on the mountain before with a team from Iceland who climbed the mountain in June, in thigh deep snow, and snowboarded their way back down!
4. How Do I Prepare For The Climb?
There are no two ways about it, you need to be fit to climb Elbrus. The trekking is demanding, particularly on summit day when climbers can expect a 12-15 hour round trip. Climbers should be comfortable carrying a 25-pound pack on long hikes ascending 5,000 feet in a day. A training program should include a mix of uphill hiking with a loaded pack, jogging/running, and weight training, and should begin at least 8 weeks before your climb.
Climbing Mt. Elbrus isn’t for everyone, but with a good level of fitness and some mental preparation, it can be for you.
5. What Do I Need To Pack?
Make sure you have the right clothing and gear. Your trekking company will help you with a packing list. Proper trekking boots are a must, as is waterproof gear, a range of Merino wool layers, and good quality gloves. If you’re not a professional climber I’d suggest bringing the basic hiking gear and renting the special climbing gear you’ll need.
Gear rental is pretty straightforward, with numerous shops offering a wide selection of options at affordable prices. You can rent almost everything you need, which is useful both for keeping your airline baggage weight low and for avoiding having to invest in expensive technical gear that you may only use once.
6. What About Acclimatization And Altitude Sickness?
Many people who climb Elbrus will suffer some form of altitude sickness. On the summit, there is around 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 an increased heart rate.
To help with acclimatization, climbers should take regular acclimatization treks on the days before their summit push. Drinking plenty of fluids will also help. The medication Diamox can be taken as a prophylactic, though with sufficient acclimatization hikes you’ll hopefully not need it.
7. How Do I Get To Mount Elbrus?
The nearest airports to Mt. Elbrus are in Mineralnye Vody (125 miles from the Elbrus area) and Nalchik (about 75 miles). Most people fly via Moscow (or Istanbul or Dubai), although you could take the train.
Most visitors to Russia need a visa, which can be a lengthy process. You should apply for the visa at least a month before the trip.
Elbrus is a fabulous climb. I’ve been on the mountain many times: first as a client, then as a guide, I’ve even taken my then 17-year-old son up with me on one occasion. With a little preparation, a fair level of fitness, and a lot of determination, Mt. Elbrus is an attainable achievement and one that is definitely worth doing.
There are other challenging mountains to scale: